When thinking about Los Angeles, one can get caught up in the glitz and the glam and the palm trees. It’s as if people think warmer weather diminishes the severity of the problems they think it erases. But it doesn’t. Problems still exist in the City of Dreams, even if that problem is, you dream to leave the city. Sha-Dé Chapman was born and raised in a middle-class home with two parents in Compton, California. With a reputation that precedes itself, Sha-Dé works to fight against those blanket assumptions of this community by starting at its root: education.
As the Youth Education Manager for the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, she is changing the youth’s priority of education and how to service the low-income and Black and Brown community with the same resources and opportunities that others in the Los Angeles Unified School District receive. “Honestly I feel that USC (University of Southern California) has failed the Black and Brown community. There is no reason for USC to sit in South Central LA, but damn near not even half the kids that live in the same community as USC, are not able to go there. That’s an ongoing battle. Some young people are falling through the cracks and I don’t feel like their needs are being met. Our young people who live in South Central are dealing with many variables — a lot of them are dealing with trauma. And then you have to come to school and deal with things that have happened outside of school and expect them to be resilient?”
Resiliency is something city kids pick up. You build it up and it never comes down. Growing up, Sha-Dé experienced school districts both around South Central LA and the more affluent areas of the city. Not only was there a call for resiliency walking around the streets of her neighborhood, but having to experience diminishing and racist moments with her white peers and teachers motivated her to build her life up so no one can ever take anything away. So much so that when Sha-Dé strove for her Masters in Educational Psychology from Pepperdine University, she wrote her thesis on whether students of color are affected by teachers who do not look like them. When Sha-Dé was about 14 years old and going to Culver City High School, one of her classmates picked up a book in the classroom called “You Know You’re Ghetto If…” “So he opens the book and this kid is reading all these things and he gets to a page that says something like, you know you’re ghetto if you eat fried chicken with hot sauce. And the teacher says to me. ‘I bet Sha-Dé knows a lot about that.’ And everybody starts laughing. None of the Black kids in the classroom were laughing. We all kind of looked at each other. There was never an apology from this teacher.” From the same teacher, he handed her back an essay and wrote “cheap paper” and circled it. “When I look back on it now, who gives a damn if the paper’s cheap or not? At least it’s paper and at least my work is done. It made me feel small.”
Today, Sha-Dé manages the programs Project Tipping Point and Jobs for Los Angeles Graduates so others don’t have to experience what she did but rather can have the world at their fingertips. Project Tipping Point recruits current and former foster youth who are interested in trade school — whether you’re looking to become a carpenter or a chef, you can attend for free with stipends, trainings, transportation support, and more. JLAG is part of a national network and serves youth experiencing homelessness, current or former foster youth, and those who’ve been involved in the justice system. Hoping to recover dropouts and break stereotypes, she brings these programs to schools where it’s needed. All of the youth are low-income, while many are first generation college students, DREAMers, and Black and/or Hispanic. “Oftentimes, language barriers exist and they aren’t able to participate in some programs because they have no social security number or legal work documents. It makes me feel disappointed and helpless.” And yet, Sha-Dé works with her staff to come up with solutions to help students who don’t speak English. She loves that Los Angeles is among the most diverse cities in the country, “it continually proves how diverse and how much of a safe haven the USA is. It proves how much immigrants believe in the American dream. It also shines a greater light on bigger issues like the need for law enforcement, politicians, and American to truly have cultural competency. America has changed and continues to.” And while this is true, the mix of students hasn’t changed much since Sha-Dé went to school herself, “My classroom consisted of African-Americans and Hispanic students. I remember my teacher, she was bilingual and she was a Black woman. She would teach the lesson in both English and Spanish and to this day, I know the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish.”
Teachers are some of the most influential people in our lives. One day, you might live by a certain philosophy simply because your teacher said it and you admired them. One day, you might change your track in college because of a conversation with your teacher, and you thought they knew best. And sometimes, you have terrible teachers that you still remember, because they are who you never want to be. Sha-Dé makes it her business to be a hands-on manager, constantly liaising with principals, teachers, counselors, and putting faces to names with students. By being a presence in the classroom, Sha-Dé builds a bond with these students, encouraging them to push themselves and dream bigger. “What I’m noticing is a lot of them are missing tools. Some of them don’t know how to be proactive. Some of them don’t know how to advocate for themselves because they’re so used to Ms. Sha-Dé coming into their class saying, ‘Hey, so-and-so, you forgot to fill this out. You can’t assume that everybody’s going to know that because you go to school in Los Angeles, that you live in Los Angeles. You have to actually put your first name, last name, city, state, zip code’ — simple things like that. And we’re talking about seniors. That’s a principle that you learn in elementary school, but a handful of them don’t know how to follow simple instructions yet.”
As a 5-year-old in the early 90s, Sha-Dé was in a predominately white school and has vivid memories of walking down to the computer lab where dozens of new Apple computers sat — waiting for eager, young minds to learn. Computer literacy is an advantage. Most children in 2021 have some form of digital skills that will jumpstart their career, if not, it will be a necessity for projects and assignments. But by the time she transferred to a school in 5th grade in South Central, they were just getting computers. A 4 year learning gap between schools all under the Los Angeles Unified School District. How unified is a district when some students are given more resources and opportunities than others?
