Willie Jenkins wants to do more than tell the world that Black lives matter — he wants to show them why.
So, the Bridgehampton-based activist and leader of many marches on the subject all summer long started a youth program, called Zenith, to teach children 13 to 19 years old about African and African American history.
“This program is designed to teach kids of all races, creeds and backgrounds about African American history that isn’t taught in schools, giving them a better understanding of our culture,” Mr. Jenkins said. “We’re going to jump around — not just focusing on boring or depressing things that happened throughout history that unfortunately our people had to deal with. We’re going to let them know our people rose above it and this is what they contributed to the world; what we contributed that’s not always put out there.”
The class, held every other Friday at 7 p.m. inside the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center, a historically African American organization that serves East End children and families, according to Executive Director Bonnie Michelle Cannon, is co-taught by Mr. Jenkins, a center alumnus, and will focus on Black musicians, artists, rights advocates and others who helped shape the course of history. It also more importantly, co-instructor Jenna Solis said, focuses on the self.
“In today’s world, there’s so many things that trigger you to not have a hold on your identity — getting lost in what’s happening around you and who is doing what,” said Ms. Solis, the coordinator of the center’s DREAM — Dedication, Responsibility, Education, Attitude and Motivation — team. “We want to hone into knowing who you are as an individual and thriving in your uniqueness. That’s the bottom line.”
The leader of the youth group It’s Divine, which concentrates on life skills and financial literacy, said Mr. Jenkins brings a cultural component to work the DREAM team has already been doing, helping to expand its reach.
“It seemed to be a great fusion between the two programs,” Ms. Solis said. “We have similar teaching styles — keeping the energy up and making sure the content is relateable and applicable. I think Willie’s approach with hip-hop and teaching them in that way definitely helps, and then I’m tying it into their day-to-day. We’re encouraging and inspiring and setting the tone for self-identity. I think we’re onto something.”
She and the center’s executive director said students were enthused about and absorbing the material.
“I was impressed,” Ms. Cannon said. “They were all engaged in conversation and laughing. It was good to see in the midst of a pandemic. They were actually able to talk about specific issues that mean something to them. And Willie was right up there. He was holding the court down and they were into it and very excited about it and looking forward to coming back.”
Focusing on current issues is part of where the program got its name, meaning at a time when something is most powerful or successful. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Jenkins saw hundreds come out to walk alongside him, and supporting still, last month, in a Black Lives STILL Matter march. Earlier this month, he joined Bay Shore’s Leon Goodman in his silent venture from the 59th Street Bridge in New York City to the Montauk Lighthouse to protest police brutality. Mr. Jenkins sees what these timely initiatives can do and wants to keep the conversation going. Ms. Cannon said that ties into what the center has always striven to do.
“Part of what we do is teach the children who they are, who they came from and where they came from. It fell right in line with what we do,” she said, also pointing to a summer program for kids 5 to 13, where a different culture and theme is studied each year. “Even before the pandemic, and before all the racial tension, it’s always been the sentiment at the center that we feel it’s important to teach our young people about different cultures. We’ve been doing that for years.”
She thinks the Zenith program, along with the center’s many others, can change the narrative.
“They’re teaching historical values of each culture, also dealing with empowerment, leadership and motivation. We have a lot of the problems we do in the world today because we don’t take the time to understand each other — our history. If we take the time to understand each other, we’ll be able to get along a lot better. It’s all about education and awareness while also making people of different cultures we’re talking about feel good about themselves, because a lot of the time nobody acknowledges that,” Ms. Cannon said.
“This is what we contribute to the success of the United States of America. Once everybody understands that, and especially if we can teach that to our youth now, when they become adults, all of this racial tension will subside, because we have spent time learning each other, talking to each other — that’s what it’s always been about. We’re trying to bridge the gap. It’s about breaking down the barriers of divisiveness.”
The center going virtual with many of its programs has also helped in its mission. Students in Atlanta have even logged into Zoom meetings with the DREAM team.
Anyone looking to participate in the Zenith program that doesn’t feel comfortable attending in-person can also stream it live. The physical classroom itself can hold 20 kids — accounting for social distancing — and sanitizing stations are available. Masks need to be worn at all times.
“Our first session was so much fun,” Mr. Jenkins said, hosting a class of 10 children along with many that checked in virtually. “Great kids, great conversations. We have so much to learn and share. We want to get really sociable — there’s so much bonding to do.”
Locals have also responded positively to what the community organizer is doing.
A syllabus is provided for those who sign up. To do so, contact Mr. Jenkins via email at Mayhamn33@gmail.com or call 631-603-9972. He promises the Zenith program will be “more fun than a math class.”
“We are excited to begin this journey,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Our hope is to give a sense of pride and understanding to children and to also show kids of all colors that everyone’s history is important. With knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding comes love.”