Interview with Chris Perkins and Sarah Hildon, March 22, 2011

Material Information

Interview with Chris Perkins and Sarah Hildon, March 22, 2011
Perkins, Chris ( Interviewee )
Marna Weston ( Interviewer )
Hildon, Sarah ( Interviewee )
Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP)
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans ( fast )
Mississippi Delta Freedom Project ( local )
Civil rights movements ( fast )
After school programs ( fast )
Oral histories ( lcgft )
Temporal Coverage:
1998 - 2011
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi -- Sunflower County


Perkins and Hildon talk about the Freedom Project, an academic enrichment program to prepare children and teenages to attend college, taught by interns from top-tier universities such as University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dartmouth College and University of Mississippi. Locations include: Greenville, Indianola and Sunflower County, Mississippi. Organizations include: the B. B. King Museum, House of Khafre, and Greenville Renaissance Scholars. People mentioned include: Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Rights Management:
Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
Resource Identifier:


This item is only available as the following downloads:

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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor O ral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, re ligious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer t o both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF D igital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to refl ect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit http://oral.histor or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


MFP 075 Interviewee: Chris Perkins and Sarah Hildon Interviewer: Marna Weston Date of Interview: March 22, 2011 W: Program, on March 22, 2011 in Sunflower, Mississippi at the Sunflower County Freedom Project with Chris and Sarah, who will further identify themselves. Can we start with you, please, Sar ah? Would you state your full name? H: Sure. My name is Sarah Hildon. W: What is your role here? H: W: Okay, great. And Chris? P: My name is Chris Perkins. I am the Program Director and a graduate of the Freedom Project. W: with having taken the tour with your sense of commitment and just how much good work I to talk among yourselves and with someon e who also understands about what you do. So, first, either one of you or both of you, in order, however you want to do it tell me about the program here. P: [Laughter] W: P: We are a six year academic enrichm ent organization. Our over arching goal is to get our students off into a four year college of their choice, or university of their choice. Everything that we do is designed towards that


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 2 purpose: getting our students off into a four year college. We do tha t in a few different ways. The first is during the school year. We have Study Sessions, which our students we have Study Session four times a week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Our students are required to come to at least one study session a week, and at that study session, they get help with their homework, have access to computers or staff members who are capable of giving them assistance. Most of our students, you know, are here three or four times a week, so we enjoy that. [Laughter] We a lso have Saturday school programs, which I consider our we want to create. Then, our Saturday school programs: we have entirely our own curriculum. We have a reading class, a writin g class, and a math class. Those are designed to be supplementary, to assist our students in getting the type of education that they need to pursue the dreams that they have. We h ave students who want to be doctors; who want to be to do. We want to give our students the tools they need to achieve those year. H: Then, we have our summer program, which, for the first three summers of the six year commitment, students are here at the LEAD Center, and we


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 3 have them all da weeks of their summer. They get here at 8 a.m. and they stay till 5 p.m., its. So, during the day, we teach reading, writing, math, and then, in the afternoons, we have public speaking, we have a drama course, and we have a media production course as well as a fitness component. Students can often there. Then, on Fridays, we sub out some of our regular classes for leadership, conflict resolution, community engagement, that sort of thing. What am I forgetting? The other one. P: Whatever the interns host. H: Oh, study skills. [Laughter] Sorry, study skills for the first year students. tier college interns. We get interns from Chapel Hill, from Dartmouth, f rom Ole Miss, from all over the country. So, they get the opportunity to learn from those students and to also learn about those colleges and those opportunities around the country. Then, for the sixth issippi for residential week. That week is really cool, because we sort of try to design it to be like a college experience. The kids live in the dorms and they have the opportunity to choose the classes that they take. Those classes are different every ye


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 4 their interests or their majors at schools and expose our students to more, been Fun Physics they took a class in Fun Physic s been an Asia Fest one year. Classy Class, they took an etiquette class Then, the seventh and eighth week, we take them on extended educational field trips The first year groups, or the rising seventh graders, learn to camp. [Laughter] In conjunction with learning about the civil rights sites that they have just studied during tho se first six weeks. So, now they get to see the places where they happen. Then, the rising eighth graders go on a Civil War tour, and the rising ninth graders go on a leadership, outdoor leadership tour adventure. [Laughter] Camp. So, our summer pretty intense, but . W: Start with you, Sarah. Why are you here, and where did you come from that brought you here? H: difference in the educational system in America beside see the inequities between students in the South and students in the North, between rural students and urban students, between black students and white students, and it kind of just makes me really an gry. So, I came to the Delta with my


