Updated: Sep 28, 2020
By Sheyla Street
I walked up the slight hill on Ogontz and Olney to arrive in front of what used to be my educational sanctuary. Overgrown weeds seemed to indicate that Central High School was abandoned. Then I went inside. I saw students, teachers and administrators! I watched my peers grab books like they were cookies. I noticed the smiles of teachers with masks on. Teachers who before did not speak a word outside of the classroom were actually greeting students. Our vice principal offered me a hug. I remembered the months before this moment, in this same main hallway, at our 3:04pm dismissal time, running through this hallway with Laqueenda and Joseline. We were so eager to escape the building and hop on the Broad Street subway line to go downtown. My experience as a Central High student seemed historic.
My friends screamed, “Hey, Shey, we see you,” and reminded me of what life was supposed to feel like. Ever since March, I have focused so much on voter registration that I’ve forgotten about life before 2020. But doing this drive at my school, with my friends, at the beginning of September, brought me back to how I had grown through a summer full of uncountable protests, 25 voter drives, 200 Zoom calls, 4 youth organizations, with 75 new youth and adult colleagues, and greatest of all, the hundreds of conversations with prospective voters. Now it’s a passion. It’s been about genuine conversation, a real connection with people. I ask them to partake in their duty—and we talk about Jim Crow laws, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, Black-owned businesses, school funding, disappointment, and the power of the youth.
Changing the culture of voting requires not just action, but thoughtful action. I not only share my story with my peers, but I listen to theirs. Listening allows me to be direct and to respond meaningfully. Once I know what someone truly cares about, then I can speak to that issue and talk with them instead of at them.
I learned this from my teachers and mentors, Mr.Quinn, Ms.Cary, Ms.Angie. And there they were with me—the summer team, at my school. I saw my second family “on the mission, to close the race and age voting gap,” as When We All Vote says. I heard a chant specially made for voters of the 280th class of Central:
"Registerrrr to Vote, to Vote, to Vote, to Vote!
Show up at the polls, the polls, the polls, the polls.
This electiooooon ain't no joke, no joke, no joke! "
I touched devices, little tablets with the Rock-the-Vote app, tools that have the potential to make voting accessible. I smelled first time voters being empowered. I felt the comfort and strength of humanity in person, not through a screen.
Sheyla Street is a former intern with Vote That Jawn and a Central High School alum.