2/6/17 Indianola,MS Story For All- ROOTS Story of Sunflower County Systems Change Program. Photo © Suzi Altman

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INDIANOLA – Sixteen-year-old Vonkervius Jackson wants to be a leader. That’s rare in his hometown.

“When you’re a leader, you become an outcast,” he said. “I can be more than my hometown.”

Jackson, a student at Gentry High School, hopes his participation in The R.O.O.T.S. of Sunflower County Project will help him get to college and beyond.

Through R.O.O.T.S., an acronym for “reclaiming our origins through story,” 19 young men of color recently arranged interviews, collected photos and filmed a short documentary about their experiences. Their work is seen in an exhibit that opened Thursday at the B.B. King Museum and will travel to other museums this year.

This inaugural exhibit is the narrative component of the Sunflower County Systems Change Project, a community-based program that addresses school discipline, juvenile justice and perceptions of young men and boys of color. It is a partnership between the ACLU of Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice, Sunflower County Consolidated School District and its P-16 Council funded by a two-year, $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“In Sunflower County, probably less than two or three percent of the population own all of the wealth. Intergenerational poverty contributes to the decay of the community development, economic development and the educational system,” said Dr. Adrian Brown, P-16 Council chairman.

In 2015, there were 162 Youth Court referrals in Sunflower County, reports the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Division of Youth. Ninety-five of those referrals were black males between the ages of 15 and 17 for disorderly conduct. Of those cases, 12 students were admitted to the Oakley Youth Development Center, a juvenile corrections facility located in Hinds County.

Addressing school discipline in Sunflower County focuses on making sure kids don’t spend that time away from school, said Aisha Carson, ACLU advocacy coordinator.

The ACLU estimates that nationally young black males are three times more likely to be subjected to school discipline and referred to the Youth Court system than males in other demographic groups. Repeated contact with the juvenile justice system increases an adolescent’s risk of falling into the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline, one issue the Sunflower County Systems Change Project is working to resolve.

 The 19 chosen for the yearlong Sunflower project completed an application and interview process, and if they meet attendance requirements, they each will receive a $600 stipend.

The educational program is designed to build basic concepts of self-discipline, self-worth, personal responsibility, attention to detail, a sense of urgency and respect for constituted authority.

“Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, (when you’re of color) the narrative is poverty and lack of education,” said Dr. Debra Dace, former superintendent of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District. “But we want to let our young women and men know that they can be successful.” 

“Disrupting the school to prison pipeline takes more than just policy change,” said the ACLU’s Carson. “Narrative change is key to reducing stereotypes and increasing opportunities for young men and boys of color. What we’ve been able to do through R.O.O.T.S. is to lift up the authentic and affirmative voices of young men of color. Their stories provide a springboard for impacting change across the state and across the country.”

In June, the Sunflower project partnered with Story For All, an Oakland, Calif., organization whose goal is to document stories in a way that will preserve, share and promote dialogue around social change.

“We had the chance to interview the Peace Poets from New York. I never had a conversation with anyone from New York,” said Theon James, a 17-year-old student at Gentry High School.

Peace Poets with The R.O.O.T.S. of Sunflower County after their writing workshop Credit: Mississippi Today

The Peace Poets from the Bronx are five multi-cultural artists, educators and public activists who examine and advocate for life through music and poetry – a more constructive way of expressing one’s challenges and frustrations. James recalls them speaking of their oppressive encounters with the police, which James could relate to.

“Interviewing was a hard task because I never pictured myself interviewing people. But when I did it, it changed something in me. … It made me change my perspectives of others,” said James.

During a week-long camp, the young men received professional instruction in video, photography, interviewing and oral history. Story For All executive director Angela Zusman also created a year-long curriculum for the Sunflower coordinators to continue to merge into the weekly activities with The R.O.O.T.S. as they tell stories outside of their group.

Talking to people in the community gives them a voice too, said Vonkervius Jackson.

“We interviewed a guy named Hambone. Don’t know his real name, he calls himself Hambone, but he told us how the community was when he was growing up,” said Jackson.

“I was inspired, and if I can inspire someone else (with this exhibit) then I’ve done my job,” said Jackson.

Fredrick Ellis, left, Nicholas Warren and Johnny E. Phillips Jr., seniors at Gentry High School in Indianola, talk to community members about their experiences in the Delta. Credit: Andre Lambertson

“The goal is to see this implemented in other communities across Mississippi and all over the country,” said Zusman.

“I knew this would be a great program for my son,” said Clara Phillips, mother of four young black males. Her son Johnny Phillips Jr., a senior at Gentry High School and a member of The R.O.O.T.S team, has a speech impediment. Participation in the program has helped him become less shy, she says.

“When Johnny told me they were conducting interviews with people of the community from all walks of life, that struck me. This now gives the kids something to look forward to and if all of the visions of the community can be heard (intergenerationally), we can see more positive impact within Sunflower County in the future to come,” said Phillips.

Members of the audience Thursday at the B.B. King Museum were given a survey after viewing the exhibit to gauge the impact it may have had on biases and stereotypes they had prior to meeting the young men.

The exhibit continues at the B.B. King Museum through April 28, then moves to these venues:

• Fannie Lou Hamer Multi-Purpose Complex in Ruleville, April 10-28

• Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, May 1-30

• Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University, June 1-July 30.

Project participants will appear at receptions for each venue, April 13 in Ruleville, May 4 in Jackson and June 2 at Jackson State. Receptions will begin at 6 p.m. and are open to the public.

To RSVP, email acarson@aclu-ms.org or call 601-354-3408. For more information about the project, click here.

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.

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