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A Volunteer's Perspective on Black Belt Fridays

My name is Grace Whitmire and I am a senior at UAB pursuing my Bachelors Degree in Early Childhood/Elementary Education. I changed my major to Education a little over a year ago and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. I first heard about GEAR UP Alabama in one of my classes last semester (Fall 2018). We were studying different types of families and Dr. Briggs, Project Director of GUA, visited our class and gave a presentation on families living in poverty. She talked about her experiences visiting the Black Belt and her passion was both obvious and contagious. Knowing that there were families in counties within the Black Belt who didn’t even have running water broke my heart and ignited a flame in my being that urged me to learn more about GUA and its mission.


After class, I went up to the front of the classroom and spoke with Dr. Briggs. I introduced myself and expressed my interest in attending one of the Black Belt Friday Bus Tours. She told me where to go to find more information and where to sign up for the bus list. Walking away from class that day, I felt like I had taken a step in the right direction. I immediately went online and signed up for the next bus trip. This trip was on Friday, November 30th and we were scheduled to travel to Booker T. Washington High School in Macon County. I had read on the website and in the details about the trip that there would be some time to discuss the history of the area and that we would be visiting a historical landmark as well, so I was really looking forward to the day ahead. I enjoyed the bus ride down to the Black Belt because we engaged in meaningful discussion and we heard amazing things from the brothers of Let Us Make Man. I’ll admit, I had never participated in anything like this before, so I was very nervous. The staff at Booker T. Washington High School and the GUA staff all made me feel so welcome and comfortable, so as soon as I stepped foot into the school, my nerves were completely gone. The school welcomed us in such a way that was so far from what I was expecting. You could tell that pride, honor, and school spirit lived in this school and its students.

Getting to speak with the students, share my own experiences, and answer their questions was such an inspirational experience for me. The way those students spoke about their school and their plans for their futures was nothing short of amazing. I was so very honored and humbled to have met everyone there. Needless to say, I left the school that day wishing I had been a student at that high school. Following our visit to the school, we toured Macon County’s Vocational School and the historic Shiloh Rosenwald School. This part of the trip was very interesting because we were able to learn about some of the amazing opportunities for students in Macon County and learn about the history of the area. On the bus trip home, we discussed everything that happened and what we learned from the trip. Overall, I learned that we should invest our time and resources in today’s youth because they will be tomorrow’s leaders. I feel very thankful for the education that I have and for the opportunities that were given to me when I was in school and now, I feel an obligation to help ensure others have the same opportunities as I did.


Since the trip to Macon County in 2018, I have participated in each Black Belt Friday Trip in 2019, including trips to Butler County, Montgomery, and Wilcox County. Each time I go, I learn so much more about the students, their communities, the GUA staff, and myself. I am a true believer that what GUA is doing in the lives of these students is making a difference. Dr. Briggs and Dr. Perry have both explained multiple times that even if we just spoke to the students for a small moment, we planted seeds. We may never get to see that seed grow, and that’s okay. Giving students hope that their dreams can become a reality is something that I want to keep doing as long as I’m able to. I am so thankful that I made the decision to attend one of the Black Belt Friday Bus Trips because it has changed my life in so many ways. If you are reading this and are on the fence about whether or not you should go, then take my advice and DO IT!! You will be so glad you did. I am so thankful for the opportunity to get to know the GUA staff and members of Let Us Make Man. This organization is simply amazing.

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The Relevance of Black History Month

Black History Month should be relevant to everyday life as a whole and is especially present in the historic town of Tuskegee, Alabama. Being in the city of Tuskegee has me at a great advantage because I am surrounded by history and some of the many people who has lived through some of it. Being surrounded by history shows me how there are many sacrifices that had to be made in order for going to Tuskegee University to be possible for me and many other students.

Being on the university’s campus is not only great but it is also awe-inspiring, to say the least. To be surrounded by almost 140 years of history can take a great toll on the mind by showcasing that we are awesome and can be successful in whatever positive things we put our mind to. Walking through the campus has given me the feeling that many years ago, people probably my age and older, walked through these doors and saw the endless amount of opportunities that was available for them. At the same time, being able to see all the historical sights and imagining how it used to be before modern times allows me to know that the work Booker T. Washington put into this school to have it built. Now, to have Tuskegee University be one of the most well-known HBCUs in the nation makes me believe that this was his dream and that we are all living it to make this school become what it is today.

Going onto TU’s campus gives me an even better view and a more clearer picture for my future, as achieving my goals has always been my main drive in life. Many years ago, there were students who wanted to learn and students who wanted to make life better for themselves and the next generation to come. I am grateful to be a part of this next generation to do something great and to make my mother proud no matter what happens.  

Living in Tuskegee has the effect that Black History Month is not only in February but its every month. Black History shows the struggles and the successes that have came into fruition because of years and years of being told what we couldn’t do. I’m glad I have this opportunity to be in a place where there are countless success stories. I am proud to be a Tuskegee citizen.

Tekajah Lewis 
GUA Ambassador 
Booker T. Washington High 
Class of 2020

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Black History Month to Me: An Ambassador Perspective

Black History month is very important to me because it acknowledges those who have come before me and accomplished things that contribute to our lives today.  In the past African Americans had the bravery and confidence to confront the situations that they seemed to face. These people were very talented and that talent led to the creations of many products that are used today.  Benjamin Banneker was an African American man who had created the first wooden clock. He was an astronomer, a mathematician and a big inspiration to me. This man held so much knowledge and skills that he was one of the first to predict a solar eclipse.