Opportunities can be planned or spontaneous. Sha-Dé had a plan to go down to El Camino Community College and sign up for classes. But the day she was getting her hair done at her church friend Madea Keys’ shop her senior year after graduation, it changed her life. She had a plan to go down to the college and sign up the week after, but if you are like most eighteen year olds, sometimes life gets in the way. School often also doesn’t prepare you for the steps involved in progressing to the next stage, like the forms Sha-Dé asks her students to fill out. Madea, who invested in Sha-Dé’s education, said, “why are you going next week? You should go today. Get on the bus right here, straight down Crenshaw. Crenshaw will take you all the way to the city of Torrance where the school is at. Look for the key that tells you where all the offices are and go to the admissions office.” This was what jump started her track to higher education. Sixteen years later, Madea’s son needed funds to go on a school trip to Africa and Sha-Dé funded a large portion of that trip — something not even Madea’s family was able to provide. She told her, “Madea, when I was younger, you poured into me and my sisters. And I remember that you would do my hair for free. You would come all the way down to Compton to pick us up. I knew you were the one who got me into college because you told me, ‘No, you’re not waiting for next week, get on the bus now and get off.’ I remember she was just sobbing. I’m just paying it forward but you see how things come full circle. I had no idea that one day her son would need this or that she’d even have a son, but I remember her kindness towards me.”
Paying it forward and remembering where you come from is an instrumental part of many cultures; always thinking beyond yourself and for your communities. Coming from a two-parent, loving household, Sha-Dé understands her experience was different from a lot of her classmates and who she works with today. But her father — born in LA, raised hearing stories about his Indian grandfather and the language that died with him, and living in Gardena, CA today— always reminded her to never forget where she came from. Even after teaching leadership programs at Stanford and in the Bronx for high school students for a summer and teaching English in China for two years, her father said, “I don’t care how many degrees you have. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care what car you drive or how many countries you’ve been to, I don’t care. You never forget where you come from. And Sha-Dé is an African-American girl that grew up in Compton and in South Central LA.” She continues, “That’s why my heart is always content in South Central, because it’s where I came from. I grew up in the world and these kids need to know, this is not the end of the world. South Central LA or Compton, California is a small place on a map. You’ve got this whole wide world to conquer, so many things to do, so many faces to see. This is just a very small speck on the map. The sky is the limit and you do not have to be here. This statistic does not define you. You can go against all odds. You don’t have go be in jail for the rest of your life. No, you can go to school. You can get an education.”
Sha-Dé works everyday not just to make sure her hard-earned car and house are hers, but to also make sure that students see a Black woman with a master’s degree, who has traveled the world, is working in Compton, California and made it all happen. To have people keeping you accountable is a blessing, like her teacher Mr. Smith in 7th grade who attended an assembly and did not hear Sha-Dé’s name amongst other honor students. “I didn’t hear them call your name during the assembly. Did you get an award?” “No.” “Why? You need to get on the ball.” Since then, she signed up for whatever school trip she could, whatever job opportunity her school programs provided — anything to make her world larger. “The most difficult part of my job is when young people don’t really understand the benefits of my programs here at CRCD.” Going into the mind of a young scholar, she thinks, “you mean to tell me that you can take a class and get paid for going to school and we’re in a pandemic and my parents aren’t working and I just have to fill out some paperwork so I can get a check for going to school to help pay for groceries? You mean to tell me, as a foster youth, I can apply to college and you’re going to give me a free laptop or you’re going to give me a gas card because I have a car but don’t have a job and have any way to put gas in my car? You’re going to give me a free tap card to get on the bus? You’re going to get me guard certification or a forklift certification or a food handler certification or a first aid CPR certification for free? You’re going to take me all the way up north to see Berkeley or Stanford and you’re going to pay for my whole trip and food? You’re going to help me apply for a scholarship and a grant?” So many of the students in the schools she works in, say no. No because their friends aren’t doing it, or no because they don’t see the value in their education and success. “You should be chasing me down, not the other way around.”
While she feels there’s a disconnect between her students and how she grew up, with her and her classmates taking more advantage of these opportunities — the sacred part of her job is graduation day. “The most enriching part is when I see a young person who was struggling or not interested in the beginning and something clicks and they get it; and now they’re about to graduate with their AA degree or getting ready to get their certification. When young people are successful, that right there is what makes me say, damn it’s worth it.” Sha-Dé often gets stopped at the grocery store or the mall with kids yelling her name, coming up to her and hugging her, thanking her for how her and her program have enriched their lives. She hopes to open her own nonprofit that runs like a camp, where young people can take summer classes, enrich their social skills, and enjoy life through horseback riding and swimming.
While She-Dé hopes to not stay in Los Angeles, she knows she will never forget where she came from or what her parents taught her, “when our culture and our fight for our freedoms in education and freedoms period are threatened, fight back. The history of my culture is what shaped and molded me.”