Most afternoons, Jeremiah Smith can be found in a small building at the center of the Mississippi Delta, where a signpost in the front features a Black Power fist clutching a rose. He belts verses of “Oh, Freedom” and “Which Side Are You On” with his students after long days at school. In his usual teaching uniform of a T-shirt and cargo shorts, Smith claps with the most enthusiasm out of anyone and bravely tries to get a group of middle schoolers to muster up enough energy for the rest of the afternoon with his endless enthusiasm and commanding voice. After this morning “circle-up” with singing and announcements for the day, Smith leads some of the students in a class about filmmaking techniques. Others head to the creative writing club, the activist club, a study session or the social justice reading club for afternoon activities like voter registration planning and poetry readings.
A 29-year-old Teach for America alum in Mississippi, Smith is the Director of Programming at the Rosedale Freedom Project. The Project is an educational nonprofit organization in the Mississippi Delta that aims to support youth leadership through community building, grassroots organizing and classroom enrichment. Its programming focuses on the histories of democracy and protest in the Delta. The students, called “Freedom Fellows,” participate in six years of summer camp and after-school programming that culminates in high school graduation.
A 29-year-old Teach for America alum in Rosedale’s school district West Bolivar, Smith remembers being dissatisfied with the prospect of moving back to the East Coast, having felt a pull to remain in the Delta. “I was on this precipice of do I stay, or do I go,” he said.
Smith chose to stay, taking a job an hour away from Rosedale at the Sunflower County Freedom Project — a program founded by early Teach For America corps members in 1998. The program had modeled itself after the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project in which liberal college students from the East Coast organized mass voter registration and taught civics classes to local residents. In 1998, almost 50 years after the Freedom Summer, TFA corps members decided to bring students and teachers from beyond the community to supplement the still-broken and underfunded education system in Mississippi and help students get to college.
Smith saw a need for a similar program where he lived in Bolivar County, where the lasting impact of centuries of racial oppression is perhaps felt most deeply in the schools. Once the site of a failed lawsuit to integrate Chinese students into white schools, the high school is now considered an “apartheid school.” Over 98 percent of the student body is black. In 2015, Smith decided to open up another organization in Rosedale with a similar mission inspired by Sunflower County — the Rosedale Freedom Project.
Amidst national conversations about desegregation, Mississippi can be seen as one of the places where efforts have most obviously failed. A study done by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 found that Mississippi spends $33,355 less per student over the course of their education than the national average. Black families continue to fight for better resources and investment in their children’s education despite these barriers. When I was a teaching assistant, we attended crowded school board meetings where parents constantly questioned the lack of funding in the district. Students in the Freedom Project have met with their state and congressional representatives several times encouraging them to advocate for black students in public schools. In contrast, white parents in the area pay thousands of dollars for their students to attend private “segregation academies” — private schools founded in the 1960s to ensure that white students did not have to participate in integration.
Bolivar County is the kind of place that programs like Teach For America were originally founded to serve. A drastic shortage of teachers in the county led to the school system buying a computer program, which students use to take classes for several hours of the day. Fifty-seven percent of the rural town’s population lives under the poverty line, and eleven percent of students in West Bolivar High School are considered proficient in algebra by the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program. Eleven percent are proficient in English. “Paddling” students by hitting them with rulers as a disciplinary measure is a legal and common occurrence in the public school system. Students are acutely aware that they are being disempowered by larger political systems, and Smith says that the first thing students ask during the program is, “Why does racism exist?”
This is the system that Smith and the rest of the staff are working to subvert. With a starting budget of only $12,000 — raised with local grants and a supportive community — a dilapidated former youth center donated by the town and a few undergraduate teaching assistants, they put on the first Rosedale Freedom Project Freedom Summer in 2015.
