By: Tamika Middleton
Jamil Jackson believes in creating opportunities for young people that weren’t available for him. The organization that he founded in North Minneapolis, Change Equals Opportunity (CEO), is committed to “giving our kids the opportunity before they get to feeling hopeless,” he says.
For the young Black men with whom Jamil works, lack of resources creates a situation ripe for hopelessness. Jamil explains, “In Minneapolis, racism is very much alive, in the schools to the parks. We don’t have community centers. There is an employment and achievement gap.”
Minneapolis has, in fact, been chided for racial disparities in its education system. The city has one of the largest achievements gaps in the nation. Additionally, students of color are disproportionately suspended from the city’s public schools. School superintendent Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, who made national headlines by implementing policies that would require suspensions of students of color to be reviewed by her office, resigned last month.
Jamil isn’t surprised by the disparities. He asks, “When all of your first year new teachers are put into poverty-stricken areas, and they’re white women, and they’re coming in with preconceived notions of who our Black men are, what do you expect?”
But the problems that Minneapolis youth face are not limited to the school system. “The city of Minneapolis is primarily in poverty, but gentrifying and changing to a suburban city because we’re next to the money. But it doesn’t stream down to the inner city. We are without jobs; there’s no work for our kids. There’s nothing beneficial,” Jamil explains.
Witnessing the struggles his son’s friends were facing, Jamil began coaching youth basketball and became a mentor. He sees coaching as a way to teach young people some of the life skills he gained through his own experiences.
At a young age, Jamil had to take on a lot of family responsibility.
“From the time I was 14, we didn’t have parents in the home. Dad left; Mom became an addict. I am the oldest of five brothers and one sister, so I became the head of the household,” he told me.
At 15, he took over the bills. Unable to make ends meet with low-paying jobs, he turned to friends he knew from the street who helped him get started selling drugs.
“Things got worse at about 17, when the guy who was fronting me the drugs disappeared. I tried to get a regular job, but that wasn’t working out that well,” he said.
Through it all, Jamil still felt that school was important. For Jamil and his siblings, though, like for a number of children, poverty made school both difficult and necessary. He explained, “I made sure everybody went to school, but there were days that nobody went to school. Some days we didn’t have food, so the only reason that we went to school was to get enough food to eat.”
Jamil continued selling drugs into his early twenties, despite holding a regular job as a warehouse manager. Married with three kids, he noticed his kids’ friends gravitated toward him. He decided to change his life, stop selling drugs, and become a positive influence.
“They gravitate toward me because I’m the cool dad,” he explained. “All the kids were begging to come to my house after school. I realized that I couldn’t emulate that for them. I did it out of necessity, not out of want. I dwindled down, started focusing on work.”
And he focused on creating positive opportunities for kids, especially those who wouldn’t normally be able to afford them. “I run a basketball league here for inner city youth, and I only charge $50 for them to play. I require two hours of community service and to show up to their CEO session. I might get 25 kids to pay their fees,” he said.
Nonetheless, he continues to meet the need. “God has put you there for a reason,” he declared, “and you’re obligated, so you can’t give up.”