Last summer, an unassuming high schooler approached the Newark school board with a proposal.
Speaking at the board’s July meeting, Bradley Gonmiah noted the minuscule share of voters who cast ballots in that year’s board election — less than 5 percent. Then he presented a solution: A free curriculum offered to the district that teaches high school students how to tackle issues in their community. Students who complete the course would be more likely to become active voters, Gonmiah reasoned.
“I’d like to encourage you guys to take that offer,” he said.
The next month, the board adopted the curriculum.
Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the district taking a student’s advice. Student activists were disrupting board meetings, staging school walkouts, and occupying district headquarters — anything to get their voices heard by the state-appointed superintendent who was imposing policies on the district.
But after the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board last year and a homegrown superintendent took charge, youth activists pivoted away from staging protests to making policy proposals. Gonmiah has been the face of this new approach.
A senior at Science Park High School who helped revive a citywide student-organizing group, he is often the only student to sit through the board’s hours-long monthly meetings. Gonmiah uses the forums to raise concerns about admissions, discipline, and other policies and propose solutions. At a recent meeting, a board member called Gonmiah, who is 17, “the next superintendent.”
This fall, he will head to California to attend one of the country’s priciest private colleges on a full scholarship. At Harvey Mudd College, he plans to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut — an audacious goal that Gonmiah began working towards last summer when he co-piloted a plane at aviation camp.
Now, as he prepares for his next adventure, Gonmiah leaves behind a template of student activism founded on careful research and strong convictions.
“I just want to show people that it’s actually possible to have an influence, to change things around them,” he said. “You teach people how to learn, you teach people how to gather more information — but you show people what agency is.”
Much of what Gonmiah has learned, he taught himself.
After starting his education at a public school in Newark’s North Ward, Gonmiah’s family moved and his mother began homeschooling him in third grade. As Gonmiah watched science videos on YouTube and visited the Newark Museum, he said, he discovered that “learning wasn’t work; it was just a part of being happy.”
At the same time, his family kept moving. At various times, Gonmiah and various of his four siblings lived with their grandmother, in a family friend’s basement, and in a motel. (He now lives with his father, a driving instructor who immigrated to the U.S. from Liberia.) In seventh grade, Gonmiah returned to the Newark school system to attend Arts High School.
But it was at Science Park that Gonmiah discovered the power of activism. In ninth grade, he joined the school’s vaunted debate team, where he learned how to apply a critical lens to U.S. policies and racial inequities. In 10th grade, after a friend introduced him to an education advocacy group, he took part in a protest against charter schools.
His junior year, Gonmiah embraced a cause close to home. He had noticed that white students are overrepresented and black students are underrepresented at Science Park, a selective magnet school. So he joined other Science Park students and parents in pushing for admissions changes that would make the school’s population better reflect the district’s. Eventually, the administration agreed to tweak the admissions rules.
“He thinks deeply about moral issues and what the right thing to do is based on research and analysis,” said Jonathan Alson, Gonmiah’s former debate coach. “Then he acts on it.”
Gonmiah had spent the first semester of 11th grade in Washington, D.C. in a selective program that trains high school students from across the country in ethics, leadership, and international affairs. When he returned to Newark, he put his leadership skills to use. With some peers, he helped reboot the Newark Students Union, the group whose high-profile protests helped speed the district’s return to local control.
“We did the work as students to get that power back,” Gonmiah said. “We should be involved in actually using that power to make our schools better.”
Gonmiah and his fellow union members encouraged incoming ninth-graders to speak up about inequities they see in school. They called for the student representative on the city school board to have full voting power, and they endorsed board candidates after interviewing them about their views.
They met weekly at Rutgers University-Newark in a conference room lent to them by the Abbott Leadership Institute, which provides training on education advocacy. Kaleena Berryman, the group’s executive director, said she marvels at Gonmiah’s ability to make reasoned arguments that captivate audiences — whether they be teenagers or policymakers.
“When he speaks, people listen,” she said. “And that’s something that’s rare among young people.”
If activism is Gonmiah’s main gig, his side hustle is science. He joined his school’s robotics and coding clubs and attended a summer program dedicated to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. He sealed his decision to become an astronaut after hearing NASA officials talk of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.
“I’m the perfect age; I’ll be like 29 by then,” Gonmiah said. “I can definitely go to Mars.”
He’ll have plenty of opportunities to study science at Harvey Mudd, whose graduates are often scooped up by tech companies like Amazon and Google. And Gonmiah, who would be the first in his family to earn a four-year college degree, won’t have to pay for any of it: He was awarded nearly $81,000 in scholarships and a federal grant for next school year to cover tuition, room and board, and even plane tickets.
Still, while Gonmiah is eager to begin his next chapter, he said he wishes he had more time to continue his activist work in Newark’s schools.
“But even if I stayed,” he said, “I’d never be finished.”