It seems like we all look past the fact that racism is present in this world and that African Americans had to endure so much pain and suffering in order to have equality. Black History month gives everyone an insight on what African Americans had to do in order to get their rights. These people were beaten, bruised, judged and killed for only being who they were. I live in Selma, Alabama which is where the Bloody Sunday March occurred. Despite living here for 16 years, everyday as I ride across that bridge it always seems to get harder and harder because of the fight that my cousins, aunts and uncles put up to be seen as equal. Even though I was not there experiencing these things taking place, Black History month is the time where events like those are being embedded and embraced to be shared with others.

All year round, many kids are not made aware of the important history that involves African American people. We all know about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but what about the others? Now, don’t get me wrong, these people were important, however there are many more African Americans in history that also influenced change and are just as important. People like Nat Turner, George Stinney Jr, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X are just a few people that go unnoticed throughout the school year. However, Black History Month is the time where my history is acknowledged and everyone who played a part in this wonderful outcome called integration will be recognized. Even though in my city Black History month is everyday, many others across the country are only taught Black History in February. Black History will always be apart of me and the generations that will come after.

Maria Byrd 
GUA Ambassador 
Southside High School
Class of 2020

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"GEAR UP" with the Lanier Poets: Black Belt Friday

On February 8, 2019, Black Belt Friday, GEAR UP Alabama along with volunteers from the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research(NCTEAR), students and professors from Lawson State Community College(LSCC), the University of Alabama at Birmingham(UAB), and many more volunteers visited Sidney Lanier High School.

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As a student, my overall opinion of the day was great. To have college students and professors talk and give advice about life after high school was eye-opening. The road to college and career life does not seem so confusing now. Thanks to the advice and suggestions given to me by the mentors on that day, I now know what I have to do to prepare for my future.

BBFMontJayliyah Stokes, GUA Ambassador, and Dr. Tonya Perry, GUA Principal Investigator 

I also gained an interest in other career options that are worth exploring. For example, psychology. One of the mentors that visited my class was clinical psychologist Dr. Christopher Brass. In my discussion with him I learned that psychology connects to everything because how a person thinks and sees the world  can explain their behavioral pattern and reveal a plethora of other information.

“I'm involved in programs like GEAR UP Alabama because sometimes students learn more about things like writing in the programs they provide than in their English classes,” said Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall, the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University.

The overall purpose of the day was to give students guidance about college and career life and introduce them to mentors who have careers similar to the ones they aspire to. Tonya Perry, the Principal Investigator of GEAR UP Alabama, encourages young people to find mentors to help aid in success. “Find someone who you can write to who is doing something that you would like to do and stay in communication with that person,” Dr. Perry said.

When asked about their motivation for attending the program, everyone I spoke to said their driving force was the students. “I look forward to learning from the students and providing them with helpful opportunities,” said Ryan Rish, Assistant Professor of Learning and Instruction at the University of Buffalo in New York. “By working with students over the years I discovered that growth and change is important for students to learn and thrive so they can live up to all of their potential,” Rish said.  


Overall the day was very momentous for everyone involved. It seemed as though that everyone, mentees and mentors alike, took something valuable away from the time they spent communicating with each other.  

“You can become whatever you want to become. You need a plan, and you need to find somebody to help you execute your plan,” Dr. Perry said when asked what she hopes students will take away from the event. She continued, “A lot was given to me. I don't think without the mentoring, support, and people who poured into me that I could have been successful and I think it’s now my time for me to give back.”

Jaliyah Stokes 
GUA Ambassador, Journalism Student
Lanier High School

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All About Lacey

My extracurricular activities consist of: cheerleading, volleyball, basketball, and softball. Each of these sports means a lot to me! Meeting new people is great, and I have met a lot of people playing sports both at my school and away from my school. I actually met my best friend, Justina during softball season. I have so many memories of each sport that I have participated in.

From my point of view, playing sports keeps people in great shape and out of trouble. Due to my extracurricular and co-curricular activities, my schedule is always tight. I am a full-time busy body; I am always on the move. I tend to flex my time in order to get everything done. Not to mention that I take three dual enrollment classes this semester. While outside of the school and even in school, I volunteer and I receive credit from helping and working with others. The best place I have volunteered at was our local Pre-k school in Carrollton, Alabama. Both the children at the preschool and at my high school admire me.

On my weekends, I always have something to do or a place to go. On some occasions, I miss church to play catch up on all of my work. There are many nights where we get back home late from games and we have school early the following morning. I have to juggle my list of things to do. When I get home late after a game or after an event I prioritize my homework and study over some notes from the previous lesson, If I do not understand a lesson or the material that is given to me I always speak out and ask the teacher to explain more deeply, to learn it easier and faster. I tend to struggle in math because I don’t understand how my new math teacher teaches. That’s okay because youtube has been my best friend this year. I always strive to help my classmates if they don't understand or get confused about something.

I'm definitely a very fun person and very easy going person to be around and, I strive to help others so I want to help others change the way on how they handle things when they’re as busy as I am. First, I would state to them is to get a planner. Write down everything you need to get down. Also, try to get ahead if something pops up you won't fall behind on your schedule. It's not easy to do a lot at once; it's okay to take a break. The only problem that will occur is getting sidetracked; that could put you far behind, but my solution to always ask for help when needed. Asking for help makes my life easier and understandable.

Lacey Latham
GUA Ambassador
Pickens County High School
Class of 2020

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