Ki Harris says Mississippi’s children are “more than capable” of achieving success in any avenue they choose, but that they often aren’t being properly “supported” and “counseled” throughout the process.
In his newly appointed role as executive director of the Freedom Project Network, Harris said he intends to “elevate the voices of students so they can lead the change they deserve to see in their communities.” The spirit of youth empowerment that encapsulates the Freedom Project Network comes from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project voter registration initiative.
“If you look at the wording of the curriculum that the Council of Federated Organizations released during Freedom Summer you can see where they believed that Mississippi students had been denied free expression, free thought, decent education, and more importantly that Mississippi students had been denied the right to question,” Harris told the Mississippi Free Press. “That sentiment is directly transferable to the aims of the Freedom Project Network because we focus a lot on teaching our students to investigate the issues in their community and realize that they are well-positioned, as young people, to lead the charge for change.”
Chris Myers Asch, Gregg Costa and Shawn Raymond founded the Freedom Project Network in 1998 by in order to “address and help alleviate” Mississippi’s educational inequity through their three Freedom Project sites in Sunflower County, Meridian, and Rosedale “that provide educational enrichment, leadership development, and college preparation programming for youth in Mississippi.” In its third decade of working to change Mississippi’s education landscape, the Freedom Project Network runs a Freedom Summer Collegiate program and Alumni College Success program, in addition to work at their three program sites.
Exposure Equals Development, Personal Power
Before Harris’ naming as executive director of the Freedom Project Network, the Atlanta native taught middle-school English and coached football as a Teach for America corps member at Amanda Elzy Junior High School in Greenwood. Subsequently, between 2016 and 2018, Harris worked as the director of college access and experiential learning at the Sunflower County Freedom Project.
Harris said his connection to educational work stems from experiences he had as a low-income student in K-12 and as a first-generation student at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“From the moment that college degree was put in my hand, my personal mission was to make that dream a reality for other students who look like me and come from similar backgrounds,” Harris said. “That dream, that’s what led me to start working in education.”
While working at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, Harris led the organization’s college access program for 10th- through 12th-grade students intended to create “awareness” about the college application process and beyond. Creating educational travel, fitness and drama programming were also under Harris’ jurisdiction. He fondly remembers taking Sunflower County Freedom Project students on trips to Washington, D.C., and Atlanta because of the “exposure” value the travels added to the students’ lives.
“Exposure is a huge part of our programmatic model within the Freedom Project because we believe that providing our students with our opportunities to expand their worldview,” Harris said. “That’s a huge part of personal development and cultivating personal power, and so the more opportunities we can provide for them to engage with people across different sociological lines then the more energy we give them to realize their full potential.”
The college-access programming that Harris spearheaded gave critical access to portions of the higher-education experience that he said many students and families know little about.
“How do you know about FAFSA and financial aid, and about all the different parts of the application process if your parents didn’t go to college?” Harris said. “That’s ultimately what holds a lot of students back, so being able to counsel students and their parents as well in that role was extremely fulfilling.”
‘Ki’s Lived the Freedom Project Way’
The Freedom Project Network’s website exclaims its belief “that a free democracy demands a challenging, relevant education that prepares all citizens to participate actively in society.” Harris’ embodiment of these values made him the perfect candidate for executive director to Shawn Raymond, one of three co-founders of the Freedom Project Network.
“Ki’s lived the Freedom Project way, and I don’t think you can teach that,” Raymond said. “So when he’s talking to community members and potential donors, he’s not going to be talking out of a book: he’s going to be talking straight from the heart.”
“There’s a level of authenticity that Ki’s bringing that can’t be manufactured, so there’s a personalized presentation of what the Freedom Project Network does that he’s uniquely qualified to provide,” Raymond continued.
Adrian Cross, executive director of the Meridian Freedom Project, echoed Raymond’s sentiments, saying Harris brings a unique capability to the Freedom Project Network.
“When Ki worked at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, he was a very thorough person, he built connections, and he had a great rapport with the kids, which is key,” Cross said. “He’s extremely consistent, and that’s what good leaders are. So his consistency along with his passion is perfect for the continued growth of the Freedom Project Network.”
Harris hopes to bring this consistency to how he tackles the new challenges to learning created by COVID-19, and how he continues to fight the socioeconomic and racial inequity that he said have historically harmed Mississippi education.
“I know that our students have great dreams, and ultimately systemic issues attempt to hold them back, and that’s everything from a lack of resources, failing infrastructure, food deserts, and even a lack of economic empowerment,” Harris said.
Andrew Donnelly, Harris’ predecessor who served as interim executive director of Freedom Project Network and who is joining the National Book Foundation as a Mellon/ACLS fellow, said “Ki is the best person to tell the story of the Freedom Project Network.”
“Ki has deep knowledge of our program and why it matters in students’ lives, and he has a wonderful ability to convince other people of why our model works,” Donnelly said. “I’m excited for Ki to continue strengthening the collaboration between our programs between our existing networks, and I’m excited for him to continue to think strategically about how we develop our programs to sustainably grow.”
‘This Is a Monumental Time’
As America continues to evolve through a period of racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd’s death, Harris’ appointment as executive director of the Freedom Project Network is “monumental,” Adrian Cross said.
“Ki’s the guy, and this transition is perfect,” Cross said. “This is a monumental time, and he’s the kind of leader that knows how to maintain and grow,” she continued.
Over all, Harris said being able to continue to motivate young people is going to be the most exciting part of his work as executive director of the Freedom Project Network.
“It’s time to shine light on the fact that our kids have the biggest ideas about how to take our state and our country to the next level,” Harris said. “I’m forever amazed by our students because they’ve taught me more than I ever thought I could know.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Harris is the first Black executive director of the Freedom Project Network. He is the second. We apologize for the error.