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Teaching Black History Anew in Bridgehampton

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 09:30
Willie Jenkins, right, with Cierra Goielli at the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center.
Durell Godfrey

Willie Jenkins says that as a teen, much of what he learned about Black history wasn't taught to him in a classroom at the Bridgehampton School, his alma mater. Rather, he says, a youth group called Unity helped him understand more about his own heritage and connect with a diverse collective of teens in the area.

Now, Mr. Jenkins, 37, who is an organizer of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations on the South Fork, is reviving those lessons in the form of the Zenith Youth Program at the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center. It begins on Friday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m.

"We've done our protesting and we've got our point across as far as showing we want to be unified and fight for equality," he said by phone last week. "Now what are we going to do on the back end of that? Teaching. Teaching is the best way to make change happen. People can't bring about change if they don't know anything. Knowledge is understanding. Understanding is love."

Zenith will enroll 20 teens in-person and many more online through Zoom, Mr. Jenkins said. It is open to any student on the East End -- not just in Bridgehampton -- who are between the ages of 13 and 19.

"It's going to be a good time. It's about getting together, learning things, and also camaraderie," he said. "Kids of different races can get to know each other. It won't be 'my culture is better than yours or yours is better than mine.' It's learning what you don't know, and you do it together."

Mr. Jenkins is planning lessons and field trips that are relevant to youth today, such as an introduction to hip-hop music and a trip to Sylvester Manor, the former plantation turned educational and historical site on Shelter Island.
Brenda Simmons, the executive director of the Southampton African American History Museum, said this kind of program will benefit today's youth here, and lauded Mr. Jenkins's plans.

"We absolutely, positively need more educational opportunities here. It's very lacking -- it's been known for years," said Ms. Simmons, who, when she was a student at Southampton High School in the 1970s, took part in demonstrations seeking to add a Black history curriculum to the school's programs, as well as the hiring of a Black teacher.

"We've made baby steps for sure," Ms. Simmons said. "What needs to be understood is culturally how to get along and find out that we have more in common than not."

Those who are interested in signing up for the Zenith Youth Program can email Mr. Jenkins at [email protected] or call him at 631-603-9972.


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