Jump start: Me2We conference helps youths leap ahead

POSITIVE MOMENTUM: Members of the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy participated in a recent Me2We conference that fostered leadership and community involvement. Pictured, back row (left to right): Joshua Garcia-Billings, Kanaje Allen, Mikayla Ray, Antares Lance, Phoenix Keyser, Shaunessy Lofton, Satorrius Uddyback, Taekwon Griffin. Middle row: Promyss Watley, Brittany Boseman, Raekwon Griffin. Front row: Jahni Gilliland, Diana Marquez, Michael Davis, Mariah Lee, Candida Alas-Ortega. Photo by Eric Howard
POSITIVE MOMENTUM: Members of the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy participated in a recent Me2We conference that fostered leadership and community involvement. Pictured, back row (left to right): Joshua Garcia-Billings, Kanaje Allen, Mikayla Ray, Antares Lance, Phoenix Keyser, Shaunessy Lofton, Satorrius Uddyback, Taekwon Griffin. Middle row: Promyss Watley, Brittany Boseman, Raekwon Griffin. Front row: Jahni Gilliland, Diana Marquez, Michael Davis, Mariah Lee, Candida Alas-Ortega. Photo by Eric Howard

Brittany Boseman is on her knees, pink ball cap squashing down her long, raven-black braid, studying the sentence strips laid out on the carpeted floor. It’s the first day of the 2014 Me2We Conference, and Boseman is taking direction from her peers on the best way to arrange them. Each of the nine participants has contributed a strip, written in various colors.

The exercise represents the culmination of two hours’ worth of instruction; in the first hour, the kids played the classic jump-rope game double dutch in the Biltmore Avenue garage down the street from the YMI Cultural Center.

“And when we do this,” workshop leader Tamiko Murray had explained, “I want you to really sense your surroundings. What are you hearing? What are you seeing? What are you smelling? What’s the rhythm to double dutch?”

It’s a tough game to master, and the two guys in the group are noticeably reluctant to jump in. When they do, the ropes slap them across the back and face, and they barely stumble out alive.

“Damn, man!” one exclaims. “Even in 2014, black kids are getting tangled up in white ropes.”

After returning to a cluttered office on the YMI’s third floor and snacking on ice pops, each person is instructed to take a sentence strip and write a single line beginning with “Double dutch is…”

“Double dutch is harsh,” one student writes.

“Double dutch is an action that provokes an epiphany we all share,” another offers.

“Double dutch is Black girls’ first steps away from degradation.”

The final task, facilitated by Boseman, is forming the disparate statements into a poem: an organic, coherent whole.

“That one kind of explains what double dutch is. It needs to go to the top. Like, introducing the concept.”

“I think that word’s missing a letter. You wanna…?”

“I’ll stick it in. Here?”

“Yeah.”

“Put the line with degradation between those two. It kind of leads in from the other one. Like the first is more what it is, and the second’s more, like, shifted.”

“That’s a good observation,” notes Murray. “It creates a lot of tension in the poem.”

“My participation in Me2We has changed my view of Asheville altogether. Being able to see all the community leaders that I didn’t know of before is inspiring. And besides recognizing our present and future leaders, they also give thanks to our past leaders. Me2We taught me to follow my own beliefs and goals. I am now following in the footsteps of the Me2We leaders in trying to find ways to bring my community closer together.” — Brittany Boseman

Experiential learning

This is only one of seven workshops offered at the third annual Me2We Conference, an exercise in “intergenerational instruction, experiential learning and peer mentoring,” according to the brochure.

“We wanted to institute a youth leadership program that honors the accomplishments of ASCORE,” says Erika Germer of the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy. “Learning from the past generation’s successes and then confronting their own challenges today. The overall purpose is to create a forum for minority youth to learn about their community’s past as well as recognize their own ability to understand the future.”

ASCORE, the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, played a key role in local desegregation efforts during the ’60s.

“It was active from 1960-65,” says conference co-founder Deborah Miles of UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education. “At first we did commemorations of that work. Then we decided to take that effort and work to rebuild the civic engagement they learned to do. We figured that was the best way to honor their work.”

