Youth Advocate: Sareana Kimia

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
June 15, 2015

Sareana Kimia catapulted to fame and became pretty much every DC Indian household’s topic of conversation when Washington Post ran an article on her over the last holidays.  The headline jolted each of us into paying attention and we all read of her. After recovering from awestruck admiration, we naturally shared her story around. The children were pulled up by parents, and the students in turn thought she was cool and brave for all that she went through and manages to keep at.

I was to speak with her a few months since, but somehow our busy lives could not get a breather enough to connect, and we played tag awhile and when I finally did, it was well worth the wait, and what an honor! Being a mom to teenagers, I’ve always admired the youth for their tenacity and the beauty of their innocent dreams and the passion with which they plunge forward!

Sareana’s face popped on my screen, she was really just another teenager (albeit a precocious one) with a smile that lit a thousand candles, and a laugh that was at once shy, unassuming and sure. I had done very little homework on her, just coz I wanted to hear first hand on what she had to say!1236175_247552748726239_989927615_n

With  an air of nonchalance studded with occasional escapades into her own mind and getting distracted with her work, just like any other teen, she conversed with me, on her interests, her life, vision, and her personal story that shaped her for what she is today.

Read on:

Such a pleasure to finally ‘meet’ you Sareana! So you say, UMD, Homeschooled and junior? Tell me how all this comes together?

I started homeschooling from when I was in 9th grade, coz I was doing so much more and going to meetings and events related to my advocacy groups that this seemed the best option. And its all online as well and I also dual-enrolled at UMD. 

What’s your typical day like? I know my kids woke up, went to school, did their school/club activities, homework, chilled and went to bed for the most part,  just like any teenager anywhere. How is yours different?

There is no typical day! She laughs. If I had to generalize it’s classes in the morning at the University, then by noon, I wrap up, and head on over for meetings and events and sometimes to the Congressmen’s offices for discussions and various activities related to it. Come home late whenever I can, and I study, do my homework, get to bed and rise and do it all over again! 

Tell me how you fell into this path of advocacy? How did it all start?

It all started in in 6th grade, I went up and spoke about cuts to the magnet school funding and testified to the Board of Education. I was convincing (am told) and I took a liking and passion for standing up for anything that required someone to support. Looking back, that was the period when I became assertive and put my foot down. There was an incident that happened with my father (we are not in touch anymore) that changed me and made me speak up and stand my ground. 

Hmm.. sorry about the dad. Is this also why you are closer to your mother? I can just tell by the pictures 🙂

Yes! My mother is like my friend/sister. She has been my strongest support through the time, and we’ve together been a team. 

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She is a graduate of economics I hear? I can tell how your interests have been shaped, even sub-consciously. True?

Haha, yes, she has a degree in Economics, and she now holds an Healthcare IT job. 

Great! Ok, tell me about your childhood. Single child, single parent, Immigrant life, school..?

Yeah, as I said, mom and I are close and we did things together. I studied in a French immersion program in Maryland up until 6th grade! Mom thought it was a good idea that I learnt a language in that way, coz I believe I could pick up languages well, including Spanish, Chinese and Hindi, different levels of course. 

Totally a fan of the immersion language learning. I learnt French that way too! 🙂

So, let’s go back to your work. Explain what advocacy is, and the areas you are a strong proponent in? Your beliefs and what you work towards.

Advocacy is just really standing for your beliefs and helping to bring a visible change so it helps raise the quality of different folks in society. So, it all started off in 6th grade, and since then it’s evolved into more sophisticated advocacy, mainly with respect to education. K-12, Student Debt, which when you actually dig deep into, you realize how much it affects economy at a larger scale. At legislature level, where every Bill that’s passed has affected youth and the students. These have been some of the more stronger ones I continue to work on. 

At this regard, you started an organization of your own?

Yes! When I got into doing more work in advocacy, more of us who thought alike came together, and I realized that a front in an organization would be able to better translate and hold our needs and where we were trying to bring change. So, I started Youth For National Change, and we’ve grown quick! We have chapters now in close to 20 states (the website will have all the information) and we are always looking for similar minded youth and students who can commit to the same passion, and run a chapter to success. 

