An African American culture class that has been changing the lives of Roanoke youth in city schools is now available to the public.
The class, titled African American Culture and Contemporary Issues (AACCI) and run by Total Action for Progress (TAP), was introduced in 2008 to keep Black young men from dropping out of high school.
Mack Malloy, 19, of Roanoke took the class for the first time as a sophomore at William Fleming High School. He enjoyed it, and signed up for it again as a junior and as a senior.
During his senior year, he was injured in a shooting. On his hospital bed, he made a decision.
“I’ve been misled. I’ve been shot. I’ve been in gangs. I’ve been in blood. I did all that stuff,” Malloy said recently. “For me to make it out of that, it was kind of like a gift.”
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The lessons taught by the AACCI class have helped Malloy toward becoming mindful and self-disciplined — qualities he always wanted to possess.
“I always wanted to be a leader, but not in that type of way,” Malloy said. “It’s me versus me all the time. I never realized that. But I realized that night it was me versus me. I had never owned up to myself that I was hard-headed. I didn’t want to listen, but I owned up to it. It kind of brings peace to my heart, too, that I let that go.”
Lateefah Trent, TAP’s youth services and education manager, said students often drop out of school because they don’t believe they’ll live to see adulthood.
“They don’t feel like they’re going to really live past age of 21 or 25, or that they’re not going to amount anything, so ‘What’s the point?'” Trent said.
But the AACCI class teaches youth that their lives and other people’s lives have value, giving them “a sense of pride.”
“The culture has gone through so much of society saying, ‘You’re not worthy,’ Trent said. “You are worthy. You are important. Everybody has a purpose, and everybody has gifts. How do you want to utilize yours and contribute to your community, to better your life and become the best you can be? That’s a lot of what the class offers.”
Malloy said he didn’t always enjoy school, but he liked the AACCI class, and his interest in it has rubbed off on his peers.
“I had hard times myself going into class and sitting down. If they see me, it’s like a bigger picture for them to sit down, too. Like, ‘I seen him do crazy things. For him to sit right here, it must really be entertaining. It must be something he really likes,’” Malloy said. “It’s really good. It’s not really that bad. Just got to pay attention. That’s it.”
In January 2019, the AACCI class at William Fleming had about 25 students. About two years later, in the fall of 2021, around 70 had enrolled in the course.
The 2021-22 school year was the first that the class was offered to both males and females. One class remained for males only, while a second class was “mixed,” Trent said. “It’s become very popular in that aspect.”
Currently, about 75 students are enrolled in the course at William Fleming. As interest spread through the school, it began known to students’ families, too.
“We’ve had several parents and people in the community say, ‘Hey, I heard about my child or grandchild in this class. This seems very interesting. Is there something like that for us to go to?'” Trent relayed. ” That’s how we came about with the community one that we’re having on Saturdays.”
When TAP received a grant from Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission in May, it decided to use some funds to extend the course offering for youths’ parents and community members, ages 15 and up.
The new public class started meeting at the Roanoke Higher Education Center (RHEC) on North Jefferson Street Sept. 17. It convenes at 11 am on Saturdays, and registration is free. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
“We have had up to about eight individuals from the community come,” Trent said. “The biggest thing that we love about this is that it’s allowing different ages, across all spectrums, to come together and learn about the African American culture and the history of it as a group, as a team, to build community awareness.”
Current students will complete the course at the end of this academic school yea in spring 2023.
Antonio Stovall, who works for the city as a member of the Youth and Gang Violence Prevention Team, instructs the class both at William Fleming High School and the RHEC.
“He takes African American history and teaches it in more of an empowering way, versus the traditional way that we would learn about it,” Trent said.
Malloy, having graduated from high school earlier this, is taking the class with Stovall for the fourth time at the RHEC.
“He can still be a part of the class and still build those types of relationships and network with other people and have a space to have positive and uplifting conversations,” Stovall said.
Trent said the class examines topics beyond typical lessons about slavery and the civil rights movement, surveying “who we are as a people, where we’ve been, where we can go.”
