Students throughout the United States are returning to classrooms this month, and they’ll continue to do so into September. They’ll bring their summer vacation experience, as well as years of previous studies.
For Curtis Hill, a first-year student at the University of Mississippi, the experience of returning to the classroom also includes years as a social justice organizer which taught him about rural Mississippi, issues affecting young people, working with community members and Black American history.
Since he was a middle school student, he has been involved in programs at the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, which is based in Lexington, Mississippi. The community organization focuses on grassroots leadership, social justice and empowerment for area residents.
Equal Voice News recently spoke with Hill about what he learned as a community organizer and how lessons as a middle and high school student will help during his college years. In 2014, Hill’s community work earned him a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award.
For a career, he plans on becoming an attorney.
Q: How did you get involved in community organizing and working with Nollie Jenkins?
My work with Nollie Jenkins began on a Sunday at church. Miss Ellen Reddy [the executive director] and I go to the same church. She came up to me and asked: “Do you want to go to our orientation for youth development?” I said: “Yes.” I didn’t have anything to do for that summer. I also trusted Miss Ellen. It fit. I went. This was in eighth grade, maybe 2011 or 2012.
Q: Why was this a fit for you?
I lost my father when I was 5. I was looking to grab hold of something and something for me to do. My mom was working all the time. My granddad was there, but he was working in the fields and helped build fences. I tried that. It was pretty hard. I knew if there was an alley for me to do something else, I would take it.
Q: What was it like going to this youth development program?
Everything was new. It was the first time where I felt people wanted to hear what I wanted to say. Everything was: “What did you think?”
I’ve never been asked that question that many times. At school, the teachers would always lecture. It was nice that I came to an organization that believed in you and felt I had something to contribute. Miss Ellen saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
Q: What did she see in you?
I think she saw a young man who was willing to listen and learn and just absorb things.
Q: What type of questions did they ask you in the program?
They gave us the time to reflect on things. They also gave us a small project. We started a campaign to abolish corporal punishment, which is when you get paddled at school. Another person and I were the leads. It’s still in the Holmes County School District.
If you’re disruptive in class or talk back to the teacher, instead of using the counselors to talk to the students and becoming a mediator, instead of taking those steps, you get paddled. Or you get sent home.
Some students might take the paddling so their parents won’t hear about it. But you can have emotional damage. You might not want to contribute to the learning environment.
Q: What happened with the campaign?
We succeeded in getting our voices heard and bringing the issues to the local P16 Council, which is formed after a school is failing for three years. It’s made up of community people and educators. I think they listened, but it didn’t go too far. But we raised awareness about it.
Q: What else did you learn?
We learned about the demographics of our county. We looked at areas of waste where people were dumping on the side of the road. It was to get us aware of our surroundings.
We also had “Scholars for Peace.” It taught students about their African-American heritage. They taught us that we were more than what other people said. It taught me that in Africa for 5,000 years, there was peaceful resolution.
Q: When did you realize that you were learning new lessons and growing?
Here’s an example. In 11th grade, I was at my granddad’s house. He lives in the countryside. We had to walk up a muddy road or dry dusty road to catch the bus. The reason the bus didn’t come down the road was because of pot holes.
One of the things I did, it was the best organizing I’ve done, is that I talked to my superintendent to explain to him that maybe in the future my cousin will need to walk the road. I said, “How about coming to fix the road?”
A month after that, the road was fixed.
Q: You’re an intern with the South by Southwest Experiment (SxSWE), which focuses on Black-Brown relations. Could you talk about that?
It’s a connection involving people from Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. I work around building Black-Brown relations. We work around environmental justice and race issues.
The basis is that we have shared troubles. It’s just knowing that my Brown brother has gone through something similar to me. We shouldn’t be working against each other.
Q: You describe yourself as a simple guy who wants to give back to your community. Why?
I come from a household where you have to work for what you have. Though you have parents who work, you might have parents who might be working low-income jobs.
There is not anything special about me. But I’ve been blessed to be part of a community organization that taught me how to go out and get the things I want or be the change I want to be around me.
Some young people just go with the crowd. It’s easier to be a follower, than a leader. But if you step out, you might become a leader and your idea might spark another idea and that might lead to change.
Q: What motivates you to continue doing social justice work?
Social justice is about helping others. It’s the right thing to do. If you’ve gone through experiences, why not reach your hand out and help others?
Interview conducted by Brad Wong, news editor for Equal Voice News. The interview was edited for clarity.