While most 10-year-olds spend their vacations at camps or summer schools, Steve “Chiru” Singh Gill, 22, spent his in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. A native of Echo Park, Gill grew up in the marginalized community nestled between Temple and Rampart. He was surrounded by violence, poverty and injustice.
The middle child and the only male out of three siblings, it was typical for him to help out his parents. From the time he was 10-years-old up until he graduated from Downtown Magnet High School, Gill spent most of his time, either at his father’s shoe store, The Shoe Monster, or his mother’s restaurant, Downtown Deli, both located in the same building.
He recalls the fashion district laborers that would come to eat at Downtown Deli, many of them underpaid for their hard labor.
“Before I used to think that an immigrant having an extremely hard time – getting fired for no reason, not having access to healthcare, being harassed by the police – was normal. I didn’t realize they were injustices,” he said.
Soon, gentrification began sweeping the building where his parents worked, Gill’s mother was forced to close Downtown Deli in 2008 in order to make way for lofts. The Shoe Monster survived but eventually shut down in 2011. The influx of cheaply imported shoes and high rent brought about by the newly gentrified area contributed to its closure.
“My dad was paying more rent for one fourth of the space than he was the whole space (before),” recalls Gill. This was the case for several shop owners.
It didn’t seem fair to him as this was just one of the many injustices he witnessed. Once he entered CSUN he knew he wanted to be a social science major. He chose political science because he knew the effects that politics can have, and he wanted to study such a process to see if he could influence it or not.
Majoring in political science awakened Gill to the harsh realities that minorities face and prompted him to follow a path of activism.
In Spring 2010, he spent a semester in Puerto Rico as part of the National Student Exchange program. There, he became involved in La Primera Huelga, a student organized strike against tuition hikes. Puerto Rican students were experiencing the same tuition increases as Californian students. At his first real exposure to democracy, Gill was stunned by the amount of student activism.
“To see a whole campus vote whether to go on strike or not was inspirational,” he said. He remembers thinking that this could never occur at CSUN.
Gill continued down this path of student activism. From July of 2010 through July of 2011, he studied abroad in Chile. He witnessed the awakening of a nation led by students, in what has become known as the Chilean student uprising, which is still taking place today.
Chilean students, much like Puerto Ricans and Californians, were also experiencing tuition hikes and are now demanding free quality education for everyone.
“If I thought Puerto Ricans uniting for a common cause put the U.S. to shame, Chileans uniting for a common cause put Puerto Ricans to shame,” Gill said.
Although very much moved by both student strikes, Gill also recalls feeling embarrassed by how little he knew about world systems and politics.
He said both Puerto Ricans and Chileans knew twice as much as he did. They knew the American system, in addition to their own system.
“In the U.S. we are only taught liberalism. There is no Marx being taught. He can spark revolutions, but he can’t make it onto a syllabus here,” Gill said.
Today, Gill mentors at-risk youth for CSUN’s Mentoring to Overcome Struggles and Inspire Courage program (MOSAIC) in the San Fernando Area and is set to graduate this spring. Having been exposed to the hardships that the underserved face, both at home and abroad, he has decided to become a doctor and has since been following a pre-health curriculum.