Robert Fisher says leadership is "an opportunity to serve others"—an opportunity he's never passed up. Fisher served as student body president in middle school, again in high school, and once again at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. During college, he was also student representative to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Fisher credits his family, and especially his grandmother, for inspiring his early and lasting interest in leadership. Every Easter, his grandmother would encourage all five grandchildren to deliver a speech in front of her small church in Arkansas. "I would always ask her, 'Why do you have us do this?'" Fisher says. "And she would say, 'I want my grandchildren to be able to speak for themselves effectively, so people never misunderstand where they're coming from.'"
"I think that notion of being an effective self-advocate empowered me to become an effective advocate for other people too," Fisher says. Under Fisher's leadership at the University of Tennessee, students successfully campaigned for gender-neutral bathrooms, more fresh and affordable produce on campus, and a variety of other progressive changes. Last year, Fisher spearheaded the university's first annual Black Issues Conference, which empowered about 60 student leaders to begin a campus-wide conversation about institutionalized racism.
We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.
When asked what he sees when he looks in the mirror, Fisher says he sees the color of his skin (also, "someone who is pretty well dressed!"). "Some people have the luxury of not seeing themselves that way on first glance, but I do not," Fisher says. "Growing up, I was often one of the only black male students in predominantly white spaces, and obviously there are preconceived notions about black students in education, and I had to fight against those notions quite often." A teacher once said to Fisher's mom by way of compliment, "When I first saw Robert, I didn't think he'd be such a strong student." And Fisher's mom said back, "Well, what did you think when you saw him?"
As a sophomore in college, Fisher participated in the Institute for Responsible Citizenship, a summer leadership program for African-American men. He says the program was life-changing. "That was the first time I saw so many African-American leaders. It was so empowering to be in a space that affirmed me," he says. "I didn't feel like I had to speak a certain way to be understood, or like I had to like certain things to be perceived as legitimate. I could be silly and goofy, which is my normal personality, and still be perceived as a serious intellectual and professional. Likewise, I could act intellectual and professional, and still be perceived as much more than that." Fisher says that the men he met through the program are still some of his best friends. "We talk routinely, sometimes too much," he adds.
Last year, Fisher won a Rhodes Scholarship, widely considered the most prestigious award for a recent American undergraduate. Fisher would like to make it clear that this success, like all his successes, is not purely his own. "When I won the Rhodes and Truman scholarships," he says, "I always said 'we' have achieved something. Because I think that as soon as you forget that it's not you alone that has landed you in a certain space, that's the moment you begin to decrease your capacity to be of service to other people. It becomes an 'I' thing and not a 'we' thing, and I want a 'we' thing."
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.
For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.