On the first day of my freshman year at high school, my mom, a divorced, poor, single mother of three, gave me $10 to spend, for the whole school year! She had budgeted the little she made at work against the expenses of school, our bus passes, rent, food and other needs, and came to the low number by necessity.
With $10 burning a hole in my pocket, I made the 45-minute commute to my private, mostly-white high school, where I was a rare scholarship kid, one of four low-income African American students. Walking down the long hallway, as kids talked about their new clothes and summer vacations in faraway places, I just knew their x-ray vision could spot the lowly “ten dollas” hanging its sad head in my pocket.
I was extremely uncomfortable, with no real knowledge of how these wealthy kids and this wealthy school worked. But I used my lack of knowledge, to observe. I watched them—their manners, words, clothes and movement. Within a week, I made an important discovery: these kids like unique things, things that other people would have a hard time finding and/or couldn’t afford.
So I made a ten dollars plan; I went to the store and spent all my money on ingredients to make cookies. But not just any cookies, I made big, huge, unique cinnamon oatmeal butterscotch cookies.
At school the next day, I charged $1 for each cookie and, by lunch, I was sold out! I put the profits back into making more cookies and by the end of the year I had turned $10 into $300. More importantly, I created a community. From selling my wares, I came to know freshman, sophomores, and even seniors; students came to depend on me for their cookie fix.
This New Year, it is critical for those of us looking to find jobs, education, and a collective sense of wellness, to grow community beyond its normal boundaries. If we don’t walk into uncomfortable places, take chances, and meet unfamiliar faces, how do we expect to find the opportunities that are out there waiting for us?
Mohammed Soriano-Bilal is Executive Producer of Content for One Economy. He works in the San Francisco office and now appreciates the education he got from his mostly white, private high school.