Several of you have asked about THE MJ PROJECT’s involvement in the Central Valley of California and our focus on serving this particular part of the country, not far from where we live in the Sierra foothills. California’s Hollywood image is of big cities and rural wineries, but in between them is our country’s most productive agricultural region. Why does the nation’s breadbasket need THE MJ PROJECT?
Since our departure from Los Angeles 6+ years ago, we have come to embrace this unique location and have spent a great deal of time educating and mentoring the teens that inhabit it. In the process, what we have discovered is startling. Despite its wealth of success for large landowners and agribusiness, the Central Valley and an untold number of families who reside in it suffer from a cycle of poverty that is not only shameful but astonishingly difficult for their children to escape.
We have found these children, our students, to be inquisitive, creative, and resourceful beyond our wildest imaginations. Unfortunately, we have also found them to be woefully underserved in ways most of us take for granted. Life is hard for the majority of these students, the pressures nonstop. Some are young mothers, others young men who labor in the fields to help support their families. Many sleep cramped and on the floor, the thought of a bed of their own unimaginable. In Arvin, Leslie taught students living in the same migrant camps that John Steinbeck shocked us with in 1939’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Things are better since then, but some stubborn facts remain.
What surprised us the most is the high percentage of Central Valley teens with childcare responsibilities for their own siblings as their parents work long hours and numerous jobs just to make ends meet. Education is necessarily an afterthought for these wannabe scholars, the push/pull between academic success and hand-to-mouth survival often a losing battle.
Thus, it is our mission to put books of high interest into as many young hands as possible; to strengthen their minds, improve their skills, and expose them to a world where sleeping in a bed is a given, not a luxury. At THE MJ PROJECT, we view a book as an open door, a passage to a broader vision of possibilities not yet imagined. In this spirit, we appreciate your interest in our EVERY KID A BOOK program and look forward to your ongoing support as we approach the holiday season.
-Tom Nelson & Leslie Lipton
In the fall of 2013, Tom and Leslie founded THE MJ PROJECT to honor the life and legacy of Tom’s beloved mother Mary Jane. Her memory fuels the fire behind their mission to level the playing field for all teens as they navigate choppy waters on their way to success. When you see our MJ t-shirt reading “BE KIND” on its front, know that it is because that is how Mary Jane, the kindest person imaginable, lived her life.
As should we all.
So what does THE MJ PROJECT stand for?
It stands for loving without condition,
meeting students where they are,
giving without judging.
Thank you, Mary Jane.
Coach Parker: A Teacher on the Court
by Alicia Johnson
In more than 30 years, Coach Mel Parker has never lost a game. Because to him, victory and defeat are not merely announced by the red numbers glowing on the scoreboard; they require a deeper look into a player’s performance and mindset. Whether in the game of life or the game of basketball, his philosophy remains the same. To win means to learn.
“There’s no loss... I win, and I learn,” Parker said. “People emphasize a win so much, but what is really a win? Is it really winning the game or winning at life?”
Parker’s family moved to Hanford, California from Virginia when he was nine-years-old, and his father, a teacher and coach, set out to make a lasting impact on their new community. Parker spent his childhood watching his father’s influence on youth in the community, and today, he continues his father’s legacy in Hanford by helping his students and players become what he calls winners in life.
As a Varsity Basketball coach and Special Education teacher of local teens, he knows that his students and athletes are challenged by peer pressure, struggles with academics, and often a feeling of loneliness. Parker hopes the youth he encounters know they can get through those difficulties.
“Whatever you go through, you get through because we’ve all been through things in our life we would never think we would get through,” Parker said.
He wants to be a listening ear for his students and players helping them achieve their goals and triumph over their challenges. As a second generation coach and educator, he has not just redefined what winning means to his players but also what it means to be a coach.
“I always tell my players I’m a teacher on the court. It’s like my classroom. I conduct it the same way,” he stated.
Parker said regardless of whether his athletes become professional basketball players or not, he wants to develop them into professionals. This coaching approach includes weekly grade checks, a parent-player contract, and professional attire on game days, which he believes increases their pride in the team and themselves.
