Bridge Builder David Lee Earns 2019 Gates Scholarship

Posted by knetzler on May 20, 2019

Germantown High School graduating senior David Lee, a Bridge Builder of four years and BB CHANGE Fellow, has been named as a 2019 recipient of the prestigious Gates Scholarship.

Presented by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the award provides full scholarships for 300 exceptional, Pell-eligible, minority high school seniors from across the country.

Lee, of Collierville, has served for the last two years in the Memphis Youth Union cohort of Bridge Builders CHANGE. He plans to attend Duke University this fall, following in the footsteps of his two older sisters and fellow Bridge Builder alums, Christine (’14) and Elizabeth (’17).

David drew on his transformative experiences at Bridge Builders CHANGE Summer Institute as the basis for his Duke admissions essay, and he’s kindly allowed us to share those reflections with the BRIDGES supporters who made his Bridge Builder experience possible:

It was four in the morning. The room was silent except for the faint din of a single air conditioner, desperately cooling that musty, cramped meeting room. I rested my head on the hard carpet while contorting the rest of my body to fit into the puzzle of bodies nestled beside me. My entire frame ached from yesterday’s grueling activities, and my mind whirled with countless emotional memories, traumas, and injustices. Yet I was not tired. Next to me lay two fellows I had met only three days prior, two people who I had grown inexplicably close to in those seventy-two hours. None of us were asleep. Underneath the hum of the air conditioner, three muffled voices whispered into the daylight.

For the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of a youth community organizing fellowship at the local non-profit Bridge Builders CHANGE. CHANGE brings together youth from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to create systemic social change within Memphis, Tennessee. In order to prepare us for the rigorous work ahead, we attended a week-long overnight training called “Institute” to learn about our own identities, community organizing, and the intersection of the two. Before Institute, I had never really contemplated the facets of my identity. I had never considered my position in society and its influence upon my privileges and opportunities. I had never considered my voice, choosing to devalue my opinion in favor of others’. I never considered how others perceived me and, most importantly, how I perceived myself.

Institute did not hold back. Within the first few hours, I was creating an identity map of every conceivable aspect of myself. People shared all aspects of their identity: immigrant, Muslim, lesbian, survivor. I was both startled and amazed. These dozens of people, whom I had just met, openly shared some of the most intimate parts of themselves. For the first time, I felt safe, encouraged even, to grow in a space. Once too afraid to voice my own thoughts, I anxiously shared parts of my identity that I had barely come to realize myself.

The events of that week continued to push me farther out of my comfort zone. We learned about various oppressions, ones I had experienced and ones I had never known. We discussed a litany of social injustices like poverty and sexual harassment. We shared intimate stories of discrimination and hardship, listening to one another. Most importantly, we debriefed our emotions through transformative dialogue, forging interpersonal relations by affirming each other’s thoughts and experiences.

For the first time, I felt welcomed and inspired to speak. With the help of others, I recognized the privileges and oppressions that accompanied my identity and those of others. I began to address my insecurities as a Chinese American and how it defined me. Although I was aware of my lack of knowledge in so many aspects of life, I realized I had my own experiences, experiences that were not only valid but important. I realized my voice held potential, and for the first time in my life I felt empowered to use my voice to create change. Once unable to speak, I was now unable to stop.

Institute and the other CHANGE fellows taught me a life’s worth about myself, others, and my community. Pushed far out of my comfort zone, I no longer wanted to go back. With my newfound voice, I still continue to work towards creating a better Memphis through my work at CHANGE, comprised of countless hours of meetings, interviews, workshops, conferences, and summits. Even in the heat of the work, I often reminisce to that fourth, sleepless morning of Institute, where at 5:30 a.m sharp, the three of us walked a mile into the woods to watch the sunrise. I openly and freely spoke, laughing the entire way.