Access to Education in Black Communities Is a Privilege My Family Taught Me To Value—And It’s Guided Me Toward Success

Photo: Courtesy Akilah Cadet; Graphic: W+G Creative
When I was 8 years old, I knew I must have a master’s degree. My mission was so ingrained that when I graduated high school, I looked around and thought, Why are they so happy? I have so much school left! Needless to say, I knew my journey in education was not even close to finished, largely because as a Black woman and the daughter of an immigrant, I understood access to education to be one of my privileges that would open doors for me and continue my family's legacy.

My father immigrated to America in 1970 from Haiti, and finished his undergraduate education as a double major in pre-medicine and Africana studies. Later, he would graduate with a master’s degree in international affairs and a Juris Doctor from two different colleges. He would later become a lawyer, starting his own practice in international law. Eventually, he'd move to Switzerland to start his journey of diplomacy, and literally changing the world. His father was both a dental surgeon and a lawyer (he was the youngest medical graduate from his class and went back to get his law degree at 40).

My mother, who came from a traditional Louisianan family, was the first person in her family to go to college. After skipping a grade and graduating high school at age 17, my mother attended a local college before transferring to Stanford University. She was one of very few Black students, and she was so ahead of her coursework that she graduated Stanford early, in 1975. She then started and finished her master’s in international affairs before my father (they were in the same program) and went into a doctoral program. During her second year, she found out she was having twins while in active labor with me and my sister, and then took a break to raise us. She later returned and graduated with a degree she created in educational economics. She's a changemaker and a force.

Her parents, my maternal grandparents, remind me that access to higher education is not my only privilege helping me to find success. My mother’s mother was a homemaker to five children, and though her formal schooling ended with high school, her privilege that came with being able to pass with light skin would come to benefit herself and her descendants—including me.

My mother’s father was also a changemaker and force, having served as a Damage Controlman First Class in the military, and being one of the first Black men allowed to work above deck of the Navy ship. When he retired from the military, he owned a shoe shop where he supported the Black Panthers office above him and even created a successful Black History Museum in my hometown of Sacramento, California. It’s a privilege of mine to have inherited his entrepreneurial spirit and to know that without my grandparents’ stories and successes—education regardless—my own story would not have come to be.

My mother has since retired as an executive director and assistant superintendent for one of the largest school districts in California. Throughout her career, she's raised more than 500 million dollars for youth and communities of color. My father retired as a diplomat from the International Telecommunications Union, which is part of the United Nations. Now, they're both invested in and supportive of what my twin and I do for a living.

My twin sister completed her master’s degree in architecture at age 22. Within a year and half, she took all six exams that are required to become a licensed architect, straight through. This is particularly of note because most people have to re-test. Furthermore, today, Black architects account for 2 percent of the industry, with 0.4 percent being Black women. She is now the associate principal and design director of a leading architectural firm.

In my family, education is regarded as a way to gain access to additional privilege that can beneficially change the trajectory of our lives.

You see, I had no choice but to have a graduate degree. In my family, education is regarded as a way to gain access to additional privilege that can beneficially change the trajectory of our lives. My parents' education allowed me to live in a middle-class neighborhood, granting me access to public schools that were almost like private schools in quality. My parents knew exactly what was needed for me to be successful in a country that does not want to see me succeed as a Black woman.

Today, I am the Founder and CEO of Change Cadet, a diversity consulting firm. My 6-year-old business informs change around the world. I consult with global brands and Fortune 500 companies in various industries, spanning beauty, tech, and digital media. I love what I do, but it wasn’t always the plan.

“Pediatrician!” is what I’d yell as an 8-year-old when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would set up bug hospitals in the backyard, play doctor, and was a natural caretaker as a child. My paternal grandmother, a mother of 11, is where I get my love of children from. My mother even hung artwork of a Black woman emblazoned with the word "pediatrician" in my room. She was surrounded by children and love. I knew I was going to be her.

But then, something happened while I was an undergraduate in college: I fell in love with public health and health administration. The programs, organizational culture, and training made me feel alive. That feeling quickly faded, though, given that I was already studying for MCAT, and my future as a medical student and then doctor felt imminent.

My father was strict about the importance of education—no video games as kids, and no need to spend too much time with friends. Basically he liked me to study nonstop, and my change in heart regarding my ambitions made me worry I was going to let him down.

“I don’t want to be a doctor.” I told him timidly. He was quiet, which was odd, given that he's generally a talker. He then went on to explain that if I was not going to be a lawyer, a doctor was my only path. Ultimately, I didn't take that path, and our relationship was strained for years to come.

Once graduating with my undergraduate degree in health science and then my master's in public health, I felt accomplished. Unfortunately, I continued to experience discrimination from others who thought I was uneducated or didn’t have enough experience due to me being a Black woman. That's when I sought my doctorate in health science in leadership and organizational behavior. Then, things changed.

I commanded respect with a title that people understood. My parents are so proud of me; my father even started bragging about me to his friends and family. I am now a doctor after all, just like my mom.

The power education affords to open doors to even be able to make a difference is something I've understood forever as a Black woman. I carry the spirit of my grandparents, and I make my parents proud daily. I am me because of them.

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