Srishti Prabha | The Sacramento Observer

The gym at the Martin Luther King Jr. Technology Academy in North Sacramento is packed with students. Though it’s a hot July morning, the campus is alive with music echoing through the halls.

A crowd of kids chant in unison: “Go Danii! Go Danii! Say, Read Aloud! Read Aloud!”

Danii Mikaio, a 14-year-old Black and Samoan student, is dancing while doing a call and response to motivate younger children before a group reading session. At the Roberts Family Development Center’s Freedom School summer camp, Mikaio is not just a student, but a mentor. 

“I would say my role is being a [good] influence to the younger kids and making sure that they’re in the right space for when they get my age,” Mikaio said. 

Unknowingly, Mikaio touches upon a significant moment in a child’s life: Mentorship and guidance from Black elders with similar lived experiences is life changing. In North Sacramento, where children are more susceptible than most to negative life outcomes, youth programs occupy their free time and moderate learning loss. 

Lashanette Frye reads to children at Freedom School on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

For years, the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a program with the The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, has partnered with local organizations like the RFDC’s Freedom Schools and another Sierra Health Foundation program called My Brother’s Keeper Sacramento, or MBK, to implement summer education projects that promote equity for Black youth and reduce violence in their communities. 

From representative literacy to mental health, the programs have helped facilitate growth for Black students at a time of year when they are most forgotten. 

Chris Robinson, founder of 4YourEpiphany, is an educator at MBK and can empathize with his students. A third-generation North Sacramentan, he lost interest in education after being typecast as an incapable Black boy in fourth grade by his teacher. 

“Prior to going to her class in fourth grade, I loved school,” he explained. “That seed that she planted in me emotionally and mentally grew into a garden, and it was a garden of self-doubt and fear and unworthiness.” 

Danii Mikaio, 14, is a student attending Freedom School in North Sacramento this summer, pictured Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Though the Freedom Schools and MBK may be separate organizations, their work intersects and builds community. 

“This is a safe space”

At the MLK Tech Academy, Luna Robinson, 6, flips to her favorite page in the book “The Little Things: A Story About Acts of Kindness.” The page depicts a Black girl with three curly-haired pigtails standing among seashells. 

Luna says she’s never seen seashells before but she dares to dream.

“I like the seashells, and I want to collect them,” she said. 

Culturally-competent literature, representative supportive networks and safe spaces are important to foster education growth. This is what the Freedom School aims to offer.  

In California, nearly two-thirds of Black girls are not at proficient reading levels, according to a 2019 review of state education data by CalMatters. And the rates are even lower for Black boys — one out of four meet the reading and writing requirements of the state. 

But at the Freedom School program, Luna’s ability to resonate with the main character of her book opened the floodgates to endless possibilities — she can unlock new worlds and experiences through her love of reading. 

In the same class, 8-year-old Rejoice Brown expresses her love for math. 

Only 19% of Sacramento’s Black youth were meeting the state’s math standards in 2021. Brown’s interest in math is the outcome of an environment that caters to her and addresses her gaps in knowledge. 

“In my other school — the one I don’t do in the summertime — I’m failing math,” Brown says. “But here I’m doing good.” 

Chet P. Hewitt addresses the My Brother’s Keeper graduation on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Lashanette Frye, Brown and Luna’s teacher, is intentional in her classroom dynamics. 

“We want to create a climate in the classroom where they feel it’s a comfortable space,” Frye said. “I just want them to know that whatever happens at home, that once you come here, this is a different space. This is a safe space… this is something you can look forward to.” 

Jasmine Mackenzie, a 12-year-old in the program, says at her elementary school, she’s faced racism and felt unsupported. Perceptions of Black youth shape their educational spheres — they hop, skip and jump around landmines from a very young age. 

But at the Freedom School, she says she can make mistakes.

“They don’t just go, ‘Oh, well, you did one thing wrong,’” Mackenzie said. “They give you chances so you can get it right.”  

Creating a village for Black youth

Brought up in a single-grandparent household around Del Paso Heights, Shelbi Oliphant knew she had to give back to her community. So it was monumental for her when she started working at the Freedom Schools.