The first year, 2012, was the 50th anniversary of major desegregation in Asheville. “The hope,” continues Miles, “was to use the anniversary to build interest.” Wholly funded by grants and nonprofits, Me2We is in year three of a four-year focus on civic engagement; 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I learned that it’s not how the city looks: It’s the community that matters. I also learned about taking opportunities such as Green Opportunities, and I was privileged to hear other young African-American men give their perspectives on stereotypes. With all of these words put together, what I’m trying to get at is this: Me2We rocked!” — Alex Jones

Common unity

The two-day conference runs from 9 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., focusing on a different theme each year. “The first year we had ASCORE people come in the morning, and then college in the afternoon,” says Germer, adding, “We might come full circle to that in the last year.”

Five organizations have joined forces to produce the 2014 edition: the Center for Diversity Education, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination),the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy, the I Have a Dream Foundation of Asheville, andMANOS (Mentoring and Nurturing Our Students).

The event, notes Germer, “is set up like an adult conference, right down to the name tags and registration. The students are getting to select tracks, and you’re interacting with people that might not necessarily be your friends, but you’re exploring that common theme that’s interesting to you.”

Community and connection are a big part of Me2We, and they’re reflected in this year’s theme, “Rep My City.” “Community,” local spoken-word poet Jonathan Santos noted during the opening ceremony. “Common unity: the space between you and me.” But community includes both history and a sense of fostered connection, whether through former ASCORE members, “alumni-led discussions” or “this is my story” sessions, in which college students or recent graduates share their experiences and answer participants’ questions.

“The Me2We Conference is a great time for you to meet new people and to explore and learn about people’s lives. Also to know what people did to make the conference how it is now. It’s also a time for fun and winning prizes. A time when people get together to better our community and to help change the people in our community.” — Maria Rubalcara

Track record

The idea behind this year’s workshops, says Germer, is “exploring identity through the arts”; students choose a track that fits their interests (though some undecided ones are assigned to groups to help keep them roughly even in size). In addition to the poetry/double dutch track, the list includes:

Hip-hop: Each student writes a four- or five-line verse and records it to a beat, using high-quality audio equipment.

Video: Students here create a “Rep My City” video. After going out and asking passers-by for their reactions to stereotypes of Asheville, they collect the responses on a sheet of poster board taped up on the wall. The list includes such statements as “I am not a hippie,” “I do not support Biltmore House” and “There are people of color here.”

Visual art: Group members create papier-mâché masks to express their individual personalities.

Photography: These students go out into the city, either alone or in small groups, come up with a theme, and snap at least eight photos of parts of Asheville that relate to it.

Dance: These kids help develop and then rehearse a hip-hop dance to a pumped-up version of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Fashion design: About eight kids explore “upcycling,” a newish fashion concept that involves using two or more pieces of worn-out, obsolete or frayed clothing to create something new.

Double dutch is ….

Double dutch is red sneakers on flaming black top,
Double dutch is velvet brown velvet girls sweating mangos,
Double dutch is boys taking off their chains to jump,
Double dutch is girls turning white ropes,
Double dutch is Black girls’ first steps away from degradation,
Double dutch is God’s way of turning things around.

Double dutch is Beyoncé to your ears,
Purple to your eyes and plums to your mouth,
Double dutch is pain to your hands,
And a lavender scent to your nose.

Double dutch is harsh.

Double dutch is life on the concrete that brings smiles to passers-by.
Double dutch is the sound of beads beating on the sidewalk,
Double dutch is when the people come together
To hold the ropes for those who dare to jump,
Double dutch is feeling the rhythm and seeing
The time is right.

Double dutch is the action that provokes an epiphany we all share,
Double dutch is the bonding among teachers and students over the summer,
Double dutch is me “repping my city.”

Fear of failure

The 92 conference participants range in age from middle school to high school, Germer explains. And for conference organizers and leaders, that means navigating the often turbulent emotions of insecure, self-conscious high-schoolers while maintaining their excitement and focus over two alluring summer days. The discomfort of one girl in the poetry/double dutch session, for example, is palpable: A rising ninth-grader, she’s the youngest in her group and doesn’t know any of the others. Meanwhile, two girls in the dance group just sit on the sidelines, watching their peers rehearse.

“It’s fear,” says their group leader. “Fear of failing; fear of looking stupid. Fear of putting yourself out there.”

The best way to combat those emotions is by creating a safe space bolstered by a close-knit community. Many students, in fact, exhibit both strong support for others and a complete lack of self-consciousness. One self-taught robotic hip-hop dancer has no qualms about performing not one but two solos during the conference, and several members of the poetry workshop display natural leadership skills. Even the painfully reserved girl is much more expressive and involved the second day.

