On Sunday, July 14, sixteen aspiring young leaders from the Mississippi Arkansas Delta became the first cohort to graduate from the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship in the region. The ceremony marked the completion of a 15-month journey where fellows learned about values-based leadership through dialogue and personal reflection, interfaced with high-level stakeholders and influential community members, and designed and implemented a community impact project. The diverse group comprised fellows from both Mississippi and Arkansas and across a wide range of academic and professional interests, but all shared a deep passion for their home region and a desire to use their new understanding of leadership and feelings of empowerment to address compelling issues in their community.
The graduation ceremony was held at The Bank in downtown Clarksdale, MS and was attended by over 50 community stakeholders, family members and friends of the graduating cohort. The assembled group heard from keynote speaker LaToya Jones, Assistant Principal of Delta College Preparatory School, AYLF staff, and the cohort themselves. Fellows Tyler Yarbrough, Yasmine Malone, and Brianna James presented the cohort’s community impact project work.
The Delta cohort’s Community Impact Project (CIP) was focused on showcasing the Delta through the eyes of the young people who live there. This re-envisioning of the region was captured through a documentary film highlighting everyday issues that young people face, while shedding light on the innovative ideas that new organizations and young people are developing to address those problems. The film captured the community through video footage of an open mic night and personal interviews. The goal was not only to highlight musical talents of youth in the community but to engage community members of all ages to create an intergenerational atmosphere dedicated to revitalization of the community.
On Saturday, July 29 the Delta fellows hosted a community open mic night at The New Roxy Theater focused on youth voice. Youth artists and activists from all over the community shared spoken word pieces and other performance art to an audience of over 100 guests. In addition, the cohort will host multiple watch parties for their documentary film to provide space for conversation and dialogue between community activists, politicians, and different segments of the community. The cohort also advertised heavily on social media to increase the reach and impact of their “Rewriting The Delta” campaign, garnering over 700 likes and 12,000 engagements on their page.
Fellows Stantaisha Murry and Vonkervius Jackson were elected by their peers to represent the cohort with reflections on their time as fellows. Over the course of the program, Murry considered all of the times she’s been pushed outside of her comfort zone as part of her leadership journey. “Being a part of AYLF has been a worthwhile challenge,” she said. “I’ve been pushed to be vulnerable, reflective, and to always use my voice. It has pushed me to be a better leader, to sometimes listen more than I talk and that it’s okay if I don’t always have the answer, if I’m actively seeking a solution. I’ve learned that sometimes being a leader isn’t an easy task. You must sometimes do the hard things, be present in uncomfortable conversations, and even sometimes stand alone.”
Jackson emphasized the importance of the cohort model and the relationships that were built during the program. He said, “before our first week of [the fellowship], I felt like this was going to be another program where we just go our separate ways after we have trained for our job. I did not feel that. I felt love. I felt comradery. I felt a community that I can rely on. This has not stopped from the first week into graduation.” Aspen Young Leaders Fellows will have the opportunity to continue working and learning together through a variety of alumni programming within and across cohorts.
In reflecting on the experience of the AYLF program and the Delta cohort’s mission to elevate youth voice in the Delta, graduating fellow Maria Cockrell shared that she and her group,
“…dedicated our time to strategically develop ways to make our communities better, to give the young people something to be proud of, to give them a voice, and to show people outside of our community the greatness we all possess. AYLF gave me a voice louder than a megaphone, actually. The tools, directions, connections, mentoring, and leadership skills given to me are qualities I will forever have. AYLF built a bridge before me so that I can help others like the ones at my old high school, the little girl from my home town who looks up to me, the young man trying to fight statistics, the nursing student at my school, and even my one month old daughter know the light that they are. This is why AYLF is my family, the impact it has had on me has inspired me to continue to help others cross.”
AYLF is currently made possible through generous contributions from individual donors and foundations including The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Community Foundation of New Jersey, The Oak Foundation, The Pershing Foundation, The Saint Louis Community Foundation, The Maritz Corporation, Edward Jones, and The Walton Family Foundation.