In Mississippi, echoes of a summer past

 

lpitts@miamiherald.com

SUNFLOWER, Miss. -- Joaquin Burse wants to go to Harvard and be a laser tech.

You might think that's a lofty goal. Truth is, you have no idea how lofty it is.

Because Joaquin, 13, is black and lives here, in the heart of Mississippi's Delta, where median family income is $25,000, the teen pregnancy rate is said to be about 25 percent, and half of all young people grow up in poverty. To get here from Memphis, you drive past two prisons, dozens of cotton fields and innumerable junk cars. This is not, in sum, a place where most people have even heard of the career Joaquin dreams.

But he has an advantage: It is the Freedom Project.

If the name resonates, you're remembering Freedom Summer, 1964, when college kids descended on Mississippi to teach black children in ''freedom schools'' and register their parents to vote. The Freedom Project, created in the idealistic spirit of that era, was founded in 1998 by Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond, alumni of Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools, and Charles McLaurin, an organizer of the original Freedom Summer.

The result? A nonprofit program, tucked into an obscure corner of an obscure place, offering academic enrichment, martial arts, media production classes, mentoring, exposure to writers like Rudyard Kipling, Alice Walker, Albert Camus and field trips to such far-flung places as Mexico, Washington, D.C., and Orlando. In short, something that works, as in my series of columns spotlighting that which has proven successful at steering African-American kids away from the well-worn catalogue of dysfunction to which too many of them are too often lost.

Here are the numbers: 42 kids currently enrolled (families are asked to pay $300 annually, no small amount here). An annual budget of $200,000, much of it from donors like the Kellogg Foundation. The program accepts students from middle school up. Executive Director Greg McCoy says kids usually see their reading scores improve by a grade level a year and overall grades rise by 15 percent. ``Students who stick with the program and make it to that sixth year thus far have had 100 percent college enrollment and high school graduation rates.''

But, as is often the case, one gets a better idea of this program's success by talking to the kids who are enrolled in it. They are, bluntly stated, not like the average child who has not gone though this, or a similar program. They are, in a word, focused. They dream things so many African-American children do not.

Like Amberly, who plans to attend USC to be a vet, like Alesha, who wants to study law, like Joaquin, who's going to Harvard. ''I think it's somewhere I've got to get,'' he says, ``because most of the people in my family didn't get a chance to go to college.''

This, says McCoy, is a place where ``the images you see on a daily basis are not people actively doing things to benefit the community, but a lot of people standing around. It's a relatively small town and when the Great Migration happened and the trains stopped coming through, a lot of business went out.''

In such a place it is easy to believe lofty dreams are for other people. So the key to success, says McLaurin, lies in offering young people lessons and experiences that broaden their understanding of the world and their potential in it. That's what worked for him.

''When I first saw Martin Luther King,'' he recalls, ``right away I wanted to be like him. The young man who mentioned that he wanted to go to Harvard, I bet you there are not 20 people in this community that's even thought about Harvard. Maybe something was already in him, but through this project, he has seen the possibility.''

Read more Leonard Pitts Jr. stories from the Miami Herald

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