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Danielle Meyers: Using Her Voice for Social Change

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When Danielle Meyers stepped onto the Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium stage before a crowd of 10,000 to deliver the student speech at Stony Brook University’s May 2016 Commencement Ceremony, it was the culmination of four years of inspiring her peers and mentors alike.

A talented spoken word artist, Meyers addressed her fellow graduates in verse, asking them to “reflect on their freshman state of mind” and consider how far they have come, and have yet to go.

“She hit it out of the park,” said Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate colleges and one of her mentors. “When she finished her address, the crowd just went wild, and you could see on the faces of the other students that she was speaking for them. She was telling her story, but it’s a proxy for so many others.”

But Meyers was not always the confident leader who was chosen, through a highly competitive process, to speak at Commencement on behalf of her fellow graduates. When she arrived at Stony Brook from Harlem in the summer of 2012, she was a timid young woman.

“Danielle was shy, reserved and very observant at the beginning,” recalled her academic advisor, Francisco Colon.

“But we had a program that first summer in which students learned to write based on their life experiences,” said Colon, who is a senior academic advisor/counselor for Stony Brook’s EOP/AIM (Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit). “She put her story into a spoken word poem, and when she performed it for the other students, it was a breakthrough moment. Students began to connect with her and ask her for advice. She became a mentor right before our eyes.”

Transitioning to Stony Brook

Although less than 60 miles from her lifelong home in New York City, Stony Brook University was in many ways a world away.

I remember growing up on the streets of Harlem
Where everywhere I went there was a problem
You had cop sirens here, drug dealers there, fights right up the block
See this happened everyday so it didn’t really come as a shock
But I remember the summer block parties that brought everyone together
Everyone would be having a good time and it was good weather
Music was blastin’, people Harlem shakin’…everything was just chill
FROM “I Remember” By Danielle Meyers

“I grew up in Harlem and was the first in my family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college,” said Meyers, one of five children. When she was 17, her mother — who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder — had a second mental breakdown (the first occurred when Meyers was 8).

Her mother’s decline was gradual. “For two years, I had noticed the dishes in the sink and the refrigerator becoming empty, and I noticed the eviction notices piling up, and I noticed that my sisters and brothers wouldn’t be going to school,” said Meyers. “But what could I do? For starters, I did the dishes.” She tried to hide the chaotic situation at home from Child Protective Services in an effort to keep the family together.

She had never met her father, who had been incarcerated since before she was born. Meyers did all she could to keep herself and her siblings out of the foster care system, but she lost the fight. In 2011, they were put back into foster care for the second time in 10 years.

“In my head, I was already a woman, an adult, and I felt like I raised myself and I raised my little sisters so I didn’t need to be within the system,” she said.

Despite her misery in foster care — from June through December of her senior year in high school — she found refuge in school. “I acted like nothing was going on at home,” she said.

That year, her guidance counselor told her about the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and she applied to several State University of New York (SUNY) campuses. “I don’t know what it was about Stony Brook, but when I found out I got in, I was just ecstatic.”

Meyers entered Stony Brook as an EOP student. The support program recruits, enrolls, retains and graduates economically disadvantaged students who have the potential to succeed in college. EOP currently operates on 47 SUNY campuses.

“In the U.S., family income is a proxy for the quality of the education, for the most part,” said Robbins. “EOP speaks to our core mission as a public research university to provide students with the ability to create a life that otherwise would not have been available to them.”

Established at Stony Brook in 1968 as EOP/AIM, the program has been an extraordinary success. According to Cheryl Hamilton, EOP/AIM director from 2000 to 2017, the most recent data show that 85 percent of EOP/AIM students received a bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook or another SUNY institution within six years — a rate that exceeds both that of the general student population at Stony Brook and the national average. The program will celebrate its 50th anniversary on campus next year.

But even within a hugely effective program that boasts many standout students, Meyers is a star.

“Danielle came in through our pre-freshman summer program and really stood out at that point as bright, talented, energetic and hard working,” said Hamilton. “What really caught my attention was her love for learning, her curiosity, her excitement about being in this unfamiliar environment.”

