By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Tears came to Kimberly Cox Marshall’s eyes as she approached the Shakur Center on the opening day of the Malcolm X Academy for Afrikan Education on Oct 3.
She was met curbside by center founder Jordan McGowan. The two embraced.
“It’s like going back in time,” Cox Marshall said. The 65-year-old Panther cub grew up in the ’70s riding her bike to the Panthers’ office in San Francisco.
Malcolm X Academy, a full-time community homeschool in Oak Park, is modeled after the Black Panther Party’s longest-standing program, the Oakland Community School. The school is part of the Neighbor Program, a pan-Afrikan socialist organization. It was founded in 2020 by McGowan, a teacher with a master’s in education. The nonprofit is volunteer-run and operates on fundraisers, donations and grants.
The Black Panther Party’s 10-point program is the Neighbor Program’s foundational text. Written by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966, it established the goals of the party. It demanded basic rights such as food, shelter, health care and education.
When most people think of the Panthers, afros, leather jackets and assault rifles come to mind. But for Cox Marshall, it’s about the children.
“This is what my daddy wanted,” she said. Her father was “Field Marshal” Don Cox; the Black Panther died in 2011 while in self-imposed exile in southern France. “Young people are not only getting a meal, but getting knowledge to help them deal with life.”
McGowan’s family also has ties to the Panthers. His father, Phineas, was a Vietnam vet who was court-martialed for treason after associating himself with the Panthers.
“For her to see the school and know that someone is carrying on the work is beautiful,” McGowan said. “So many veteran Panthers feel like their work is forgotten.”
The Panthers’ history in Oak Park runs deep. The Sacramento chapter was headquartered in the neighborhood in the late 1960s. Today, the Panther flag has returned to Oak Park, flying high above the Shakur Center, a refurbished church on Fourth Avenue, less than a mile from where it once flew on 35th Street.
“We want to provide a model of what it would look like for our people to be free, the same way the Panthers did,” McGowan said. “African liberation movements were all socialist movements.”
McGowan acknowledged that “socialism” is a “scary” word for many. He explained the term as “people controlling the means of production.” For the Neighbor Program, that means giving away free groceries, helping folks get felonies expunged free of charge, and — most recently — providing free education with their new school.
“People run away from that word,” McGowan said. “But our goal is to get them to see what we’re actually doing.”
Pushed Out: The Malcolm X Academy For Afrikan Education
A local charter school kicked a 5-year-old out of kindergarten in the first month of school. Today she attends the newly opened Malcolm X Academy.
“Schools are using colonial models and kicking folks out, even in schools that are supposed to be for us,” McGowan said. “Our goal for students here is way different.”
The K-8 school doesn’t rely on grades or school bells to direct the seven students; rather, it’s as organic as the vegetables in the school’s community garden. Students are taught core subjects by a staff of six “ministers,” a title once bestowed upon Panther leadership. The curriculum is free-flowing, leaving space for students to cook in the kitchen, hone their skills on the basketball court, and make beats in the on-site music studio.
“We want to come back to our African and indigenous practices of being community based and leaving space for individuality,” said Melissa Charles, the minister of education who teaches at UC Berkeley. “As a community school, you need to have all of the elements of support for a community — and that’s what the Neighbor Program has been doing.”
The academy’s grand opening drew several dozen people, among them Dr. Elysse Versher, the former vice principal of West Campus High School. She resigned from the role in spring, saying the Sacramento City Unified School District failed to take action against racially motivated threats and sexual harassment.
Versher hopes the academy will be a safe space for Black students and employees.
“A safe space means Black children and employees can show up, be who they are, be treated with respect, dignity, and leave feeling empowered — that’s when curiosity for education grows,” Versher said. “Black children have been actively pushed out for decades, especially in this region.”
A recent report by the NAACP Greater Sacramento Chapter revealed that Black males are five times more likely to be suspended in Sacramento City Unified School District than the statewide average.
Black educators also are pushed out. In addition to Versher, several other educators of color have spoken out against Sacramento county districts. McGowan, in the Twin Rivers district, was one of them.
After facing disciplinary action for doing a Harlem Globetrotters basketball move during a one-on-one game with a student, the tenured teacher decided to part ways with the district.
He since has devoted his full energy to his nonprofit and its new school as minister of programs.
While McGowan’s departure from the district was sudden, it was according to God’s plan, he said. He’d been wanting a school since beginning as a teacher at Oak Park Prep in 2013.
