It was an unlikely proposition. Take some 13-year-old kids, teach them some algebra games, and let them have all the fun they want with slopes and square roots and unknown variables. That the proposal was presented by Bob Moses, a veteran civil rights champion in Jackson, mattered little to Albert Sykes, who was one of the kids listening that day and a student whom an educational survey would have flagged for a life of underachievement. What impressed Albert, and all of his friends, was Bob Moses’ son, Omo, who was also pitching the program. Omo was wearing baggy hip-hop clothes. He looked like the guys standing on the corners in Albert’s neighborhood, Shady Oaks. Anything he said was cool. He probably could have sold them on ballet.
“Trust,” Albert remembers. “It was immediate.”
As a boy Albert lived with his mother. He saw his father on weekends, but hated not being able to see him more. By age six or seven the Cosby Show had impressed upon him the idea that a man should be at home with his family. But there were competing norms. Around the same age he began to notice that the men in his neighborhood, the ones who looked good, didn’t have to work. “That’s what we thought a man was,” he says. “Just someone who hung out all day and drove fancy cars.”
Less than a year after joining the Algebra Project, Sykes and several friends decided they needed more of the same. They founded the Young People’s Project, which took the activities they were learning in math class and incorporated them into citywide afterschool programs. He shakes his head when he considers it. “After school there wasn’t nothing to do. But this time we weren’t breaking into houses, we weren’t selling weed,” he says. “This time
we were getting together to do mathematics, one of the oddest things you can ever get young people to go for.”
The programs, he says, gave him and his friends some positive male role models. “A lot of us, we weren’t never around a man,” he says. “You want your dad there at your basketball game, because your mom cheers, but she don’t know what she’s cheering for.”
Now the Young People’s Project impacts more than 500 students annually in Jackson, and is beginning to spread to neighboring towns. Sykes, now 26 and a husband and father of two boys, continues to work for the program. He wears baggy t-shirts and two gold teeth, talks on an iPhone snaps his fingers when he talks, and is finishing up a degree at Jackson State.
He is a constant observer of the behavioral trends in his hometown. He follows crime cycles and election cycles alike. He is dismayed by kids who rob McDonald’s for 50 bucks and get 25 years in prison. “If mathematics literacy didn’t teach me nothing else, it taught me that the street wasn’t gonna get you where you need to go,” he says. And he is dismayed by politicians who never keep their promises to neighborhoods like his. He is a man in his mid-20’s, struggling to find out if communities ever change, and if he can have any say in it. He entertains notions