That summer was just the beginning of Meyers’ successful ascent at Stony Brook. Because she was an outstanding student, she was hired to work in the EOP computer lab during that first academic year. “She always came in with a smile on her face. Always,” said Hamilton. “As I got to know her and realized some of the challenges she’s had to overcome, the fact that she always maintained such a positive attitude was striking to me.”

I remember when my mother went into depression
It was then I learned a hard life lesson
And that’s that sometimes it’s hard to deal with the unexpected
My mom’s was sick leaving my siblings and I abandoned and neglected
But I remember when Mommy got better
And we were able to pay off that eviction letter
And it brings joy to my heart to see her smile dance and spend time with my nieces
FROM “I Remember” By Danielle Meyers

As Meyers navigated through Stony Brook, she continued to attract the notice of others, from her fellow undergraduates on up to Robbins.

“Danielle, without question, is par excellence, and the exemplar of somebody coming from a background that traditionally wouldn’t have had access to a university like Stony Brook,” said Robbins, who met Meyers in the first-year seminar he teaches and has stayed in touch with her since. “Because of her own strengths, and our EOP program, she has just thrived and blossomed into this incredible force.”

It was in Robbins’ freshman seminar that Meyers started to find her academic path. She said her eyes were opened when she read the two books assigned for the class — Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and Awareness: Inspiring Stories About How to Make a Difference by Kenneth Cole — and participated in the ensuing discussions. She knew she had found her future career.

“I realized there are issues not only on a local scale, but also on a global scale, and the world needs more social workers,” said Meyers, who received her bachelor’s in social work in May 2016 and received her Master of Social Work this past May. She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including a Provost’s Award for Academic Excellence and an Undergraduate Recognition Award for Academic Excellence and Outstanding Achievement.

“Many students — but Danielle stood out — had never had the experience in an academic setting to talk about issues of poverty and racism, women’s issues and gender violence and rape,” said Robbins. “I think a light bulb went off for her that, as a social worker, she could actually make a career of this.”

A Career Takes Shape

As Meyers became immersed in her studies and her career path began to emerge, the University offered her opportunities to pursue her professional dreams beyond the classroom.

Immediately following Meyers’ own freshman year, Hamilton hired her as a teaching assistant to work with incoming freshmen in the EOP Summer Academy, even though the program rarely hires students who have completed only one year.

“Danielle was able to meet the new students where they were, set high expectations for them and provide an important level of support,” said Hamilton. “She inspired the other students with her passion for learning and for education.”

Meyers continued her involvement with the program beyond that summer as a mentor to EOP/AIM students. “Cheryl and Dr. Robbins had both given me so much; I wanted to give back to the EOP program,” she said.

In her work with the EOP/AIM students, Meyers tried to reinforce the importance of communication. “I would tell them to communicate and not be afraid,” she said. “Communicate with your peers, with your counselor and with your professors. Even if they don’t respond to you, be persistent, be dedicated.”

Another opportunity presented itself for Meyers when Hamilton identified her as a perfect fit to work for the Freedom Schools program. Administered nationally by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) nonprofit advocacy group, the program provides quality summer instruction to K–12 schoolchildren from low-income families.

Stony Brook University established the first Freedom School on Long Island in 2013. Most of the 50 second-graders — called scholars in the program — that started that first summer return each year.

“It’s a phenomenal program, and it has changed the lives of the scholars,” said Robbins, who is also director of the Freedom School with Hamilton. “These are kids who never thought about higher education and the possibilities.”

Freedom Schools trace their roots to the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the first instructors were idealistic college students from around the country who traveled to Mississippi to protest educational inequality and teach literacy. Today’s Freedom School instructors are college students — called servant leader interns (SLIs) — who are continuing that legacy.

So where is the torch that will continue our great legacy?
It’s in you and you and you and me
It’s in all of us, despite your country of origin
Because if you have any ounce of melanin
Then the fight for justice is within
And that goes for anyone regardless of the color your skin
Regardless of your age, sex, or religion
Just know that we are all of gods children
FROM “Carry on the Legacy” By Danielle Meyers

Hamilton thought that Meyers would be an exceptional role model for the schoolchildren and encouraged her to apply for an SLI position. “I think if you looked up a picture of servant leadership in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Danielle. That’s who she is. Everything she does is about creating a more just and caring world.”

