Cheyanne Smith stood in front of the City Council in August to say that New York City schools treated students like prisoners. When she was done, Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, took the microphone and said that maybe Ms. Smith, who was 16 at the time, should be the one running for office. Ms. Quinn later pulled her aside to ask if she wanted a recommendation for college.
This kind of recognition is not surprising for those who know Ms. Smith, a senior at the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn who zigzags around the country to rallies and conferences advocating laws that prohibit racial profiling and that protect young people from being pushed into low-wage work or the criminal justice system. The giggly teenager is a youth leader at Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization that works with low-income and immigrant populations. She makes pinkie vows with friends who promise to come out for a protest or to attend one of the spoken word events she organizes. If they come, she will walk them to the subway afterward.
In September, Ms. Smith was quoted at length in a Rolling Stone article about restorative justice in schools. Her principal, Lucas Cooke, emailed it to the staff, half-joking they should watch out: Here comes our next mayor. One teacher responded: Or our next president.
“But she’s not just a voice,” Mr. Cooke said. “She does the invigorating work of organizing, but also the administrative tasks and groundwork to turn an idea into action.”
Last year, in between extracurricular activities like knitting and urban gardening, Ms. Smith took it upon herself to expand student government to the underclassmen. There were many nights she stayed on campus long after Mr. Cooke had left for the day, writing up mission statements, forms and charters, sending out emails.
Friends admire Ms. Smith’s Afro (when she has one) and the colorful African dresses with head scarves she sometimes wears. In the hallways, even her ex-boyfriends stop to chat. It’s her impulse to make even strangers feel welcome, she said, because of the way she was accepted when she moved to the United States six years ago from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“I learned a phrase: It takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “So, my community or my village is everyone that I interact with, or everyone that I have an interaction with. My village is huge.”
Before arriving in the United States, Ms. Smith imagined living in a mansion with a pool. But for the last year, she has lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with her mother and younger brother. She sleeps on the living room couch.
When her mother, Petronella, who works seven days a week as a home health aide, gets citizenship, “it’s going to be easier to get out of our situation,” she said. The family has permanent residency.
Benia Darius, one of her best friends, said Ms. Smith encouraged her to join Make the Road and get into public speaking, something she was afraid to do before they met.
“She’s like the female Malcolm X,” said Ms. Darius, a 17-year-old from Haiti. “I find myself building on her.”
The pair attend college-level classes and church services on weekends and often discuss more serious things like politics and the economy, rather than boys or homework. Every once in a while, Ms. Darius will interrupt her friend to ask, “Wait, how old are you again?”
“I’ve been told that I have an old soul trapped in a younger girl’s body,” Ms. Smith said. “I like to surround myself with older people who are very intelligent, so I learn from them.”
As a freshman, she dated a senior and played Lady Macbeth on stage. And she befriended an English and poetry teacher, Lisa A. Muhammad, who was taken by her preternatural maturity.
“Her character is pristine for someone her age,” Ms. Muhammad said. “She doesn’t feel intimidated or feel like she can’t share influence with other people.”
She smiled at the media attention her student was receiving.
“Fast-forward down the line, and we see her engaged with something on a leadership level, I’m just going to smile again and say, ‘Yeah, that was imminent, too,’ ” Ms. Muhammad said. “That was just a matter of time.”
This winter, Ms. Smith will apply to nearly two dozen colleges. And she will call on Ms. Quinn for that recommendation.
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