Old Orchard resident and Beck Middle School rising eighth grader Ebele Azikiwe celebrated her 13th birthday at home with streamers, balloons, pizza, cake and more than a dozen family members.
What she didn’t know was that a local nonprofit whose mission is to engage with diverse communities to combat the rising tide of incivility planned on surprising her with official recognition of her activism from President Joe Biden.
And so, on a sweltering July afternoon, Azikiwe was taken by surprise by Ben Shore, co-founder of Rise Against Hate, who handed her a letter and medal from Biden proclaiming her a winner of the President’s Volunteer Service Award, to the delight of gathered relatives.
“It’s an amazing gift and experience I’m sure she’ll remember,” Shore stated.
Rise Against Hate was founded roughly a year ago, out of the need for greater community involvement and connectivity in the wake of the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd murders, which touched off waves of unrest in major U.S. cities. Shore said the organization began working with the Biden administration a few months ago.
“Through the work that she’s done, she’s been able to empower so many students, and it’s essentially due to how much civil service she’s put in,” explained Shore about Azikiwe’s selection. “For advancing complex problems, being so young and being able to bring that to the spotlight, is something incredible.”
Last spring, Azikiwe — who celebrates West African heritage — penned a letter to Cherry Hill Public Schools’ Superintendent Joe Meloche pushing for a more comprehensive education in Black history and culture.
Just after the commencement of 2020, she spoke in front of the Cherry Hill Public Library, the end point for a June rally attended by hundreds including Meloche. It was there that Azikiwe and several other students from township schools demanded that expanded African American studies become a mandatory requirement for graduation.
The board of education approved on Feb. 23 a 2.5-credit African American Studies course that will be a requirement for the incoming classes of 2025 at both Cherry Hill High School East and West, and every subsequent class moving forward. It is to be taken during freshman or sophomore year. The curriculum is expected to move beyond examination of slavery into highlighting examples of Black and Brown excellence.
“Obviously I wanted (to focus) attention on how it all started, but coming here now, it makes me feel so extremely proud. Not just for myself, but for the people around who have opened their eyes in getting ready for this change,” Azikiwe said while proudly sporting a paper tiara celebrating her birthday.
“Yes, I may have started (all of this) by writing and saying a couple words, but for people to pay attention, which is my main goal, and to get as far as I did, I’m so proud.”
Azikiwe was recognized on May 18 as New Jersey’s first winner of the John Lewis Youth Leadership Award, presented by the National Association of Secretaries of State and named for the late congressman and civil rights activist.
Azikiwe finished her seventh grade year mere weeks ago, and has yet to think about the school year to come. But she hinted at plans to continue her activism and advocacy during the upcoming return to school, with sketches of both general and specific motives.
The first idea Azikiwe is mulling over is to continue her leadership in helping others stand for what they believe in. The second she dubbed Two Sides of the Same Coin, which may involve a series of conversations or be introduced as a club, with the aim of letting students from diverse backgrounds talk either on a one-to-one or group basis in order to find more commonality.
“I think, originally, I just wanted (my letter and my advocacy) to just (reach) my school, and maybe just be for the one class,” Azikiwe admitted. “But to get as far as I have wasn’t in my wildest imagination.”
For more information about Rise Against Hate, visit: https://www.riseagainsthate.org/.
For a detailed description of the newly course Azikiwe helped introduce, visit: https://www.chclc.org/Page/1147.
To learn more about Presidential Service Awards, visit: https://www.presidentialserviceawards.gov/.