The following is a “conversation.” Excerpts from the first chapter of the book Radical Equations, by Bob Moses and Charlie Cobb, are interwoven with excerpts of writing by Omo Moses, YPP founder and Cliff Freeman, YPP Director of STEM Programs. As such it is a “dialog” between three generations of men that uniquely speaks to how and why YPP came into being, and what its purpose is. Bob speaks about the deep historical roots of this work. Omo speaks about the beginning of YPP. Cliff speaks about how he, a former YPP student from Dorchester, is now growing new frontiers of the work.
Bob: Ella Baker was our “fundi.” In Tanzania, where I lived for a time in the 1970s, the Swahili word fundi refers to a concept of passing on knowledge through direct contact with people who are fundis—skilled craftsmen and instructors. Ella Baker, as well as others, was our fundi in the tradition of community organizing.
Ella Baker: “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
Omo: How come those who “know the least” can be most helpful in teaching. Learning a process of sharing. Layers of conflict. What I first saw in the Algebra Project was the children. Mississippi children know a lot about not having, making do something they have grown used to. Open arms, that’s what they showed me, partly ‘cause I was Taba’s brother, Bob Moses’ son.
Cliff: My name is Cliff Freeman, the Director of STEM Programs at the Young People’s Project, where we employ young people to facilitate high quality mathematics and computer science workshops to middle and elementary school students who have been virtually shut out from quality grounding STEM educational experiences.
Bob: In the 1960’s, of course, the issue was the right to vote, and the question was political access. Voter registration was by no means the only issue one could have fought for, but it was crucial and urgent: Black people had no real control over their political lives, and the time was right to organize a movement to change this.
Omo: I came to Mississippi to find myself. We all gotta be here for a reason. Introspection, a space for it. Space, that would be forty acres and a mule. In Sam M Brinkley Middle School we created a Math Lab. Sammie, 19, finished school in 9th grade, in the lab now because he chooses to be. Everyone wanting to be somebody, Sammie is no different, just a lot of layers to peel through. And how come those who know the least can be most helpful in teaching?
Cliff: YPP was formed as one possible answer to the question, “What and how much do young people have to do to help get Jim Crow out of education in the United States?”
Bob: In the 60’s there existed a powerful consensus on the issue of gaining the political franchise, and the drive for voter registration—especially where it took place deep in the Black belt of the South—captured the imaginations of Americans, particularly of African Americans. So, for a short period of time, because there was agreement among all of the people acting to change Mississippi, we were able to get resources and people from around the country to come and work with us on a common program to get the vote. There was consensus providing a base for strategy and action.
Omo: In the Math Lab we work and Sammie takes pride in standing up and sharing instructions, and some days I will facilitate and he will assist, at the tables working with a group, sitting down together, elbows almost touching, voices next to each other, connected, where relationships are formed and conversation may linger. Talking about the state fair and Master P playing for the Raptors, and hands up, and he sees mine so his hand is raised and a few more are raised and soon everyone’s is raised and we can all hear each other.
Cliff: I am going to enter us into a sort of ritual my friend Bob Moses does when he speaks to groups of people. We are going to recite the preamble. Please repeat after me line after line. Ready?
“We the people of the United States
in order to form a more perfect Union
provide for the common defense
promote the general welfare
and secure the blessings of liberty
to ourselves and our posterity
do ordain and establish
for the United States of America”
Bob: Today, I want to argue, the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy. I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961. I believe we can get the same kind of consensus we had in the 1960s for the effort of repairing this. And I believe that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960s. This has been my work—and that of the Algebra Project—for the past twenty years. I know how strange it can sound to say that math literacy—and algebra in particular—is the key to the future of disenfranchised communities, but that’s what I think, and believe with all of my heart.
Omo: Bob Moses always said to me that first year that the Young People needed to get their act together, and if I didn’t tell him, I told myself that the old people needed to get their act together. Me, I just came here, these problems were here long before me. Everyone is here for the kids. Where are the kids for the kids? That’s maybe what he meant when he said the young people need to get their act together. YPP, a response.
Cliff: If we plan on broadening participation in STEM in a meaningful way it is imperative that we see and involve young people as assets in the design. We must create spaces where space is created for young people to be developed as strong leaders who will eventually lead others to do meaningful work.
Bob: Blacks make up perhaps 15 percent of this country’s population, yet in 1995 they earned 1.8 percent of the Ph.D.s in computer science, 2.1 percent of those in engineering,1.5 percent in the physical sciences, and 0.6 percent in mathematics. Math illiteracy is not unique to Blacks the way the denial of the right to vote in Mississippi was. But it affects Blacks and other minorities much, much more intensely, making them the designated serfs of the information age just as the people that we worked with in the 1960s on the plantations were Mississippi’s serfs then.
Omo: And maybe Sammie doesn’t know the answer to the problem, but those college students from Tougaloo or Jackson State didn’t know it, and they worried about what they were supposed to say. Life, hardly a script, and what we can’t memorize computers can. We got to learn how to share thoughts. Sammie, he sits there and he might struggle with multiplication and not fully understand fractions, but I went to college and could manipulate them but couldn’t articulate their meaning. And sometimes this is something he is ashamed of, not knowing, but when he’s in the room, I always feel we’re learning more.
