Sixteen-year-old Minelle Sarfo-Adu isn’t afraid to speak up. Any time a problem emerges, her friends know, “Oh, she’s going to talk about it,” the high school junior said. But she doesn’t mind. “I have a loud voice.”
Now, Sarfo-Adu plans to use her voice in her new role as the first youth on a South Burlington city advisory committee to raise awareness for housing inequality. City council appointed her to the affordable housing committee on Monday close to midnight, along with other committee appointments.
When she found out a month ago that she wasn’t allowed to apply, she spoke up.
“I was like, that’s wrong. No. This needs to change. So, I applied,” she said, catalyzing the recent passage of a resolution allowing minors and non-US residents to serve on city committees.
Sarfo-Adu’s resume is lengthy: she’s a student at alternative school Big Picture South Burlington, a volleyball and track athlete, a musician, an advocate. She’s also taking classes at the Community College of Vermont and learning to drive, yet, she still found time this year to finish an extensive thesis project on housing discrimination.
In May, she presented her findings to South Burlington City Council and in April, she participated in Fair Housing Month through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity as a key speaker.
Jessica Hyman, Sarfo-Adu’s project mentor and the associate director of the organization’s housing advocacy programs, didn’t realize she was only a junior in high school when the two began talking.
“I was just really impressed with her level of thoughtfulness and maturity,” said Hyman. “She’s been able to really spread the word about this important issue and I think the fact that she is a high school student is a big piece of that.”
Hyman asked Sarfo-Adu to be a key speaker during Fair Housing Month in April, when the organization celebrates the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968; a move that spoke to their level of confidence in Sarfo-Adu’s work, said Hyman.
Sarfo-Adu recently moved to South Burlington from Burlington, which she noted is a much more racially and economically diverse community. “I see the problem. I live here,” she said.
She confirmed her suspicion that few African Americans owned homes in Vermont throughout her project by studying gentrification, discrimination, wealth gaps and redlining.
Now her main goal is to raise awareness for housing discrimination and to uplift student voices. In her interview for the committee position, she noted that student voice is critical to tackling societal issues and one of the main reasons she wanted to serve.
“Maybe students and adults are supposed to be equal, and maybe it’s both of our jobs to fix this world,” she said later.
Sarfo-Adu doesn’t sugarcoat how she feels, nor change the way she acts depending on the age of who’s in the room — or in the Zoom call.
“I find it funny that a 16-year-old is doing more than a lot of adults right now. It really sometimes makes me feel like, is this my job? Is this what I was put on this earth to do?” she said. “At the end of the day, adults are nothing special. They’ve lived here longer; I’m just going to die later.” She laughed.
But she is also clearly compassionate. At one point while talking, she swatted a fly away from her hand then gasped. “Oh no, that was so mean of me! It was just sitting there, listening to me, minding it’s business,” she said.
As Sarfo-Adu described her work to raise awareness for housing inequity, her compassion especially shines through.
“Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, speak up for unfair practices and zoning laws, attend land and zoning meetings,” she said.
Speak up: this is one of three tenets she suggests people take on in their own equity work.
People must also observe deeply, she said, by examining who is in their community and where people live. By asking themselves what kind of community they want to live in, folks can compare the ideal to the reality and better see disparities, she said.
The third suggestion she has is to learn more: watch the recording of her presentation, ask questions, do individual research and get involved.
Before this process, Sarfo-Adu couldn’t imagine youth voices ever having an equal seat at the adult table, she said. But as more youth have spoken up during the pandemic about issues like climate change, systemic racism and police violence, she feels less like a lone voice in a room full of adults.
“I’m seeing all of these youth speaking up and I’m starting to see that we’re just as great as adults. We may not have as much education or have the same point of view, but nobody has the same point of view,” she said.
That difference in point of view, she said, is a strength, not a weakness.
“In truth, if we just think of ourselves as people who also struggle with these issues, then I feel like we’ll make a lot more of a difference,” she said.
Hyman hopes more municipalities enact policies allowing young people to serve on committees. Often, they’re invited to sit at the table but aren’t given any power, she said.
“It just gives me hope for the future to see young people with so much drive, passion and understanding that our homes are so important,” she said. “When everyone doesn’t have equal and equitable access to a place to call home, it has a huge ripple effect in our communities. Minelle not only sees that, but she’s making a difference.”