From Homeless to Harvard
by Khadijah Williams, Senior Education Organizer, Rocketship DC
Shelters are no place for families, yet many DC Rocketeers live in them. Avenues of last resort, secret domestic violence placements, commercial motels, and over-crowded double up situations, shelters are often squalid, infested, enclosed spaces of despair, disease, and physical and mental trauma.
I know because this was my life for over 10 years.
My mom named me Khadijah, after one of the most important women in Islam and the “Mother of the believers,” and called me Oprah, the “Queen of Media” and the richest black woman of the 20th century. These two women, living in two different times and representing wildly different perspectives, both permanently changed the world through their advocacy.
My entire life consisted of these kinds of contradictions. My mother raised my sister and I as she fought a losing battle with poverty and illness, both physical and mental. Even though I missed attending school in many grades – including 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th, it was still clear that my mom valued my education. Her spirit and commitment to my success loomed larger than her daily challenges as a homeless woman with no real access to transportation, health care, or housing. When a teacher questioned my 99th percentile scores on a standardized test, my mother challenged the teacher’s thinking. When a school refused to enroll me, she found another school that would allow me to attend. When I wanted to travel to the library, she begged for change so I would have bus fare to get there. My mother never attended a parent-teacher conference nor did she meet with other parents. She did not know my teachers’ names, but she invested in my education in her own way.
And when I was accepted to and eventually graduated from Harvard University, my mom could not have been more proud.
I often think of my mom and other moms like her at Rocketship. My mom’s advocacy despite the formidable challenges she was experiencing is reflected in every single Rocketeer parent. It’s reflected in the parent who yells at a teacher for the way he spoke to her child. It’s reflected in the parent who brings his child to school, no matter how late. It’s reflected every time a parent questions a decision or expresses anger or distrust. I acutely experienced the impact of my mom’s trauma and I see the impact in parents who snap at their children or fail to comfort them, and in parents who have given up on the educational system altogether. But these actions do not reflect parents who don’t care, instead, it reflects that these parents are grappling with life’s challenges.
I believe all parents are capable of being parent leaders, but my own history makes clear that acting on this belief must be done as part of a collaborative effort with school teams. I have seen the power in organizing, at DC City Council meetings, at candidate forums in San Jose, and at school board meetings across the country. I see it in parents’ new engagement to advocate for Rocketship Legacy Prep and Rise because they know that I acutely understand the barriers they face, because they value our weekly meetings, and because they believe in the power of our shared vision for systemic advocacy for their children. This power is too precious to not share with every single Rocketship parent. As my own story can attest, the Rocketeer parent who is not fully engaged in the school can very well raise a future Harvard graduate who uses her own skills and experience to support parents in reconnecting with their own inherent power. Imagine what can be accomplished when all parents are fully engaged in our schools? I can’t wait to experience what magic is possible in DC when we fully unleash the potential of our parents and ourselves. I continue to see the glimmer of what is possible in parent power and I look forward to the work in all of our regions. I can’t wait to help a Rocketeer parent help the next Harvard graduate thrive.
Khadijah Williams is a nationally recognized advocate for homeless youth and a survivor. After nearly 20 years of homelessness — including in Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row— Khadijah was accepted into Harvard University, where she graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s of arts in sociology. Her journey from homelessness to Harvard was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, and she has since completed dozens of interviews and speaking engagements across the country. She’s received advocacy awards from School on Wheels, the Union Rescue Mission, and the New York City Department of Education; and her story has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Essence Magazine, and Oprah’s Where Are They Now?. Khadijah Williams is a member of the Board of Directors at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and is also an education policy professional.
Khadijah recently completed nearly four years at the DC Board of Education Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education, where she was promoted to Legislative Affairs Specialist. In this role, she educated councilmembers and other decision makers on the policy implications of the problems DC families faced in the public school system and made policy recommendations based on these implications. Khadijah now leads the Rocketship Public School’s DC region’s work in parent leadership development, organizing, and mobilizing as the Senior Education Organizer.
Published on May 14, 2019