27 Apr Kawika Smith Has Been Empowered Thru Action
Verbum Dei Senior Continues Legacy of Leadership & Activism at Community Coalition
For more than 29 years, South Central Youth Empowered thru Action’s (SCYEA’s) purpose has been to develop the next generation of empowered youth leaders to improve public education, close the achievement gap, and dismantle the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” SCYEA has been at the forefront of significant education advocacy efforts that have resulted in dramatic victories that include winning over a billion dollars for South LA schools, and the historic adoption of “A-G for All” by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board, which made access to a college-prep curriculum a civil right for all students in the district. Community Coalition (CoCo) houses the SCYEA program and believes that young people can be the leaders we need to transform our communities if they are given the opportunity.
“As Community Coalition celebrates its 30th anniversary, we are so proud of all of our youth leaders who have participated in SCYEA through the years,” said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, CoCo’s Executive Vice President. The development of youth leaders is a cornerstone of our work, and their impact is felt in South LA and beyond.”
One such leader is Kawika Smith, a senior at Verbum Dei High School in Watts. Not only is he very involved in SCYEA, but he is also the youth representative for his Neighborhood Council, an advisory body that advocates for South LA communities with City Hall. Established in 1999, there are 99 Neighborhood Councils throughout Los Angeles. Their purpose is to make sure that the City government remains responsive to communities on important issues like development, homelessness, and emergency preparedness. Neighborhood Council board members are city officials who are elected by the members of their local communities, making Kawika one of the youngest officials in the city. His goal is to assist in mobilizing those voices that are not heard.
“Youth activism has shaped my future in such a way that I intend to represent the voice often pushed aside, the voice of the youth. My future includes redirecting power to the youth of color, the ones always on the front line, and doing the work necessary to achieve equity,” Smith explained recently.
“Being apart of SCYEA has helped me strengthen my advocacy skills, which will be necessary for college. Youth activism has shaped my future in such a way that I intend to represent the voice often pushed aside, the voice of the youth. My future includes redirecting power to the youth of color, the ones always on the front line, and doing the work necessary to achieve equity,” Smith explained recently.
Kawika is no stranger to sounding the alarm on critical social issues. When his school’s administration instituted a policy regarding the length at which African American students had to keep their hair, Kawika filed a formal complaint with the school and enlisted the help of California Senator Holly Mitchell. Senator Mitchell is the author of Senate Bill 188, which is also known as The CROWN Act. The legislation was signed into law on July 3, 2019, by California Governor Gavin Newsom and extends statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and state Education Codes.
See Kawika’s TedxCrenshaw Talk: “The Three-Inch Compromise”
Like many students looking to be accepted into a four-year college or university, Kawika took advantage of SAT prep sessions offered by his school and other nonprofits. However, they were not effective in teaching him key test-taking strategies that a private tutor or elite prep course might have, had he been able to afford them. This situation is not unique for South LA students and contributes to an unjust achievement gap for Black & Brown youth.
To address this inequity, in December 2019, Kawika became one of three lead plaintiffs in a coalition of students and advocacy groups that filed suit against the University of California system. The lawsuit seeks to stop the UC system from using standardized test scores in its admissions. The plaintiffs call out the fact that college entrance tests, like the SAT and ACT, are biased against poor Black and Brown students. The accomplished student leader, who has a 3.56 GPA, and three associate degrees from L.A. Southwest College., took the SAT in December and was not surprised by his test scores.
“I knew my scores would not be competitive, but the SAT doesn’t give a true account of my potential,” Smith said.
The lawsuit asserts that by basing college admissions on standardized tests, applicants of color are discriminated against. Moreover, the suit asserts that the discriminatory criteria have led to an enormous test prep industry that gives affluent students–who have access to resources–the ability to perform at a higher level on college entrance exams. Graduating in June of 2020, Kawika aspires to study the social sciences as a collegiate at Morehouse College where he was recently accepted and given a full scholarship by the Jordan Brand Wings Scholars Program, which is in its sixth year of providing full-ride scholarships to students in the United States and China.