When Talib Becktemba-Goss was an eighth-grader at Percy Julian Middle School, he created a program that matched high school students with third graders who struggled with reading. The program, Opportunity for All (OFA), was a steppingstone for Becktemba-Goss, now 18, who has worked since then to spotlight the need for diversity, equity and inclusion in education.
This summer, the Oak Park teen continued those efforts as a Bank of America Student Leader. Becktemba-Goss, a 2021 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, was one of five students selected from a pool of 300 applicants to be part of the bank’s leadership program. Over the course of eight weeks, the college-bound Becktemba-Goss interned with the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago, where he helped launch a list of virtual activities for families and promoted the organization.
When asked to reflect on his internship, Becktemba-Goss spoke about the joy of being around other young adults like himself who were just as passionate about serving their communities.
“It just gives me a lot of hope for the future,” said Becktemba-Goss, an incoming freshman at Northwestern University.
For Becktemba-Goss, his work in education is personal. He grew up in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood and moved to Oak Park when he was in the fifth grade. To this day, he remembers seeing the growing disparity between the schools in his old neighborhood and his new one and how they impacted students of color, especially Black students.
“Oak Park is much more well-funded and diversified than a lot of these Chicago Public Schools,” said Becktemba-Goss, adding his mother, a decades long public school teacher and principal of a charter school in Chicago, also served as his inspiration to view education through a different lens. “So, I was able to see the discrepancies, the inequalities.”
Even as a middle schooler, Becktemba-Goss wanted to step up and help students in need, which was why he created Opportunity for All – and never stopped.
Throughout the years, he partnered with local parent teacher organizations to secure funding for books for his reading program. Becktemba-Goss said he wanted children to be excited about reading and felt that giving them books that represented their family, culture and traditions could be a way.
“I noticed that a lot of times kids were reading materials where they don’t have a protagonist that’s Black,” he said. “You don’t see a protagonist that’s Asian. You don’t see a protagonist that’s Native American. [Those books were] really important to get into the hands of kids, so they can understand what they can be and what they should be aspiring to be.”
He also expanded his advocacy for literacy by setting up a handful of Free Little Libraries in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.
While a student at OPRF, Becktemba-Goss co-chaired the Student Leaders Advisory Committee and was an active member of the school’s Culture Climate and Behavior Committee and the Racial Equity Procedure Development Team. In those roles, he helped lead the conversation with other students, staff and administration on important issues, including diversity hiring and hate crimes, according to a press release issued by the Bank of America Leaders program. He also lent a hand in crafting the school district’s first racial equity policy, the release stated.
Becktemba-Goss was also on the Illinois State Board of Education’s student advisory council and addressed issues on equity in education with political leaders.
As Becktemba-Goss thought back to his time at OPRF and his seat on several committees, he credited Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, former superintendent at OPRF District 200, who taught him to never give up, speak up and stand up.
“Nothing is meant to be easy,” he said of a lesson he learned from Pruitt-Adams. “You have to fight for it. You have to fight for equity. It should be something that’s given, but it’s not. She taught me that you have to persevere. She also told me that you have to hold out hope.”
With the Bank of America Student Leaders program now over and summer winding down, Becktemba-Goss looked back on the moments that have fueled his own fight for the voiceless.
“In eighth grade, you can’t really have a full sense of what this actually means in the real world, of what educational equity means,” he said. “You can hear about these different statistics, but when you actually see in person, like when I’m in my AP classes and I don’t have another Black kid in my classes …, that’s when you’re actually feeling those [statistics].
“Growing up and being able to experience those, it just makes it so real. It makes the fight really come to you.”