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'Perfect Age To Be Speaking': Meet 16-Year-Old Activist Minelle Sarfo-Adu

A person in a white sweater holding their arms up to their head, leaning against a wooden structure with trees and sky in the background
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Minelle Sarfo-Adu poses for a portrait in May near her South Burlington condo. Minelle, who is 16, is raising awareness about racial disparities in wealth and housing.

In the past year, student activists have been hard at work to make change in their communities. Among them: 16-year-old Minelle Sarfo-Adu.

On a Tuesday in late May, Minelle and I sat at a picnic table by the South Burlington condo she lives in with her mom. When Minelle was in 8th grade, she moved there from neighboring Burlington. She helped her parents, who are both immigrants from Ghana, navigate the homebuying process. 

“My parents would rely on me,” she said, to “speak with the real estate agent to make sure that we're not getting scammed or something, because I would be the best English-speaker in the house.”

While her parents were touring a property, Minelle would fill out applications. If her parents were filling out applications, she would be inspecting every inch of the house. That’s when she started to learn about real estate. 

“I learned about house-hacking, or I learned about house-flipping, or I learned about mortgage, or down payments, property tax, all these different types of stuff,” she recalled. “And I'd be like, ‘Oh, you're putting down a 10% down or a 20% down,’ I'd be like, ‘Okay, Mom, I'm gonna total that up for you. And you just look at the house, I have the information, I have the data for you.’” 

A person sits with their face upturned to the sun, eyes closed
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Minelle Sarfo-Adu sits for a portrait near her South Burlington condo, where she lives with her mom.

She's been interested in real estate ever since. This past year, she interned at a real estate investment firm. One day, when she was looking at housing data for Chittenden County, she noticed that almost all homeowners are white. 

“I already knew that not a lot of African Americans owned homes or just lived here in general, because it is Vermont and we see this," Minelle said. "But I never actually saw the actual data and facts that actually proved we actually have an issue.”

According to housing data for Chittenden County, just under 17% of Black and African American households own their homes, compared to 64% of white households. 

And Minelle has seen the housing gap. 

“I think I only have two African American friends in the whole —like in all Vermont, that actually own homes," she said. "Other than that, every other one of my friends actually rents, unless they're white. All my white friends actually own their homes."

"I think I only have two African American friends in the whole — like in all Vermont, that actually own homes. Other than that, every other one of my friends actually rents, unless they're white." — Minelle Sarfo-Adu

There’s also a wealth gap, with white households earning significantly more than BIPOC households. Minelle realized that the wealth gap and the housing gap go hand-in-hand. And she wanted to do something about all this. So she turned it into a project for school — she goes to Big Picture South Burlington, an independent learning program that’s part of the high school there.  

She wrote a 10-page research paper, then designed a presentation she gave the South Burlington City Council, real estate investors, and other groups of adults through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. She wants to bring more awareness to these issues in Vermont. 

Christine Lundie is the career development coordinator at South Burlington High School, and has been Minelle’s adviser for the project. 

A person sitting with arms crossed
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Minelle Sarfo-Adu sits for a portrait in May. She's 16, and she's raising awareness about wealth and housing gaps between white people and BIPOC. She says she's advocating now as a young person because adults haven't done enough to prevent these issues from impacting her when she's old enough to buy a house.

“As adults, we want to lead by example, but I think the kids are leading by example,” she said. “In these really tough conversations — whether it be about the issues facing BIPOC folks in our country or whether it be around sexual identity or whether it be around erasing the stigma of mental health. The kids take the lead — when we're most uncomfortable, they'll just step forward, and Minelle’s a great example of that.” 

More from VPR: Teenagers Of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

She describes Minelle as an academic and a gifted athlete, who’s passionate and bubbly. That was on display as Minelle and I talked at the picnic table by her house — she managed to giggle and deliver a complex thought in the same breath.  At one point, she paused mid-sentence when a neighbor walked by with a dog. 

“People have really big dogs here. I probably should have warned you. I don't know why everybody has a really big dog,” she said. Minelle is a cat person. 

“See, this is the reason why people think I'm very young, because I get off-topic so fast,” she laughed. 

Even though Minelle is 16, her age is the last thing she thinks people should focus on. 

“Yeah, I am 16. I am pretty young," she said. "But I mean, students should be allowed to speak up for these things anyways. So maybe I'm not young, maybe I'm the perfect age to be speaking.”

"Maybe I'm not young, maybe I'm the perfect age to be speaking." — Minelle Sarfo-Adu

She says that even though she doesn’t have to worry about racism in the housing market right now, adults haven’t done enough to stop it from becoming something she will have to deal with. 

“I will be wanting to buy a house when I'm older," Minelle said. "And I will want to have a family, and I want to be able to live without racism and all these different types of stuff. And that does sound unrealistic, but anything is possible.”

And Minelle, for her part, isn’t done. She’s working with the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network to bring a lesson plan to high schools, so more people her age can learn about racial discimination in housing. She’s going to early college next year at CCV, and hopes other young people will carry on what she’s started.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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