A longtime resident of Fort Collins, Colo., Jamal Skinner played in the reggae group Dubskin, but he also recognized a need in his hometown. As a former youth liaison and community organizer with a broad knowledge of African American history, he saw the barriers faced by young Black students. But also saw opportunities and a way to help. This led him to found the Fort Collins Cultural Enrichment Center (CEC) in 2020.
As stated on their website, the CEC’s goal is to “provide curriculum that advances a student’s readiness to explore and engage in core educational concepts through the lens of an African American.” The people the CEC is focused on helping are primarily middle- and high-school students.
And why Fort Collins? “Fort Collins has typical racial disparity issues that are seen across our country,” Skinner tells us. “I simply started the CEC in Fort Collins because I believe starting where you stand is the best policy.”
Below he answers questions about the CEC, why focusing on Fort Collins is important, how kids react to the space and the program, and how his background in music has impacted his work.
What initially inspired you to found the Cultural Enrichment Center?
I want to be a good ancestor and participate in creating opportunities for Black youth around me to participate in high-quality programs that recognize and develop their strengths, promote positive goals, and provide support to reach these goals. Starting the CEC is one way of providing a true and honest space for combating racial inequities. Inserting a racial equity outlook and outcomes mean making a conscious effort to identify and address systemic barriers that impede the healthy development of children and youth of color.
Why in Fort Collins? Did you see a specific need in this community in particular?
I have lived in Fort Collins for over 20 years. Fort Collins has typical racial disparity issues that are seen across our country. That said, the extremely small population of Black/African American-identifying people in Fort Collins puts our people at great risk of losing connection to our culture. I simply started the CEC in Fort Collins because I believe starting where you stand is the best policy.
How do the students respond to what you do? Can you give a couple examples of positive outcomes from your work so far? Of what ‘success’ means for the CEC?
I work with several students who express relief at the CEC. I can feel these young people relax with felt-safety when they enter the space, knowing that the state of hyperarousal required to survive at school is no longer necessary.
Success for the CEC means young people connecting with each other, learning, and helping build, shape, and create our programs. The more the students lead and have a sense of ownership over the space, the more successful everything we do will be. Our greatest successes have come in the form of friendships made between Black kids with other Black kids who feel more free when they’re together.
How does your experience as a musician lend itself to the program? Does that inspire the students?
Only a portion of our program is devoted to music, but yes, those students who are excited about music think it’s cool that I’ve played on some big stages. It is way more fun to listen to what our students write, play, and record than to remember past experiences though! They have inspired me to start using computer-based recording software to produce my own music since I no longer play in a band.
Have you found that music in general is a useful avenue for connecting with students? What else ‘works’ to establish that trust and connection?
Music is an excellent avenue for connecting with all ages, and definitely with young people. What makes the CEC function is that we take pride in our students being empowered to choose what inspires them; students who are particularly interested in music make sure to attend on Tuesdays and those who are inspired by other forms of art and culture participate in programs on other days. For our students who love creating music, expressing themselves via writing their own lyrics has been the greatest pathway to building deeper connection with our staff. Writing is a form of therapy.
How do you see the program growing in the coming years?
In the coming years I hope to see our participation grow. We moved into a larger space this summer to accommodate are larger summer program enrollment and now we are looking to expand our computer lab. We have started supporting some Black student clubs in the some schools in Fort Collins, and I would like to continue to be a resource in this way. Youth organizing is empowering and I’m willing to support it both inside and outside the CEC.
Is this a model that could be replicated in other cities? In Colorado or elsewhere?
While I appreciate the assumption that our model is entirely unique, there are several youth centers across our country that focus on serving marginalized populations – in fact, myself and Ronnie Ajim, one of the CEC’s board members, attended one in New York when we were growing up. I certainly think that similar organizations could successfully provide the experience of belonging that is often foreign to Black youth who reside in majority white communities.
Learn more about the CEC by visiting their website.
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