TheBlackManCan is in New York City. We are bringing you a Black man that is making a difference in the lives of black youth by teaching them a greater understanding of their history thus allowing black youth to have greater sense of who they are as a people in the world today. We proudly introduce Jarrett Mathis who had made it a mission in his life to deter black boys and girls from using the n-word as a term of endearment. Jarrett is the founder of Empowering Ourselves. Jarrett sits down with TheBlackManCan to discuss the inspiration behind Empowering Ourselves, the lack of consciousness around the n-word and his story of going from Brooklyn to the Ivy League.
TheBlackManCan: Jarrett, what provided the inspiration to develop the workshops and documentary “Empowering Ourselves?”
JM: I decided to create a workshop and documentary in order to get young people to think seriously about the importance of respect for self and others. Based on my past experience, Black boys and girls leave this workshop with a greater sense of who they are; they reject music and other art forms that say it is ok to disrespect each other by using such demeaning terms as nigga (even as a term of endearment), bitch, hoe, and
faggot; and they become more interested in finding ways to not only further empower themselves, but also their peers. This has sparked a greater interest in finishing high school and going to college, not to mention that it has made the schools and communities I’ve worked in safer.
TheBlackManCan: Did you develop workshops along with the documentary or did that come afterwards?
JM: I created the documentary about three years after I created the workshop. The majority of students who identified themselves as users of the n-word were persuaded not to use it anymore; however, they saw two challenges. First, students admitted that it would be hard to consciously refrain from using the n-word on a daily basis. Many of the boys and girls said that if they could be reminded of the information from the workshop on a
consistent basis, then they would be more inclined not use the n-word. Second, many students who believed that they could eliminate the n-word from their vocabulary were not fully motivated to do so. They believed that their eliminating the n-word would have little impact since the word is used so commonly in the black community. Understandably, students did not have the confidence that their actions would have an impact on others.
However, these same boys and girls said that they would be more inclined to not use the n-word if there was a mass movement. These conclusions have led me to decide that the next step would be to create a documentary. A documentary could enhance my workshop and address the two major concerns of the black students I worked with.
TheBlackManCan: Why is it important to challenge youth to think critically about their everyday language?
JM: The way that we label ourselves and others can have a powerful influence. I believe that we can start to internalize what we are labeled. That is why it is critical for young people to use labels that only have positive connotations.
TheBlackManCan: Today the N-word is often used as a term of endearment or an empowering acronym, such as “Never Ignorant Getting’ Goals Accomplished.” How are these intentions of turning a derogatory word into a positive expression null and void?’
JM: Rob Nelson, the former editor of the University of North Carolina student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, explains it best in his article entitled “The Word “Nigga” Is Only for Slaves and Sambos”. Nelson writes, “no matter what’s done with the last syllable of the word, it doesn’t make it any less offensive or demeaning. It doesn’t soften the blow of a word that has been used for centuries to ostracize, humiliate, and dehumanize blacks. It doesn’t erase the scars of the word’s slavery-laden meanings or lessen the severity of its racism. It doesn’t do a damn thing except prove that, after decades of progress in civil rights, blacks are still shackled. And, this time, by their very own lock and key.”
TheBlackManCan: Why are people so ashamed or afraid of talking about the N-Word?
JM: I think the n-word is a very polarizing issue. People have very strong opinions about the n-word. This often leads to heated, emotional arguments. I can see why people shy away from talking about the n-word.
TheBlackManCan: Why do you think there is a lack of consciousness among black youth using the N-word?
JM: I do not think our community has done enough in explaining why we should not use the n-word as a term of endearment. The most recognizable African Americans are either silent on this issue or they are people who use the n-word.
TheBlackManCan: What has been some of the feedback about “Empowering Ourselves”?
JM: I have been truly humbled by all the positive feedback. Mostly educators have found that Empowering Ourselves has made an impact in their classrooms. For example, a high school history teacher sent me the following testimonial: “Jarrett Mathis’ workshop was deep, enlightening and intellectually stimulating. It challenges our young people and empowers them to think critically about the history of their everyday language. The message was well received. We commend Jarrett for taking on such a controversial topic and encourage him to continue to make change in our community.” I really appreciate it because the sole purpose of Empowering Ourselves is to uplift and inspire our youth.
TheBlackManCan: How have your life experiences from Brooklyn to the Ivy Leagues influenced your work?
JM: Growing up in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, I have seen close up that our young people are faced with so many negative influences and bad role models. That has had a tremendous impact on how I conduct my workshops. At Dartmouth College, I was fortunate to have a first class education. And Dartmouth helped to fund my initial workshops. I share that experience with young people. I want them to know that doing well academically and attending college will lead to great opportunities.
TheBlackManCan: How important is it to utilize problem-based learning in the classroom and how can this style of teaching become the norm, rather than the exception?
JM: It is very important for teachers to use problem-based learning techniques
in the classroom. The problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students-no longer docile listeners-are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. Over the past 5 years, I have shared an incredible mutual learning experience with black youth. Together, we have been able to
brainstorm the most effective ways for them to stop using the n-word and ways for getting their peers to do the same. I teach them reasons I believe they should not use the n-word, and they express what information resonates the most with them. My workshop has been greatly improved as a result of their input. I think this style of teaching can be the norm
only when standardized tests are less emphasized.
TheBlackManCan: What words of advice do you have for young black boys?
JM: My advice to young black boys is to prepare mental toughness. There are
going to be so many obstacles and people who say that you can not make it. Stay focused on your dreams and do not let anything stand in your way. I really like Mariah Carey’s song “Hero” because it elucidates this point well…”So when you feel like hope is gone/ Look inside you and be strong/ And you’ll finally see the truth/ That a hero lies in you”
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