Vivian Mbawuike, a 17-year-old senior at Boston Community Leadership Academy, was recently named one of the top 10 high school seniors in the United States by Ebony magazine. The national publication cited both Mbawuike’s work to improve her community and her successful academic career. (Robert Frank photo)
Vivian Mbawuike (pronounced em-BOW-ee-kay) speaks with passion about reclaiming self-described “thugs” — her teenage classmates, friends and neighbors who have honed their identities through tough, anti-social behavior. These are the kids with the knives and guns. Like the teenagers who killed her cousin.
With violence continuing to breed violence both outside her school and across the city, the 17-year-old senior at Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA), a pilot school in Brighton, has become a leader of a group called SPARK the Truth. The group is dedicated to finding the positive in Boston’s youth, she says, and building on it.
That commitment led Ebony magazine to name Mbawuike one of the top 10 high school seniors in the country in its June issue. The magazine piece, which included a full-page photo and an interview, cited Mbawuike’s work to improve her community and her successful academic career.
“I have come to the realization that activism is always going to be my life’s work, because in order for me to see the humanity in myself, I must be able to see my brothers’ and sisters’ humanity,” she said in the Ebony interview. “Barack Obama, I think, articulates it best when he says, ‘We are who we have been waiting for.’”
Mbawuike, whose origins are Nigerian, brings some African spirit to her Boston commitment. She attended a conference with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and cites South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the model for what she hopes to accomplish through SPARK the Truth — hearing both those who have been victims of violence and those who have perpetrated it, and convincing them not to seek revenge, but rather to acknowledge what has happened and one’s part in that, and then move on, together.
The group’s positive message was reflected back in April in the citywide basketball tournament it sponsored, titled “The Audacity to Dream,” aimed at showing that Boston youth could engage in competition without hatred or violence.
Mbawuike’s older sister, Samantha, says the BCLA senior believes that “Martin Luther King had a determined vision, and not just a dream,” and that “youth need to embody the vision that Martin Luther King had and continue to live out his wishes by attending school, looking up to [their] parents, working just as hard as people who come from other countries and take powerful strides to better [themselves].”
This fall, Mbawuike plans to enroll at Tufts University in Medford, where she says she intends to work toward becoming a physician specializing in microbiology. She vows that her career work will never be far from her commitment to social activism.