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Building Young Leaders in Mississippi

Home > Learn More > Stories & News > Building Young Leaders in Mississippi
By Christine Ennulat, ChildFund Staff Writer
Posted on 4/4/2016
Youth Ambassadors

The youth ambassadors recently gathered for a retreat outside of Jackson, Mississippi.

Lately in the United States, it seems not a week passes without some incident of community or school violence going viral and sparking a nationwide debate, magnifying the divide among Americans over their ideologies about race, civil rights, gun control, incarceration, discipline of children, economic inequality and more.

It hasn’t happened yet in Jackson, Mississippi, but it could. The underlying causes are present: poverty, abuse and neglect.

ChildFund and its local partner organization in central Jackson, Operation Shoestring, are leading young people in important conversations in which they talk about their concerns about their community and, together, explore potential solutions.

Teens could feel helpless in the face of such complicated challenges, especially from within a community where the median household income is $19,023, well below the federal poverty line. But they don’t.

Instead, they are becoming increasingly aware of how much they matter — and their potential role in creating change. “We have a voice, too,” says Nadeia, 15. “The way I look at it, just because we’re young doesn’t mean our voice doesn’t matter. We’re the future. Our voice should count, and it doesn’t in some things in our schools and country.”

Nadeia is one of 47 high-schoolers who are participating in intensive leadership training through ChildFund’s and Operation Shoestring’s pilot program in partnership with Jackson Public Schools, Ambassadors.

An important part of their work is learning how to use their voices, which also requires learning how to listen. Sixteen-year-old James, for one, feels better equipped: “At first when I came, I was kind of shy, but I got more confident communicating with people,” he says. “We always work as a group here. We have dialogue groups, and we work as a team to accomplish the work we have to do.”

And they understand what it can mean to be agents of change in their community. As 16-year-old Amaya says, “If you act one way about something, the community will see the way you act, and they will react to it. Like, if you’re cleaning up your community, they may see what you’re doing and jump on the bandwagon.”

Amaya says that the program at Operation Shoestring has helped her build confidence in her ability to bring about change: “At school, there are some kids that walk around outside of class, like they’re not going to class. As an ambassador, now I will walk up to them and talk to them, and I can ask them about going to class. We’ll just laugh together, and I’ll walk with them to their class, … where before, I would just walk past them. I have a 100 percent success rate.”

Learning to interact with adults was another growth experience. “I don’t really want to talk to most adults about my school because they say negative things about my school,” says Nadeia, who credits the adult leaders at Operation Shoestring for helping her feel more comfortable around grownups while also helping to smooth some of her rough edges. “They would shut me down when I was trying to be the leader all the time, but it was a good thing, because I was never going to change — I was headed in a bad direction.”

But now Nadeia is able to both dial down her personality and speak up when the need arises. When she perceived unfairness in her school’s night school program, which is for students unable to come during traditional hours or who disturb classes, she approached the superintendent. “I just wanted to know why, because the infractions they have — you can get them too easy,” she says. “It’s too easy to be late to class on our campus, and then there’s an infraction.”  Sometimes, minor infractions like Nadeia describes can set underprivileged children on a rapid path toward the penal system.

Robert Langford, Operation Shoestring’s executive director, is happy to see the positive path the young Ambassadors are taking — and the changes they stand to make in the world around them. “Our youth Ambassadors are learning to own their own power, and to speak out about the change they want to see in their schools and their community,” he says. “It’s been incredible — some who came in very reserved or hesitant to engage with adults are now addressing their school leadership about their ideas.”

Like Vleary, for example: “I step up now when change is needed,” she says. “Like when I learned about some kids at school not being able to eat the cafeteria food because of dietary restrictions, I was ready to do something about it. We came up with suggestions for how to make sure there are other options, and now the district is working with us on it. I feel like I’m making a difference.”