The media can be a strange and destructive space in regards to its relationship with the youth of today. Cultural relevancy and the currency it bears is driven by a market that bleeds static views of violence, sexual excess, and near-primitive levels of raw entertainment. In this trading floor of information, the youth of today are quickly labeled as the generation of the apathetic, unimpassioned, and overprivileged. A group that can only hold concern for the time period their thumb-swipe allots.
Half-a-century ago, as a response to the criminal exclusion of African-Americans from the voting process in Mississippi, teams of young people from across the country collected to create the the Mississippi Summer Project – commonly known as the Freedom Summer. Beyond its mission to register and mobilize an ignored population of African-American residents in a state infamous for its racially charged politics, the project also set up Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in and around Mississippi to support the local communities. That June in 1964 set a standard for student-led initiatives during the Civil Rights Movement and voting equality programs thereafter.
Fifty years later, with an inspired mission to recast light on the ills within the current social and political structures of the country, The Freedom Side – a collective of young leaders comprised of members of the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Young People’s Project and nearly two-dozen other organizations at the center of this generation’s racial justice movement – have used the 50th anniversary of one of the most galvanizing events of this country’s Civil Rights history to mobilize, inform, train, and sustain the next generation of change. Steadfast in their directive towards civic engagement, 2014’s Freedom Summer looks to face the conversations and advance the action surrounding the criminalization of youth, educational disparity, economic stabilization, and facilitating the critical participation of young people in the democratic process of these United States of America.
We spoke to three such agents of change during the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary and Youth Congress, held recently in Jackson, about their roles in this era of action, the misconceptions and mishandling of youth apathy, and the ties that now — and forever will — bind the souls that have impacted the ways we experience freedom in this world.
Albert Sykes is the founding Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Young People’s Project, a math literacy and educational advocacy organization helping low income students and students of color. The 30-year old, Jackson, Mississippi native started his journey over a decade ago as a student of the YPP’s precursor, The Algebra Project, and as a mentee of it’s founder — renowned civil rights activist and former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — Bob Moses.
A passionate supporter and staunch advocate of the building of youth movements, Sykes has been involved in creating and maintaining spaces and systems where young people can begin both educating and inspiring one another at an early age. Adding to the many hats Albert wears in this arena — including being Youth Congress Co-Chair of Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary Conference — he was also recently selected as a September 2014 fellow and resident at Brown University, where he will continue to develop policy initiatives for high school and college-aged students.
EBONY: Bob Moses is the one figure of inspiration that comes up in most conversations about who or what drove many in your field to the path of youth organization and policy development. Were there any other defining moments that acted as catalysts to make this your life’s work?
ALBERT SYKES: I met Bob when I was a middle school student here in Jackson as a member of the Algebra Project, and didn’t know who he was initially. My grandmother told me about Medgar Evers, as our family lived a block away from where he grew up and was unfortunately killed. I knew of his impact, but that was still only just a story to me then. In school, the Civil Rights movement is presented as this distant occurrence that happened so long ago involving people from so far away. You just didn’t think any of those people were still even alive. Bob would tell these stories that would — whether it was Fannie Lou Hamer or C.C. Bryant or others — make it clear that it was more than he and his staff. It was the Mississippi residents who were out doing the work and risking their lives to ATTEMPT to register to vote. That is what made them real to me. I didn't even know who Fannie Lou Hamer was and there was a library named after her outside the window of my classroom that is also a voting precinct. She died from complications stemming from beatings she took fighting for voting rights! Bob made these people tangible.
EBONY: And how did those stories and emotions manifest into the work you do today?
AS: The beauty of it was that some of these folks were still alive. Sitting on C.C. Bryant’s porch or riding for hours with [civil rights activist] David Dennis. Linchpins in the struggle for liberation for so many years but still alive to the point that they are now my mentors and even family. I felt indebted to work to make sure that Mrs. Hamer didn't die in vain. People should understand the connections between the Emmett Tills and the Trayvon Martins, The Oscar Grants and Jordan Davis’s. People should understand the effect of immigration laws in this country. There are instances where kids are stacked up on boards laying in cages by the hundreds covering themselves in aluminum foil just to keep warm. I don’t think those are things we can afford to be silent about. If there is one thing that this country and the world needs now, it is a mirror. It is our generation’s duty to be that mirror. Climate change is real. Young people need to understand the way we live in disharmony with our environment and how important that is. You meet young folks that have a deep-seated fear of having children because they don’t believe that there will be a world for them to live in. I took it as a personal mission, and told myself that I could not have these people like Bob Moses in my life and not use those connections, along with my ability to move around in my community, to pull people in. That is part of the reason we have 700 young people in Mississippi this week. And not only to learn from the successes of 50 years ago, but also the challenges.
EBONY: What motivates others around you?
