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Youth Leadership Institute Creates Many Opportunities this Spring

The Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) branch of Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate (BRMA) has been thriving this spring, creating new learning and service experiences for 125 CHCCS high school students in areas from immigration rights to exploring financial literacy to learning new tools for self-care and wellness. And all of those activities have happened since spring break, during which a group of 38 YLI students traveled to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi on a Civil Rights Tour.

Carrboro native and alumnus of Chapel Hill High School, Lorie Clark, has been the high school specialist of BRMA since 2002. Her vision for YLI has evolved over the years to focus as intentionally as possible on elevating the ability of high school students of color to succeed in college and careers, while they increase their skills and insights toward making a difference in the world.

YLI pair on spring break trip “The Blue Ribbon Youth Leadership Institute provides training to develop students’ leadership, advocacy, and positive racial equity lens necessary to become leaders in their communities and to empower them to be advocates for social justice and human rights,” Clark said. “YLI also connects students with opportunities to further develop their leadership skills, and use their authentic voices to challenge systems and participate in community and civic engagement.”

Over the years, hundreds of young people have participated in YLI, many of them for all four years of high school. Bi-monthly meetings take place at each of the three large high schools, and monthly YLI service projects this year accounted for over 760 hours, from packing books during the Book Harvest drive to serving community members at the annual Mildred Council Community Dinner and examining the issues of trash vs. recycling as they maintained their YLI Adopt-a-Highway.

Evon Barnes, English and AVID teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said, “YLI has been an invaluable tool for both parents and students. Students gain exposure to a wealth of great experiences, thanks to compassionate mentors. Due to leadership camps and other training sessions, YLI students often become leaders inside the classroom, and within other social settings (principal and superintendent advisory committees, various clubs). YLI also sponsors field trips both within the US and abroad. Technically, these trips are not ‘free;’ YLI students participate in fundraising, and put in sweat equity through community volunteering. Field trips offer opportunities for students to visit historical, educational, cultural and recreational places they would not have otherwise visited.”

This year, Karida Giddings has served as YLI AmeriCorps, and she helped design and organize the entire process of supporting  a YLI spring break experience from March 24-30. The service-learning trip introduced the YLI students to museums and memorials in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi through a Civil Rights lens. Giddings began researching and brainstorming for the trip in September, and those months of planning yielded gold in the comprehensive, enlightening payoffs for students who spent six days exploring sites from the Civil Rights era.

YLI students write reflections Giddings created summaries for each location they visited which students were required to read, and in many cases, discuss before they reached each destination. Every night, students received Reflections Packets with guiding questions in order to enrich the debriefing discussions among students and adult leaders and chaperones. “I tried to provide summaries of what they would encounter,” Giddings said, knowing the exposure would reveal deeper comprehension and impact than learning about the same period of history in classrooms.

The group visited the Legacy Museum and the Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Giddings described the visceral responses some students had, finding commemorations of lynchings in their own Orange County. She said learning about the historic treatment of blacks at the Civil Rights museums helped students know there is far more to African-American history than learning about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. “On a wall in the museum, there was a list of different things blacks could be lynched for, including walking too close behind a white woman. I hoped one of the takeaways from the Lynching Museum would be the realization of how those lynchings connect so directly to the systemic incarceration of blacks today,” Giddings said.

They left Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi, and the Two Mississippi Museum and then toured Jackson State University, where they met and talked with current students. Next stop was Greenwood, Mississippi and Bryant’s Grocery, followed by a visit to the Emmett Till Museum. On the fourth day, they continued on to Birmingham and the Civil Rights Museum and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

YLI students at Emmett Till The location students mentioned repeatedly as most memorable was Bryant’s Grocery, the last place Emmett Till was seen alive. He was murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Giddings said most students had heard about Till and knew he was killed, but they knew little of what they discovered at Bryant’s Grocery. “He was so close in age, 14, to many of the students,” Giddings said. “They expressed shock and said knowing he was their age made it more real.”

Their last stop was in Atlanta for a packed day with a visit to the CNN Center, a service-learning project with the non-profit Books for Africa, college tours at Spelman and Morehouse University and finally the MLK Center.

Immaculate Wanjiku said, “I’m glad to say I attended this trip and have learned more about my history than I have in school.”

Another student said, “Being in the museums opened my eyes. What they teach in the classroom can be very filtered. On this trip, we saw the rawness of everything, and we experienced it for ourselves.”

Corinne Mosley’s son is a YLI sophomore at CHHS, but her older son belonged to YLI 10 years ago, so her observations are current and retrospective. She accompanied Clark, Giddings and other adult chaperones on the trip. “The 2019 Civil Rights spring break trip was life changing for me,” she said. “I had the opportunity to experience first-hand what my ancestors experienced pre- and post-Civil War and slavery, being able to walk shoulder to shoulder with my youngest son through museums that gave voice to the silent victims of slavery and Jim Crow. We were able to have in-depth discussions on how little has changed in our fight for equality, and about people who risked their lives for us to have most of the liberties we have today. I was able to see the empathy and heartbreak in my son’s eyes as he stood in front of a dilapidated building which changed the trajectory of Emmett Till’s life. A young boy that was one year junior of my own was tortured and killed. Also, I was moved by seeing how my son posed for a picture next to an Emmett Till sign that was riddled with bullet holes.”

YLI student in Miss Mosley is quick to share her admiration and joy for the community and guidance available in YLI. “Ms. Clark doesn’t tolerate bullying or language. Everywhere we went, black and white people alike commented on how well our students behaved,” she said. She described a stop at a McDonald’s in Greenville, South Carolina, when strangers remarked on the polite and respectful presence of the YLI students and stopped to say, “We wish we had a program like this in our schools.” “It was amazing to see the kudos Ms. Clark got, just from people seeing how the kids behaved,” said Mosley.

Corrina Johnson, a senior at CHHS, said, “The spring break trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about my culture in ways that I never thought I could. Before the trip, I thought I knew a lot about the Civil Rights Era. Once we began visiting places in Mississippi and Alabama, I found out that there was so much more to the Civil Rights era than I realized. Visiting historical places like Bryant's Meat Market or the 16th Street Baptist Church had a huge impact on me. I got to remember and honor those who were lynched and killed due to racism. Without the spring break trip, I wouldn't have been able to reflect on my culture in a new light.”