Cliff: What is YPP? In the 90s, a few young people in their 20s and a handful of 8th graders in Jackson Mississippi who were all students of the Algebra Project dreamed of an organization of their own. The idea was to hire young people to teach and improve math literacy in other younger people in their neighborhoods. In 1996 [African American] children and young people founded an organization and they named it the Young People’s Project. I was 3 at the time and would start kindergarten in a few more years at the Sarah Greenwood K-8 school here in Boston. I am a Boston Public Schools (BPS) Alum. I graduated from New Mission High school in 2012, went off to Wentworth Institute of Technology and obtained a Bachelors in Computer Information Systems in 2016 and a Masters of Science in Technology Management in 2018. My journey into Computer Science (CS) began in the 10th grade, when I started working at the young people’s project as a high school STEM literacy worker. I worked at YPP throughout High School and into college because my peers and I were successful at chipping away at improving the math literacy of hundreds of young people in our neighborhoods as our founding members hoped young people would when they brainstormed the reach of YPP in 1996.
Bob: When I first came to Mississippi, most Black people living in the rich cotton-growing land of the Delta, where they were a majority of the population, were living in serfdom on plantations. They had no control over their lives—their political lives, their economic lives, their educational lives. Within industrialized U.S. society, a microcosm of serfdom had been allowed to grow. The civil rights movement used the vote and political access to try to break that up. We are growing similar serflike communities within our cities today. This began to become apparent as the southern civil rights movement was gaining some of its most important breakthroughs. In 1965, Los Angeles and other urban areas exploded for a brief second and everyone got concerned. Those of us who live in these neighborhoods today are watching them implode all of the time. The violence and the criminalization make people eat each other up. Most of what is proposed in response are Band-Aid solutions—build more jails, put more police on the street. That is working at the problem from the back end.
Omo: Malcolm X learned to read in jail light, freedom in prison, something more than a vivid imagination, physically shackled, forced to create in your mind a space for peace. Today all free, more jails. My brothas sold crack, their families smoke it, communities suffer. Articulate our predicament. We’ve elected officials, some the same color as us, not a rule of thumb, mandatory 10, and three strikes and lifers, fed time, 500 grams of cocaine if you boil it will get you the same as 5. That’s what we sell. And brothas ain’t ignorant to it, let them tell it and the block is hot: snitches, secret indictments, ATF, what movies are made of, reality less glamorous, but we live it. Guns and clips and bullets in them, not above settling conflicts with lives, expectancy accepted, living for a moment, freedom in a moment.
Cliff: I want to tell you about a model that YPP is Co-developing with Excel High school in South Boston that has laid the groundwork which is broadening participation in CS learning for thousands of young people. This work that I am leading and working very hard to maintain and grow is a manifestation of a project that creates space for young people to be developed into strong leaders who go off to do meaningful work that inspires others to do the same. I began developing this work, a program YPP calls Exploring STEM Literacy, while I was in graduate school.
Bob: Recently I heard from a woman who teaches mathematics at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She told me that about 80 percent of freshman must take remedial math, for which they cannot get college credit. Another person, the head of a center for academic advising for minority students at the University of Kentucky at Louisville, told me that close to 90 percent of entering minority students had to take remedial algebra during their freshman year, for which they did not get credit. A faculty member in experimental physics at Rutgers recently lamented the absence of minority students in his classes. He said, “They’re all across campus in the remedial sections.”
Omo: In the math lab, Frankie and Ariel, 14 years young, are in the middle of a circle of about sixty young people, and I see many faces for the first time, and Frankie tells me I got to get in the circle, cause this is mine too. And everyone is saying their name, and the person’s before them and sharing a movement and repeating the movements of the people before them, and I’m last so I gotta remember everyone’s name and try to move like them, and that would mean everyone was watching me, and I don’t like that, and some people danced, and that would mean I would have to, but they were sharing themselves, and I just gotta remember their names and do what they did, and I wish I could just sit down and watch, that would be much easier. But that could be an ending. We all got to give of ourselves to learn who we are. A circle: people, their names, how they move. And that could be a beginning.
Cliff: Exploring STEM Literacy. We are facilitating a 3-section elective course that integrates math and Computer Science in 9th, 10th and 11th grade. For the first half of the year students learn CS & Math from local college students who major in STEM disciplines, and for the next half they become masterful at teaching the content they have learned by organizing what we call Coding Bootcamps For Middle Schoolers, where we invite as many middle schools that want to come, to bring their students so they can learn from our high school STEM Literacy Workers. Since 2017, we have taught more than 2000 BPS students how to code.The preamble permits us to mold this country into a country that works for every person who calls it their home.
Bob: Consider the role of mathematicians here. There is nothing in the training of mathematicians that prepares them to lead in such a literacy effort. Yet the literacy effort really cannot succeed unless it enlists the active participation of some critical mass of the mathematical community. The question of how we all learn to work across several arenas is unsolved. Those arenas are large and complicated. They include the curriculum itself, instructional philosophy, schools, school systems, and individual classrooms. Communities and their processes of social change must also be centrally involved, and in some broad sense, national and local politics. Really working in all these arenas will require that many people adopt a more holistic outlook than they have ever done before.
Omo: In Brinkley Middle School, the Math Lab, we are trying to grow young people, already there, maybe we can get them to flower together. Imagine a bridge of hands holding each other, maybe strong enough for us all to walk on.
Cliff: Be like young people. From the insurgent groups of enslaved Africans who decided they wanted to take off and own themselves, to the insurgency of SNCC field secretaries in Mississippi registering black Mississippians to vote, to the children in 1996 who founded the young people’s project, all the way down to the YPP STEM Literacy workers at Excel Highschool teaching thousands of young people in their communities how to code, they are all doing the work that their constitution permits them to do. In every instance of our country’s existence it was young people that did the heavy lifting of establishing a more perfect union. We must ask ourselves, what might this country be if we were all more like them.