AS: A couple years ago, during a SNCC 50-year reunion, [Singer and Activist] Bernice Johnson Reagon said, “Each generation must find and face the things that are crippling it”. Today, that is education, the right to work, and the criminalization of people of color. I don’t think the media uplifts the great things that so many young people are doing around this country. When you look at the Black Youth Project 100, The Baltimore Algebra Project, The Dream Defenders. These people aren’t looking for national recognition for what they are doing, but do need coverage that combats the images that they are being beaten down with every day — especially in regards to the criminalization of young people. States can nearly advertise “If you choose to live here, we will make it easier and not criminal for you to kill people of color” in the form of The Stand-Your-Ground Law. If you want to be discriminatory against people for their sexual orientation, you get the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was just passed in Mississippi. We’re living in a country that is closing itself in and leaving many out of the ranks of who “We The People” are that The Constitution talks about.
EBONY: How did you join the Freedom Side and come to organize the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer?
AS: The Freedom Summer Youth Congress includes folks from Freedom Side, The Black Youth Project, The Baltimore Algebra Project, and a host of other organizations across the country. We mobilized everyone by basically calling out and understanding that it was the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. We all had good work going on around the country and needed to come together in a place where we could share our work and discuss things that were still not bing brought to the table yet needed to happen in order to move forward. More importantly, we needed to be intentional about creating a space for young people to demonstrate that they have their acts together. I think it is about uplifting work that folks have been doing for years.
EBONY: At what age do you feel civic engagement becomes a necessary inclusion in one’s life? Has that changed over the years?
AS: I started working with Bob when I was 11. Some folks wake up when they get to college, some are conscious from birth. You have a great example in the Lumumba family, where [late Jacskon, MS Mayor] Chokwe Lumumba was the head of a household where everyone who walked out of that door walked out with the intention of doing anything in their power within that 24 hours to move themselves closer to freedom and liberation. He, his life, and legacy are the things that inspire the work that is happening here. It’s amazing how many people showed up that knew the work he’s done. Losing him this year was a big blow to this city and this movement, but his spirit still influences everyone that is working today. Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” It is important that we recognize that we didn’t just bring ourselves together, and that we are part of a rich continuum that was established with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois and the like.
EBONY: How do you address the notion that this generation is sometimes perceived as becoming increasingly apathetic towards civic issues?
AS: I think the one thing that contributes the most is the misconception that this generation is apathetic. I don’t think that is a fair assessment. I think people get used to the longing of a big mass movement, such as seeing several hundred thousand people doing the same thing at once. That is just not what it looks like today. If you pay attention to the conversations young people are having on social media, you can see how conscious they are to what’s happening around them. All these organizations have high school members in their communities doing work. The issue is that the media that covers young people are scared to go where young folks are really doing work. You have to go a little bit deeper into the community and explore what is happening with young people before you label them as being apathetic. People that cover young people getting killed and locked up don’t cover those deep in the trenches. They don’t cover the discussions that happen at the family dinner table where a parent is teaching a child the difference between right and wrong and encouraging them to, whenever thy see something wrong, make it right. I couldn’t in my mind attempt to explain to anyone that this was an apathetic generation because I don’t buy into that thought. I think it is a disservice to the many young folks doing the things that have to be done. It’s hard to document history while you are making it. They don’t have time to take photos and shoot videos and report out on every accomplishment that they make because they are busy working. We have people in their 20’s and 30’s thinking that people in their 20’s and 30’s are apathetic yet are in the position to tell the story. In no way could I try to explain something that I didn’t believe in.
EBONY: What programs and initiatives do Freedom Side participants and other organizers have planned for this summer?
AS: Well, as an example of young people who aren't apathetic, we currently have over 100 young people canvasing the state of Mississippi collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to guarantee full funded public education for this state. That will be on the ballot for 2015. When folks get out to vote and all this comes to pass, you will have the first state in the country that has a constitutional right to fully-funded free public education to all children in their state. That is hard, real work that people came from all across the country to do. The Dream Defenders are working not only about protecting the vote, but increasing the bloc of young voters of color that take the vote serious with the “BLOC is OURS” campaign. We have to get people up and excited about voting, so one of the programs we implemented at the conference was to begin training about 40 people between the ages of 18-35 that are interested in running for political office in the next 12-36 months. People need to want to vote for who they know and the agendas that they believe in. Or with the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, where they are questioning systems where people don't have fair living wages and access to education and healthcare. The National Student Bill Of Rights has been working for over five years to discuss the rights students should be guaranteed in schools and I don’t think that adults have even taken the time to think about that. The Corrections Corporation of America at this very moment is negotiating with several states across the country to privatize the prison system, with states having to agree to a 90% occupancy rate. Every time the legislative bodies of those states meet, you see more laws enacted to increase the sentence mandates for small offenses. These are just a few examples of the direction we are taking this summer and beyond. If there is anything that we want participants of the conference to leave here with, it is an understanding of what the center of leadership looks and feels like today.
Ugi Ugwuomo is a culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @RLfNowhere