#MeettheACLPTeam: Aminata Sy
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
By: Amy Xiang
Education was not something that came easily to African Community Learning Program (ACLP) Founder and President Aminata Sy. She dropped out of high school in 10th grade in Senegal and didn’t go back to school until roughly 10 years after coming to the U.S. One of her biggest roadblocks was language: Aminata was a non-English speaker.
Starting in 2010, Aminata returned to school. She earned her GED, an associate’s degree at the Community College of Philadelphia, a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently working toward a master’s degree in public policy at American University.
Aminata graduated from Penn in 2019 as an international relations major and an English minor. She spent much of her time there reporting for the school’s independent newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and contributing to 34th Street Magazine, an arts and culture magazine on campus. She also extended her reach beyond Penn’s campus, writing for publications such as the Philadelphia Tribune, University City Review, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Basically, I was buried in the world of writing,” Aminata said.
She was also part of the first cohort of student fellows at Perry World House, which is now a well established and prestigious program.
“It was a great experience. I did a lot of research with them about how to increase women’s political participation in democratic countries. We also met many prominent leaders, visited the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of State.” Aminata said.
The most meaningful work she engaged in during her time at Penn, however, was starting ACLP during the summer of 2017. After hearing about students being bullied and discriminated against due to their African backgrounds at her children’s schools, Aminata decided to do everything she could to help.
“I thought, ‘I may not have money, but I’m at a place where there are tons of resources and maybe I can do something with those resources to serve students who have a similar background as me,’” Aminata said, adding that many students struggling with English didn’t have the resources or the space to learn the language comfortably and were, instead, ridiculed by their peers.
Coming up with the idea was just the first step on a long, difficult journey. Starting as a mostly one-person team, with support from her husband, Aminata began putting up and handing out flyers on Locust Walk, pitching to publications to spread the word and to recruit volunteers.
Now, three years later, ACLP has already transformed the lives of many students and volunteers.
“We've been able to create and deliver a quality curriculum to students, bring powerful people in the city to speak with them, and take them to places where they can think about college and their careers. Those are things that I'm very proud of. As a child, there are opportunities that if you’ve never seen or you’ve never experienced, you never think it's something you can reach for,” Aminata said.
Aminata also shared the story of a student named Dieynaba, who struggled immensely with middle school after coming to the U.S. from Senegal. ACLP supported her to learn English and be proud of her African heritage.
With the new ACLP Future Scholars Program starting in fall 2020, the focus will shift from teaching English to elementary school- and middle school-aged students to supporting high school students to prepare for college.
“We have been working ‘outside of the system’ in a lot of ways, but if we want to make ACLP sustainable in the long run, it is important for us to connect with leaders within the School District of Philadelphia who have a similar vision to that of ACLP,” Aminata said. “After speaking with Principal Gordon, I believe Paul Robeson High School is a wonderful start for that.”
As for Aminata herself, she plans to enter the United States Foreign Service as an American diplomat after graduating from American University. This also means that her time as ACLP President is coming to an end.
“I’ve done my best to make sure ACLP is sustainable after I leave, because at the end of the day, it's not about me as an individual; it's about the mission we are working to execute,” Aminata said.
With the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others, Aminata knows that ACLP’s work is more relevant than ever.
“The issues of culture, race, and stereotypes are not small issues; these are not isolated things. At ACLP, we’re trying to address these issues by working in a mutually understanding way between instructors and students and among students themselves,” Aminata said.
“We work with care, love, empathy, and compassion, and we hope we can continue to do the work not just today but down the future as well.”