With tryouts for the basketball team approaching, he plans to try something different this season to further develop players. Parker will be implementing the team reading of author and educator, Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life. He sees that some of his players struggle with their academics, and he thinks this book will help them grow as players and learners.
Parker’s love of reading has evolved. In fact, as a child, he said he did not like to read. It was not until he became a Special Day Class educator for second and third graders that this changed for him.
“Reading really became important to me when I became a teacher...“It’s quite rewarding when I see young kids learn how to read because they’ve given up,” Parker said.
He saw his young students struggling to pronounce words, and now that he teaches teenagers, he knows that struggling with reading is not just restricted to younger students.
“They see the words; they [get] intimidated. So, my goal was to make it comfortable for them... a comfortable place where they felt safe,” Parker stated. “I just have a passion for it because I think when you read, you can learn a lot about life.”
Parker hopes that using the rules from The Playbook this year will make his players better equipped for the season and for their futures.
In preparation for sharing the book with his team, Parker has already identified his favorite rule, which is “Follow the Rules.” Returning and new players will form the team this year, and he believes they will all walk away with this lesson.
“Follow the rules and be successful. Show up on time, and do what you’ve gotta do,” Parker said.
“They can carry that over to life when they get employed; show up on time, and do what you gotta do.”
He plans to make reading a regular part of the team’s practice routine and hopes it helps build a strong bond for the players.
“I’m so excited...because it’s going to bring us closer together,” Parker stated. “I want them to be winners, and winners to me [are] just not in a basketball game. It’s winners at life.”
Windows, Mirrors, and Wild Tongues
by Alicia Johnson
As a teen, Ms. Preciado felt like an outsider looking into the windows of her peers and the authors she read until she stumbled across a welcomed discovery in her new school’s library. These windows became worlds she would challenge as a student and eventually, as a teacher, activist, and parent. In this spotlight, she takes a deep dive into the topics of identity and social justice while reflecting on the authors that have and continue to shape the community and students she serves.
What role did reading and books play in your teenage years?
Reading and books played an important role because when I was a teenager, I went to Santa Monica High School instead of my home school, which was Dorsey because I figured I would be able to access better education. When I got there, I had trouble making friends. Sometimes I was the only Latina in the honors classes because I scored well on standardized tests and I had good grades, but people didn’t want to associate with me, so I’d go to the library.
They had a beautiful library. I’d just walk up and down the aisles looking through books, and then I started to really enjoy reading because I had the opportunity to choose books that I enjoyed. Also, I was taking like two to three buses to and from school, so I had a lot of time to do my homework and also just to read.
I learned to enjoy reading, and that was a way I dealt with the long commute and kind of being ostracized by my classmates.
What were your favorite books as a teenager?
[In the library] I saw that there were authors with Latino last names, which for me was a big deal because I don’t think I had ever read a text by a Latino author. This was ninth grade. I remember I started just looking at the last names...So I read a Gary Soto book, and I saw there were a bunch of different Gary Soto books, so then that was kind of the first author that I related to.
What are some of your favorite books now?
I have a core of books that I think really built me up as a person. One is [Frantz] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth because I used to be an activist organizer, and I thought I was going to start a revolution. I really learned from the struggles of African people. [I learned] the different phases of revolution and psychologically what would we have to do to change to be prepared to create a different world. [I learned] all the conflicts that arise when people have different interests.
The second one is the Assata Shakur autobiography because...I realized I had a lot in common with African people or African American people because that’s the neighborhood where I grew up. I think Assata Shakur spoke to the reality that I lived in. But, she had very concrete ways that she and the Black Panthers had fought to create solutions for problems that I was experiencing...She’s like one of my biggest role models.
She listed a bunch of books that she read as part of her development, and I went on and read those books and other Black Panther books. It opened up a door to all these people that had fixed communities at some point in time just like mine.
