Azeem Hill: From Hybrid X to Philly Pride
by Suzi Nash
Jun 14, 2012 | 1226 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>AZEEM HILL</b><i> Photo: Suzi Nash</i>
AZEEM HILL Photo: Suzi Nash
This year’s Pride Day was once again cause for celebration. Fun with headliner Wendy Williams, grand marshals Betty (the band) and Brian Sims, anticipated to be the state’s first openly gay legislator, and organizations showing pride made it memorable. It was especially celebratory for Azeem Hill who served along with Phantazia Washington as one of the youth grand marshals this year. Not a bad way to celebrate his first Pride day ever!

PGN: How was it?

AH: It was awesome. I rode on the float and waved the whole parade. The positive energy out there was amazing. There was so much pride and support for everyone.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.

AH: I was born North Philly. I have two brothers and a sister. I went to West Philadelphia High, where I was the captain of the Hybrid X Team, which was a pretty big deal. I was also a member of the Philadelphia Student Union.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

AH: My childhood kind of sucked. I wasn’t an around-the-way kind of guy, it was just the usual difficulties of a young man of color growing up in a poor community in the city. There was also a lot of bullying on top of that.

PGN: What did you enjoy in school?

AH: I always gravitated toward English and literature and whatnot.

PGN: Who was a favorite teacher?

AH: I was always a teacher’s pet. My grandmother was a teacher so I really connect with them: I love teachers. In fourth grade, Mrs. Hubbard was a favorite. She helped get me involved in the performing arts. I remember we did a play about Harriet Tubman and she also had us watch the miniseries “Roots.” It helped connect us to our heritage in a more in-depth way than most teachers did. It was also the year of Sept. 11 and she was the one to take a moment to talk to us about it. It was a very memorable year with her.

PGN: What were some of the things you were involved with in school?

AH: My two big passions were the Hybrid X Team — I was the captain — and I was also a member of the Philadelphia Student Union.

PGN: What’s the Hybrid X Team, aside from a really cool name?

AH: We basically built hybrid cars that got over 100 miles per gallon. We competed in the Progressive [Insurance] Automotive X Prize competition, which was a $10-million competition. We had to build and create a business plan for the cars. We were about the only high-school team in the world competing. It was crazy, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We got to meet a lot of interesting people: I got to be on the “Today” show and was a panelist at the Annual Leadership Conference of the Congressional Caucus. It was amazing.

PGN: And the Philadelphia Student Union?

AH: The PSU helped cultivate me to be a captain. I learned a lot of leadership skills there. We did a lot of grassroots organizing, so I learned a lot about base building, strategy and community building, things I didn’t get in class that will follow me for the rest of my life. I love what I do now.

PGN: Which is?

AH: I’m an intern for the PSU!

PGN: I read that you stated that going to West had its challenges because you and your classmates had complicated personal backgrounds, but being on the Hybrid team forced you to ignore all of that and pull together your strengths.

AH: It’s true — going to an inner-city public high school is not always the most empowering thing. It’s persistently dangerous and you don’t really feel as though your school is for you. It’s like you don’t have a voice and the content is not geared for the way students learn today. It’s hard to have a real-world identity there. So it’s easy to get swept up into the drama of the streets and real life. Of course there are a handful of teachers and administrators that do get it. The positive media and positive attention that we attracted for the Hybrid X Team was like a breath of fresh air and a break from your daily surroundings. It helped a lot of people build not just cars but a pathway to success. It proved that if you engage young people in something that’s real — that has real-world application — kids are ready to step up to the plate. It also smashed a lot of stereotypes because a lot of people didn’t even think young people of color could build a car, much less design an award-winning hybrid. I loved it and that’s what I’m trying to do now — to take some of those skills and apply them to the gay community. I think there’s so much need out there, for gay kids especially, and I’d like to help empower them and give them a voice. I also think we sometimes segregate ourselves and stay within our own comfort groups, and we would benefit from reaching out and engaging with other people.

PGN: I agree, especially with kids of color. It’s important to have places where we feel comfortable and have our specific needs addressed, but we also have to learn to participate in larger groups to have our voices heard.

AH: Yeah, a lot of kids are conditioned to think they can only do certain things: They never even entertain the idea of being a scientist or inventor. With the Hybrid X Team, we challenged the idea of what a smart person looked like or what an innovator looked like or came from. We beat out the team from MIT multiple times!

PGN: How are the schools not serving students?

AH: I think they’re not keeping up with the way kids learn. As a young person, I have access to information and tools that you would normally get in school that I can now get for myself. A lot of us know what we want to do, and sometimes school seems like a barrier from getting out there and doing it. We’re anxious to start a career and the schools are focused on test scores so that they can get funding. Schools are under attack just to stay afloat, which is a political form of violence. Our schools should be a keystone of the community. We’re not concerned about standardized tests: We care about making schools a place young people want to be. That’s one of the many reason why schools don’t work for a lot of young people. Another thing is that people are much more interconnected on the Internet: You associate with people according to common interests instead of by race or economic status and, in school, they just seem to pile people together. I could rave on and on!

PGN: And what are some solutions?

