More than 1,000 children’s books, vintage magazines and test prep materials piled up at Vestavia Hills High School last spring—but not for VHHS students. They were collected as part of a drive for Birmingham City Schools spearheaded by senior Mei Mei Sun. It was the start of a nonprofit she’s dreamed up, Books4Bham, now replete with its own website, Mei Mei also won the 2018 Alabama State Debate Championship and the Martin Luther King Award for social justice from the Birmingham City Commission. And she’s quite articulate talking about her passions, so read on.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in Yokohama, Japan to Chinese parents. We’ve lived all over the place: from Iowa City to Charlottesville to Cupertino to settling down in Vestavia Hills. Because I’ve lived in so many places and met so many people, I’ve developed a complete fascination with the human condition: every aspect from folktales to slang to grief to foods. This interest drives my desire to learn about others: their lives, their communities, their cultures, their struggles and their triumphs—and how to change for the better. That’s where my participation in writing and debate bridges the gap. By learning to be an excellent communicator, people are willing to reveal more of themselves– and that raw, unfiltered viscerality is the lifeblood that makes existence worth it.

Why were you inspired to create Books4Bham?

As a child, I was raised by my grandmother in an impoverished district of Liaoning in China. I attended local inner-city elementary schools, all rundown institutions with extremely limited resources to its pupils. I often marvel at the stark inequalities that define Chinese schooling, and the population’s reluctance to transform it. I attributed its de facto unfairness to the uneven processes of revitalization the Chinese government imposed on the northeast regions. When I later immigrated to the United States, I was shocked by how remarkably similar the educational systems were. America is a nation of equal opportunity, and yet the quality and availability of education—the very foundation of national prosperity—is hideously inequitable. I wondered how could this continue to happen in the golden land of success. In a way, creating Books4Bham was my way of realizing the American dream: an attempt to level the playing field for both myself and others who face insurmountable barriers to success.

Where do you see this organization going in the future?

I’d love to expand our mission to more schools. I’ve been reaching out to more rural schools in Central Alabama and am waiting to hear back. While I based the organization in Birmingham in an effort to give back to the city that has given me so much, it would bring me huge satisfaction to say that we’ve reached more students.

Is there a message you’d like community members to know?

Be proactive. Throughout my life, I have learned that nothing will ever become substantially better unless YOU make it so. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It’s up to us to ensure that equality are secured for every individual on the planet.

What are your future plans?

Well, I’d like to first go up North or out West for college. Then on to humanitarian aid on the international scale: working at the UN perhaps, or joining the Peace Corp. As for my adult life, while I’ll always prefer to live in huge, sprawling metropolises, I know that I will eventually return to the Deep South. My specific areas of interest span wide: from minority youth empowerment to suicide prevention to promoting inclusivity to affordable education to immigrant rights to coalition building to bridging the gap to grassroots activism. I’d like to think all of these are ultimately interconnected.