The third one would be [Gloria E.] Anzaldúa, Borderlands...I think that helped me develop my Chicana identity because I was always Mexican from South Central. That was my identity, but then I think reading her made me understand that I was a Chicana. That encapsulated a lot of my experience. Just not being Mexican and not being American but being this whole other type of person, like a Chicana, the historical implications, and the actions I was going to take because of my experiences that were based on my identity and history. That really helped me understand. It was very empowering for me to hear somebody write about “wild tongues cannot be tamed.”
Because that was something I had developed, a very wild tongue.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that’s my fourth. I read that in college...I was teaching English and Know Your Rights to immigrants from everywhere like Fiji Islands, El Salvador, Guatemala and Know Your Rights to people from my neighborhood in South LA and other Chicanos. That book really taught me about my role in the movement and the role of education when it comes to liberation, and how education should be liberatory. If it’s not, then, that’s not the type of education that I want to be a part of.
It taught me about how to treat other people. [It taught me] how to see myself as a teacher but also as a student at the same time, and how to see my students as my teachers. I think that was very key for me to learn from the get go...Yes, I’d been in official schools for longer, but that didn’t make me superior to them. I always needed to put myself in place of a teacher, and that’s something I take to heart even now. How can I continue learning from my students as opposed to ‘I have so much to offer.’
Teachers are not saviors. My goal is never to save people because people have that belief. ‘I’m from a privileged background. I’ve had such a great education. I’m going to save these black and brown kids from Inglewood, or from South LA, or from wherever.’ My role is very clear. I don’t have anything to save. The only way we’re going to save each other is if we just work collectively. I think that really changed the type of teacher that I became, or just the way I interacted with people that had been to jail instead of college during their teenage years.
As a teacher, what does having access to culturally relevant literature mean to you?
It means everything to me because without culturally relevant literature, kids don’t read for the most part. If it’s irrelevant to them, they won’t read. I think I was lucky enough to go to schools that had libraries, and I was able to find books that were culturally relevant to me. Even when I did end up at Dorsey [High School], Dorsey has a beautiful library as well. I was able to continue reading.
We’re producing kids that are high performing on state tests but hate to read and don’t read on their own. What type of humans are we creating, producing, teaching, if our kids do not read? That says a lot to me personally. I don’t know who came up with this, but looking at literature as windows and mirrors. Books as windows where you’re kind of an outsider looking into someone else’s world and books as mirrors. When I heard that just recently, I felt like my whole life I was looking through a window into all these other worlds, all these other lives, all these other people, and I always felt like an outsider. Always. I felt like I didn’t belong.
Of course I didn’t belong in Santa Monica High School. The texts showed me I didn’t belong, movies I watched showed me I didn’t belong, so it kept me as a second class citizen. Just observing the world and not being able to participate or be valued. Once I started finding my own books, those were mirrors to me... I related not just ethnically or racially but in terms of class and in terms of income.
We need kids to be able to see that their lives are valuable. I think the message I got was that I wasn’t important. I didn’t have any heroes, I didn’t have anything important [and] worth documenting in a book. I think culturally relevant literature validates our existence. The fact that we do have historical events that matter beyond what we’re taught in history class. I think it makes us feel like we are valued and we’re important in this world. It’s just so important and so lacking.
How do books and literacy help students challenge the social issues they face?
I’ll speak for myself. I learned by reading that the Black Panthers dealt with the same social issues, but it gave me concrete ways to fix those issues. Sometimes we know something’s wrong, but we don’t know how to fix it. That book gave me ideas, like start a free lunch program. You need to read more books about other people in other parts of the world. You need to be in solidarity as opposed to being individual, which is what we’ve taught. You learn so much from books about how to fix society, and you learned how it failed and learn how it went well…[For example], you learned that the government brought drugs, so I’ve been very anti-drugs but for political, historical reasons. Not just because drugs are bad but because drugs have been used as a tool to break down movements at least here in South LA in my community.
