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The Pioneer Center’s Ric McConnell
CHILLICOTHE — In 1970, Kent State University hosted the first official Black History Month celebration after a group of black students pushed for the expansion of what was then known as Negro History Week.
Six years later, the U.S. government followed suit when President Gerald Ford officially recognized the month long observance.
The college students’ successful campaign can serve as a reminder that here in Ohio, even some of the youngest black leaders can influence conventional wisdom.
In that spirit, the Gazette identified three emerging leaders in the local black community, all younger than 25. In separate interviews, they discussed how their life experiences forged them into leaders and how they plan to serve as positive examples for future generations.
A senior at Chillicothe High School, Lauren Hitchens said she doesn’t want to be defined solely by the fact she’s black, but she acknowledged she puts extra pressure on herself to perform well academically because of it.
“Here, there’s healthy competition among the African-American students, because we’re all fighting to stay in that top 20 percent, because it looks good to show there are African-American students doing well,” Hitchens said.
Hitchens, 18, has gravitated toward leadership roles in organizations that are part of the larger school fabric. She’s vice president of the Student Council, president of the National Honor Society and vice president of the Spanish Club.
“I think being a leader means you take charge, but in a healthy way. You make sure everybody has an equal opportunity,” she said. “I like to talk to people. I’m very outspoken. I’m very good at delegating. You have to be nice and be able to communicate with different types of people.”
Hitchens has been at the ground level of efforts to bring an NAACP youth chapter to Chillicothe. The group meets at First Baptist Church on West Fourth Street, where her father, Rob Hitchens, is the interim pastor.
“You need 25 people to be chartered and right now we have 15. I know there are so many other (potential members) out there, but right now it’s mostly my cousins and me,” she said.
This fall, Hitchens will leave Chillicothe to study physical therapy at Ohio State University, Ohio University or the University of Cincinnati. She has yet to decide on which one.
“I would like to come back. I’ve always had the image of living out in the country with a big house and sending my kids to Chillicothe City Schools,” she said. “If we want to continue to grow as a minority, we have to come back and show we can do big things and raise our kids here, so we can keep the tradition going.”
Hitchens said it’s important that black students in Chillicothe pursue the many minority scholarships that are available. But the education shouldn’t be limited to the classroom, she said.
“I think we need to be more educated, not just in terms of school, but we need to be educated on our past, so we know where we’ve come from and can get farther in life,” she said.
Much like Hitchens, Ric McConnell has a deep respect for the people who have come before him.
McConnell was a junior at Chillicothe when he took the reins of the school’s Black History Month program.
“There’s a saying, ‘You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.’ And I think that’s true, even in terms of your own personal family history,” he said.
McConnell, 23, said history lessons are important, as are lessons in leadership that have been passed down through the generations. Words, however, can only lead to so much change in today’s climate, he said.
“I appreciate every older mentor I’ve ever had in my life, but now it’s to a point where kids don’t want to listen,” he said. “We’re at a point where words are pretty much becoming pointless unless you prove it to them and they see the action behind the words.
“I want to give them a visible example of what you do.”
McConnell said he sees too many young black males who “aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing and aren’t achieving the graduation rates they should be achieving.”
“I find myself wanting to do more to help that situation. How? I haven’t figured that out yet,” he said.
McConnell said he wishes he had the resources to renovate the old armory building in Yoctangee Park and turn it into a youth recreation center, a place where kids could find positive diversions and feel safe. He’s concerned there’s not much incentive for young blacks to stay in Chillicothe, especially if they have big plans.
“Drugs, that’ll keep you here. Parties, that’ll keep you here,” he said. “Life is all about growth. If you can no longer grow in a place, it’s time to go.”
McConnell is, by his own admission, not as involved with the youth as he used to be, at least outside of his job at the Pioneer Center. At the end of 2013, he stepped down as youth director at Zion Baptist Church, where he did some biblical teaching, but more than anything he sought to create a safe, come-as-you-are atmosphere much like the one he would like to see at the armory. Now he’s turned his focus to going back to school to study communication and broadcasting.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll stay in Chillicothe, or perhaps return some day, but it’s clear he plans to take his headstrong brand of leadership with him wherever he goes.
“I’ve always been a take-charge person who didn’t want to sit back and wait for someone else to do something, especially if it’s something I enjoy or know a lot about,” he said. “Some might say I’m bossy, but ever since I was little I’ve tried to be a leader — a positive leader.”
During her freshman year at Ohio University, Karissa Jones couldn’t seem to find the exact sort of student group she had in mind, so she created her own.
Jones, now 19 and a junior on the Athens campus, founded Achievement Leadership Service Scholars, an organization that enlists the help of various student groups on community service projects. The goal of the organization is to improve the community while bringing together different groups that might not otherwise find common ground.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” she said.
Jones is attending Ohio University on a full-ride Templeton Scholarship, which is geared toward minority students who excel in and outside of the classroom while demonstrating citizenship through leadership and community service. As a Templeton scholar, she attended a diversity leadership conference in Chicago during her freshman year.
The college experience has been been transformative for Jones, a 2012 graduate of Chillicothe who grew up in a biracial family. Her father is black; her mother is white.
“At home, I had no idea anyone was different,” she said. “Obviously I knew were all different colors, but I didn’t know what that meant.”
Jones didn’t give it much thought until she started kindergarten, where she was the subject of ridicule from some of her classmates. But with the support and unconditional love of her parents, she decided she wasn’t going to put up with it.
“I was little, but I was feisty,” she said.
As she grew older, Jones became more interested in her black heritage and more aware of inequalities. The availability of a wider array of classes in Athens further piqued her interest.
Now, in addition to majoring in biology and psychology, Jones is minoring in African-American studies. She thinks people of all colors in Chillicothe could benefit from learning more about each other’s rich histories, rather than the standard Eurocentric approach to history.
“There are so many different leaders, inventors and visionaries, not only from the African-American community, but the Latino community and Asian-American community,” she said. “There are so many cultures we have yet to really envelop into our culture as Americans and our education system.”
“I think it all starts with education. Education is the key,” she said. “If we don’t educate ourselves on who we are, how can we expect other people to know who we are and how we want to be treated?”
Jones plans to go to medical school and become a pediatric oncologist. She said she’s not sure if she’ll return to Chillicothe, but she wants to start a program for underprivileged kids who have an interest in science and math.
-Story and image courtesy of the Chillicothe Gazette