Every day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person'- an exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic and political crises with creativity, generosity, and passion. Omo Moses has activism in his blood: both his parents were both civil rights leaders in the South during the 1960s. His full name is actually Omowale, which is the same name the people of Nigeria gave to Malcolm X when he visted there. The MacArthur Foundation gave Moses' father a "Genius Award" for founding the Algebra Project, an initiative that prepares poor and minority students for college by teaching them important mathematical skills. Omo carries on his father's tradition of excellence today with the Young People's Project. Five hundred high school and college students a year are trained and employed by the YPP to teach math to 5,000 students all over the country. It aims to turn underprivileged kids into "learners, teachers, leaders, and organizers through math and media literacy, community-building, and advocacy." Omo's story and work inspired us to feature him as today's 'Greatest Person.'
Huffington Post: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up? What role did your parents play in the Civil Rights movement and how did that shape you into the person you are today?
Omo Moses: I was born in Same', Tanzania and lived there until I was four. I grew up in Cambridge, Mass. with my brother and two sisters. My parents, who are both teachers, not as a vocation but through their life's work, taught us how to read, write and do math. They met in Mississippi in 1964 and became friends and comrades in the struggle to end segregation in the South. Their work, organizing sharecroppers to register to vote, got Jim Crow out of public accommodations, the local political arrangements and the national democratic party structure, but it failed to get Jim Crow out of public education. My dad founded the Algebra Project (AP) in 1982; its mission is to use mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.
Their work has connected me to a legacy of struggle in America to close the gaps between the democratic ideals it espouses and its actual practices. I grew up as member of a generation of young men (black and Latino in particular), who in many cases have been warehoused and relegated to the margins of society, who struggled to define who they were and who they could be beyond societal, cultural and historical expectations.
HP: Math is central to your organization. How did you develop a love for math and why do you think it's at the heart of an educational campaign for greater social change?
OM: My dad taught me math when I was younger. It was always something I felt I was expected to do, and do well in. I worked hard in my math classes in high school, and ended up majoring in math and creative writing in college. I think writing is the thing I do best, what comes most naturally to me, but I also enjoy the process of thinking about mathematical ideas and find it interesting.
Digital technology has transformed our lives. Math is at the center of our educational campaign for greater social change simply because the information era we now live in requires a certain level of mathematical and technological literacy to be able to participate fully in academic, intellectual, economic, and social life. Mathematics is a prerequisite for numerous fields of study and professions; facility with computers and digital media is a requirement for many jobs today, and success in algebra is related to high school completion. In the past not knowing math was not a barrier to a career or job in which you could make a living wage. Today it increasingly is.
In YPP we want young people to really learn and understand pieces of math to the point where they feel like math is a tool with which they can express their creativity. We want them to do more than just struggle to get it. We do this by playing games and encouraging them to create their own math games and activities. In this way we help them to overcome their fear of math, so that math just becomes part of what they do on a day to day basis. By learning and teaching math to and with each other we want them to develop a sense of their ability to work together, to be resources to each other, to engage in public speaking, to be able to plan and organize events and activities. Finally we want them to have a sense of themselves as student-citizens, concerned not only for their own welfare, but also the welfare of their peers; and to see themselves as having the ability to act collectively to work on the problem of ensuring that all children have the opportunity to receive a high quality education.
HP: How did the YPP get started? What prompted it?
OM: In 1995 I traveled South with my dad, my brother Taba and Khari Milner to work with the Algebra Project at the Sam M. Brinkley Middle School in Jackson, Mississippi. The students we worked with became our friends and family.
My dad encouraged us as young people to "get our act together". He wanted us to recognize the challenges that our generation faced and faces, and organize ourselves to do something about it. When in Mississippi I saw whole schools and communities of young people being marginalized and disempowered through their education. We decided to do something about it by learning and teaching math. As students graduated from Brinkley and went on to high school, we created the space and opportunity for them to come back to Brinkley and help their former classmates learn math. We saw a need and demand for this beyond Brinkley and began to do workshops for students in the Mississippi Delta.
These experiences were transformative and uplifting for everyone who participated. We decided to become an organization so that we could continue to grow and define our work. And so we founded YPP in 1996. To me YPP is a community of young people who decided to create a space and experiences that encourage and support young people to find their own path to success through helping their younger peers learn.
HP: What are YPP's main goals?
OM: To develop young people as learners, teachers, leaders and organizers.
To support high school and college students to create high quality math based learning environments and experiences for elementary students.
To create spaces and opportunities for young people to strengthen relationships and build community in the neighborhoods they live in.
To grow a national network of young people that are authentic in their demand that all children in the country have access to high quality education.
HP: How has the YPP grown since its founding in 1996? Where are you operating in the country today?
OM: YPP has grown organically through the spirit, growth and development of the young people, first in Mississippi and then Cambridge, Mass. They have been integral in inspiring, sharing and supporting young people in communities around the country to learn and teach math. They have taken the work with them and spread it throughout the country.
YPP has grown from one school to sixteen cities--Chicago; Cambridge and Boston; Jackson, Shaw and Duck Hill, Mississippi; Los Angeles; Miami; Detroit, Wayne, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan; Mansfield, Ohio; New Orleans; Hamilton College, Utica, N.Y.; and Brooklyn.
HP: Describe the YPP's main projects/areas of interest.
OM: YPP creates opportunities for high school students to develop as learners, teachers, leaders and organizers through a continuum of experiences across three areas of work: Education, Neighborhoods and Communities, and Education Policy and Advocacy. These experiences prepare young people to find a path to success and equip them with the skills, and encourage the leadership, integrity and goodwill to work with each other, in their communities and across cultural and geographic boundaries to improve the quality of education for all children.
YPP envisions a day when every young person--regardless of ethnicity, gender, or class--has access to a high quality education and the skills, attributes, and community support s/he needs to successfully meet the challenges of their generation.
HP: Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?
OM: Ella Baker, my younger brother Taba and my older sister Maisha are my heroes. My parents have encouraged, inspired, supported and challenged me to reach for my greatest potential and to use whatever gifts I have to work with others to do the same. Terrell Batiste and the entire Hot 8 Brass Band and my niece and nephew Zuri and Parris inspire me.
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