buildOn Chicago Student Yafae Cotton – Why We Can’t Wait

On May 26th, 2021, buildOn hosted a virtual event featuring buildOn Chicago students, corporate leaders, artists, and supporters. At this special event, Michele Clark High School Junior Yafae Cotton shared why it is important to serve when times are tough and how we can always make time for service.

I’m a junior at Michele Clark High School. I do a lot of things at my school — I’m the captain of the varsity football team, member of National Honors society and I am a member of the podcast and  production team at my school. While doing all these things I still felt like I was missing something. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to help my community.

When I learned about buildOn, I was excited to join because I saw a way to make an impact on social and racial justice issues within my community. I joined buildOn at the start of the pandemic, when other school activities were stopping and a lot of people were just thinking about keeping themselves safe.  They also thought that the problems in the community could be dealt with later. 

But I believe that ‘later’ is too late. There is no point in waiting for later when action is needed now. buildOn felt the same way, and instead of stopping during the pandemic, buildOn has been there for students like me. For a lot of the school year we met  for service virtually on Zoom, and we still found ways to help our community.

One of those ways was making face masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. This was early on when people were still trying to figure out how to get masks, buildOn organized a project for us to make masks and helped us find people who needed them. I made 20 masks and went to the park in my neighborhood where a lot of people  were unhomed  and they hung out there. I gave out masks to them and they were really thankful. That made me feel good.

But I wasn’t sure how much of an impact I really made because it was just 20 masks. Then I heard that together, the buildOn community made 84,000 masks. It made me feel good to know that I was a part of  something bigger and that some of those masks probably saved people’s lives. 

In buildOn we also talk about current issues — like systemic racism and mental health— and we try to find ways to help. I had some deep conversations at buildOn on the topic of racial injustice, Black Lives Matter, and how to break generational curses. So hearing about buildOn’s mission statement really made me realize the importance of breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations that I see amongst my peers. 

After the conversation, we made posters to advocate for racial justice and then I distributed the posters around my neighborhood. Doing this felt like I was pushing the movement and that I was actually making an impact. 

We also talked about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s work. I was inspired by Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Reading these words made me think a lot about what’s happening around me.

In the letter, I connected with the part where Dr. King asks,  So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be? Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Through the crucial conversations at buildOn about race and identity, I learned that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams — we have to make every opportunity worth it, just do our best and remember that they walked so we can run. 

Now that we’re back at school and will be serving in person soon, I’m excited to get out there and serve my community even more. There’s lots of litter that needs to be cleaned up, I see people who are unhomed, and I want to help. 

Another issue that I care a lot about is mental health, and I’m looking forward to serving with other buildOn students to bring attention to this issue because it’s something a lot of people are affected by and they need help now. 

When I reflect on what I did with my life, I don’t want to be regretful. I want to welcome everything, be grateful and proud of everything that I was able to do. I’m glad I didn’t wait to serve my community during the pandemic because these challenging times and these time  when people need service most. And there are still people out there that need  help.

It just starts with one person. One by one. You can make an impact. And when we come together, we can make an even greater impact.

In the future, no matter what challenges come up, I’m not going to let them keep me from serving. Even though This fall, I’ll be busy with football season and applying to colleges, I’ll also be doing service. Because, as Dr. King said: serving others and standing up for love and justice cannot wait.