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The kids are alright

Youth focus marks new shift for John Hope Franklin National Symposium

Eleven-year-old advocate Jahkil will speak at the John Hope Franklin National Symposium.

Andi Harman

After helping his aunt and cousin distribute food to people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, 8-year-old Jahkil Naeem Jackson started a new initiative to build awareness around the struggle for housing and job security. His Project I Am offers “Blessing Bags,” which are filled with toiletries, snacks, bottled water and other necessities.

“I saw how they lived on the streets and I didn’t understand why they were out there,” he said of that first experience. Jahkil went home and talked to his mom about what he saw, and together they developed the idea to provide relief to those in crisis by offering these basic provisions.

Now 11, Jahkil is a sought-after speaker who divides his time between helping his community and staying busy with school and after-school activities. His work has drawn the attention of powerful advocates like President Barack Obama, who acknowledged Jahkil as a difference-maker in 2017—first in a tweet, then in-person at a special reception hosted by Obama Foundation.

While the experience helping and advocating for vulnerable communities has taught Jahkil valuable skills like public speaking, its biggest value is much more basic. “I’ve learned that homeless people are people too,” he said.

Jahkil will be a speaker at the annual John Hope Franklin National Symposium this year. The event will be held May 29–31 at various sites across Tulsa.

This is the first year the symposium has offered sessions geared toward young people. Symposium Chairman Dewayne Dickens said the new focus is in response to a growing awareness within society of the change-making power of young people and their work in civic engagement.

“What we are wanting to do with this symposium is make our effort intentional in passing along the baton, and not just saying, ‘They’re the next generation, so they need to listen,’” he said. “It’s not quite that simple—we need to listen.”

This is the 10th year for the symposium, whose focus will be on civic engagement and its importance in our democracy. The concept of reconciliation, a key idea for the symposium and the center bearing its name, is also an integral part of the equation. “Reconciliation is not just one item that we reconcile. It’s more of an evolving understanding of where things have gone wrong in society as we interact with one another,” Dickens said.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is usually what draws people into the conversation, according to Dickens. “That tends to be where the conversation starts. There’s always deep conversation about what are we doing for reconciliation on that one effort. That’s the story that brings us together, but it’s not where the story ends.”

The goal, he said, is to create a sense of harmony. “Everyone in Tulsa has been affected by the problems related to the Greenwood story and the symposium puts that on the table, but says, ‘Let’s do more than talk. Let’s act and be those change agents.’”

There will be a community walk on May 30, starting at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and ending at OSU-Tulsa. Dickens said the free event will celebrate young people making change across Tulsa and Oklahoma.

The keynote speech for the symposium, also free to the public, will take place on May 29 at the Greenwood Cultural Center. The speaker will be Kenneth Morris, co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative and author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Morris is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington.

“I’ll be talking about their legacies and their contributions to education and our country and to freedom,” Morris said. “Then I’ll transition into talking about human trafficking, contemporary human rights, work that we do in schools … From there I will talk about service learning and civic engagement and what we do to inspire young people to want to become civically engaged in their communities.”

He will also speak about John Hope Franklin, who he said has been an inspiration to him.

“Of course, reconciliation is the topic of the conference, and so I’m going to talk about history and the importance of understanding where we come from in order to know where we’re headed,” he said.

Symposium panels will cover a variety of topics: culturally competent mental health services, restorative justice, and the Freedmen of Indian Country, among others. Panelists and moderators will include Mayor G.T. Bynum and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist.

Jahkil, for one, hopes his participation at the event will help inspire more youth to get involved in their communities. “[If] you see something and you don’t like it … you should do something about it, instead of just whining or crying about a situation,” he said. “You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult … you can do it right now.”

The John Hope Franklin National Symposium will run May 29–31. Registration is available at jhfcenter.org. Students and educators can attend for free.

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