Black History Month: Students who are shaping the future of NYC

Olayinka Daramola (clockwise from top left), John Aderounmu, Tredesha Howard and Akaysha Palme.
Olayinka Daramola (clockwise from top left), John Aderounmu, Tredesha Howard and Akaysha Palme. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

As Black History Month comes to an end, amNewYork asked organizations and colleges to nominate students who have become accomplished leaders in their communities.

The stories of these four role models offer a snapshot of thousands of young New Yorkers across the five boroughs who are driven to improve life in the city.

These are some of our future history-makers.

Olayinka Daramola, 18

Olayinka Daramola, 18, on the track at the Park Slope Armory YMCA on Feb. 15, 2018.
Olayinka Daramola, 18, on the track at the Park Slope Armory YMCA on Feb. 15, 2018. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Born and bred in Brooklyn, Olayinka Daramola possesses an energy and positivity that could trick even the most keen observer into assuming life’s been a breeze.

It hasn’t.

She’s the youngest of three sisters, all a year apart — her eldest sister Temilola Daramola is 20 and middle sister Khadija Beye is 19. And all three, according to their mother Zhara, struggled with childhood obesity.

Add to that the fact that Olayinka hasn’t seen her father, a Nigeria native, since he had to return to his home country 10 years ago.

So how did this Brooklyn teen persevere through these relatable but serious obstacles to become a determined young woman with a love for nature and conservation, committed to being a force for good in the world?

John Aderounmu, a student on the CUNY Board of Trustees, at CUNY in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 2018.
John Aderounmu, a student on the CUNY Board of Trustees, at CUNY in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 2018. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

It began with her mother’s example.

Zhara brought Olayinka and her sisters to the Park Slope Armory YMCA regularly for exercise and classes, and that simple act of getting involved in the community set Olayinka’s future in motion.

Before long, Yinka, as she’s affectionately known, was kickboxing, doing aerobics and playing basketball at night. Soon, she began asking questions about politics and local government, volunteering at AIDS walks and studying conservation at the Bronx Zoo. Last summer, she traveled with a group of students to California for a two-week trip that included what Yinka describes as an eye-opening week in Yosemite National Park.

“It was amazing. I had never been there or camped or hiked before, so it was a little culture shock for everyone in our group,” she says. “We learned about nature, we learned water conservation, about food conservation, all these things that in other parts of the world people have to do to not waste.”

And now, she just wants to learn more.

Tredesha Howard attends a planning meeting for an event sponsored by CUNY's Black Male Initiative in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 2018.
Tredesha Howard attends a planning meeting for an event sponsored by CUNY’s Black Male Initiative in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 2018. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

“This year, we’ll be going to either Haiti or Colombia,” she says excitedly.

The sum of her experiences thus far has led her to pursue a degree in journalism and communications. Set to graduate from Kingsborough Early College Secondary School — where she’s simultaneously earning an associate degree — with a 97 average, she plans to attend SUNY New Paltz in the fall.

“My real target is to run my own nonprofit, or be part of some sort of media or internet company that makes videos about, basically, helping the world . . . just using activism to share with other people,” she says.

One of her leaders at the YMCA, Andrew Bagli, is excited to see where her leadership skills will take her.

“She was our Brooklyn borough president for [the] Teens Take the City program,” Bagli says. “What’s really awesome about her is that she’s definitely a leader among our group of teens. There’s not a person in our group that doesn’t get along with Yinka. She’s one of the first people that will engage in a conversation with new teens and make them feel welcome. She’s always volunteering at all the opportunities I pass their way.”

Akaysha Palmer at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 2018.
Akaysha Palmer at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 2018. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Yinka, before concluding her interview with amNewYork, says she just wants her peers and younger students to know one thing:

“If you believe you can do something, you can do it. Keep your motivation up, because you can do great things.”

John Aderounmu, 21

Humility is among the rarest of leadership traits, yet there is no shortage of it in John Aderounmu.

Aderounmu, 21, relocated from Nigeria five years ago at 16, moving in with relatives in Far Rockaway, Queens. The way he describes it, after years of visiting New York City on summer break, “it was inevitable” that he’d end up pursuing higher education in the city.

