The sound of gunshots hung heavily in the air on Sept. 14, 2007, as people began to cautiously trickle out of their homes on Rutledge Avenue in west Jackson. Just off the road, a blue Chevrolet Impala had crashed into a tree, a bullet hole roughly carved into the driver's side door. The lifeless body of 24-year-old Christopher Adagbonyin lay inside his girlfriend's car, killed by a bullet to his head.
Each One Teach One
"Math is what you make it!" reads the wall above a double-paned green chalkboard in room 119 at Brinkley Middle School. The chalkboard is one of the few surfaces in the long classroom not covered in paint. The cabinetry, walls, piping, windows, even the intercom speaker are illuminated in reds, oranges, blues, greens, yellows and blacks. Every wall is a mural, depicting jungle animals, an Egyptian couple by the Nile River, a woman with a tall afro dancing on a sundial, and a math classroom on a one-dimensional plane in outer space.
In spring 1995, Omo Moses, a college student, traveled to Jackson from his hometown of Cambridge, Mass., to visit his father, civil-rights veteran and accomplished educator Bob Moses. His father had been teaching math literacy at Brinkley Middle School in room 119—"the Math Lab"—as part of the Algebra Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring quality education for all children, emphasizing math as the key to success in the 21st century. During his visit, Omo sat in the classes, watching the interaction between young people and helping his father. That summer, he asked if he could return to Jackson and help with the Algebra Project.
Two years later, Omo Moses and a group of like-minded young people, including his brother Taba, recognized a need for young people to take their education and its value into their own hands, and teach others to do the same. Influenced by the Algebra Project, the group formed the Young People's Project in 1996. The organization grew as young people conducted math workshops and directed cultural learning activities for other young people in Jackson. They applied for a Kellogg Foundation grant in 1997, unbeknownst to any of their parents.
"The young people had invited us parents to a meeting. At the meeting we found out … to our surprise they had found out about an educational initiative that the Kellogg Foundation had," said Frank Figgers, Algebra Project advisory board member. "They had gone through the process, the application grant process, all the way to the point where the Kellogg people were coming to Jackson to look at the work that they were doing. When we were sitting in the meeting, we were actually sitting in the review meeting of Kellogg Foundation."
The small group of young people, including then-14-year-old Albert Sykes, received the grant—$150,000 divided between YPP and another organization—and began reaching out further into the Delta to conduct math literacy workshops for their peers. With the money, they invested in a van, calculators and snacks.
"Everybody got together and, in YPP's words, said what we wanted this money for," Sykes said. "We started trying to learn all of the different aspects of what it takes to run YPP, so that we'd know what to do if there wasn't any Omo … how to keep this running ourselves as young people. And so that was a big step."
The Hulky Marshmallow
Often donning a gold-glittered Tupac T-shirt, jeans and cap, Chris "Big Bun" Adagbonyin could be seen as a threat. But his tall, "hulky" figure, dark skin and four gold caps spanning his top-row front teeth made him a big security blanket in which young people felt safe. "His insides were totally different than his outsides—he was a marshmallow," Sykes said.
Adagbonyin was good with numbers—real good. A member of the second graduating class of YPP and a collaborator in the Kellogg Foundation grant-writing process, Adagbonyin volunteered as a YPP math literacy worker, driving from Lanier, and later Murrah, to tutor kids in the Math Lab at Brinkley after school. After graduating from Murrah High School in 2002, he enrolled at the University of New Orleans to study accounting.
While Adagbonyin attended UNO, he continued to work with YPP in the summer months, cultivating YPP programs in urban cities like Miami, Chicago and Rochester, N.Y.
After four semesters at UNO, Adagbonyin returned to Jackson in fall 2004 to be with his pregnant girlfriend. His daughter Tylen was born on Dec. 26, 2004—a late Christmas gift to a proud father. Adagbonyin planned to re-enroll in college at Jackson State University to finish his accounting degree, but in the transitional time he didn't know what he would do. Moses offered him a position at YPP as a youth coordinator, which would allow him to be the advocacy voice of the organization.
Adagbonyin immersed himself in the causes of America's youth, traveling to conferences and meetings across the nation. He was especially active in meetings for the Quality Education is a Civil Right initiative, helping ensure that all children have the chance to a free, quality learning experience.
"A group of scholars—lawyers and scholars from all over the country—would sit down and have regular meetings … looking at the possibility of all of the citizens in this country receiving a quality education," Figgers said.
Adagbonyin sat down with people like actors Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, and he held his own. "His ability to express himself among cross-sections of people … that was certainly an attribute of his, that developed through the years," Figgers said.
