After Jason Fuller graduated from high school in Detroit, Mich., his family moved to New Mexico. For Jason, it might as well have been to another planet. “There was a long period of adjustment,” he recalls. But a community college professor, recognizing Jason’s burgeoning interest in African-American history, believed he had much to offer others and urged him to transfer to a four-year university.
“I began to realize that back in Detroit there had been men who served as huge mentors for me,” Jason says. “I was the second-oldest of six kids, and just having that voice behind you reminding you that you’re doing things, not just for your career and education, but also for your family and community. That really instilled in me the urge to give back in some capacity as soon as I had the opportunity.”
As a communications major at the University of New Mexico, Jason soon found that chance. He served with AmeriCorps in the university’s Community Engagement Center, spending more than 2,000 hours mentoring children in some of Albuquerque’s poorest communities and developing engagement events for their parents.
“I’d realized the power of mentoring and the need to be a positive role model for young children who reminded me of myself,” he says. “At first, it was awkward. Coming from Detroit, which is virtually all Black, to New Mexico, where I was mostly working with Latinos who had never seen a Black person contributing toward their success, there were immediately barriers. People would stare at me, but that stare eventually turned into a smile.”
He moved on to training other young leaders on social justice organizing, community engagement and financial literacy through the University of New Mexico Service Corps. The idea was that they would take the lessons back to their home communities and spread the word. “It all just came full circle,” Jason says. “It’s creating a huge web, a huge system of sustainability.”
Jason used part of his Shriver Award money for college tuition and was expected to graduate in December 2013. The rest went toward Jason’s attendance at two conferences for young community organizers. Passionate about closing the academic achievement gap for other young men of color, Jason developed a media-engagement project, traveling through poor communities around the state, capturing the voices and experiences of young people who had persevered, like one young woman who’d dropped out of high school but earned her GED and went on to graduate from college with a master’s degree.
That experience inspired him to create a series of workshops titled “Go to High School, Go to College.” Other young people, he’d discovered, were hungry for information on how to succeed in college, and they wanted it from other young people who looked like them.
“These students were definitely underprivileged, and for them to see someone who looks like them – and was where they [were] not too long ago – showed that students of color really can overcome,” he says.
“Lots of children who’ve had it hard put up barriers,” Jason notes. “It just means you have to work that much harder. Individuals took time out to invest in my life, so the least I can do is give back – and never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday under the theme of “America’s Next Leaders.” Each story features a young person who contributes to his or her community. In 2012, these young people received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. The Equal Voice New Mexico Network nominated Fuller for the award.