I think books give us answers and give us a path, and we can choose from all the paths that books give us, what type of society we want to create. I know Assata read Karl Marx and Che Guevara, and I read those too. When it comes to police brutality, when it comes to poverty, what do you do? I have concrete answers to those, so I think kids can do the same. Find solutions to problems, and then create their own solutions. At least you have a framework or a foundation to create your own solution.
What impact has the Sergio Ramirez Social Justice Library had on your classroom?
On a small scale, I think as a teacher you always have your ideal library that you would have if you had access to funds. I think that I just sat and wrote a list, and then my dream came true, my nerdy teacher dream.
On another scale, it also honored the life of Sergio Ramirez. Sometimes death brings so much negativity that it was beautiful to see that death brought positivity, resources, knowledge, and empowering texts to kids.
I ordered a lot of Black Panther books...For Black History Month last year, I stopped teaching Spanish, and every kid in class was able to have a Black Panther book that they read, learned, and presented...I think it was really empowering to those kids. Last year I had a very small African American class. They were feeling unincluded and that the school’s curriculum was not invested in them, but I had all these books that they were able to read. It was just beautiful to see that they were into them. They were willing to have discussion, and I let them keep the books because I think that hopefully helps form their identity, and it opens them up to maybe wanting to read other books or each other’s books. There’s been a lot of positive outcomes from the library.
Was there an unexpected benefit of the library?
To me, one of the books that I put on the list was Revolutionary Mothering... I hadn’t read for a while because I was a new mom, and [with] teaching it is just hard to find time to read. I hadn’t found a book that I was really looking forward to reading, so I ordered that book, and that book changed my mom life. I was having trouble figuring out how to still be an activist and a mom. I had a daughter that was months old. That book talked about what revolutionary mothering looks like and what it looks like to go to organizing meetings and spaces with a child now as opposed to just by myself. I hadn’t been able to go to those spaces because I didn’t feel comfortable. I was nervous my daughter was going to cry, I wasn’t going to be paying attention fully, or people weren’t going to respect me because I wasn’t 100 percent present. I read that book and it gave me a lot of stories of different mothers in different spaces, like academia, organizing, and I related a lot to that and it encouraged me to participate.
This was back in 2015 to go to the organizing meetings for rent control. We started to see people were being displaced and rent was going up, so I started going to those meetings with my child who would cry... If it weren’t for that book, I would have left, and I helped with the beginning stages of fighting for rent control, which now we have on a very limited time scale, but I’m grateful to the library...I was able to contribute to Inglewood and halt the displacement of people because I read that book.
It’s been years, but now, we’ve barely won rent control...I’m just thankful that I was able to be part of the process, and I know that book played a huge role in my ability to feel comfortable because I was going to City Council meetings with a baby on my hip, and I don’t think I would have done that. City Council meetings you’re supposed to be quiet. I almost got kicked out for clapping, so imagine. That book allowed me to feel comfortable in spaces that I didn’t think were available for children.
What skills revolving around language, identity, and literacy do you hope students leave your class with?
I think one of the main skills that I want them to have is to be critical readers and to be able to read the world. This comes from Paulo Freire. Especially, for example, what’s going on in Venezuela. The media is very much focused on supporting the right-wing candidate that is being backed by the U.S. I need kids to understand...media literacy. They need to understand that this is just part of history and what the U.S. does when it comes to U.S. intervention and backing presidents that economically will benefit the U.S. I want kids to understand the world around them in a historical context, in an economic context. That’s what I would want kids to leave my class with.
Is there a legacy you hope to leave with your students?
I think my legacy is: Ms. Preciado really cared about us knowing what’s going on in the world and really believed that we had the power to improve the world through reading, through speaking your mind, through valuing your personal experiences in Inglewood or as a child of immigrants. Valuing who you are and using those as tools and legitimate reasons to make the world more catered to you.
This month THE MJ PROJECT is excited to introduce you to Rodolfo, a student at The University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is truly a student to spotlight as he tackles a challenging academic course load with a positive, BE KIND attitude that we love so much around here.
Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re studying…
My name is Rodolfo. I’m 21 years old and from Inglewood, California. I study Biology and Chemistry as my main majors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; they are what my degree plan revolves around. Though, while I was expressing joy for all the possible AP exams offered during my junior year of high school, someone said to me, "You are going to have so much fun with the college catalog." That person must have been a fortune-teller, because I know the UAF catalog like a best friend and so far I am more than halfway done with minors in psychology, physics, and mathematics (though there are many more minors I am planning to start in the future and eventually finish, like the Political Science minor I’ll start this summer!)
How do you get all that done?
It is difficult for me to think about all the work that would go into such a diverse degree. I carry full-time work and full-time school as burdens during the summer to mitigate costs. Tuition at UAF is set to resident tuition for all students every summer, so I stay here every summer and take advantage of the cheap prices for classes. In addition to my classes, I also usually work full-time in the summer as a housekeeper on campus. UAF is also a surprisingly cheap school and is cheaper than many of my in-state options from California.
I have so much love for all of the sciences, and I want to help people access these joys and wonders. I want to especially bring these trinkets of my fascination back to underprivileged communities where many people think that education is a dead-end and that the sciences are for people unlike themselves. As for Biology and Chemistry specifically, I am looking for a cure to aging. I enjoy life and want to continue living it as long as I can!
How did you become connected to THE MJ PROJECT?
The donor support from THE MJ PROJECT was so helpful at the beginning of the current semester when I was terrified of thinking about where my textbooks were going to come from. I didn't know how I would cope with academic pressure. Not being able to follow along in class without reading the textbook beforehand would be difficult. Money was short and with my schedule I had no time to look for money.
THE MJ PROJECT came to my rescue when a high school teacher noticed a post I'd made on Facebook about looking for the textbooks I'd needed this semester. She pointed me in the direction of THE MJ PROJECT, and they helped me buy a copy of a required textbook for my Botany class.
The textbook has since nearly doubled in price, so I was saved a large amount of agony through their generosity. Had I waited to see if I could acquire the money for the textbook over the semester, I would have been shocked to see the newer price, and I would have probably just given up. I make a point of sharing the textbook with my group of friends in the class to spread THE MJ PROJECT love and maximize the happiness achieved from the selflessness of those involved. We even have an online document where we keep our communal notes.
What would you like people to know about THE MJ PROJECT?
Education is a powerful equalizer in our world, and access to it is vital for people seeking socioeconomic mobility. Though education can equalize, the access to education is not equal. Many do not have the tools to lift themselves up using their education, as they are now. THE MJ PROJECT helps to change that and make education more accessible and more powerful in its ability to lift people up. The disparity of wealth is a socioeconomic problem, and it is especially felt by people who have no access to wealth or access to only dilapidated institutions of education to begin with. Donations of any amount mean so much more than words can describe to people in college who worry often about their college payments and textbook costs.
Any cool science facts you'd like to share with us?
Here are some interesting botany facts about a specific plant: there exists a species of tree called gingko. This tree was cultivated by Chinese monks for about 1,000 years. The relatives of this plant were not so lucky, as they all went extinct. This plant is thought to exist today only as a result of being cultivated by Chinese monks. This plant is also the only known plant species to show dichotomous venation in its leaves. The veins of the leaves branch off into two and continue to do this many times until they reach the end of the leaf. Lastly, beware of the female variety of gingko. They are said to smell of “vomit and rancid butter”. This is a result of their fruit rotting.
We’d like to introduce you to Ms. Tirado. A literacy teacher in the San Diego area. Recently we touched base with Ms. T to ask her a little bit about herself, how her love of reading guided her to a career in education, and how that’s being passed on to her students!
Why did you want to become a literacy teacher?
I love to read and when I was younger my parents would not let us what a lot of TV so I would read! I remember going to the library getting to pick up a new book what the highlight of my week. I had a difficult childhood and reading helped me forget about all my problems! Reading just takes you so many places and you learn so much. That is why I wanted to become a Literacy Teacher!
How did you get connected with THE MJ PROJECT?
