Activist Spotlight: Ashanti Benons

SLP’s Youth Board continues to grow, with new voices from around Brooklyn joining the Board’s ongoing advocacy for educational equity and action civics for all NYC youth. Today, we feature an interview with one of our newest members, Ashanti Benons, a senior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. Check out a few highlights from our conversation with Ashanti below!

What is the cause you care most about and how did you initially get involved?

The lack of women of color in STEM careers, more specifically engineering, is an issue I am passionate about addressing. According to a study conducted by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), less than 4% of engineering bachelor’s degrees are awarded to African American, Hispanic, and Native American women combined, and for African American women the percentage is declining. I got involved when an NYU student, also an alumni of my high school, tried to establish a NSBE Chapter at my school. She informed me that, with Brooklyn Tech being the only high school with a chapter, no predominantly African American school in Brooklyn had one. This encouraged me to do something about this issue. At the beginning of my junior year, I decided to explore my interest in engineering and start a robotics team at my school. After taking the initiative to speak to as many of my peers and teachers as possible, my startup robotics club had its first meeting in early October. We received the Connect Award and 7th place out of 22 teams at a December Qualifier; we received the Motivate Award at the February super qualifier; we were 1 of 23 teams out of 95 to move on to NYC Championships; and we received the 2nd Place Connect Award to conclude our season. This year, as a high school senior, I am still participating in this team and we received enough funding from our school’s PTA for two robotic kits.

What is your earliest memory of activism?

My earliest memory of activism is learning about the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movement in history and english classes as a young elementary school student. I owned an American Girl doll named Addie when I was younger and learned about the struggles African Americans faced during slavery through her story. Owning this American Girl doll and learning more about the stories of other dolls heightened my awareness of the emotions involved in key historical events. My most recent experience with activism was when I visited the Activist New York exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York. This exhibit explored different social/political and economic movements that took place throughout history. Key figures that participated in these movements were highlighted and I got to learn more about the different methods for organizing these movements. The panel about Women’s Liberation in New York introduced me to activists such as Betty Friedan, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Bella Abzug who advocated for equal opportunities in education, employment, and abortion. Women’s activism is important for increasing diversity in the STEM field because it has led to the creation of numerous organizations that specialize in this mission.

Why do you think it’s important to engage young people in social justice work?

I think it is important to engage young people in action civics because it creates vital opportunities for them to become active leaders in their schools and communities. I am so energized by the SLP Youth Board’s focus on creating school curriculums that are more culturally sensitive and inclusive. I agree wholeheartedly with the mission of making sure that students have access to classes that teach them necessary skills such as voter registration and civic engagement. Reforming the high school admission system and creating a more equitable system to fund schools is another issue that all students should be aware of since it impacts them and future generations.

Tell us about your experience with the SLP Youth Board! What do you hope to achieve this year?

I hope to expand upon knowledge I gained through participating in the Service in Schools Program last year. I would like to learn more about civic engagement and how the educational curriculum of schools can be changed to encompass more cultures and encourage deeper learning instead of cramming for tests. The elementary, middle and high school admission process also interests me. I would like to learn more about how integration can be increased within schools to create a better learning environment. In terms of hard and soft skills, I hope to improve upon my communication, project management, and public speaking skills.

If you could give SLP students one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice I would give SLP students is to be perseverant. In activism work, you need to learn how to handle rejection and constant disagreement from people who do not fully understand the cause you are fighting for. Successful activists from the past that have made important contributions to civil rights, women’s rights and other causes fought hard for what they believed in despite the negative consequences that came along with it.