However, just months after he arrived in 2012, superstorm Sandy struck. He and his family were without power for about two weeks and the family home suffered significant flooding damage in the basement. When asked if the disaster made him think twice about his plans to study in NYC, his reply was simple:

“Oh, not at all. I come from a country where the power outages are kind of a norm,” Aderounmu says. “We didn’t get it as bad as some parts of Far Rockaway, so we felt lucky.”

This humility is reflected in every step of his story. He enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College with the intention of pursuing a “safe” career in computer science; however, he encountered mentors and inspirational figures along the way that steered his path toward representative democracy.

Now a Hunter College student, he serves as the chairperson of the CUNY University Student Senate and holds a seat on the CUNY board of trustees.

The idea of student government was initially foreign to him. His schooling experience in Nigeria was academic-intensive, he says, and included only a few extracurricular options.

“It wasn’t until my last semester [at BMCC] that I joined the student government,” Aderounmu says. “I had a friend who was also an immigrant from Africa, Mohammed Omar . . . he told me I should join the student government.”

With his friend’s support, Aderounmu ran for Senate, won, and ultimately assumed the role of president of the Student Government Association, or SGA, at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

At Hunter, his top priorities as the CUNY University Student Senate chairperson center on making the body an effective vessel of change, “instead of just event-planning and organizing,” he says.

“One thing we’re talking about right now is the student activity fee,” he says. “It’s a fee controlled by the students, they dictate what the money is used for. We want to make sure it remains that way, and we’re in the middle of that discussion right now.”

Ashtian Holmes, director of the Urban Male Leadership Academy (UMLA), remembers meeting Aderounmu in 2015 when he first started attending BMCC. A formative mentor in his life, Holmes still stays in close contact with Aderounmu today.

“He was kind of a quiet, soft-spoken person,” Holmes recalls. “When he was first involved with UMLA he was going through a lot. He had tremendous potential from the get-go, but it was SGA where he made that known to the world, so to speak.”

Holmes, having watched Aderounmu grow and develop a “high emotional intelligence” over the last several years, recalls a moment when it hit him just how far Aderounmu had come.

“I remember when I sat in on an SGA meeting. The way he commanded the table, I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, he’s here,’” Holmes says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, he’s going to be something.’”

CUNY board of trustees chairman William C. Thompson Jr. agrees.

“John, quite simply, is an exemplary young man,” Thompson Jr. says in a statement. “There is no doubt in the minds of those of us who have had the good fortune of getting to know this special individual that he will succeed at whatever endeavor he puts his mind to.”

But if you ask the always-humble Aderounmu, he’s still got a long way to go. While he plans to pursue a law degree one day to help represent immigrants in New York who have no means to defend themselves, he’s taking the most pragmatic approach possible.

“Once I graduate in May, I hope to go into the work industry, then eventually go into law school,” he says. “I need to sort out my finances, and then get ready for law school.”

Tredesha Howard, 25

Being “a citizen of the world” is cliché, but it’s hard to describe Tredesha Howard any other way.

A native of Barbados, she came to New York City in November 2014 “chasing” a retail job. She had experience selling cellular phones back home and figured it couldn’t be much different here. But the job didn’t work out, and she found herself faced with life in an unfamiliar country without her boyfriend, family and friends, who stayed back home.

“I left what I’d been accustomed to for 20 years of my life, so it was kind of hard to step away from it,” Howard says. “But my friends were very supportive. They know my personality. They said, ‘Tredesha, you’re going to get through it, just keep pushing through.’”

Push through she did.

Howard is now on track to graduate with a business degree from Baruch College. One of her minors, however, reveals something more about her.

Increasing financial literacy in minority communities is a priority for her, so she is learning Spanish.

“I know what it feels like to be excluded just because you don’t have that one thing. I don’t ever want to be in contact with someone where I’m the one to make them feel excluded because I couldn’t accommodate,” Howard says. “So many people in New York speak Spanish. I want to be able to help assist them as well.”

Did she speak any Spanish whatsoever when she declared the language as one of her minors?

“Nope!” Howard exclaims.

This fearlessness that drove her to New York City, that drove her to become fluent in a completely foreign language, is the same force that propelled her across the Atlantic Ocean last summer.

To Ghana.

“I find that we’re all told the story of slavery, but I knew there was something before slavery,” she says. “In the context of history, [American] slavery is a very brief period. Who were we as black people as a community before slavery? That was my personal search.”

