Alumna Profile: Ciera Marie Young '14
Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, Ciera Marie Young ’14 got some mixed messages. Her father called her “Dr. Young,” and told her that she could be the first in her family to get a college education, but people in her neighborhood made it clear that she needed to be thinking about looking good, about getting married. Then in high school, a growing concern in her community caused her priorities to snap into focus.
One day after school, Young’s cousin, a fifth-grader, was waiting for Young to pick her up at the designated place—a corner a few minutes away from the school entrance. “A car had driven up to her,” remembers Young, who was 16 at the time. “She was leaning over into the window. I hustle up to them, and the car drives off.” The driver was a much older man. He had told her cousin how good she looked, and asked for her number.
“This is just a situation that no one should have to deal with,” says Young. “I was like, why is this happening?” Young herself had been approached by much older men. “Just because we are growing up in this neighborhood and going through puberty,” she says, “does not make it okay for us to be approached. But it felt like everywhere I looked, men were approaching girls and women with the intent of grooming us for sex work.”
Young gathered a group of people to create a block watch that would make sure girls got to and from school safely, and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement. A teacher in high school urged her to aim higher, and she connected with the Council of World Affairs and received a spot in the Junior Council Fellows Program, where they successfully lobbied for the first anti-human trafficking bill in the state and helped create the first legal safe house in Ohio.
When it came time to start thinking about college, Young’s high school guidance counselor suggested Chatham. “It wasn’t too far from home; I could pursue my interests in social justice, and the school was small enough that I wouldn’t have to compete with hundreds of people just to get a meeting with someone,” she says.
Young credits Professor Anissa Wardi’s Race and Representation class with opening her eyes. “For the first time, I had words to put to my experiences and feelings,” she says. Young got involved with the Black Student Union; became a Resident Assistant for the International Living and Learning Community; participated in Women of the World Leadership retreats; and studied abroad in Gambia (with best friends Suad Yusuf ’14 and Annia Aleman ’13), where she volunteered with a feminist non-government organization NGO called the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP).
After graduating with a double major in cultural studies with an African American concentration, and international studies with an Africa concentration, Young spent a year working for the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience, and then completed the prestigious and rigorous Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs—nine months of “using the city as a classroom”, switching out placements in non-profit organizations every eight weeks. “It really prepared me to do the work I’m doing now. It also taught me to work long hours,” she laughs.
After Coro, she worked with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, helping to connect youth to employment opportunities. “I realized that I have a calling to serve through education and working with youth,” Young says.
“Education has the power to change the trajectory of a family in just one generation, and I always find myself coming back to it. I love helping young people develop the confidence and skills to take them to new places.”
“I had been working part-time at Ellis for a year and a half as a diversity and inclusion coordinator, and I realized that there’s so much more work to be done there. I remembered my negotiation classes, trainings we had, being told to fight for our worth. So I advocated to become full-time at Ellis, to receive promotion to director of diversity and inclusion, and a higher salary. And I received it!”
At Ellis, Young makes it a point to collaborate with other schools, including Westinghouse High School, with whose students Ellis students collaborated on a podcast (yet to be aired). The podcast focused on the students’ lived experiences, and perceptions of how the city views them based on what school they go to, and what they would like to tell adults if they could.
One of the initiatives of which Young is most proud is Ellis’s Culture Jam, a daylong student-led diversity summit that won a Racial Justice Award from the YWCA. This year, students came from as far away as Maine and Philadelphia—as well as from various neighborhoods in Pittsburgh—to run workshops and give presentations.
“Culture Jam used to be just Ellis students giving presentations,” says Young. “It was still valuable, but it wasn’t equitable. So we invited students from all over to attend and present, and not just present, but to share their stories through dance, film, or art. There are so many stories that don't get presented because they don't fit in the dominant narrative.”
Young says that she got a little pushback because of those changes, because there’s a strong sense of tradition. “But I wanted to move the needle a little bit,” she says, “so we can get closer to where we say we want to be.”
I ask Young what it’s like going from working with children from underserved communities to students at a private school like Ellis. “I always say that regardless of where I work, I am in the space-disruptor and space-expansion business,” she says. “At the end of the day, regardless of resources and funding, kids want to aim for the stars, and I’m here to help them do that. I challenge students to think outside of the ‘Ellis bubble’, to think about their own personal narratives, how they fit in the world outside, and how they can leverage what they have to call attention to issues that they care about.”
In Spring 2018, Young returned to Chatham to give the keynote address at the Multicultural Student Graduation Celebration. “I was overjoyed to see that Chatham students had the Kente Cross stoles,” she says, referring to traditional ceremonial items of clothing of African origin. “When I graduated, I had to borrow one from a friend at Pitt and cover up the name of the university!” she laughs. “Dr. Finegold is really stepping to the plate—I was so thrilled to see the president there. All of us alumnae who attended. We were just so proud that it was happening, and that the students had that space and that time to shine.”