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 5 program like this. I was really blessed to find the Freedom Project, which came from, I guess, New York, from something that was totally different. know, I could sort of see what was going wr ong in America and I wanted came. W: Okay. Same question to you, Chris. Why are you here and what brought you here? P: y much my entire life. I was a student in the Freedom Project for six years; I completed the program and graduated. I went to college, and when I came back well, as I was entering my senior year, I started to think about, as next? What do I want to do next? The thing at the forefront of my mind was the Freedom Project. I wanted to make sure that it was still doing the type of work that it had been doing when I was a student here. I credit the program for all the opportunities want to make sure that other kids have that opportunity. I want to make So, that was my motivation for coming back: giving back to an organization that gave so much to me.


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 6 W: So, start with you again, are you making a difference? P: I think I am. I think every day, when our students come through that door, be basketball players, as I slap my head. You know, boys who want to be basketball players, but will come here instead of going to basketball practice, you know? We have kids who will sit down with us and work at something they hate, like math, and pound themselves in the head, but, at the same time, working for improvements. We have kids who have huge, huge dreams, W: Sarah? Are you making a difference? H: numbers: 100% of our graduates go on to four year colleges and like, fi fteen percent a year. Our students score, on average, about 20% better on their ACTs than their peers. The average around here is a 16.3 on the ACT, which is dismal, to say the least. Our students tend to do better than that. What Chris was saying is true. for students who are motivated to do more but who have not been given the opportunity to ever experience their potential, to ever try to actually


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 7 sort of been spiraling in this cycle of poverty, and the Freedom Project is an opportunity for those kids who are motivated to see the world as it should be seen: as a world of possibilities that they have an opportunity to W: But you can't do it alone. What are your partnerships like around here? I mean, are you getting the buy in and the help from the community that you think is warranted? P: In some places. Yo u know, as far as our students are concerned, a lot of the motivation comes from themselves, you know. The reason that they even continue to come is because they want to do this, and I think that's a wonderful endeavor. We also, you know, we have partnersh ips like the B.B. King Museum. We're good friends with them. The House of K hafre in Indianola. The Greenville Renaissance scholars is also a program that we work closely with. And we've been around for ten years, so, we've built many connections in the com munity. That's why Sarah and I can come back and do so much good work, because people recognize the Freedom Project name. W: Mm hm. It's kind of quiet around here today, Sarah. What's up with that? H: Well, it's early. The kids are still in school. [Laug hter] It's only a quarter to 3:00, so, it'll get noisier. As soon as the day goes on, this is our time to . W: Calm before the storm?


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 8 H: [Laughter] Do our work. P: [Laughter] Prepare. H: Yeah, before the students get here. Yeah, this tends to be ho w it is between we get here around 1:00 and between 1:00 and 4:30, when the students start trickling in, it's . it's pretty quiet. W: Do do do. H: [Laughter] Yeah. It's our chance to plan lessons and write grants and develop the fun stuff of keeping a n organization running. Yeah, it'll get noisier, definitely. W: Do you have any goals to, either on your own, work to replicate or encourage other communities to replicate what you do here throughout the state, throughout the region, throughout the world? What are your dreams as far as that's concerned? H: That's one of, probably, our most common questions we get around here. We have, in the past we see ourselves as a model for other organizations to build off of. The Greenville Renaissance Scholars that Chris mentioned is a perfect example. They work in a similar community a larger community, but a similar one in the neighboring county, and they saw the work we were doing and wanted to start something very similar. So, they run a summer program that's ess entially a replica of our summer program. P: Which is one we started H: Yeah, yeah.


