"Each one, teach one," says Helena Brown, director of the Young People's Project in Jackson.
Bob Moses—civil-rights leader and founder of the Algebra Project, YPP's parent organization—and his family have taught man, and taught them to teach others. This month marks the end of an era in Jackson: After spending 13 years initiating the Algebra Project at Brinkley Middle School and continuing the work at Lanier High School, Moses and his wife, Janet, are leaving Jackson and relocating to Miami.
Fortunately for Jackson, though, the Moses legacy will continue without him. Through his progressive approach to teaching math—the key to ending "sharecropper education," he believes—and his empowering young people to make a difference in their communities, he is leaving Jackson much stronger than he found it when he first came to Mississippi in 1960 to garner support for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and to begin a campaign to register African Americans to vote.
"If you don't know math, you don't know anything," says Lanier graduate Frankie Johnson, 22, who has been employed by the YPP for 10 years.
In the YPP office on Wheatley Street in South Jackson, math—colorful equations, formulas and numbers—decorates all four walls. The four 20-somethings present make it obvious that numbers have created a unique relationship among them.
"On any given weekend, you could find probably 10 kids at Omo's house working on projects, writing grants, preparing presentations, says Jim Hill High School alumna Brown. Omo is Omowale Moses, Bob Moses' son who heads the project.
It's delightful to sit among a group of people who don't fit the math nerd stereotype, but can tell math jokes with the best of them. They're young, gifted, black and determined to show others that "math determines whether or not you get a job," as Brown puts it.
Bob and Janet Moses' goal upon returning to the States in 1982—after teaching math at a secondary school in Tanzania—was to help African Americans reach political and economic equality. They would use math as a primary instrument toward that goal. The program also teaches students to use computers and graphic design.
The YPP was established in 1996 by alumni of the Algebra Project. With sites in Jackson, Boston and Chicago, YPP recruits and trains young people in high school and college to mentor younger students.
It seems a natural evolution that the Algebra and Young People's Projects have their roots in the Civil Rights Movement. "Reading was the key during the Civil Rights Movement, but now the key is technology," says Murrah graduate Albert Sykes, 22.
Chris Adagbonyin, also a graduate of Murrah, seems shy until he talks about his work with the YPP. "I remember going to Montgomery County and teaching a workshop to math teachers. They kind of looked at us like, 'what are they going to teach us,' but we knew what we were talking about. They respected that. It was cool."
Sykes and Adagbonyin honed in on the outreach aspect of their teaching by initiating the Finding Our Folk Tour following Hurricane Katrina.
"We just wanted to start a spark in people," Sykes says. "People were receiving funds from the government, but they wanted to connect with family."
He and Adagbonyin headed to New Orleans on Jan. 2 on their first tour, looking for people who wanted to tell their stories. This is when they say they did their first "real work," cleaning up houses alongside Curtis Mohammed, civil rights veteran and founder of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund.
The arithmetic connoisseurs visited about a city a day on each tour, alongside civil rights veterans. "If only for one day, we wanted to provide a sense of community—no matter where we were—for the people," Sykes says. The hurricane was a "blessing in disguise" in many ways for Gulf Coast residents, he adds. The natural disaster exposed some of the ugly truths about my country 'tis of thee. "We wanted to make New Orleans a hub of education anyway."
The Quality Education as a Consti-tutional Civil Right (QECR) is an effort by YPP to establish a federal guarantee for quality public education for all. The spirit that drives these young people to ensure every public-school student is provided with a good education is the same one that drove Bob Moses to begin his work in 1982 after receiving a MacArthur Fellowship.
These young people and others will take time to honor Moses and the 2006 Algebra Project graduates of Lanier on Thurs., June 1, at 6 p.m. in the Jackson Medical Mall. It is free and open to the public. Call 601-346-5995 for more information.
Sorry to see him go. What a wonderful legacy he leaves in math/algebra and civil rights. I hope he enjoys Miami, and I suspect he will wind up working there too. Money can't buy this kind of lasting impact.
- Ray Carter