Tuhfa Kasem wanted more.
A senior at Detroit's Universal Academy charter school, Kasem, then 17, had become disenchanted with the way her school was being run. Her favorite teachers were fired during her freshman year, there was a lack of certified teachers to teach her throughout her high school career, and she and her peers had to endure a string of substitute teachers instead. After getting involved with 482Forward, a citywide network dedicated to making sure Detroit children have access to quality education, she started to learn that her experience at UA wasn't typical.
"I thought it was just like a normal thing in every school, that that's how all schools run and that's how everyone gets treated," she says. "I started realizing that it's just educational injustice in specific schools, or in schools that don't get enough funding, or schools that aren't in the best places — and those are the schools that get mistreated."
Kasem is a smart, ambitious young woman. The youngest of four, she was born in Yemen and moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old. After Kasem was named salutatorian of her graduating class, she says an idea came to her while she was sitting in her room a few days before the ceremony: She would focus her speech on her frustrating educational experience at UA. She went to the living room to tell her family what she wanted to do.
"I was like, 'Guys, I have a plan,'" Kasem says. "Growing up, they always raised me to stand up for what I believe in, and if I know I'm doing the right thing, then just go for it."
When the day came to make the speech, Kasem was nervous. But the nerves vanished when she took the stage.
In her speech, Kasem railed against the "unlawful" injustices she and her peers experienced at the school. "Thinking we'd just stay quiet and accept it as first-generation Yemeni and Iraqi students, I can honestly say it's partially our faults since we've tolerated it for a majority of the time. The few times we would speak out, we'd quickly be shut down and excuses would be shoved down our throats and we'd be given no option but to accept them," Kasem says. "I'll give this administration props for the one thing they're good at, which is switching the problems back on the students."
The administration swiftly cut Kasem's mic, which led to the audience asking her to talk louder.
"So then I just moved away from the mic, and I started screaming without it," she says.
The battle didn't end there. After graduating, UA students later noticed their transcripts had not been sent to them. Kasem and her peers visited the Dearborn Heights offices of Hamadeh Educational Services, which manages the school, but the staff locked the doors and wouldn't let the children enter.
A couple weeks after news of the incident went public, the students finally received their transcripts and diplomas — except Kasem and her fellow salutatorian, Zainab Altalaqani, who had also made a speech criticizing UA. Then, they received transcripts, but no diplomas — the school held them until Kasem and others went to an Oakland University Board of Trustees meeting with a list of demands. OU then intervened and made sure Kasem and Altalaqani received their diplomas.
Kasem says the experience opened her eyes.
"There are people that are going to try to get in your way and always try to make everything worse for everyone," she says. "And they're always going to be there — but if you don't fight it, then it's just going to get worse."
Today, Kasem is focused on her freshman year at Wayne State University, and she hopes to become a dentist. She is also continuing her work with 482Forward to fight against educational inequity in Detroit public charter schools. She says she hopes her speech and her continued efforts will urge Universal Academy to hear the voices of its students.
"The students do know what's best for themselves and what they need in order to be successful," Kasem says. "We are going to start speaking up, and we do expect change — and not for you to just shut us down."
Looking back on her graduation speech, Kasem says she didn't realize what she's capable of.
"I never knew I really had that in me, you know?" she says. "I guess no one does until they actually do it. And I think it's inside everyone — they just have to find it."