Homeless To Harvard: Toni Morgan’s Journey To The Ivy League

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Where do you go when every time you run into a system, you keep knocking your head against the wall and you’re not being let in? Where do you go and what do you do to figure out how to get into the system that has the conversations with the people that can change the world? No one will ever mess with Harvard. If I have Harvard on my resume and I say, “This is what’s wrong with your system and I know because I’ve experienced it first-hand and I’ve also been educated by the best school in the world.” And whether they gave me the answer or I came up with it on my own, I have enough credibility now to walk into these rooms rather than being the homeless girl that’s too caught up in her own feelings.

Tonika Morgan is heading to Harvard and she’s bringing her entire community with her. A high school dropout, now tackling her Masters of Education – the Toronto visionary’s triumphs over poverty, homelessness and marginalization are conquests that have shaped her now fundamental activism and led the passionate protagonist down the yellow brick road towards the most prestigious university in the world.

Those that know Toni in the city of Toronto usually fit into two categories. There’s the Canadian hip-hop community, where by night, Toni has helped propel the city’s artistic infrastructure through initiatives like the previous Made In Canada MC battles, Sound Battle Royale and the now beloved The Beat Academy, while continuing to uplift and offer career-changing opportunities to Canadian and international artists/producers. #TeamTO forever.

When the trophies are won, venues are closed and sun rises in the morning however, it is the other cluster that works closely with the Toronto innovator by day, through her many community engagement and partnership development endeavours that have seen Toni help launch and lead award-winning poverty reduction programs, arts education projects and youth engagement initiatives like Project Wildfire and Women Moving Forward.

But now to both, and most importantly to herself, she is Toni: Harvard bound.

To call Tonika’s humble journey to the Cambridge campus anything but inspirational is to belittle her many transformative accomplishments. After dropping out of high school and living within the Toronto shelter system as a homeless youth, Toni has been forced to beat down doors since her dreams first whispered her worth. And she’s done just that ever since. Covered in ivy and overwhelmingly exclusive in it’s crimson red and white prestige, the latest door is marked with an H. And despite intimidation, Toni’s unconventional education and career path has unlocked it.

“My truth speaks of human resiliency. It was me speaking my truth and looking at my transcript and talking about it. Not in terms of what I’m intellectually capable of doing, but talking about what happens when a student or a person doesn’t have the stability to function and what impact that has on someone when the entire system is designed to ignore them. In spite of all of that, the hurdles and the circumstances, I’m still here. That was the truth that I spoke to,” Toni says, recalling filling out the Harvard application forms.

In high school, teachers and guidance counselors had already constructed preconceived notions of who Tonika was, advising their pupil to just settle for being a hairdresser early on. It was her frustrations with the suppressing system that prompted the young student to drop out of school and turn to the working world, where the true learning began.

From a position as a participant, to program assistant to a program manager by the time she was 22, Toni has since earned titles such as Community Engagement Specialist, National Campaign Coordinator and Project Manager for programs within the City of Toronto, YWCA and Toronto Community Housing. But it was Tonika’s work with Women Moving Forward, an initiative designed to break the cycle of poverty in low-income families while helping young, single mothers move from welfare to college/university, that helped spark her own decision to tackle her educational Mount Everest.

“The first goal was to help 100 women and we reached that goal. I said ‘What’s the new goal?’ If we can get women to schools like York and University of Toronto and get them scholarships and bursaries, clearly we can aim higher. So, I said, let’s aim for an Ivy League school and everyone said ‘Pump the breaks. Don’t set people up for failure.’ That was really upsetting to me and I was confused by that reaction. Part of the motivation was to use myself as a guinea pig and say, it really doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

While maintaining her community-building engagements, Toni went back to school, juggling one course at a time, before jovially being offered a Community Health and Sciences instructor position at Centennial College. Working alongside faculty with their Masters of Education, only prompted the aspiring entrepreneur to rethink her own scholastic future and she toiled with the idea of continuing schooling for her Ed.M. Toni’s future dreams and her obstructing past battled before she finally silenced the voices in her head. After five months of self-talk and 18 months of academic preparation, she submitted her Harvard application only 10 minutes before the deadline.

“Even now, I still don’t entirely believe that I did it. And that self-talk was recognizing that you weren’t born with the privileges that people would assume with Harvard-calibre people. Even if you do get in, your parents aren’t friends with their parents, they don’t work at the same place, they don’t go to the same country clubs or whatever you think that people from Harvard do,” she says.

Attending the most prestigious school in the world doesn’t mean Toni plans to leave behind her Toronto hip-hop community. From humble beginnings, producing a series of MC battles titled Made in Canada that garnered enough money to pull her out of the shelter system and into her first apartment, Toni has since been supporting the Canadian hip-hop scene through The Beat Academy, drawing worldwide attention to hit-making talents with record-setting events and involvement from Young Guru, Jahlil Beats, Illmind, Boi1da, Wondagurl and Rich Kidd.

But behind the large names, shiny trophies and industry acknowledgment, it is the value The Beat Academy places on education for budding artists that has been the driving force behind the organization.

“The Beat Academy is first and foremost a learning organization that recognizes that people learn in different ways. Beat production is a great example of an interesting, ways to teach and combine the worlds of art and technology. I can take everything from the Beat Academy and it will apply to everything that I do. The Beat Academy is an organization for self-taught creative introverts. Creative introverts don’t want to talk to anyone. They are creative and brilliant and the only people that will know about them is if they decide to share anything. In terms of education, people don’t acknowledge that. They just assume that creative people are outgoing people. Creative introverts need to realize that their way of existing is okay.”

Through her scholastic solecisms and involvement in the arts, Toni has not only witnessed the cracks within the educational systematic structures but the importance of youth, arts and community programs for those that don’t fit within their constructs. Despite knocking down doors, she’s also seen that sometimes there are others that cannot be opened without bowing to the certain credibility that system requires.

She’s learned to play their game however. And Harvard is her chess move.

“A lot of the youth programs that get funded are temporary fixes for problems in the community. Say someone arbitrarily decides they aren’t going to fund arts programs anymore. They don’t have a very strong foundation to stand on in regards to responding to that and I think one of the things that is important in what I’m doing is, whether it’s the Beat Academy or The Remix Project or Lost Lyrics – they aren’t feel good programs that you can just decide not to fund one day. We have actual credibility, political credibility. We have qualitative and quantitative credibility. We have everything that we need to make sure that these programs not only continue to run but we also demonstrate that what we do for young people, the schools are struggling to figure out. And for whatever reason, the school systems need to take into account what we do and incorporate it into what they’re doing. And I think that is a huge missed opportunity. They’re not seeing that there is learning that is happening and we’re sparking this fire of passion for learning in ways they can’t. Once I leave Harvard, I can say, ‘let’s collaborate on curriculum planning,’ because obviously we’re doing something that you guys can’t,” she says passionately.

Although Toni’s story is one of immense inspiration, it’s the possibilities and her purpose for going that makes it all the more exciting. Because she’s already transformed her life. It’s now about her community. “I’ve never planned my life around a title or a particular place I want to land. Everything I do is mission driven. I want to be able to say that The Beat Academy engages creative introverts. The Remix Project engages talented young people that work in the arts. If you have an education system is meeting the needs of kids and these community groups are meeting the needs of kids. That is motivating.”

In order to attend Harvard and make her community-oriented dreams a reality, Toni must provide evidence of her ability to pay her $71,000 USD tuition by May 15, 2015. It’s her ultimate hurdle, and with the help of the community she has fought hard to represent, she hopes to make it there and bring the city with her.

You can fund Toni to get to Harvard at www.gofundme.com/harvardbound

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