When Sukari Wright’s mother gave her The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes, her life changed. The Middle College High senior was 12 years old at the time, and “it was the first book I had seen that had a person of color on it,” she said.
While Sukari had learned plenty about slavery in school, she said she’d never known that a person who shared her skin color could be among the world’s best creative writers.
“Seeing a writer who was black and talked about the black experience in a way that was not solely about slaves inspired me,” she said.
And so Wright would become a writer, herself. An essay she wrote about Hughes helped her win first place in the 2019 Dr. William F. King college scholarship program, presented by the Chevron Richmond Black Employee Network (BEN).
Last week, Wright and three other students from the West Contra Costa Unified School District were honored at the Refinery’s Black History Awareness celebration with college scholarships. Since 2004, the employee-run BEN has awarded over 50 scholarships to deserving district students in honor of King, a retired Chevron chemist known for tutoring Richmond youth for many years and recruiting minorities to work at the Richmond Refinery.
Wright is certainly deserving. Along with a 3.8 GPA, she is set to receive both her AA degree at Contra Costa College and high school diploma at the same time in May. She is a poet mentor who works with Youth Speaks and the RYSE Center, where she’s helped craft a play. She also tutors both high school and college students in math and science, and has already been accepted to her first choice of college: Macalester College.
Wright says she’s been aiming to prove that, “like the artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, African American people are more than our struggles, and more than the stereotypes society has built around us.”
Such historical struggles have had a profound impact on Arden Cortez, the De Anza High senior who won second place in the Dr. King scholarship award program this year. Cortez is a member of his school’s Christian Club, Garden Club, the Air Force JROTC and cross country team. He still finds time to distribute food to people in need at the Bay Area Rescue Mission and Food Pantry.
He says Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifist teachings have played a big role in his life.
“Dr. King once said, ‘Human progress is neither automatic, nor inevitable,” Cortez said. “How can I be able to make an impact in my community if I’m too afraid to push myself? That’s when I knew that I needed to step away from my comfort zone to achieve goals.”
That sentiment is shared by Pinole Valley High senior Katelin Wilkerson, the scholarship’s third place winner. Wilkerson cited civil rights leader Rosa Parks, astronaut Mae Jemison and Michelle Obama for inspiring her to work hard and with poise toward her dreams.
When Wilkerson is not maintaining high grades in the classroom, she’s a member of the jazz band and marching band playing alto-saxophone, as well as a member of the National Honors Society as a tutor. She also tutors elementary school students in English, mathematics and American sign language, and is a member on the badminton team.
“Like Mrs. Obama, I too have faced a great deal of adversity throughout my childhood, adolescence and teenage years,” Wilkerson said. “I chose to allow these experiences to give me an avenue to succeed rather than a pathway to receive pity.”
Wilkerson said she plans to pursue a career as a defense attorney.
The BEN scholarship’s fourth-place winner, El Cerrito High senior Jordan White, could not attend last week’s awards ceremony. That’s because she was out of town touring universities. Still, the 3.6 GPA student, who has already accomplished a paid internship at BART and participates in community service, delivered a pre-recorded video message to attendees, which included Refinery employees, school district officials and community leaders. She credited Malcolm X for her inspiration.
“His relentlessness to fight for civil liberties made me think, ‘Is this something I can do?,’” she said.
Essays read aloud by the four scholarship awardees added another layer to an important ongoing conversation at the Richmond Refinery, which has hosted annual Black History Awareness Celebrations since 1999 to promote inclusivity among its diverse workforce.
“Black history has been part of the Richmond Refinery as long as the Richmond Refinery has been here,” said General Manager Kory Judd. “So the Refinery history is black history.”
The scholarship program is also part of Chevron’s ongoing mission to invest in programs that help students achieve their educational goals, improve their access to quality education and provide an academic gateway for students who are historically undeserved or underrepresented.
Since 2014, Chevron has invested $400 million worldwide in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the subjects prepare students for the jobs of the future, including at Chevron.