Fabulous! So proud of you and it’s really amazing how much one can accomplish when you actually convert an idea to an action. Were you always like this? Determined? How would you say you grew?

I think so. Always stood by what I wanted and I think my mom would agree.

Well, there is a ton of reading that’s involved! She laughs. So, lots of reading, understanding, and having mentors and people whom you could quickly call or email and ask for a term or a byline or a law to be explained or broken down helps. The Young Democrats Club has been instrumental in this capacity and I guess I’ve grown to not taking “no” for an answer. If I needed something, and I knew there would be a push back, I always try and find a way to convert that NO to a YES. 

Knowing what and how to get things done before you walk into a room helps! Be Prepared.

Planning and going in prepared eh? Good! Ever felt intimidated?

Haha, no, not really! Most times I would be so focused that I don’t really see whom am debating with. There was once a time when a senior Senator and I got into a screaming match. I just stood my ground, and that was such an empowering thing to do. It was hilarious too (in retrospect) coz there he was a much senior large towering man, and here I am, all of 5 1″ and the incongruence was not lost on the audience! 

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There was also this one time when I was at a Democratic party, and I was the ONLY person of color. It was a sea of white men, studded with a few women and then there was me. Was very interesting and noticeable. I guess it is because I defy stereotype (am young, am a woman and am a woman of color), and as frustrating as it is, it’s the beginning of change! 

Seriously? That’s strange! I’d imagine there would be more diversity! I see enough of us Asian-Americans (of your generation) who seem vocal and active in politics and policy?

There are! The numbers are definitely increasing, but not enough yet to visibly make a difference I suppose. More of us are asking the right questions, and it all starts there. 

You started off at the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee and are a student member there?

Yes, and the space and the experience has been heartening. Ive gained so much from each of them and learnt so much about the various challenges that we face, even within an organization. The style of working, the partnerships based on ethics and working style and such and even how one can project oneself outside. Extrenal factors, how pushy one can get, how to get to where you want, and ultimately how to make the most of a No, and make it work for you. 

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Am guessing it’s a no brainer where your path is? What you want to go to college for and graduate in and see a career in?

When I started high school, I wasn’t yet really sure, but the more I worked on issues and advocacy and the more I read, Political Science and Law is where I want to be in. It seems like a natural thing for me to do. 

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And I truly believe that you would do well for yourself and for others around you if you went down that path! Always good to place your money where your heart is. Speaking of which, you’ve done well in the scholarship area haven’t you?

I think so. she nods her head, shy and cognizant. A partial list is here 

I wanted to talk very briefly about your experience with homelessness and the Washington Post article. Can you and also maybe reflect on how being without a home all of a sudden helped shape you, if at all?

Well, the article headlined dramatically, and am okay with accepting it, coz it was a dark phase and we were there. What I also am humbled and grateful for is that we were lucky to have friends who took us in, and allowed us to rebuild ourselves. The experience just made me want to fight the system by which it is so easy for a home to crumble, and that there are no safety nets provided by the legal system clearly. Personally, I don’t think it changed me much, it happened just last year, as I was already clear in what I set out to do.

My biggest fear was “who is going to pay for my school?” , “How would I study?” 

I can imagine. That must have been harsh on a 16 year old, but as you said, you were set on your path and at that age, that’s how focused (and myopic for the lack of better word) most teenagers are, and that’s just normal.

On a final note, what would you like to leave your readers with? You are an inspiration by yourself, but sometimes things have to be spelt out and different folks learn differently. What do you want to say?

Just that if YOU do not care about it, who will? Stick to your passion, be involved and speak up. The youth can make a difference, you just have to want to. 

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This was one of the more impressive Ms.Chutzpah Ive profiled. Not just because of her work, but because of her age and the passion and determination that drives her to do what she does, and with how much elan and maturity she carries herself as she shoulders on heavy work. Always a heartening relief to know that the world is in good hands, coz as unique as she is, she represents the youth, and all it requires is some inspiration and a right channeling for more of her clan to follow through the path.

There’s just a ton more about her that I cant possibly fit in here, so google away! 🙂

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