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 9 W: Why reinvent the wheel? H: Exactly, yeah. I think, for us, it's . we don't really see ourselves as, like, an umbrella organization for lots of little Freedom Pr ojects. We're a depth, not breadth, kind of a program. So, we want to really work with Sunflower County and really develop the kids here, but we do see ourselves as a model and we would love to see other Freedom Projects or Renaissance Scholars or whatever they want to call themselves, but working with the same goals and the same kind of materials that we're going forward with. W: Walk me through a situation where a kid comes here for the first time and, you know, really doesn't have the buy in; they were just curious or somebody made them come here. How do you convert them or let them see what the value is? P: The great thing about the Freedom Project is that our kids are so amazing. You know? We often have kids who, their mom says, you got to come to the Freedom Project; your grades are bad; go. You know? You have no choice. The kid will walk in and, I thi nk kids come in expecting, oh, I got to practice my math with these people I don't know. But what they do when they get here is, because we are an all encompassing program, because our kids are here so much, they all develop friendships and, in some cases, ties that are like family. So, they love each other; they have fun, they play, they get to do tae kwon do. They get to do drama. And, yes, we make you work on your math. Yes, we make you read books. [Laughter] But the kids learn to enjoy that. They learn to want to do better than that,


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 10 and it's because of the environment that we are able to build. It's because we are able to put them around other kids w ho will struggle in math, who will have difficulty in math, but will work at it. We're able to put them around kids who have aspirations but also have a path to get to that aspiration, so I think for a kid who, you know, at first they walk in here and they have some reservations, they just come in and they watch the other kids. That's the great thing about our program. They have older kids they can look up to and say, oh, that's how you do it at the Freedom Project. Oh, that's the way they do things here. O h, yes, it's fun, but it's also hard work. So, I think, pretty quickly, kids adjust. They adjust to the expectations that we have at the Freedom Project. H: We try to only take kids during our summer program which, as I mentioned, we have them all day, ev ery day, for eight weeks. That's huge, because we get to create, basically, an alternate reality. That alternate reality of the Freedom Project comes with a very certain, specific set of high expectations. Kids adjust to that. Kids like to experience succe ss. So, the first time you get an A on your math test, it feels really awesome. [Laughter] You know? This is a place that celebrates student achievement, and that's really big for a lot of our kids. At the same time, not all kids do adjust, and we're not . I mean, we're not equipped to deal with all students who can't make the adjustment. But we recruit kids based on their motivation, not based on their test scores, and that's really


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 11 important. So, the kids who come and the kids who stay are the motivat ed ones, and we do lose students occasionally, but W: So, unfortunately, you are selective. H: Yeah. P: Yeah, in the sense not by the criteria that most people are selective. We don't have a requirement that you have to have a certain grade point avera ge to get in, but we have an expectation that you are constantly working to improve. We tell our students, unless you have a 100% in every class, then there's room for improvement. There's the room for you to work harder in. So, that's our expectation. W: Do you have a contract? H: We do. W: I don't have to see a copy of it, but what are some of the basic tenets? H: Well, there's basically three commitments. Well, first of all, our kids commit to leadership, so they commit to our values of love, educati on, action, and discipline. But, within each of those, there's sort of this mini thing. So, the love one, basically, you have to be respectful of the people here. You can't come in here and talk a lot of smack to Mr. Perkins or myself, or you're not going to last very long. [Laughter] Education, you have to come to one Study Session a week, you have to come to the Saturday school programming and you have to do the homework. That's required, to do it to the best of your ability. [Laughter] And, in fact, if t hat doesn't happen,


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 12 then you can't stay. I guess the action and discipline are kind of . mixed in. They get jumbled in there. P: Yeah. Discipline is manifested in our martial arts program. H: Mm hm. P: All our students are required to participate, a nd I think we have that expectation that they reach at least their green belt, which is the third step. Because, for anybody who's ever done martial arts, you know that a huge part of it is discipline, a huge part of it is perseverance. You have to do thin gs over and over and over again; practice, practice, practice. The idea behind that is, if our students can come in that physical class and work hard and learn a kick over and over and over again, practice it until it's perfect, then you can apply that sam e lesson to math. You can apply that same lesson to a classroom. So, we want our students to we tell them, if you can be disciplined in this physical sport, be it basketball, be it football, be it whatever, then you can be disciplined in your classroom. Yo u can apply that same lesson to math. The same is true for action, you know? Taking action in your community or with each other, doing what you know is right, be it in class I know I need to practice for this test, I know I need to study, I know I need to get ready for the next school year. So, they manifest themselves in different ways. H: Yeah. That always means you can't get away with not raising your hand at the Freedom Project. You can't slide by. You will be called out either way.


