The phone call came three weeks ago from the White House.
“I was like – what, the White House?” said A’Dorian Murray-Thomas. “It was really sort of surreal.”
The caller from the nation’s most-recognized residence wanted to let the 21-year-old Newark woman know that she was one of 11 people nationwide chosen as a White House “Champion of Change.” The honorees, said Stefani Jones, of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were being recognized by the Obama administration for the work they do to make quality college education accessible for young people.
“I’d never heard of it,” Murray-Thomas said, of the program.
And, she never even knew she had been nominated.
We’ll soon get to why the person who nominated Murray-Thomas thinks so highly of this young lady, who encourages middle school girls affected by violence to strive for a college education.
But first…. this has been some kind of year for Murray-Thomas, who I wrote about last summer. She completed her senior year at Swathmore College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania that had a hand in her unpredictable journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
During her college search as a high school senior, Murray-Thomas was half–watching the Swarthmore admission video until the narrator mentioned a $10,000 grant to address a social problem through civic responsibility. It was the selling point for her to attend the school.
Murray-Thomas would apply for the grant in her sophomore year, indicating she would use the money to mentor girls from 12 to 14 who had been impacted by violence. She knows about this pain, because her dad was killed during a robbery when she was just 7 years old.
She won the grant in 2014 and shelved plans to study abroad last summer so she could get started.
Murray-Thomas then launched SHE Wins Inc., a nonprofit
organization aimed at strengthening girls’ leadership skills, addressing their social and emotional development, and making sure they have the academic skills and support to get to and through college.
It’s been all good since then. Following her graduation in May, Murray-Thomas earned many awards for her work and has been written about in national newspapers and magazines.
And now, it’s the White House.
“This pushes me even more,” Murray-Thomas said. “It’s like you’ve done this, so lets raise the bar some more.”
Murray-Thomas grew up following a president who has been a fierce advocate for education for all young people, no matter their socioeconomic status.
“I saw what he was doing to make sure that all children are able, despite what you look like or what you’ve gone through.”
She passes that same determination onto the SHE Wins’ girls, with a big lift from her mom, Dana Murray. Together, they take these girls everywhere, exposing to them to academic programs, workshops on health, leadership programs and social justice issues. They are involved in anything that prepares the girls for unexpected opportunities.
“We tell them: ‘What is going to be your elevator pitch,’ ” Dana Murray said. “What are you going to say?”
This latest honor for her daughter gave four of the girls an opportunity to see those words in action when they went to Washington, D.C, last week with Murray-Thomas for her visit to the White House.
They observed her participating in a panel on college accessibility. But the highlight had to be Education Secretary John King Jr. praising Murray-Thomas, telling the audience that he was excited about her work.
“It’s so important that young people lead in these efforts and A’Dorian is leading and building a community organization focused on the success of all students,” he said, “but particularly acknowledging the challenges that are faced by our girls and young women of color.”
King’s comments speak to her character and genuine concern, attributes that Marian Myers Rembert touted when she nominated Murray-Thomas as a champion for change.
Myers Rembert is the executive administrative assistant at KIPP Academy, where she had come to know Murray-Thomas, a graduate of its Team Academy middle school. On return visits to KIPP, Myers Rembert said Murray-Thomas always made it her business to say hello to her.
From that vantage point, Myers Rembert said she has seen Murray-Thomas’ commitment – her love for the girls, especially making sure they have a positive self-image.
Beyond the goals of the program, Murray-Thomas has done things that were not on the White House application. She has spent her own money to provide Christmas gifts for the girls and she once bought each girl a mirror, so they could clearly see their individual beauty.
“She had them all look at their reflection and say what they loved about themselves,” Myers Rembert said.
Nevaeh Parker, 14, who has been with Murray-Thomas from the beginning of SHE Wins, said being around her has been encouraging. Through SHE Wins, Parker was able to see Michelle Obama speak during an empowerment conference for girls last year.
“That teaches me I can be the next president,” Parker said. “I look at her (Murray-Thomas) as my sister. She’s great.”
Murray-Thomas is working with 20 girls in the program now, but a total of 50 have been a part of SHE Wins. There also are plans to start a leadership institute for high school girls through SHE Wins.
The initial $10,000 grant used to operate her program has run out, but Murray-Thomas planned for that day. SHE Wins – through its gala, philanthropic contributions and anonymous donations – has raised another $10,000.
Murray-Thomas is so committed to the girls that she’s deferred an assignment from Teach for America for two years.
When she does walk into the classroom, it won’t be far from home. She’ll be teaching in Newark.
“I feel like I would be impactful wherever I went, but I think you’re even more impactful when you’re from the community and you have a particular connection,” she said.
She’s more than connected. She loves Newark. It’s a city that’s in her DNA.