Change the Type: North Carolina A&T junior fights racial stereotypes with her nonprofit

By Brianna Atkinson

At the age of 15, Sydney Ross experienced what she recalls as a “flip the switch moment” in her high school’s library. As she sat studying in the mostly-empty library, two girls sat across from her. At first, Ross couldn’t understand why they decided to sit with her when there were plenty of other empty tables in the building but she now sees the moment as a sign from God. 

Unbeknownst to Ross at the time, the conversation between the two girls would ignite her passion for a project that would grow with her through high school and college. 

As Ross was studying, one of the girls told her friend how her sister, who just had a baby, was left by the baby’s father.

“What do you expect? All Black men leave their families,” the friend replied.

When Ross heard those words, she was immediately overcome with emotion. She couldn’t believe they felt comfortable saying that in front of her, a Black woman.

“I feel like it was God’s way of telling me this project is something that needs to be done,” Ross said. “My dad has been in my life for all 15 years of [it]. And both my grandfathers were in my parents’ lives their whole lifetimes as well. I wanted to combat that narrative. We are above these stereotypes.”

‘An Idea Was Born’

In 2016, Ross started an initiative called Change the Type, short for Change the Stereotype. The nonprofit shares uplifting messages about people of color to combat negative stereotypes in society. Now, it has grown into an LLC.

Although the impetus for her nonprofit started within the library of Garner Magnet High School, Ross took inspiration during her sophomore year in the personal project class. According to Middle Years Programme Coordinator Amy Bennett, the class is a student’s opportunity to focus on something they are passionate about.

“ I could see [Sydney’s] passion from the day she walked into my classroom,” Bennett said. “She seized the opportunity to take a project that was required, but she actually put her personal passion into it. To see that it has taken her this far in her life is pretty extraordinary.”

Ross’ initial plan was to do something related to dance, theatre, or Black history. But it didn’t feel right.

One day after school, Ross was sitting with her grandparents watching the evening news, and story after story after story was infused with negativity. People of color in jail, shooting, looting, mug shots and Ross thought, “That’s not who my people are. There’s more to us than that. I’m a Black woman but I’m not always angry, I’m not always loud, I’m not always mad at the world.” 

“I was like, what can I do to change that narrative?” Ross said. 

And Change the Type was born.

Ross, now 20, is a junior studying multimedia journalism at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She works at the student-run A&T Register newsroom as the culture editor and loves to write feature stories. 

During her senior year at Garner High, Ross brought her love of journalism to Change the Type while enrolling in her school’s optional Diploma Programme.  

According to Career-related Programme Coordinator Gerald Siemering, what Ross did was unusual. Most students finish out their middle years project and move on to something different for their senior year, but Ross kept Change the Type as her senior project.

“Sydney was definitely an exception for that one,” Siemering said. “[She] was always very passionate in school and with community outreach.”

‘Through the Years’

Whereas her sophomore year project was about doing something she was passionate about, Ross’ senior year project focused on doing something that impacted the community. As an aspiring journalist, Ross knew that she wanted to bring some aspect of writing into her project and chose her favorite genre– features.

“I wanted to continue to make Change the Type grow,” Ross said. “We had the name, we had the message, we need people now.”

Her first “spotlight story” was on Malique Hawkins, a high school senior whom she met during N.C. A&T admitted student day. At 16, Hawkins founded a clothing company called The Movement Clothing to stand up against bullying, racism, suicide and violence. From there, Ross interviewed various youths who had started their own cosmetic lines, charities and even a 12-year-old who had designs in New York Fashion Week.

These spotlights were for the young people of color of Change the Type and had one simple goal – inspiration. 

“If they see people that look like them, around their age, maybe even go to the same school as them then it makes them believe ‘well okay, they’re doing it, so maybe I can make a difference in my community too,’” said Ross. 

‘Change the Type during the Pandemic’

Ross’ work with youth in her community didn’t stop when she entered her senior year of high school. Before school started again last August, Ross donated school supplies to other nonprofits and East Garner Magnet Middle School, a school she attended when she was younger. 

She also donated 50 Change the Type themed drawstring bags filled with face masks, paper, pencils, pens and other school supplies to two community centers. Each bag was designed by hand using her mother’s Cricut machine and had an image of a shining light bulb.

“I wanted them to have that idea that they are a light and to not let anyone’s opinion of them dim that light,” Ross said. “Don’t let anyone deter you from your goals and your dreams. Your light should shine whenever you walk into any room.”

Biltmore Hills Community Center Director Kenneth Lyons said Ross’ generosity helped parents get necessary supplies for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic so they could have a positive start to the school year. 

“It was a financial relief. School supplies are expensive,” Lyons said. “Everything she did, it’s been very impactful on the community and for the kids… especially with her being a former [summer camp] counselor.”

Now in 2022, Ross is in the process of getting a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status for Change the Type and is still thinking about how to expand its reach to even more people with her message. 

“It has grown beyond the four walls of Garner Magnet High School, but I would like to continue to see it grow,” Ross said. “We, as people of color, are doing tremendous things in our community. We can stand out. We can make a difference. We can impact others.”

Edited by Ellie Crowther and Simon Tan