Updated: Apr 5, 2019
By Shelly Prevost
As the country grows more contentious and more divided, with our government shutting down and unable to reach an agreement, our hopes for a more united future increasingly depend on the next generation of leaders. One of these leaders, Yassna Ahmadi, this year’s recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Humanitarian of the Year Award, stands out among them. Yassna is a senior at Pinole Valley High School, where she is currently serving as the class president.
One morning while Yassna was sitting in class, her name was called over the school intercom and she was told to report to the Principal’s office. As many of us might remember from our student days, that’s usually disconcerting. Yassna thought “Oh, what did I do wrong?” It turned out she had nothing to worry about. Principal Kibby Kleiman wanted to nominate her for the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Humanitarian Award. As part of Contra Costa County’s Annual Commemoration of Dr. King’s life and legacy, the Board of Supervisors honors a student that exemplifies the social justice and community commitment values championed by Dr. King. The Board chose Yassna Ahmadi as this year’s recipient of the award.
Like most American stories, unless you are a Native American, it starts with your ancestors immigrating to the United States. Yassna’s parents emigrated from Afghanistan in 1979, fleeing the Soviets invasion. Her dad was seventeen and her mom was twelve. They met and married in Fremont, and in 2000 they moved to Hercules. They are now both US citizens. Yassna’s dad is a professor at UC Berkeley and her mom works as a human resources coordinator. Yassna says “my parents taught me to treat all people with kindness, be respectful and always think about others”.
Yassna started her outreach at a young age. She remembers in Kindergarten giving a report on Eid, the Islamic holiday at the end of Ramadan. She feels her high school is pretty open and diverse but she does recall a time when she heard students making snide remarks about some girls wearing hijabs. Yassna doesn’t wear a hijab and so many students aren’t aware of her Islamic heritage. When she told them that she was Muslim too, like those girls, they apologized. “It makes a difference when it is someone you know”, Yassna observed.
Another way Yassna distinguished herself was to write articles for the school newspaper. One of her first stories was about the importance of putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill. She says she heard about it on the news and is disappointed that it still has not happened.
Yassna started the school club, Political Revolution, where they discuss news and raise student awareness. She took her inspiration for the club from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Last year they organized a memorial and walk out for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Yassna recalls they had been planning this for weeks, she had to give a speech but wasn’t feeling well and “my voice was so bad”. It was raining that day and during school hours. She thought no one would show up. To her surprise about 150 to 200 students came to hear the speeches, including some teachers. Two months later the school also participated in the International walk out day where Yassna and her club led students across town to Fernandez Park.
After the memorial, her club petitioned the school district to change their lockdown procedures. The school’s main building is currently under construction and the students are housed in portable buildings. During lockdown the doors are locked and the lights are turned off. However, Yassna noticed during the lockdown drill that they were sitting right in plain view of the windows. Her petition asked for better lockdown procedures for active shooters. The school responded by darkening the windows, so that it was hard to see in, and having students crouch down.
Yassna notes that the new school building has been under construction the entire four years she has been attending Pinole Valley High School and is scheduled to open this August after she graduates. Unfortunately, she will never attend a class in the new school building. Yassna is applying to colleges and hope to become an international rights lawyer or a political journalist. It will be interesting to see how Yassna and other young leaders change the future dialog of our country.