By Emily Williams
While a strong case of senioritis tends to be the main struggle for high school seniors, Vestavia Hills High School’s Mei Mei Sun has added concerns that stretch far beyond her school’s walls.
While hard at work preparing for her final year of coursework and what lies beyond her upcoming senior year, Sun’s passion for educational equality in Birmingham has her working hard to help her grassroots nonprofit organization, Books 4 Bham, grow.
A student-led nonprofit, Books 4 Bham answers Sun’s desire to address the disparity in educational materials available to students between schools in higher- and lower-income areas in greater Birmingham.
After hosting a book drive at the school this past spring with help from the FBLA and Youth Leadership Vestavia, Sun was able to donate more than 1,000 test prep materials, children’s books and vintage magazines to Birmingham City Schools. In the wake of the success, she decided to lead the development of Books 4 Bham as a parent group for the annual drive.
“Throughout my life, I have learned that nothing will ever become substantially better unless you make it so,” Sun said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. … Sometimes you must help bend the universe towards justice.”
The Human Condition
Sun’s inspiration for the organization derives from her fascination with the human condition and her passion to learn as much as she can about other people – their lives, struggles and triumphs – a product of the many places she has lived throughout her childhood.
“I was born in Yokohama, Japan, to Chinese parents,” Sun said. “We’ve lived all over the place: from Iowa City to Charlottesville to Cupertino to settling down in Vestavia Hills.”
In the early years of her schooling, Sun was living in the impoverished Liaoning district in China, where she was being raised by her grandmother.
“I attended local inner-city elementary schools, all run-down institutions with extremely limited resources to its pupils,” she said. “I often marvel at the stark inequalities that define Chinese schooling and the population’s reluctance to transform it. I attributed its de facto unfairness to the uneven processes of revitalization the Chinese government imposed on the Northeast regions.”
After immigrating to the United States and attending various schools over the years, Sun saw a similarity to her education in China. Even in “a nation of equal opportunity,” the quality of education available to students heavily depends on the prosperity of the neighborhoods and towns where they live.
“I wondered, how could this continue to happen in the golden land of success,” Sun said. “In a way, creating Books4Bham was my way of realizing the American Dream: an attempt to level the playing field for both myself and others who face insurmountable barriers to success.”
In her own schooling at VHHS, Sun has many opportunities available to her. A member of the school’s debate team and an avid writer, she was able to further develop her communication skills, one of her keys to success.
“By learning to be an excellent communicator, people are willing to reveal more of themselves – and that raw, unfiltered viscerality is the lifeblood that makes existence worth it,” she said.
Recently, Sun won the 2018 Alabama State Debate Championship, the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast essay contest and the Literature Gold Award from Scholastic Magazine for the Southeast region.
Through organizing and leading the creation of Books 4 Bham, Sun has picked up some more vital skills, delving into graphic web design, scheduling, creating press releases, interacting with supporters and fundraising.
Sun said that, though exhausting, the personal satisfaction she has gained through this process is something special.
“There’s nothing quite like helping others, and I don’t mean to say that because of white guilt or a savior complex: the very act of improving your corner of the world is reward enough on its own,” she said. “Though the boxes are heavy, our hearts are light with both overwhelming gratitude for the organization’s supporters and utmost compassion for the recipients.”
The process is one that hints to her plans for the future. She hopes to attend college up North or out West and then participate in humanitarian aid programs on an international level, through the Peace Corps or the United Nations.
Sun added that she also hopes to return to the Deep South and Alabama, her human interest peaked particularly by ICE’s Etowah County Detention Center.
“My specific areas of interest span wide: from minority youth empowerment to suicide prevention to promoting inclusivity to affordable education to immigrant rights to coalition-building to bridging the gap to grassroots activism,” she said. “I’d like to think all of these are ultimately interconnected.”
In the meantime, Sun is hoping to expand Books 4 Bham to schools beyond the Birmingham area and has already started contacting schools in more rural areas of central Alabama.
“While I based the organization in Birmingham in an effort to give back to the city that has given me so much, it would bring me huge satisfaction to say that we’ve reached more students, we’ve delivered books; we’ve provided institutional support; we’ve cared for them; we’ve directly changed their lives for the better,” Sun said. “That’s our calling: spreading the love.”