Jakaira Simonson is a 23-year-old college freshman from Coney Island.

She has fond memories of growing up in Brooklyn, especially the “warmth and familiarity” of mom and pop stores in her community but she says gentrification has changed a lot of that.

“Everywhere around Brooklyn is changing; the places we use to be able to call home, where we knew everybody in the building and were all related somehow,” she lamented. “Now, more people who don’t look like us are moving in and rent is going up. We can’t knock on the neighbor’s doors and ask if the kids can come out to play in the hallway.”

Jakaira says she wants to impact the world, perhaps through her writing and research of history and politics.

Her academic journey hasn’t been easy. She recalled trying to conceal her real age from younger classmates when she had to repeat a few grades.

Ultimately, she attended Liberation Diploma Plus High School, which enrolls overage and under-credited students at risk of dropping out. She credits the school’s founding principal, April Leong, for being like a mother to her, as well as teacher and role model.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York, Jakaira said initially, she panicked.

“I was scared to be alone dying in the hospital if I caught the virus,” she recalled. “I was mostly scared to die.”

That experience, however, forced her to be more aware of her own health and the well-being of her family members. Jakaira’s fear of leaving the safety of her home forced her to research and become more knowledgeable about the virus. 

The pandemic also filled her with the desire to become a spokesperson for people on the margins of society: “It made me want to go out and fight for myself and the kids coming up behind me,” she recalled.

“I should be writing the books I always wanted to write, exploring, and doing stuff I always wanted to do. 

“[The Pandemic] gave me the ‘oomph’ to do what I should have been doing,” she said.

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