“It’s been very impactful to see, especially youth, go from hearing about just slavery, hangings and cotton fields to actual, ‘Oh, this person was a doctor. This person was an inventor. This person did this. Oh, this person learned these techniques and brought these things to the table,’” Trent said. “There are a lot of things that’s not taught, but it’s taught on a different level.”
Malloy said he most enjoys learning about ancient African history and culture.
“I got really deep into that,” Malloy said. “How they eat, how they move around, the things they used to wear back then, all that good stuff.”
The teen said he applies lessons about nutrition to his daily routine.
“I started eating healthy after my 10th grade year to see how it would change me as a person. It changed me a lot. I have not even lost any weight,” he laughed. “For some reason, I got bigger. I got to buy some more pants.”
The class also discusses current events and contemporary issues, from popular rap music artists to recent acts of gun and gang violence.
“We talk about the importance brotherhood, friendships, understanding the importance of knowing the difference between a friend and a partner in crime,” Stovall said. “When you have friends, you want to make sure that you’re holding your friends accountable, and your friends are holding you accountable.”
Stovall also teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques to his students.
“We do an exercise called analytical meditation, where I show them an image, or I may show them a quote, and we take the time to break down the image. They share their perspective on what they see, and I share my perspective on what I see,” Stovall said. “That right there really starts to leave an imprint on their consciousness, and they can learn better that way.”
Trent said the class also features, “open discussions dialogue,” and debates, “so that people can understand it’s okay to have different opinions, and respect the other person’s opinion, and be able to do it in a healthy manner.” She said because of Stovall’s unique approach, he “doesn’t come off as a teacher.”
“It has made a world of difference, especially with the population that he had been working with,” Trent said. “We’ve had individuals admit that they were on the verge of killing someone else, or committing suicide, and mind states have changed because of the class.”
Trent said that at the end of the 2021-22 school year, about 98% of students taking the AACCI course at William Fleming moved on to the next level in their education experience. She hopes graduates of the RHEC class will spread a culture of self -awareness to the community.
“When you’re more confident in yourself, you’re able to handle your emotions better, you’re able to respond better, and to take pride in your actions better, which in the long run, reduces violence, whether it’s domestic violence , gun violence, or just normal fights,” Trent said.
Trent said organizations like TAP feel considerable pressure to reach and impact the lives of youth, but “the kids learned it from somewhere.”
“It’s not just the kids that always need to be reached,” Trent said. “So, who are these positive adults that we can reach to help reach any and everybody in the community? Who would be a good role model? Who is somebody in the community that other people actually listen to? We’re trying to get them to be incorporated into some of these classes to help go and spread that.”
Malloy said the elementary and middle schoolers that live in his neighborhood now look up to him and listen to his advice.
“Sometimes in the summertime, they’d be outside late at night. I’d be outside, too. But I don’t like to be outside like that, late at night. When I see them, I quickly tell them to go inside,” the teen said. “God forbid anything happen to them. I don’t want them out there like that, because I care about them. And I know that their parents do, too.”
The teen tries to teach his friends self-discipline, a trait that he has learned by meditating.
“I had one friend that called me like, ‘Man, I meditated for the first time. It felt good.’ He said, ‘It felt weird,’ because to train your body like that, you got to have the will and the power to tell your body to just stay still. A lot of kids have a hard time with it. It took me, my body, a long time just to sit still,’ Malloy said. “So, I told him, ‘Just have the patience.’ Patience is the key.”
Since graduation, Malloy has landed his first job, and he’s working on submitting college applications with plans to become a mechanic.
Malloy was born in New York City and raised by his aunt, Tinye “Janice” Laing, whom he calls “Mom.” He wouldn’t be where he is without her guidance.
“She always wanted to keep me safe, but my mentality was that I didn’t understand how precious I was to her until I seen her cry almost on my deathbed,” he said. “To see in her eyes that she wanted me to be healthy at that moment, it was just like a motivation. I told her, ‘When I get well, you don’t have to worry about me doing that again.'”