Finding Our Folk
Aug. 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina was making a name for herself on the Gulf Coast. As Adagbonyin and Sykes played Madden '06, the fury of the storm outside gathered momentum. Living in Mississippi all your life, you get used to hurricanes, but with each thunderclap and gust of wind, the 22-year-old men grew nervous, finally pausing their game and flipping to CNN. Scenes of floodwaters reaching halfway up the Circle K sign outside the building where he paid his utilities, and of stranded people sitting along the causeway that he used to travel home, were as surreal as Dali paintings to Adagbonyin, who had just returned to Jackson a year earlier.
Within a month or so after the storm, Omo Moses and activist leaders from more than 100 organizations met in South Carolina to discuss how they could address the needs of Katrina evacuees. It was here that Moses introduced the idea of "Finding Our Folk." Adagbonyin headed up the initiative, and with little money and no concrete direction, he began searching for displaced people living in Jackson. His search led him to Jackson State, where he discovered that people needed to share their stories just as much as they needed other resources. "We really just wanted to be a physical presence for people," Sykes said.
By October, Sykes and Adagbonyin developed a story-telling concept for the tour. They decided that they would give people an outlet to express—being stranded on a roof for two weeks, losing their house or even losing a treasured heirloom. In January 2006, YPP took its first group of Jackson high school and college students, activists and evacuees to Mobile, Ala. For the next six weeks, they left Jackson every Friday by bus, and travelled to cities like Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston where displaced people were living. The Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans accompanied them on all six stops of the tour, playing New Orleans-style jazz tunes to give evacuees a little piece of home.
The bus arrived to each city just before nightfall, and the first stop was always to see the evacuees. Hopping off the bus, food in hand and video cameras ready, students became increasingly aware of the real Katrina stories. The band would immediately begin playing, beckoning evacuees out of their adopted homes and into the street to fellowship and eat. After a night of getting to know each other, Adagbonyin and Sykes would lead tour participants to a hotel, where they would rest for two or three hours before getting up at 7 a.m. to continue their work.
But not every stop was the same. On the fifth trip to Baton Rouge, the YPP bus met with hostile FEMA security officers, who would not allow them into the trailer park. After two hours of unsuccessful negotiating, the bus turned around and headed back to Jackson. The event infuriated YPP-ers just enough to go back the next weekend, this time with headstrong determination and Danny Glover. When they arrived, officers let them in. As the band played, people poked their heads out from their small cell-like trailers, and the stories—and tears—began to flow. They didn't even notice Glover.
"They'd get into the story circle, and just start telling their stories," Sykes said. "I'm talking about grown men that went through something, but they have to be a man for their family. At the first time you offer them a set of ears, they let it all out."
Each Sunday night the bus returned to Jackson, students carrying the small pieces of broken lives, and Sykes and Adagbonyin brainstorming about future plans for YPP and themselves.
'A New Narrative'
The irony of Adagbonyin's death lies in the hands of who pulled the trigger—a 16-year-old black male, Sykes said. "We weren't running the street like that, but we were in the environment where if we didn't have YPP, that would have been us," he said. "That young man, he wasn't in school. School got out that day at 1 p.m., and he killed Chris at exactly 1 p.m. … He killed the very man that would have reached out and pulled him off the street, the very man who would have stopped him from killing someone else."
As Adagbonyin drove his girlfriend's car down Rutledge Street just past 1 p.m., Dominique Mobley allegedly fired gunshots into the car, one penetrating the driver's side door. The car ran off the road and crashed into a tree. An AMR responder arrived shortly thereafter and pronounced him dead on the scene. The Hot 8 Brass Band played the second line in his funeral procession.
Jackson police charged 16-year-old Mobley and 22-year-old Mark Anthony Armon with Adagbonyin's slaying, which JPD believes to be "drug-related." Armon said he and Mobley lured Adagbonyin to Rutledge Avenue to retaliate against him for selling them "bad" drugs.
"Our whole lives were, day to day, intertwined with each other's," Sykes said. "When I think 60 years from now, 50 years from now, all my plans were revolved around what me and Chris were going to do—and I'm a married man. … And it wasn't solely about us; we were in it to do stuff to provide opportunities for other people, but we were going to do it together."
When reports of Adagbonyin's death being "drug-related" surfaced, his good deeds seemed to dissipate. Omo Moses and others who knew Adagbonyin do not believe he sold drugs and lament the damage that the accusation has done to his character.