Still, even on an intensely personal mission, she stayed on the lookout for opportunities to help others.

Shawn Best, associate director of CUNY’s Black Male Initiative, said throughout the planning process Howard constantly identified ways to help everyone involved — a hallmark of her career as a student.

“There were times when the director of the trip would look a little overwhelmed and she would say, ‘Hey, you know you have a team here who can help right?’” Best said. “She’s just an incredible person with an incredible background. She’s exceeded all of our expectations.”

That trip to Ghana, for Howard, returned the favor.

As she and half a dozen other students laid eyes on the Ghanaian “slave castles,” she connected with a newfound source of motivation.

“It was hard . . . It was very emotional. But it gave me hope to keep moving on, even though I’m fighting for things I may never experience. There’s hope for someone else coming after me, that they wouldn’t have the struggles that I’ve had,” Howard says.

Since returning, she and the other students have been working to establish a — tentatively titled — Birthright Africa Foundation, to help provide children in Ghana with school supplies and other fundamental childhood items.

And while she is hopeful her current internship at Morgan Stanley will turn into something long-term after graduation, she aspires to do even more to serve.

“To be honest with you, I’d do any service job that could help me gather the skills needed to grow as a person and a professional, and eventually run my own business,” Howard says. “That’s my real plan.”

In fact, she’s in the early stages of “test-running” some business ideas, but is sworn to secrecy — for now. Despite amNewYork’s best efforts to pry for details, she stood firm: “No hints.”

Akaysha Palmer, 17

When still learning her multiplication tables, Bronx native Akaysha Palmer was already focused on how she could help others.

“When the church would announce they were going to feed shut-ins, she would volunteer to go. She was only 8 years old,” says Antoinette Palmer, 51, her mother. “She was always a motivated person, a leader type of person.”

Akaysha says she’s always had a “soft spot” for those in need and often gives whatever food she has to anyone who asks.

“She would have her last two dollars and give them to somebody, probably on the train in Manhattan,” her mother confirms.

Once she got to Cathedral High School in Manhattan, Akaysha started joining extracurricular activities — cheerleading as a freshman, basketball as a sophomore — but to the amazement of those around her, she somehow always carved out time for community outreach.

As a junior, the Wakefield resident joined the Fresh Empire campaign, which proves “you can still have fun through hip-hop without smoking,” Akaysha says.

She also became heavily involved in a program called Teen Career Connection, where she was placed at a 2017 summer internship at New York Common Pantry on East 109th Street in Harlem. Akaysha often stayed after her required hours, helping distribute food and building relationships with those in need.

Her time at the pantry solidified what she’s known since childhood: countless New Yorkers need help and it is her duty to be there for them.

“Being able to actually interact with them on a personal level, and getting to know some of them, has made me realize even more that they are people too and they deserve the same opportunities as everyone else,” Akaysha said. “You can be homeless for different reasons and it should not be viewed so stereotypically.”

Although her internship at New York Common Pantry ended, she was asked to stay on as a per-diem staffer, a job she cherishes.

But homeless outreach is only one of her passions. Social injustice has become a focus for her in recent months.

One of her leaders at the YMCA is Ashley Ortiz, a 22-year-old senior at New York University. Ortiz is part of a team of leaders that is working with Akaysha and other students as they put together a proposal to combat police brutality that they will present to the City Council on March 31.

“Right now we’re working on police brutality among teens, and she’s been able to share her thoughts, opinions and things that we’ll actually be presenting,” Ortiz says.

Last summer, as part of the same program, Akaysha and other students created a city-approved partnership between the YMCA and the Legal Aid Society to help raise awareness among teens about their rights when interacting with law enforcement.

“She’s not a follower,” Ortiz says. “When I first started, she didn’t really care what her friends were doing. She thinks outside of the box, she wants to be outside of the box.”

Her involvement in activism has helped her decide to pursue a career in law. She’s been accepted to several universities already, including the University of Connecticut, and plans to study business as part of a pre-law track. For her, the bottom line is simple:

“I just want a career that helps people, that’s number one on my list,” Akaysha says.

When asked if she’d ever considered running for public office, Akaysha laughs.

“People have told me I should consider that. I don’t know; I feel like I can always do that when I’m older.”