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 13 We also have a tuit ion requirement as well; three hundred dollars a year or twenty five dollars a month from our students. W: So, because they have a financial investment, there's more instead of someone just giving you something. I can understand the importance of that. H: Exactly, yeah, yeah, yeah. W: Teach a man to fish, blah, blah, blah. P: [Laughter] W: But it's real, it's definitely real. H: It's definitely real, yeah. W: So, this is the toughest question I'm going to ask you guys, and I guess you'll get to answe r it individually : w hat's your definition of leadership? P: [Laughter] I think our definition of leadership as an organization is that our students are one, four tenets O ur program is based on the pillars, if you will, love, education, action, and discip line. The Freedom Project model is that, if we can get our students to exemplify those four qualities, one in their community, one in their education, and one in themselves, if we can get them to value those four things, then we have turned them into leade rs. That manifests itself in a variety of different ways. One, realizing that there is a goal you set, and working hard to achieve that goal; figuring out what you need to do, being practical, figuring out what you need to do to achieve that goal and worki ng toward it. You know, one being an individual a lot of times, especially in a place like Sunflower County,


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 14 there is an expectation that, you know I think, what's the number? 40% of students in Sunflower County don't graduate high school. So, there is an expectation to get wrapped up in that, to get wrapped up in, you know, what's important and what's not. I've seen many students get lost in this idea of being cool, being popular, education isn't cool, school isn't popular, so I want to do the opposite of that. I think the temptation is to get wrapped up in that. So, for us, a leader is a person who goes against the grain, who's avant garde and not you know, doesn't follow that expected pattern of popularity or coolness. So, like you said, it manifests itse lf in a variety I can go on for a while, but I don't want to. W: Well, I knew it wasn't an easy question when I threw it out there. Your turn. [Laughter] H: Okay. I'll try not to be too repetitive, but we try to indoctrinate our students the four values of leadership: love, education, action, and discipline, and I've been W: Indoctrinated? That's tough stuff right there. H: I, myself no, I mean, we're trying to equip our students with a moral compass and with something to lead them through their lives I don't see that there are four values that can really outdo those. I think what Mr. Perkins was talking about, Mr. Myers used to talk about the typical teenager and that Freedom Project, or Freedom Fellows, are not typical teenagers, and they demonstrat e that by being able to show lots of their community members, to the people that they don't like. You know? To the


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 15 people that they do like, to the kids at school who are mean or whatever. I mean, they can be respectful of their teachers. W: True. [Laught er] H: Yeah. I mean, they can respectful of their teachers. Yeah, and they can really just . have that internal sort of sense of right and wrong and demonstrate love, you know, appropriately, and that education is the key to success. Or, as we like to say, education is the seed of freedom, and we want our students to buy into that, that the real way out of poverty, the real way out of a cycle of . I guess, poverty, is through education. It's not through being four and a half feet tall and thinking you're going to be the next big basketball star. It's just not a realistic dream. So, we try to equip our students with realistic dreams and the tools to achieve them. Those tools are t aking action in your classroom, having the discipline to keep studying even when it'd be more fun to play basketball or whatever it is. Yeah, I think that's how I would define leadership. P: It's a tough sell to teenagers. It's a tough thing to get them to value, but the ones who are successful, the ones who are on the right track, are the ones who realize the importance of it. By and large, all of our students know the importance. W: How do you break it down to them, though? With the rap and all the attractions of the media and the entertainment complex, there's, what, like four thousand people in the world that play the sports that make the pay the real money. Out of that, the top one percent of them are the ones that