“I believe my second week of Freedom Schools, I found out that my brother was murdered in the very neighborhood in which he lived,” she said.

Oliphant and her brother were brought up similarly, though their life paths diverged as teens. As they got older, she says she witnessed her brother make decisions that led to his untimely death.

“There weren’t a lot of male role models in his life to kind of tell him that this path that you’re going down with the fighting, it could cause what it caused,” Oliphant explained. 

After the shock of her brother’s death, Oliphant says she was even more resolute in her mission to change young Black children’s lives to ensure they did not fall prey to the same issues that took her brother from her. 

For years, North Sacramento’s Black youth have been robbed of their childhood. The Black Child Legacy Campaign reported African American children were dying at a rate three times higher than that of any other demographic in Sacramento County.

Tarrell Smith, 15, poses outside the graduation ceremony for My Brother’s Keeper, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Community leaders, including Oliphant, have pushed for more youth program funding to help curb violence and continue to build off of pre-pandemic successes.

In November, voters will weigh in on a city ballot measure that would spend about $10 million a year for youth programs, mental health counseling and after school activities.

Just a few years ago, community-based programs made unprecedented strides and brought the number of Black youth victims of homicide down to zero for 28 consecutive months.

Now, the pandemic has reintroduced some old concerns, and added some new ones. So far this year, more than 60% of gun violence victims in Sacramento are younger than 30 years old, according to the police department’s crime statistics. And half of all gun violence victims are Black. 

Dr. Nicole Clavo, with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, is aware of the shifting needs in Sacramento.

“The feeling in the community is that it is on a decline,” she wrote in an email. “Youth are reaching out for resources to build a different lifestyle.” 

For Oliphant, a different lifestyle means mitigating violence-driven behavior in youth.

“Violence comes from hate — hate of the people, hate of themselves,” she says. “But here at Freedom Schools, we create community… We’re giving them tools to be able to work through that. Let’s not use guns.”

“This is a rite of passage”

My Brother’s Keeper Sacramento’s 2022 cohort stood tall and proud at their graduation in July. There’s a pregnant pause before a chorus of self-love descriptors the boys and young men speak into the room.

“My name is Tarrell Smith, and I am intelligent,” one of them says.

Another follows: ”My name is Trayzell White, and I am one of a kind.”

Symbolic gestures at the MBK graduation are ritualistic, intentional and ancestral. The mentees plant seeds to symbolize their growth and pour out sand to nourish their communities. 

One organization can not bear the burden of tackling every need of a young Black child. But MBK Sacramento does what it can.

Ray Green, a coordinator with the organization, was once part of RFDC’s work to bring Freedom Schools to Sacramento. Now, he uplifts the lessons of the Freedom Schools with the practice of restorative youth justice for Black boys and men.

During the ceremony, Green reminds them, “This is a rite of passage. This is your moment to remember for a lifetime. I don’t know if you’ll ever get another one.”

Freedom School starts with “Harambee,” as a group activity each morning, Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

MBK mentee Tarrell Smith, 15, wants the impression of Black boys to change. To help, he says wants to become an aerospace engineer to break the cycle he has witnessed in his community. 

“Just looking at my skin color, [people] think I’m a hoodlum and a bad kid,” he said. “But I’m the total opposite. And I want to have a chance of changing that. I want my voice to be heard in my community.”

At 24, Trayzell White is one of the older members of the cohort and drives the dialogue on mental health with Black men and boys. White says he has survived incarceration and has been in and out of mental health facilities. 

MBK’s curriculum encourages high self-esteem and better mental health to decrease antisocial behavior — something White knows all too well.

“I understand how far people go and how far somebody can come,” said White said. “I say I’m blessed, not lucky, because I know everybody doesn’t get to have the type of story that I had, and I get to come back from it.”

The youth in the program take care of one another and celebrate each other’s wins. It’s a brotherhood where any one can mentor the other without the stigma of weakness.

Hence the motto: “I am my brother’s keeper.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Srishti Prabha is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento OBSERVER.