Now, there are around 30 Freedom Fellows a year. The program has a $150,000 operating budget and pays three full-time staff members. Four principles define all programming: love, education, action and discipline (LEAD), which guide student behavior and highlight the Freedom Project’s desire to provide structure in students’ education while still allowing them to take control of what they want to learn. Fellows take annual trips to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and began a student-operated community garden on their lawn in 2018 called the Freedom Farm. During the summer, middle school students spend all day at the building taking reading, math and arts classes, while high schoolers have the opportunity to take college-level courses with Ph.D candidates. When I most recently spoke to Smith, it was on his single Sunday off of work after taking the Fellows to the New Orleans Film Festival on an overnight trip.
“It is kind of hard to wrap my head around how much we have changed since the beginning and how many of those changes have been innovating what it means to be a Fellow,” Smith said. “To be honest, then, it was really just about giving kids quality reading and math instruction and teaching them about the civil rights movement.”
Smith is known among his staff and students for his willingness to work endless hours for the Freedom Fellows and intense devotion to developing the program. His desk is often filled with Red Bulls and student work, and he has put in hundreds of hours driving students around the South in the Freedom Project’s white van.
Lucas Rapisarda, the former director of operations of the Rosedale Freedom Project and Smith’s former roommate in Teach For America, recounted Smith’s “passion for young people” as a large part of what has contributed to the project’s rapid growth and sustainability. However, he also acknowledges that this same devotion to students and strong opinions about the direction of the Freedom Project can cause conflict and wear out the staff. Smith himself acknowledges that, for a long time, he believed it was necessary to constantly look at what was going wrong at the Freedom Project so they could improve while not allowing himself to celebrate small successes. Now, he tries to balance the small victories with students while still pushing himself and the staff to think about improvements.
Although the Freedom Project prides itself on allowing students to take charge over their own lives and education, Program Coordinator Lydia DuBois also said that Smith’s personality has helped keep students motivated. “He is a person that people want to impress when they meet him,” she said. “It drew the kids back because there was this person that was working for them overtime and in overdrive all the time.”
One of those students is Chandler Rogers, a high school junior who has been a Freedom Fellow since 2015. During the summer, he often remains in the building long after programming is over, chatting with Smith and the teaching assistants about “anything and everything.” Rogers credits the Freedom Project with giving him confidence in his social and academic life, and he now helps lead the Creative Writing Club for younger students. He is a junior, so he is starting ACT preparation at the Freedom Project and hopes to attend Southern Mississippi University. Chandler’s sister Ja’Mya is a sophomore who helps run the Freedom Farm, and many of Chandler’s closest friendships are with other fellows.
“The opportunities and the atmosphere they give the youth are important,” he said of his time at the Freedom Project. “It makes you feel welcome and like you are important to society.”
Although he has established the Freedom Project as an important presence in the region and is well-known by residents of Bolivar County, Smith said that it has been difficult to foster trust in an outsider in Mississippi. He came into a community that has often been betrayed in the past by people who receive grants to do projects that are unsustainable, with weak frameworks that rely on short-term teachers from outside Mississippi. By living in the community and establishing permanent partnerships, he has been able to slowly earn trust from parents and leaders. Smith spends a lot of time thinking about his own privilege as a white, college-educated man from Virginia and the ways it has helped him bring grants and other donations to the Freedom Project. They have started to attract more staff and summer teaching assistants who are from the Delta as well as bringing in the parent community board and student leaders as a more active presence. Smith says that the ultimate goal is to get to a place where his presence is no longer needed at the Freedom Project and it can be fully sustainable in the long term. But until then, he is completely invested in Rosedale and its students.
Smith is also fundamentally uncomfortable with any assessment that would give him too much credit for the community created within the Freedom Project. He describes a “restorative council” he facilitated a few weeks prior between students who were in an altercation and their parents as just one example of the community’s investment in children. Smith emphasizes how much the parents did the work of making their children feel protected and loved while he only facilitated the discussion. To Smith, it is only because of the contributions of the people who the Freedom Project serves who have made its direction possible.
“This space is a product of students and teachers and parents and community members,” he said. “Just remember how indebted you are to the people that you serve.”