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 16 are the superstars. Out of seven billion people. I mean, is that the kind of breakdown you do with them? Or . P: [Laughter] We do. H: We do a lot of [Laughter] Okay, for one thing, we do not allow our students to choose for projects for example, one of my girls came in yesterday with a poster. She has to do a poster about a successful woman for women's history month, and she oh, God, I forget who she wanted to do, Nicki Minaj or something just atrocious. W: Lady Gaga. [Laughter] H: And it's not allowed. At the Freedom Project, you can't do a rapper. You can't choose a musician or an athlete. You have t o choose somebody who's done something else. So, it's not always a pleasant conversation, choosing a person, but, as a result, our students, they get to maybe it forced at them, but they learn about an alternative idea of success, which is important. P: You know, it's hard, because a lot of our kids have their heart set on, I'm going to be a basketball player, I'm going to be a football player. It's easy for us to realize . you know, Kobe was playing basketball in Korea when he was, you know, eight. [ Laughter] So, it's easy once you realize that you gotta step your game up. There's never been a huge superstar in basketball who wasn't a superstar in high school except for Michael Jordan. Even in college. So, I think it's futile to tell our students, don 't say


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 17 you want to be a basketball player, erase that from your mind. But what we do do is we say, have a back up plan. H: Back up. P: What else do you want to be, aside from a basketball player? What else do you want to be, aside from a football player? What else are you good at? What happens if you don't we often tell them the numbers, how many people get drafted in the NBA a year? Three? New people, three, four? So, out of all the millions, we do do number breakdowns like that, but it's pointless to te ll them not to aspire to be that. What we can do is tell them to have a backup plan. So, you'll hear our students who will say, I want to be a basketball player, but I also want to be a mathematician. Or, I want to be a basketball player, but I also want t o do something else. We consider that success. We consider that to be achieving our goal. [Laughter] H: We also do a few things to try to, like, take the culture and turn it positive. So, for example, every summer, we have our math rap wars, which are re ally fun. [Laughter] Students take popular rap songs and turn them into P: Math raps. H: Whatever they've been learning in their math classes, and there's a huge competition. P: Yeah. The kids love it, it's probably one of the most popular parts of pro gram. H: It's pretty awesome, yeah. [Laughter] So, we do a little bit of that, too.


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 18 P: Our media production program also uses the kids will have a music video or any type of media, and they'll have a breakdown session, so they'll watch the video, they'll watch the commercial, they'll watch the BET special. They'll break down, talk about the problems in it. One of the ways that we can tell it's successful is, I drive the van oftentimes, and you'll hear the kids debating about whether that's a positive mess age or whether this is something they should be listening to. Often, kids will defend it; kids will be against it. So, our kids are very aware of the issues with the internet and the image that's not exactly reality that sometimes can be portrayed in the m edia. W: So, you're building critical thinking skills as well. H: That's the idea, yeah. W: And it's working. H: I think so. W: Wow, that's awesome. Hey, listen. I like to close every interview by first thanking you on behalf of the Sam Proctor Oral H istory Program for talking to me and letting us know your story in your own words. To close the interview by giving you the opportunity to reflect on something; maybe we didn't touch on it, maybe you want to talk about something else, but open the floor up to both of you to do that. When you're done with your remarks, I'm going to say nothing else. That concludes the interview. P: [Laughter] I think this might be the hardest question. H: Yeah, right?


MFP 0 75 ; Perkins and Hildon ; Page 19 P: I think I just thank you for taking the opportunity to come and interview us. An organization like the Freedom Project thrives on word of mouth, on just letting people know the great work that we're doing. We're a non profit, so this type of thing is important. The work that we're doing here is important. So, yeah, we're just glad to spread the word. We thank you for visiting us and letting people know the great things that we're doing in the Mississippi Delta. H: Yeah. I hope you'll get to talk with some of the students, too, to kind of hear it from their perspective. They might have some competing things to say. [Laughter] Something that we do encourage around here, though, is we want our students to be free thinkers. I know I used the taboo word, indoctrinate, earlier, but we're trying to indoctrinate th em with a sense of self, so that's important. But . yeah, I don't know. Our mission is to create a corps of, what? Academically capable, mentally disciplined and socially conscious young leaders. P: Academically capable, mentally disciplined and socia lly conscious . H: And I think that's what you'll start seeing coming out of the Delta in the next decade or so. [Laughter] Yeah. [End of interview] Transcribed by: Diana Dombrowski, February 25, 2014 Audit e dited by: Sarah Blanc, March 4, 2014 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, March 31, 2014

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