"I can take y'all around the country and put you in front of highly respected people who would attest to who Chris Adagbonyin was," Moses said. "But at the end of the day when people look at it locally, it's just another Negro in Jackson on the streets … so he deserved to die."
But it doesn't stop in Jackson. Tagging the "drug-related" label to a crime reduces the social accountability and sympathy for the victim. "There needs to be a new narrative," Moses said. "In general, the idea of drugs as an excuse to dehumanize someone, particularly black men (is a national problem). … We need to tell a different story."
Chris has impacted people around the world, Sykes said. "There are people who have seen Chris on TV in Russia, who don't know who he is, but they see some of the work that he's done. And that's the issue—it stopped as soon as it was said that it was a drug deal gone bad."
The New YPP
The Young People's Project office on Livingston Road is bare after only inhabiting the space for three weeks, but the first thing out of the numerous boxes strewn around the room is art. Amid stacks of crates overflowing with file folders, binders and books, signs of life come from the modest paintings sparsely sprinkled across the ivory-colored walls. A medium-sized print of civil-rights pioneers including Rosa Parks and Malcolm X hangs on the center wall across from metal cabinet units filled with TI-83 graphing calculators, chemistry and algebra textbooks, and photographs from early YPP workshops.
Rummaging through the crates of old photographs is like a trip into the past. Back then, Omo Moses didn't have dreadlocks down his back, and 14-year-old Adagbonyin seemed like more of a playful jokester than an advocate for quality education.
"At Lanier—I think it was world history—every time Ms. Reynolds left the class, she would make Chris go with her," Sykes says, laughing. "If she was going to the bathroom, he had to go and stand outside the bathroom; if she was going to the coffee machine, he had to go with her; because he was always through with his work, and he wanted to laugh and joke and play."
Sykes sits in his colleague's office, MacBook in lap, mixing baby formula as he reminisces. People trickle in and out of the office, which shares space with The Mississippi Link newspaper, and make small talk with them.
"What up man, you alright?" Sykes asks a 20-something black man as he walks through the iron-cast front door. He is Kihende Gaynor, a former YPP-er.
"Yeah man, who's that there?" Gaynor asks, pointing to the infant car seat on the table.
"That's my little homie there," Sykes replies, smiling at his 3-month-old son, Ethan. Adagbonyin was his godfather.
Sykes hands me a copy of the newly completed "Finding Our Folk Tour" DVD, which he and Omo Moses will share with small audiences around the country this month, stopping in Oakland, Calif., New York City and Miami, along the way. Sykes says that YPP wants to do another tour soon, but doesn't know when. What he does know is that the original concept has expanded.
"It might not just be Katrina-related; the Finding Our Folk Tour is just an issue tour," Sykes says. "Of course, we're never going to let go of the Katrina work, but we gotta do the Finding Our Folk Tour to stop killing each other, for quality education. Finding Our Folks is going to always be there, and it's going to take on so many different forms, so many different issues. We're just trying to shed light on stuff and come up with our own solutions, and get people to meet us half-way."
I slip the DVD into an envelope, and ask Sykes if he minds me getting up to look around for a bit. He looks at me, seemingly confused that I would ask permission, and says smiling, "This is YPP; you can do whatever you want."
For more information on The Young People's Project and the Finding Our Folk Tour, visit http://www.findingourfolk.org
'It's Hard On Us'
Maggie, Thanks so much for this story. It is loaded with information; some I knew and some I didn't know. This was such a tragedy for a young man who had already contributed so much. More time in Jackson would have brought about even bigger and better.
I salute Sykes and the YPP. This is the actualization of a part of the King Dream. The Finding Our Folk Tour is a wonderful outlet to connect with victims who have been scattered to the far most corners of the world.
I am still amazed at how family members were seperated; how mothers were put on buses without their children. This reminds me of the days of slave trade. This country could have done better. They didn't. Sad but true.
Common Sense is not so COMMON.
What a heartfelt story. This is the sort of thing that should be front and center on the network news stations.
Fantastic. Brought so many points home for me - one especially. Our eagerness to reduce or dehumanzie someone's death because it may or may not have been drug-related. Thanks for sharing this special person with us and the great work of the YPP. I do know that they are continuing to do some awesome work at Brinkley and they have had students who scored perfect or near-perfect scores on the state algebra test. And these same students continue on to Lanier which is also having phenomal success on the state algebra tests. The challenge is what do we do to continue to nurture these kids so that they can reach their potential. And its not just about the tests (we are testing these kids too much) - but how do we provide exposure beyond their own "hood".