/Changing the narrative of young black males in the Delta

Changing the narrative of young black males in the Delta

INDIANOLA — Vonkerius Jackson began freestyle rap after being inspired by beat-boxing, rhythmic beats on a table and the synchronized head nodding from seven teenage boys. Jackson, a 10th-grade student at Indianola’s Gentry High School, sang “Y’all know that I can’t sing.” The two of them broke down in laughter and moved into a workshop on self-expression led by the Peace Poets of New York. Sunflower County Systems Change Project launched this summer and partners with poets. This project aims to reduce school discipline, juvenile crime, and negative profiling of young men from the Delta. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice teamed up to create this first project. It is part of a larger $1 million grant from W.K. Kellogg Foundation will address the issue of disparate punishment and excessive discipline in schools. The funds are administered by the ACLU of Mississippi. They also give the Mississippi Center for Justice, which is a non-profit organization staffed with lawyers who work to eradicate poverty and discrimination, a portion of the dollars to support specific missions in Sunflower County. Sunflower’s school district was also awarded a percentage to help them hire a disciplinarian. Aisha Carson is the advocacy coordinator for ACLU. She stated that “in order to change it, we must change the system.” The school is a large part of that system. Sunflower County’s school discipline focuses on making sure that kids don’t spend their time away from school. In 2015, 162 Youth Court referrals were made in Sunflower County. According to the Division of Youth, Mississippi Department of Human Services. Ninety-five referrals involved black males aged between 15 and 17. They were referred for disorderly conduct. Twelve students were accepted to Oakley Youth Development Centre from those 12 cases. Sunflower and Forrest had the second highest number of students admitted. Harrison County had 22 students. The center is located in rural Hinds County and serves delinquent youth aged 10-17. Referrals are generally made by parents or school officials who want to see that law enforcement and city counselors intervene in disciplining a child to prevent future trouble. Kathy McClain, representative from the Sunflower County Youth Court, explained. According to the ACLU, young black men are three times more likely than other males to be disciplined in school and refer to Youth Court. The risk that an adolescent falls into the schoolhouse-to-prisonhouse pipeline increases if they are in regular contact with the juvenile justice systems, is something the Sunflower County Systems Change Project is trying to address. Their group is called “The R.O.O.T.S.” by the young men who are part of the project. The R.O.O.T.S. is the acronym for “reclaiming our origins through stories.” R.O.O.T.S. stands for “reclaiming our origins by telling stories.” There are 14 students in R.O.O.T.S. Gentry High School is home to 14 students, while five others attend Ruleville, the only high school in the newly consolidated district. Carson stated that many students are often left behind when districts are consolidated. “They miss out upon certain programs and resources that could benefit them from.” All 19 applicants for the Sunflower project were interviewed and went through an application process. If they met attendance requirements, they will be awarded stipends of $600 each every nine weeks. The educational program is intended to teach basic concepts such as self-discipline and self-worth, personal responsibility, urgency, respect for authority, and self-respect. The ACLU of Mississippi staff and Mississippi Center for Justice staff have also engaged with organizations across the country that share similar goals in improving the outlook and outcomes for young African males. The Sunflower project teamed up with Story For All in June. Story For All is an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that documents stories and encourages dialogue about social change. The camp lasted for a week and provided professional instruction in video, photography as well as interviewing and oral histories. Angela Zusman, Story For All executive director, also designed a year-long curriculum for Sunflower coordinators in order to continue to integrate into weekly activities with R.O.O.T.S. They tell their stories to others outside of their group. Carson stated that they want an oral history archive of the interviews they have done. Carson added, “Secondly, we want this space for narrative changes by making sure the boys’ work is visible in the community around Mississippi.” The complete oral history archive will be made available to the B.B. In summer 2017, the King Museum in Indianola will have a complete oral history archive. The project partnered last month with the Peace Poets of Bronx, N.Y. Five artists, educators, and public activists who study and advocate for the good life through poetry and music. The Peace Poets are able to create a safe space for young men that allows them to be themselves, feel comfortable and vulnerable all at once. They are open about their personal experiences and don’t hesitate to share them. Jacorius Liner, Mississippi Center for Justice advocacy coordinator, said that she has never seen anything like it. Jacqueline Smith is an education lawyer in central and north Mississippi. “We have students that have a multitude emotions and things they’re dealing in the larger nation, but also in their schools on daily basis,” she said. “We have seen the destruction of arts such as music, art and theater. Smith says that Peace Poets came in to teach the children how to use their thoughts and feelings in positive outlets that allow for growth and expression in a way they can’t get in school. The workshop began with the poets sharing their poems about violence, poverty, love, and the Bronx culture they grew up in. They then gave the group the opening lines, “What they don’t Know”, and asked them to continue their poems. Be intentional about what you write. That is the first step in promoting community change. Abraham Velazquez of the Peace Poets said, “Your personal is political.” “If we don’t see young people replacing us one day, then how can we love them to build them?” -Excerpts of the Roots poems by Mississippi Today. The young men shared their experiences with depression, teenage pregnancies and discrimination as well as their own stories. After the last person had finished speaking, they all stood up and joined hands. Velazquez asked them, “How do feel?” Most of them replied “Good.” It was powerful. Johnny Earl Phillips Jr. (12th grader) at Gentry High School said that it helped many of them get rid of the stress. Calvin Griffin, an 11th-grader at Gentry, said that while it was initially scary, the experience is not easy for everyone. “You won’t get heard if you don’t agree with your views. The second annual Schoolhouse Rights Rock, which was organized by the ACLU of Mississippi in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Justice, took place at Mississippi Valley State University in August. Parents and advocates, along with students and parents from Sunflower County Consolidated Schools District and Greenville Public Schools District, attended workshops on restraint in schools, seclusion, civil rights, schoolhouse rights, and creative activities with the Peace Poets NYC. “We bring actors and audiences together. All of us have a stake. Moon Lowery, a member the theater group, said that acknowledging this in a theatrical manner brings about change. Sophie Nimmannit is the Theatre of the Oppressed’s program and operations director. Sunflower County Systems Change Project advisory member Betty Petty responded to a parent’s concerns about school conditions. She stated, “At end of the day if that child doesn’t get what he or her needs, it isn’t just the school that has failed. We all have failed.” Parents need to understand their rights, as well as the rights of students. Sunflower County Systems Change Project advisory council member Betty Petty responded to a parent’s concern about school conditions. She stated, “At the end of the day, if that child is not getting what he or she needs, it is not only the school that has failed, but all schools have failed.”