Long Island City, NY—A LaGuardia Community College student who founded a social venture dedicated to investing in youth potential was one of 20 young women honored at the Glamour Magazine 2010 Women of the Year Gala.
Syreeta Gates, the 22-year-old founder of The SWT (“Serve We Trust”) Life, was recognized at this star-studded event, which honored Julia Roberts and Donatella Versace, for going into the city’s neighborhoods and motivating countless young people to participate in community projects that would improve their lives and their communities.
In the four years that The SWT Life has been in operation, Syreeta, with the help of several non-profit organizations, has sponsored a city-wide HIV-AIDS awareness campaign that resulted in the testing of 500 young adults, personal development and career workshops conducted by industry leaders and community beautification projects.
“When I began The SWT Life at the age of 18, I wanted to be a young person creating change for other young people,” said Syreeta, who resides in South Jamaica. “I believed that young people can, and should, be in the forefront of social change.”
Syreeta made her move into the forefront after a short stint as a liberal arts major at City Tech. “I was there for one year and then life happened,” she said, “and I suddenly realized that school was not for me at this time in my life.”
But community service was. For the next three years, she worked for several non-profit organizations–Life Camp, Starting Bloc and Youth Venture–on youth projects, and learned the ins and outs of non-profits and how to organize community service projects tailored to young people. She got an additional dose of experience when she joined Public Allies, an AmeriCorp-type organization, where for one year she worked at Safe, a non-profit organization.
When her stint was up she decided that she was ready to start her own venture, so in 2007, with a $1,000 start-up fund from Youth Venture, she launched The SWT Life.
Partnering with the non-profits, the one-woman operation began introducing projects in different communities.
In the Park Slopes area of Brooklyn she and Safe interested 15 high school students in joining a mural project. The students decided that they wanted to launch an HIV-AIDS awareness campaign and went on to create a large mural that was painted on a store on 5th Avenue and 8th Street. Residents walking past the large, colorful mural of a young woman standing under the Brooklyn Bridge are sent a clear message that young adults should be tested. “The mural proved to the youngsters that they can create a project that can spark awareness among their peers,” said Syreeta, “and that they can serve as a positive force in their neighborhood.”
Building on the HIV-AIDS awareness theme, Syreeta partnered with SAFE to organize a Fresh to Life yearlong campaign to educate urban youth on the importance of getting tested. At locations throughout Brooklyn, open mic events were held where young people recited their poetry, and, if they wished, could get tested onsite. Syreeta said that over 1,000 youth attended the events and an estimated 500 were tested.
Syreeta collaborated with Life Camp in Queens on I Love My Life campaign, which was designed to draw attention to a disturbing pattern of violent acts among young people in urban neighborhoods, especially South Jamaica. The organizers went to over 20 high schools where they held performances and conducted workshops where students learned what actions they could take to help end the violence.
Another tactic was to have some 75 student ambassadors go around the city wearing jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with “I Love My Life.” “People all over the city knew us because of those T-shirts and jackets,” said Syreeta.
The partners also organized Real Talk Fridays, where leaders of various industries, including Russell Simmons, the hip-hop pioneer; and Erica Ford, the CEO of Life Camp, Inc., talked to young people about careers.
Her next event will take place on January 15 when SWT will invite 100 14- to 16- high schoolers to join a conversation that will help them to identify their passions and strengths. “This will be an empowering experience for these youngsters who will discover how their unique contributions can transform their life and school experience,” she said.
In 2009, while her initiatives were in full swing, Syreeta decided that it was time to go back to school, so she enrolled in LaGuardia’s labor and community organizing program. The following year she entered the CUNY BA program that allows her to continue taking classes at LaGuardia and to create her own major: urban youth culture.
“It is an ideal situation,” said Syreeta. “I can continue at LaGuardia where the classes are phenomenal and the professors have helped me to expand my vision of The SWT Life, and I have a major that fits perfectly with my career goals.”
So while Syreeta continues running projects that empower the city’s youth, attending class at LaGuardia and writing a book on social entrepreneurship for Millennials, which will she plans to complete by next spring, her course has been defined.
“I would like to make a living giving to other people,” she said.
Her community activism caught the attention of Glamour Magazine and she was invited to be one of 20 women under the 25 to be honored at this Carnegie Hall gala.
“I appreciate just to be in the lane with these young women,” said Syreeta who was introduced by Chelsea Clinton. “It was a thrill.”
But she said the highlight of the evening was when “Oprah winked at me.”
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Located in Long Island City, Queens in New York City, LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York, is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges. Founded in 1971, the College is recognized as an innovator in educating students who are under prepared for college work and/or are not primary English speakers. A catalyst for development in western Queens and beyond, LaGuardia serves New Yorkers and immigrants from 153 countries through over 50 majors and certificate programs, enabling career advancement and transfer to four-year colleges at twice the national average. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.