by Maisie Brown
Photo above of Rikyla Brown by Jordan Mahoney
The large room with huge African flags plastered over the huge walls shows signs of black liberation and power at the Lumumba Center at 939 W. Capitol St. in Jackson. Rooms are named after famous African American leaders including Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. A large, diverse group of teens are staring around the room, as they quietly chatter with excitement in on July 20, 2016. Only together for two days so far, the 49 young people participating in the Next Generation Leadership Institute have already formed bonds.
The Institute is a week-long residential camp based at Mississippi State University where kids from the Delta, Gulf Coast and northeast region of the state share a transformative experience through integrating self-discovery, health and wellness education, and community-based change. They share a cultural, spiritual and racial experience.
A group of W.K. Kellogg leadership fellows started the Next Generation Leadership Institute to teach participants about healthy foods and the effects of socio-economics on communities and health.
“Today is a part of our cultural and racial experience while teaching the teens their history and self-worth,” camp adviser Shannon Malone said.
The day the Youth Media Project followed them around Jackson, the teens were focusing on the cultural and racial experience by visiting the Lumumba Center and also the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center where they learned the history of the transatlantic slave trade and about notable Mississippians who had a huge impact in the fields such as writing, civil rights and innovation.
“I love hearing her speak, we love hearing her speak. I never judged her for her beliefs," Bettye Rhodes of Murrah High School said.
We first met with the group at the Lumumba Center, where African American chef Alex Askew was serving them healthy lunch including grilled chicken and fruit. Askew runs a nonprofit called BCA, or the Black Culinary Alliance, based in New York City. “The students didn’t even know you could grow a mushroom in the closet!” he exclaimed.
“Some of the the tips may have seemed minuscule, but the small steps eventually become big steps if everyone steps in,” he continued.
The crowd of teenagers from all over the state comes from a variety of racial and religious backgrounds. Rikyla Brown, a student at Raymond High School who wears a hijab, described her experiences as a black Muslim in the South. “It’s really hard. A lot of people don’t know much about the religion, but know what the media puts out about Muslims in general,” she told the Youth Media Project. Brown added that she feels welcome with this group and finds their lack of judgement astonishing.
“I love hearing her speak, we love hearing her speak. I never judged her for her beliefs,” Bettye Rhodes of Murrah High School said of Brown.
All the teens agreed that living on campus had the made the experience even greater. “I love the Mississippi State campus and how independent we are. It makes you feel like you’re actually in college, which is something I look forward to,” student William Barr of Tupelo said.
Diversity played an important role in the learning experience of the students who attended the camp. They said it had a positive influence on their ability to be open-minded while indirectly learning about each other’s cultural and racial backgrounds.
“A lot of our students come from a variety of backgrounds, some really challenging backgrounds and some standard that you would find of a teenage student,” Next Generation Camp Counselor Shaun Cooper told YMP. “I want them to walk away knowing how to best handle any challenges that come after them, as they get older and make choices on what they want to do in life, and how to best find a connection with other people and use those connections to better themselves and to better their opportunities.”
CORRECTION: This story is edited to reflect a correction of the name of the program, Next Generation Leadership Institute. The Youth Media Project apologizes for the error.