“It’s a time for them to exhibit some peer leadership,” says Germer, and many of the students seem up to the challenge. Fully half of the poetry workshop participants, including two of the three girls, want to become M.D.s, a field still dominated by white men. Rising senior Shaunessy Lofton hopes to attend either Wake Forest or Dukeand specialize in pediatric oncology. Pearl Debellott, a rising 10th-grader at Asheville High, has a plan for the entire next decade: “Go to school and then join the military and have them pay off my college loans, then become a doctor. Surgeon, probably.”

Follow the money

For low-income minority youth, money can be a major obstacle to getting these kinds of experiences. “There’s nothing like this,” says Germer. “There’s leadership conferences in, say, Raleigh and that sort of thing, but if you delve into it it’s mostly white, student-government-type kids, and it costs money to attend.”

Meanwhile, notes Miles, “Research shows that when young people are engaged, they maintain that behavior for a lifetime. It’s harder to pick up the habit of caring for the community later on in life.”

But while students don’t pay to take part in Me2We, that means the sponsoring organizations must come up with the money, so extending the project past its initial four-year run will depend on outside support.

“It takes about $7,000 a year for 100 students to do this program,” says Miles. “The hope was to use the 50th anniversaries to build interest, followed by money, so it could continue. Hopefully it will. I would like to get to the point that a yearly luncheon funds it. Last year it made $1,500. It was the first year, so pretty good.”

Putting yourself out there

The Expo, the conference’s final component, is wehn each track presents its work. The dancers dance, and the hip-hop writers come up and play the song to which each of them contributed a verse. The hook is the line “Who in the world?” as in “Who in the world, who in the world, who in the world is [student’s name]? followed by three or four lines describing that person. And if the talent level varies, all at least seem to grasp the basic rules of the form. One precocious youngster stands up and mouths his verse while moving agilely in quick-time fashion.

The fashion group’s showcase features merged T-shirts and assorted re-engineered cloth scraps. Group leader Kimberly Hunter bestows a prize on a girl who went home after the first day and “upcycled” a piece of her own clothing.

Meanwhile, the photography track’s leader has set up a Web page so group members can present slideshows of their photographs. The first two girls go into considerable detail about each one of their images; but the next two stand up and declare: “We’re not going to explain the photos like everyone else ’cause, like, we think photos and art, like, means different things to each specific person.” Postmodernism, it seems, is taking root in these kids before they even learn to drive.

Then it’s poetry’s turn, and the group double-dutches while reciting a poem they wrote the second day. It’s a game attempt, but the execution is clumsy. The stomping feet and slapping ropes drown out the students’ voices as they pass the microphone, each one reading a section. And when Lofton, the future pediatric oncologist, jumps into the swirling ropes, disaster strikes.

Is the floor too slick? The space too small? Do the ropes just happen to catch her at a bad angle?

Whatever the cause, both her feet come out from under her as she lands with a thud on the hard wood floor, yelping in surprise. The audience gasps and stands, and her fellow double-dutchers start forward to help her up. It’s precisely the kind of public humiliation the more timid participants seem to fear the most.

But as Lofton gets to her feet and slinks back to hide behind another student, instead of taunts and jeers, the room breaks into sincere applause and laughter. And when she sits down, there’s a big grin on her face. The kids are cheering, yelling “That-a-girl,” and suddenly, there it is: Community. Common unity. A dynamic mass of high schoolers coming together to support one of their own.  237A5271

“This was a great thing to be part of. I learned how to ‘Rep My City’ and how I can be a big part of my city’s growth. I also learned how to try new things. It was a good, fun time to meet new people. I have been in the Me2We Conference ever since it started, and I love it and hope it keeps going.” — Jesse Rubalcara

A wider world

“I think with a program like this … I don’t want to say it changes their trajectory,” Germer observes, “but it provides them with a wider world.”

In a few short hours they’ll venture back into a city where their parents’ annual incomes average $10,000 less than those of their white counterparts; into neighborhoods where the poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. The challenges these young people face are huge: The road is long, the temptations immense. Yet in that moment, the future looks bright.

These kids, Miles predicts, “will be the next generation of leaders — in this community and throughout our state and nation. They will have a voice and be the people at the table who make decisions for the community’s well-being. They will make us proud.”

To learn more about the Me2We program, contact Erika Germer (EGermer@ashevillenc.gov).

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