I’m coming from a place where 29.1% of children are growing up in poverty. I’m coming from a place where less than 60% of high school students walk across a graduation stage. I’m coming from that place where a 3 second stare can cost you your life. My name is Vanessa Elizabeth Lopez, and I’M COMING STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!
Vanessa Elizabeth Lopez proudly wearing her Brown Issues t-shirt on her way to attend the conference in Chicago.
This past week, I had the distinct privilege to attend the first annual Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. It was an honor to have been selected, and I was determined to do my very best. I was set to walk into that space with my full self present, as a youth, as a young woman, as a Latina, as a high school student, and as an activist. I was ready and, at the same time, underdressed.
I felt a bit out of place in Chicago at the extra fancy Marriott Marquis hotel. This wasn’t the Travel Plaza Inn off Long Beach Blvd. People were walking in their Sunday best, form fitting suites, formal dresses, polished shoes, fancy scarfs, well set hair and fresh breath. And, there I was, in my tennis shoes, skinny jeans and a sweater. However, I still could not help that I had them beat a little. After all, I was in my well-earned Brown Issues membership shirt and I had hit my grill twice that morning with complimentary Colgate toothpaste. But, in the end, I was there not to represent what was on me but the fire that burns within me. And, I’M COMING STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!
Far too often, youth are talked about and even spoken for. And, not often enough, are we given the platform to speak up for ourselves. The summit was geared toward engaging global leaders committed to service, but I felt I may have been the only high school student in attendance. For that reason, I took it upon myself to channel the voices of youth leaders like myself.
As I attended the workshops, I was largely surrounded by people older than 25, and I assume many were college educated. At first, I found it hard to follow their points or even understand the purpose of the workshops. They were speaking a whole different language using BIG WORDS that hadn’t yet traveled through my neighborhood or found their way to my classrooms. I didn’t know what these BIG WORDS meant although, looking back, I’m sure I am familiar with the things they were trying to describe.
However, it wasn’t until the second workshop when intimidation started to set in. I was there to represent, but I started to think that the people in the rooms weren’t gonna be able to understand my opinions. They seemed to speak a different language. Would they understand mine? I hadn’t realized how different two people could sound describing the same thing with the same language until I was in those spaces. I imagine in spaces like these, people learn to sound “white.”
I was challenging my listening skills, but I needed to step up and challenge my speaking skills. I knew I couldn’t go into those spaces and speak to summit attendees the way I speak to my peers. I know I need to learn how to be taken seriously in those spaces if I’m ever going to be influential in my community. At that point, I knew if I was going to challenge my listening skills to do my best to understand them, they should be willing to challenge their listening skills to understand me. I’M COMING STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!
And, I was there speaking my truth even when my voice shook. It was real. It was raw. It was professional. It was Compton. It was me. I weighed in on issues related to poverty, trauma, mass incarceration, the state of young men of color, being a young Latina and so much more. I brought to life my lived-out experience an experience that others often seem to forget they once lived. I asked questions. I was asked questions. I networked in crowded rooms and down long hallways. I wasn’t in school, but class was in session. I learned the meaning of BIG WORDS and held conversations on topics for the first time in my life. Most importantly, I learned that I had the power to stand up in a crowded room full of well-dressed people with fancy titles and say: “My name is Vanessa Elizabeth Lopez and I’M COMING STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!”
Vanessa posing in front of mural.
My presence was a protest and not just at the summit. I took a picture on 8th and Hope Street as part of the Angel Wing mural the day that I found out I would be granted the privilege to attend the summit. The picture was posted on the Brown Issues Instagram page and quickly soared to 700 likes. People couldn’t believe it! At first, they must’ve thought it was fake news. Celebratory messages slid through the DMs. So many of my sisters and brothers from across the state were proud to see me take on such a role. Part of me hopes they saw themselves through me in that post. Part of me hopes they sat back and thought: ‘If Vanessa can do it, I can do it.”
As youth, we are often bombarded on social with world star fights, women scantily dressed twerking, and our peers blowing vape smoke into the air or tipping a red alcohol-filled cup. But, there I was with my fist held up high standing in front of the message: “You are a goddess living in a city of angels.”
During the summit, the topic of social media came up, and my generation became the punching bag. I took jabs, body blows, and uppercuts. I knew I was in a room full of “older” people by how the conversations went. “The youth” were being teased for this and talked down on for that. The discussions, throughout the summit, only seemed to see social media as a problem. And, those “adult discussions” were happening while I was posting to our Brown Issues Instagram Storyline to share my experience at the summit.
While I was capturing historic Chicago landmarks, Chicano murals, interviews with advocates, reflections from workshops, and so much more. My storyline pictures and videos were being watched by thousands of people. Many were in high school, just like me. “The adults” may not have had a following of youth like their Facebook post, tune into their Instagram Storyline, or screenshot their Snaps, but I did. And, maybe if only for a few seconds, the fight videos stopped playing, the twerking paused, and us holding space at such an event was the high.
Michelle Obama (left) speaking at the conference.
After all, I had front row seats, watching Michelle and Barack Obama and was capturing it all through my phone, for my peers, on LIVE. #ContactHigh
They say, “youth are the future.” But, that only really means that we have the best chance of being here in the long run because we’re young. My mentor says it better: “The youth are the future, and our investment in them today will help determine what tomorrow will look like.”
It’s not enough to be called upon as leaders. We must be invested in as such. Maybe our content for social media wouldn’t be so bad if we had more good to share. What if I wasn’t the only high school youth present? Now, think back to all the professional conferences you’ve attended. Imagine if just fifteen percent of the crowd were people like me. What type of post would we be able to create, social media stories we’d be able to capture, and conversations we’d be able to join and bring back to our neighborhoods and classrooms? Imagine!
I will be bringing the BIG WORDS, conversation topics, and network back to Compton and room 5. I will walk my peers through my nervousness so that they know that the feelings in those spaces for young people are normal and can be overcome. I will let them know to speak their truth even if their voice shakes.
My name is Vanessa Elizabeth Lopez, and I’M COMING STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!