Breaking Barriers, Making History, and Advocating for Youth
At the age of 18, while a student at SUNY–Orange County Community College, Roy Paul campaigned for a seat on the Middletown Board of Education. “I had no idea how to run and didn’t think I’d win, but thought it would be a great experience,” says Paul, who recalls the “wonderful time” he had knocking on doors, showing up at baseball games, and talking to people. He won by 26 votes. Having turned 19 by election night, he was “the youngest African American in New York State elected to anything,” he says, adding that his interest in politics dated back to high school, when he got involved in a statewide debate on educational standards.
ABC covered the story on the trail-blazing teen, which led to Paul’s part-time work as a political commentator for the network. While attending SUNY as a political science major, Paul also juggled a job as a reporter on the political beat for Midhudsonnews.com, covering stories throughout the Hudson Valley and New York region. “I made news and covered news,” he says.
While serving on the Board of Education, an unpaid position, Paul succeeded in changing members’ five-year terms to three years, which he felt was “more democratic.” During his time there, board ballots were also made available to voters in Spanish and Italian.
Born to parents from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Paul attended elementary school in the Bronx during a time when the rival Bloods and Crips gangs were making news of their own. “When a classmate was slashed on the face--the victim of a gang initiation rite--my mother decided it was time for us to move upstate,” he says.
Why did Paul choose to transfer to Queens College after earning his associate’s degree? “I looked at many colleges,” he replies. “I wanted affordability and a real campus.” Naturally, Paul joined politically active student clubs while earning his BA in political science, citing Maureen Pierce-Anyan (Director, Minority Student Affairs) and Michael Krasner (Political Science) as strong influences. “Professor Krasner even encouraged me to run for the state legislature in 2016,” he says. “I didn’t win but didn’t lose,” declares Paul, revealing his philosophy that every experience is a learning opportunity.
Soon after graduation, Paul was hired as the legislative and community relations director for the Jamel Robinson Child Welfare Reform Initiative, an advocacy organization for youth in foster care. Much of the focus was on helping those who had “aged out” of foster care at 18 and had nowhere to go. “I was hired to move the advocacy to outreach and action,” says Paul, who served for six years. This meant building an infrastructure--email lists, newsletters, monthly meetings—to mobilize volunteers to demonstrate, write letters, and lobby elected officials. Since many teens from foster care end up in the sex industry, Paul is especially proud that the organization’s work helped pass the Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, which President Obama signed into law.
Now the executive director of the nonprofit Cents Ability, Inc., Paul aims to strongly promote its mission to teach teenagers about personal finance. “When I was that age, I received promotions for credit cards but had no idea what I signed up for,” he recalls. Dedicated to educating and empowering high school students to be “informed managers of their financial resources,” Cents Ability held 500 classes last year, reaching nearly 3,000 students—most from low-income communities in all five boroughs and the greater metro area.
The organization relies on over 300 volunteer teachers, mainly retirees and employees from the financial industry, and holds classes days, evenings, and weekends at schools, community centers, and partner sites such as the YMCA. The courses, which cover basics on budgets, credit scores, saving, and investing, can last a week or be offered in short segments.
“Raising money is one of my greatest challenges,” says Paul, “but I’m determined to keep increasing the number of students we reach.” At the helm since July 2017, Paul is already making inroads. After the New York Times published an article on Cents Ability in January 2018, he received 700 emails. “I’d like Cents Ability to become known nationwide as the organization that builds financial literacy among young people,” says Paul.
For this 30-year-old who’s been breaking barriers since his adolescence, achieving that ambitious goal looks promising.