In 2014, Meyers traveled to Tennessee to be trained by the Children’s Defense Fund as an SLI and began her tenure with the Freedom School. She worked as an SLI for three summers, and this past summer was promoted to Freedom School site coordinator, which meant she ran the program’s day-to-day activities. In addition, she has been chosen — through a highly competitive process — as a CDF Ella Baker Trainer (EBT) and has made a two-year commitment (part time) to training servant leader interns from around the country.

Named for Ella Baker — a leader in the Civil Rights movement — the trainers are selected from exceptional SLIs to lead the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institutes, provide technical support for new sites, and teach servant leader interns how to deliver key program components.

“I was so excited when I found out I had been selected as an EBT because I have become so involved in Freedom Schools and now this position will allow me to continue to commit to them,” said Meyers.

She takes her role as a teacher seriously and is committed to helping her students be successful. “You can see how much she cares for them,” said Robbins, “but at the same time she holds them accountable for their work and sets very high expectations for them.”

Rob Maloney, who received his bachelor’s in mathematics in 2016 and is a Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics candidate, worked alongside Meyers as an SLI at the Freedom School for three summers.

“Danielle has a great connection with the scholars. They know how much she cares, which is really important for a student,” said Maloney.

Hamilton said that the students see themselves in Meyers, and through her success, see what is possible. “Here’s a young woman who came from the same background as them. She makes each child in her class feel that they are special and that they have the potential to become whatever it is that they want to be.”

To Meyers, the first step in helping the students learn is to establish a connection with them. “When you’re in a classroom, you teach, but you also have to provide that social-emotional aspect,” she said. “That connection alone can be the catalyst for them to work hard.”

Speaking Out Through Art

Another way Meyers connects with people is through her spoken word art. She has been writing poetry since her teens, but never performed her spoken word art until she arrived at Stony Brook, where she was center stage at countless campus and off-campus events. She even won the Black History Month Spoken Word Contest in 2014. She describes her passion in life as social work — because she is driven to help others and work for social justice — but her gift is her talent for spoken word.

One recent speaking event was a Project Excel program — the theme was “maintaining a mindset for success” — at Oheka Castle in Huntington. She was invited by a Stony Brook professor to speak to a group of students in grades six to 12.

“I thought about how to influence these young people to maintain a mindset for success,” said Meyers. “I came up with a poem that included my Five Ds of Success: Devotion, Dedication, Discipline, Dare and Depend.”

As she moves forward in her life, Meyers hopes to incorporate both social work and her spoken word art. “I want to always integrate the art — my spoken word — into my work,” said Meyers. “People tell me I have a certain voice, and I want to always be able to share that with people.

Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God almighty I’m free at last!
But are black people really free?
When we are still living in slavery?
The shackles may not be on us physically
But it’s cuffing us mentally
And we unconsciously
Become numb to our own captivity
FROM “Proclaiming Emancipation” By Danielle Meyers

“Making people aware of problems through art is the first step to finding solutions,” continued Meyers. “Art allows us to express our feelings, talk about our problems, but then have those discussions and create solutions. When I speak at events, I’m using my voice as a vehicle for social change.”

Like many artists, Meyers has innate talent and draws inspiration from her life experiences, including growing up in Harlem without a father. Her father — whom she met for the first time the week before she arrived at Stony Brook in 2012 — is also a spoken word artist.

“He was locked up for 17 years, so I never knew him,” said Meyers. “A few months after I met him, we went to an event at a church and he performed spoken word, and I knew I had inherited my gift from him.”

I remember growing up without a father and wondering how life would be if I did
But by the time I met my father I was no longer a kid
But our current bond is nothing like anything else I’ve ever had
And I’m proud and thankful to say that he’s the world’s number one dad
FROM “I Remember” By Danielle Meyers

At the Commencement Ceremony, Meyers’ mother, father and three siblings watched with pride as she took her place at the podium.

“I don’t think my family understood the magnitude of the graduation speech until they were actually in the stadium and saw all the people,” she said. “They were humbled — and so was I.”

Now that Meyers has moved on from Stony Brook, she plans a career in education or community outreach.

“The sky’s the limit for Danielle,” said Hamilton. “I’m looking forward to her future contributions to society. I get the chills when I think about it.”

Julie Vecchione DeSimone is an award-winning journalist who writes about a variety of topics, from lifestyle and celebrity profiles to health and medicine.

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