South Bay student paves leadership path

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 10, 2022
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Amara Fernandes, center, posed with friends, clockwise from left, Natalie Guadarrama, Maria George, Anya Danes, Arvind Sthanukrishnan, and Matthew Maranowski. Photo: Courtesy Amara Fernandes
Amara Fernandes, center, posed with friends, clockwise from left, Natalie Guadarrama, Maria George, Anya Danes, Arvind Sthanukrishnan, and Matthew Maranowski. Photo: Courtesy Amara Fernandes

It may have been a summer of leisure for many high school students, but not for 17-year-old Amara Fernandes. The Santa Clara resident spent her school break bolstering her leadership skills.

She was one of 300 community-focused high school juniors and seniors from across the U.S. selected for the Bank of America Student Leaders class of 2022. Launched in 2004, the program annually selects students for the eight-week paid summer internship interested in gaining first-hand experience in serving their communities.

Their experience wraps with a multi-day Leadership Summit led by the Close Up Foundation. Held virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, the summit allows the participants to meet with members of Congress, and hear from civil and human rights leaders. The Stanford University Young Democracy at Home program also engages them in conversations about current issues facing young people today.

"I am really passionate about social justice and community engagement and I wanted to find something to do for this summer," said Fernandes, who for two years has taken part in the South Bay Youth Changemakers' program aimed at empowering Asian American youth. "I wanted to do something more politically focused, so I did research online and found this. I thought it was interesting so I applied."

She was one of five students from Silicon Valley accepted for the program this year.

"These students are the future of Silicon Valley, which is why programs like Student Leaders are one way we can provide paid opportunities for them to gain positive employment experience, while developing a diverse pipeline of talent as they enter our local workforce," stated Bank of America Silicon Valley President Raquel González.

Of South Asian descent, Fernandes and her younger sister are first-generation Americans. Their parents, who both work in tech, emigrated from India; their father grew up in Mumbai, while their mother is originally from the port city of Mangalore.

Fernandes identifies as LGBTQ, and speaking to the Bay Area Reporter last month via videoconferencing, she explained that she is still determining how to define her sexual orientation.

"I am not super sure right now. I used to think I was bisexual, but now I am more queer," said Fernandes, who also interned with bisexual Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose), at 27 one of the youngest members of the Legislature, and credits him with helping her embrace her own identity.

Amara Fernandes sits in San Francisco, with the spires of St. Ignatius Church at USF in the background. Photo: Courtesy Amara Fernandes  

Coming out
Her family found out that she is queer due to her applying for the leadership program. On her application she listed being the events and activities director for Shepherd, the LGBTQ+ advocacy club at Archbishop Mitty High School. She is an incoming senior of the Catholic school in San Jose, and the club's name is a double entendre referring both to the slain gay college student Matthew Shepard as well as the biblical figure who leads their flock.

"I didn't have a traditional coming out conversation like most people do," explained Fernandes, who had couched her involvement in the student club to her parents as being focused on "community engagement."

So when her mother saw Shepherd described as being for LGBTQ+ students on her application, she asked Fernandes if it "was fair" for her to take a leadership role from someone in that community.

"I said, 'Well, funny story!' and it went from there," recalled Fernandes, adding of her parents, "They are really supportive, and I am really grateful for that."

For her internship, for which she was paid $17 an hour and received a Chromebook, Fernandes was teamed with the LGBTQ Youth Space in downtown San Jose. It is a part of Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley, which is a division of Caminar. Fernandes helped with the twice-weekly queer hangouts on Monday and Friday evenings.

"I am hoping to be able to help out the LGBTQ community in a way I haven't been able to do before. All of my work has been through my school's LGBTQ club and program," she said. "We do activism and campaigns, but I have not ever had a chance to go out to the community and help people not in the diocesan community. It is exciting working with the LGBTQ Youth Space."

One aspect of the youth program she particularly enjoyed was she didn't have to address her own identity if she didn't want to.

"You are allowed to exist as yourself. Most of the time you play games and have a sense of community and an affirming space," she explained. "You are not always talking about yourself all the time. It is a space to be yourself."

Her time at the program also introduced her to LGBTQ older adults who are comfortable with their own identities, something she hadn't been exposed to prior, said Fernandes.

"At the youth space you interact with adults very much in control of themselves and in love with their identities. That's not something I have seen before, I've only interacted with youth and a couple LGBTQ moderators," said Fernandes. "To see adults and leaders in the community unapologetically themselves, I never thought was something I would find, but it has been really great."

The leadership skills she has gleaned from the internship will help her navigate a delicate line of having support from her high school administrators and facing pushback from the Diocese of San Jose, which oversees the nationally recognized college preparatory school. Via the Shepherd club, Fernandes is aiming to carve out a "safe space" for herself and other students like her both on campus and within the local Catholic community.

"I take point on effective organization and brainstorming for various ways in which our club can take action or provide a welcoming environment to those who need it," wrote Fernandes in explaining her club role. "Recently, there have been some issues with the restriction of

LGBTQ+ representation by the diocese, and planning campaigns and events to speak out about this problem has opened my eyes to the direct impact I can make in the community at large."

Certain things, such as at the start of school encouraging students to ask each other what pronouns they prefer, have gone over well with full support from teachers and school leaders, said Fernandes. During Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March, attention is given to LGBTQ famous historical figures, she noted.

"We find ways to celebrate and raise awareness that is considered as a Pride event but with more intersectionality," said Fernandes, adding the Shepherd is pushing for more LGBTQ history to be embedded into the school curriculum.

But the diocese nixed a planned production of the musical "Head Over Heels" last school year, a decision Shepherd club members suspect was due to it having a same-sex romance subplot.

"The problem isn't with the school community," said Fernandes. "It is true that most Catholic schools in this area are very accepting. But the diocese has to adhere to church teachings."

Fernandes told the B.A.R. that she likes certain aspects of Catholicism but questions how people approach it and worries about there continuing to be a separation between church and state.

"I do enjoy, fundamentally, what the religion is about. For me that is caring for other people, helping the community, serving others, and being compassionate," she said. "The problem for me, and so many other people, comes with the structure put into this religion and hierarchy."

As for her future goals, Fernandes will be applying to colleges on both coasts, some of which are also religiously affiliated, to pursue a degree in political science with a minor in philosophy. As for a career, she is aiming to be a lawyer.

In the meantime, she is preparing for her senior year at school, where she is also a leader in a club that promotes environmental issues and recycling, an award-winning orator who mentors and coaches the 50-member debate team, and takes parts in an advocacy club that pitches legislation on social issues, like immigration, to lawmakers.

"Looking outside and seeing what is happening right now is a big motivator for me. Even things that don't directly affect me, affect other people," said Fernandes, who is inspired by the ideas of the late philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. "I use philosophical discussion to apply to my own empathy and my own sense of justice. It has been really helpful in terms of motivating me to do better."

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