AH: Start by giving young people decision-making power about what happens at the school. There’s too much top-down decision making. Young people feel a disconnect because they’re not part of the process and it creates a bad school environment.

PGN: If you let the kids run the school, you don’t think they’d vote for all-day recess with a two-hour lunch break?

AH: No, actually, I don’t. Kids are kids, but they want to be successful. I think a lot of them know what they want and I think they’d come up with some revolutionary stuff to make it happen.

PGN: You facilitated 15 weeks of Creative Action Group programming with The Attic Youth Center doing political and social study. How are LBGTQ youth being pushed out of schools?

AH: In essence, LGBT kids are being pushed out and sometimes dumped into the prison system because kids trying to express their homosexuality or gender identity or any difference get picked on and become targets more than most. It’s a touchy problem because in those situations, people — especially guys — feel like they have something to prove. No one wants to pick on a gay person and then get beat by them. So everything is at an elevated level. My experience has been that teachers don’t know how to deal with it, even the ones that want to support you. As a result, small situations can escalate quickly. For me, if I wasn’t trained in nonviolent ways of communicating, I too could have reacted violently to the harassment and gotten in trouble — kicked out of school or worse. That’s why I was lucky to have those extracurricular programs: It gave me something that made me want to be there, made me want to stay out of trouble.

PGN: Good points.

AH: There’s also a lot of inappropriate sexual harassment. Like if someone knows you’re gay, they may think it’s OK to slap or grab your butt in the locker room all in the name of “good-natured fun,” and you have to try to stop it by saying, “Come on now, you know how I feel about that, it’s not OK.” Or thinking that because you are gay that everything is about sex for you and that it’s all that you think about and all you are. It’s very toxic. Those are some of the things that need to be broken down; we need to start acknowledging what really goes on in the schools. It’s one of the reasons that I love The Attic Youth Center. It’s my second year there and they helped me figure out things even I didn’t realize were happening to me when I was in school. We not only talked about things, we came up with solutions for them, which is very empowering. I hadn’t been around a lot of young, gay people of color before and they did an amazing job of making everyone feel comfortable. It was a mind-blowing experience.

PGN: What’s your first recollection of another LGBT person?

AH: I think from TV. I used to watch a lot of comedies and it was probably seeing men in drag or something. Which gave the impression that it was something to laugh at.

PGN: Tell me about your coming out.

AH: It’s still an ongoing process. I’m working with my family: They know I’m gay, but I’m trying to make them feel comfortable and get them to understand what it means, breaking stereotypes that they may have. But I’m lucky in that I have parents who let me know that they love me.

PGN: You’ve teamed with a number of interesting people, with all the work you’ve done. What’s a lesson learned from one of them?

AH: It’s hard to say: I think I’ve learned from them collectively. If I had to pick one, I’d say that I learned a lot about race from Asian Americans United. As a black person, I learned about how race and immigration affects other communities and how communication can be a huge factor, like in the case of the racial tensions at South Philadelphia High between the Asian and black students. In the end it was mostly about communication problems.

PGN: Let’s jump into some random questions. What’s your main flaw?

AH: I’m a big-picture guy, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, I have trouble connecting the logistical things with those big ideas.

PGN: Any phobias?

AH: I’m homophobic ... Just joking! I don’t watch a lot of scary movies. I get freaked out by ghoulish-looking things.

PGN: Which of Snow White’s seven dwarves describes you best and why?

AH: Bashful. I can get shy sometimes.

PGN: If you were handed free opera tickets, would you go or sell them?

AH: I would so go to the opera. I just took a really good music class and opera is cool!

PGN: A sentimental item you wouldn’t sell for $1,000?

AH: I love music and I keep it all on hard drive on my computer, so I wouldn’t sell that. I’m really into music production and I make my own music and mixes. I like being creative and I also have a book where I scribble all my ideas.

PGN: If you could go on a road trip with any three people, dead or alive, who would you take?

AH: Martin Luther King Jr., Lady Gaga and Dorian Corey from “Paris is Burning.”

PGN: Would you rather travel to the future or go back in time?

AH: I’d go back in time. There are a lot of awesome people I’d like to meet and hang out with. That way I could also be like, “Hey Dr. King, I’m thinking you might want to stay out of Memphis tomorrow.”

PGN: If you were on “America’s Got Talent,” what would you do?

AH: I just started a band called “Cat Nipple” and we’d do a pop-art performance.

PGN: What’s the funniest story your mother tells about you?

AH: I love animals and I used to play with ants. I’d pick them up and let one crawl on my hand or face. We also had this huge vicious-looking dog on our block and I loved it: I’d go look at it and was fascinated by it. I have a blue-nose pitbull who’s living with my cousin right now and he’s my baby. We’ve had cats — I’m a huge cat person — and a turtle and a Guinea pig.

PGN: If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?

AH: Poverty. Money is something that humans have created and it’s gotten out of control. There’s so much fear attached, whether it’s a corporation fearing they’ll lose it so they lay off people or use up the earth’s resources in a quest for it or use cheap materials that end up killing someone, or the person who breaks the law to feed their family. Poverty connects to so many different things big and small. I say we get rid of it.

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