What if, Randiss Hopkins wonders, the thousands of high school students who leave their Chicago…
A decade ago, before Randiss Hopkins earned the reputation of NIU student leader and social entrepreneur, his life revolved around basketball.
Growing up in the rough North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, pick-up games of hoops at the local playground brought the community together.
“That’s how we met people,” Hopkins says. “It was our way of life.”
The lesson? Where you are from is important.
Basketball also paved his way to Curie Metro High School, which recruited the talented player for his skills on the court.
Curie promotes a culture of college and career readiness and encourages students to pursue higher education. Two majors are available: performing and visual arts or career and technical education.
Drama was full, and he wasn’t interested in computers. Instead, he opted for music. “Mind you, I’d never taken piano in my life,” he says. “I started off with an F in that class.”
His teacher, Jukube Felton, offered him a deal: Bring the grade up to a B, and he’d “make sure” to get the boy into the theater department. “I worked so hard, and I got a B,” Hopkins says. “I went back and said, ‘Mr. Felton, I have a B in music. I’m ready to go into theater.’ ”
Mr. Felton shook his head.
“He said, ‘Randiss, you could probably go to college for music,’ ” says Hopkins, whose anger and confusion eventually turned to gratitude. “Growing up on the West Side, you didn’t always hear something like that. It meant a lot that someone believed in me.”
The lesson? Hard work pays dividends.
“I started to see life was much bigger than music, much bigger than basketball,” says Hopkins, who is minoring in Community Leadership and Civic Engagement. “It brought everything full-circle.”
That circle is leading Hopkins to a massive stage this week. The 23-year-old NIU senior, who will graduate in December, is among the speakers Thursday at We Day Illinois.
We Day, a movement of young people who are leading local and global change, is “taking the philanthropic world by storm” by bringing together internationally renowned speakers and performers with prominent activists and We Day’s co-founders.
Speakers and performers appearing Thursday at the Allstate Arena include Jennifer Hudson, Selena Gomez, Common, Magic Johnson, Babyface, the Band Perry, Colbie Caillat, Martin Sheen and more.
Youth in attendance – tickets are not for sale but are earned by committing to take action on one local and one global cause – will “learn about some of today’s pressing social issues, helping to inspire them to become leaders and global citizens.”
Between 15,000 and 20,000 are expected in Rosemont.
“I’m very, very blessed,” Hopkins says. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity, and it brings me back to that dreams do come true – and that, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you can make a difference. Look at me. I was just a little guy from the West Side of Chicago.”
His time in the We Day bright lights will enrich an already illustrious résumé of student leadership and community service.
“I had never seen that many people come together for a cause, and a positive cause at that,” he says. “I started to get into leadership positions. I got the chance to observe leaders who understood the importance of giving back, and they inspired me to do it as well.”
During the summer of 2013, he attended the Children’s Defense Fund leadership training in Knoxville, Tenn., where college students from across the country learned how to create their own social action programs.
“That gave me the tools and the confidence to think, ‘Maybe I could start a movement,’ ” he says. “When I came back from that week, I started messaging some of my friends here on Twitter to talk about how we as college students could greatly impact the city of Chicago through giving back.”
Hopkins convened the first planning meeting Aug. 24, 2013, believing almost immediately that “something great” would happen.
Group members gathered weekly after that, culminating in the Save Chicago Day event of March 7, 2014. More than 120 NIU students volunteered to prepare meals for the homeless, undertake landscaping projects and impact the lives of more than 300 youth.
Some of the teens told the caring-heart Huskies that they felt encouraged to follow their dreams. Others said they wanted to attend NIU.
“It was beautiful,” Hopkins says. “It hit me, and I said, ‘Wait, the dream is actually coming true.’ I don’t think worlds can explain the feeling. You try to take it all in, but it’s too much.”
Since then, Hopkins has renamed his organization The Remember Project, a more inclusive moniker. “This rebrand,” he wrote in August 2014, “strongly reflects our drive to assure that, on the road to obtaining a higher education, college students remember to give back to the communities they are from.”
He also has continued to turn heads.
Last month, he was honored among the 2015 class of Newman Civic Fellows – inspirational college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country.
Earlier in March, he coordinated a Spring Break collaboration between The Remember Project and After School Matters, a nonprofit organization that offers innovative outside-the-classroom activities to Chicago high school students – including, years ago, Hopkins himself.
“If it wasn’t for After School Matters, I probably wouldn’t have had private music lessons,” he says. “I joined Chicago West Community Music Center while I was in high school, and there, under the direction of Howard Sandifer, an accomplished musician in Chicago, I learned the importance of being humble and giving back.”
NIU reinforced that insight.
“I didn’t grow up on the West Side knowing that this is what I wanted to do. Growing up on the West Side helped me find my passions,” Hopkins says. “When I came to NIU, it helped me find my purpose. My purpose is giving back.”
The lesson? Never forget your roots, no matter how successful you become.
Of course, none of this means he won’t allow himself a moment to smile in the mirror.
As he anticipates his Thursday walk onto the stage of the Allstate Arena for We Day, he feels “excited, ecstatic and thrilled,” not so much for the recognition but for the chance to motivate thousands to follow in his footsteps.
“My mom, Robin, will get a chance to see me there. She’s extremely happy. I don’t think it’s really hit her yet. My little brother, Travell, who’s autistic, he’ll be there,” Hopkins says.
“I also just found out that students from my elementary school, Joseph Kellman, are coming. Sherisse Freeney, my fourth-grade teacher, she’s now the vice principal there. It’s mind-blowing. Things come back full-circle,” he adds. “They’ll see someone who’s just like them, and that the sky is the limit – that you can do anything.”