When I walked into a teacher’s classroom at the Hanford L4L School I saw a wooden bookshelf with an MJ PROJECT logo on it, and it had all these interesting books! I had to ask what the MJ PROJECT was, and I found out it was a foundation that donates books and bookshelves to students! I was so excited and started ordering books for the literacy class that I was and am currently still teaching. Every time we get a new book in for our library it’s like Christmas! I am so grateful!
How has your classroom library impacted your students?
The students are so excited to read and they start talking to other students about the books they have read and then other students want to read those books! It’s so awesome to see so much collaboration, reading, and learning! I feel like books bring people together. Especially shy students who do not have many friends, they start talking about reading books and they become friends!
I cannot thank the MJ Project enough all the books they have donated! I feel like the [classroom library] is more than a book it’s a connection tool, a magic key that can unlock so many doors!
This month THE MJ PROJECT is thrilled to share our March Student Spotlight with you. As a high school student she participated in our Digital Media program and now, as a college student she is pursuing a degree in Film, Television & Digital Media at UCLA. Sure to make a positive difference in the world, Almarosa is working hard to achieve her dreams.
Tell us a little bit about yourself...
My name is Almarosa. I am a junior studying Film, Television, & Digital Media with a concentration in Cinematography at UCLA’s Film School. My passion for film began when my father, who works for a few movie directors, brought home an old Canon AE-1 35mm camera. Since then, I have spent time studying film ceaselessly on the internet and taking pictures on my adventures. When I first laid my hands on a digital camera, I found a new obsession. I could not stop myself from taking videos and editing them. My interest in cameras led to my passion in cinematography, and now I aspire to become the director of photography for significant films, television shows, and music videos.
Give us a little insight into your background...
I was born and raised in Inglewood, California. Both my parents are from Mexico and immigrated to this country in search of the American Dream. My older sister, Maria, always reminded me of the sacrifices my parents made for us to pursue a higher education. This kept me motivated in my school work and shaped me as a person. The lack of resources in my hometown revealed the importance of reaching out to nonprofit organizations that aid students like me. As a result, I joined academic programs that provided the extra push and helped me succeed. My accomplishments could not have been possible without the support of my peers, and now I hope to do the same for others.
We hear you've got a busy schedule!
What else have you been up to?
I am currently volunteering for the All Ways Up Foundation (AWU) and MMLA. They both are recreating documentary series that tell their purpose, story, and goals. For AWU, I was featured in their most recent short documentary along with 5 other scholars. I shared my background and obstacles I overcame to succeed. On the other hand, MMLA made me their co-producer for their informational videos about the organization and a minute long commercial. For the past couple of months, I have attended several meetings and shoots for the videos that are currently being edited. This is a commitment of mine that I have had the pleasure being a part of because this program is one of the reasons why I am studying film today. I hope to create more opportunities for students to get involved with film making.
Tell us about your involvement with THE MJ PROJECT...
I attended Animo Inglewood Charter High School and am fortunate to have stayed connected with my teachers, who are a part of THE MJ PROJECT. On UCLA’s campus, I ran into my former drama high school teacher. He informed me on the mission of THE MJ PROJECT and the scholarships offered to support students in need. I took this opportunity to apply for a scholarship that could help me fund a camera purchase. Soon enough, I was the recipient of the scholarship and was able to buy the camera I wanted. I am thankful for the project’s support because it enabled me to expand on my creativity by owning the essential equipment a film student needs. This will allow me to solely focus on crafting my senior thesis for the upcoming school year. The MJ PROJECT is a great resource for low-income students who face hardships with affording technology or books for school use.
What do you love most about THE MJ PROJECT?
THE MJ PROJECT is run by the most amazing people I have ever met. I cannot put to words how humble and helpful the board is. Creative career fields are poorly supported in under-served communities, but THE MJ PROJECT is changing this by funding student films.
The MJ PROJECT Blog is written by students, teachers, and MJ Project team members seeking to keep our supportive community in the know with regards to our most recent projects, grants, and programs.