“There’s so many great visions for schools that are supposed to be prioritizing us,” McGowan said. “But I felt like it wasn’t happening in the way I thought it should.”
McGowan wrote out a vision for a sports prep academy that taught an “afrocentric curriculum.” While the academy is not exactly what he envisioned nearly a decade ago, he said the core tenets remain.
“I think this is the organic way,” he said. “This is the way it was supposed to happen.”
Food Apartheid: Breakfast And Grocery Programs
The Neighbor Program’s origins can be traced to 2018, when McGowan still was employed with the school district. After staff meetings, he would take leftover bagels to unhoused folks living near the police station on Richards Boulevard.
The stark difference between the two neighbors wasn’t lost on McGowan.
“There’s literally dozens of cop cars sitting there” with thousands of dollars in upgrades on them, McGowan said. “And then there’s these people I’ve been watching living outside for years — mainly Black.”
The Neighbor Program has grown to feed hundreds, working with grocery stores such as Smart & Final, which donates goods. In September, the free breakfast program served 1,500 hot meals and the grocery program provided 225 boxes of groceries to community members.
Ashanti Bailey is the grocery program lead. The mother of one devotes her Monday and Friday mornings to the program in addition to attending community college full time for culinary arts.
“People need food, especially right now,” Bailey, 27, said. “People can’t afford to buy groceries because gas is so high. … I haven’t seen one person that doesn’t have gratitude and show us love.”
Oak Park has long been considered a “food desert” with limited access to affordable or good-quality fresh food. Food insecurity in the neighborhood has increased recently with the closure of the Oak Park Food Bank.
McGowan was critical of the term “food desert,” which he said avoids the core of the issue.
“Oak Park is subject to a food apartheid,” McGowan said. “We don’t say ‘food desert’ because deserts are a natural occurrence. The neighborhoods our people live in are not natural phenomenons. They are constructed.”
The Neighbor Program fortified its efforts to feed by planting a community garden. It is named Assata, after Assata Shakur, the freedom fighter seeking asylum in Cuba since 1984.
People are encouraged to remove their shoes when stepping into the garden.
“I used to think there’s no way I’d ever walk barefoot,” McGowan said. “But there’s something so liberating about putting your feet in the soil.”
Food programs are integral to academy coursework, which was designed by DeJay Bilal, the minister of curriculum who is completing his doctorate in education.
“We do seasonal curriculums,” Bilal, 27, said. “Each week, we have a STEM lab [science, technology, engineering and math], a cultural activity and a gardening activity.”
Recently, a 6-year-old began to learn multiplication while helping with the grocery program. When doing inventory, Bilal asked the student to total the number of meals grouped in bags.
“As the questions got harder, she was still able to figure them out — and she’d never done multiplication before,” Bilal said. “That’s two years above grade level.”
Not Just Another Nonprofit: By Any Means Necessary
When McGowan taught his Malcolm X lesson plan, he asked students why the revolutionary was important.
“He’s important because he’s Black like us,” said one 6-year-old.
That was not the answer McGowan was looking for. But he recognized that “you wouldn’t hear that at a regular school — but that’s probably how White kids feel every day.”
The lesson plan is meant to address a need accessed more than 50 years ago in point five of the Panthers’ 10-point program. It demands an education that teaches both true history and Black people’s role in present society.
“Our school is serving students by framing their development as part of a larger struggle,” Bilal said. “Not just an individual pursuit for money.”
The Neighbor Program isn’t driven by social mobility or personal gain. Staff are unpaid, including McGowan. He periodically has donated his own money to make Shakur Center’s rent.
The program has applied for grants since obtaining 501(c)(3) status in 2021. They’ve been awarded two grants and are awaiting payment for one of them, McGowan said. They filed a 990-N for their 2021 taxes, which is a form for tax-exempt organizations with annual gross receipts less than $50,000.
“That tells you what our budget was,” McGowan said. “You can also look at the number of people we fed, the number of political education classes we held, and the number of newspapers we put out.”
The Neighbor Program currently has 10 programs — and counting. Plans are moving full steam to open a daycare, which will address needs in a region where 90% of Black parents report uncertainty around child-care access. Like the academy, the daycare will be priced on a sliding scale. But no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
“When you’re doing work that’s for your neighbor, or ‘revolutionary work,’ it should be to uplift by any means necessary,” Bilal said. “We’re serving the people because our people need access to these resources. It doesn’t come at a price.”
For more information on The Neighbor Program and the Malcolm X Academy, visit neighborprogram.org.