Growing up in inner-city Oakland, Calif., Karen Chan recalls all too well the sobering number of friends who became pregnant, turned to drugs, joined gangs - or were shot.
The environment can yield a desperate, violent existence, the sort that might have swallowed Karen up. But instead, it fueled an intense drive to change the status quo.
"I understand why there are a lot of young people using drugs and doing violent things here," she says. "But lots of times you don't get that perspective in city government. I wanted to change that."
And she has. Over the past four years, Karen has become a young but highly effective advocate for the often ignored, hard-bitten young people of inner-city Oakland.
Her achievements will be recognized this Saturday, when Karen becomes the first recipient of the Freshman College Award. Sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor in collaboration with the National Foundation for Women Legislators (NFWL), the annual award honors "inspired and selfless service" by a college-bound young woman graduating from high school. The winner must have contributed significantly to the well-being of youths in her community.
"Young people need more and better peer models, and that's something we're trying to support," says Virginia Harris, chairman of the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, which publishes the Monitor. "Karen has made a commitment to reverse the destructive elements in her community and promote and encourage the good."
Karen says her most important achievement to date was her appointment by Oakland's mayor to a committee that will allocate $5.2 million for youth programs. The four-year plan that she helped develop includes setting aside one-fifth of the money for youth-to-youth grantmaking.
"For the first time, young people, and young alone, control a significant amount [$1 million annually] of money in a city budget," she says. "They're going to be creating social change, solving problems they face."
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Karen will attend Mills College in Oakland. Yet she was not always a model student.
Just a few years ago, Karen was hanging out with gangs and cutting school. Then one day she saw a TV report of a shooting in San Francisco - and her apathy snapped. Few would have cared if it had happened in her area, she figured. "It certainly wouldn't have been broadcast."
So she wrote an angry but eloquent letter to Bill Wong, a columnist at the Oakland Tribune. He recommended her to Children's Express, a news service written by young people. Soon she was quizzing the mayor at news conferences about young people's needs. Energized, her life took a U-turn.
"She was able to take her frustrations ... and put them into writing," says Mary Ganz, former Oakland bureau director of Children's Express. "Inner-city kids have been her constituency from the beginning."
Paul Brekke-Miesner, a member of the oversight committee of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, says her example set the stage for Oakland to become one of the first cities in the country to test funding of programs designed by youths for youths "Her determination to give youths a powerful voice was a guiding force in the work of the oversight committee."
As winner of the Freshman College Award, Karen will receive $2,500. She will also fly to two NFWL meetings in Charleston, S.C., and Washington.
"Our purpose is to honor young women like Karen Chan and to acknowledge the importance of what they're doing," says Robin Read, president of the NFWL. "We want to encourage more of this by using remarkable young women as examples."