Threading the Needle: Empowering Students of Color in Talbot County

When I interviewed Jaelon Moaney, of Easton, six years ago while he was attending Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, I knew he was on an amazing journey that would only lead to good things for his life and his community. Jaelon, a 10th generation Talbot Countian and 2015 graduate of Talbot County Public Schools, is now Regional Director for U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat. He is making sure that he is taking care of the community who took care of him with his new initiative, Needle’s Eye Academy, a pilot program to improve literacy among students of color in Talbot County.

Inspired by the Beatles’ “Abby Road” album, the founders of Needle’s Eye Academy, a pilot program to improve literacy among students of color in Talbot County, pose by the iconic Harriet Tubman mural in Cambridge, including Mikayla Erin Moaney (left), a rising sophomore at Barnard College and Creative Media Director, who is holding a thread and needle; Nicolle Vittini Cabral, co-founder and educator, who is holding the program’s first book; and Jaelon Moaney, founder of Needle’s Eye Academy, reaching out to Harriet Tubman who went before him in guiding others to pathways of empowerment. Photograph courtesy of Amelia Blades Steward.

The idea for Needle’s Eye Academy developed from literacy work Jaelon did in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, home to his alma mater Williams College, a prestigious private liberal arts college. He explains that at the core of this revolutionary educational model is a question that resonated deeply with the successors of W.E.B. DuBois throughout western Massachusetts – how did their uses of literacy enhance, constrain and shape their sense of who they were?

“I realized for the people who are from Berkshire County, the resources are night and day from the college, the largest employer in the county. And for some of those indigenous peoples and people of color who have stayed there many generations, they are burdened by that disconnect,” Jaelon states.

In 2016, he founded #DIGDEEP, recognized by the U.S. House Literacy Caucus, which empowered four successive classes of young men of color at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Williams College’s Society of the Griffins, dedicated to fostering “a brotherhood for men of color while creating equitable pathways to success at Williams College,” coordinated the program, which brought together 20 to 30 high schoolers and a similar number of Williams students to discuss in small groups a single book each semester.

“So, six years later, we have students who are part of those first three or four cohorts who are circling back around as mentors for students just getting into the book club. And, at the beginning of this, it was open to all young men of color across the district. It’s definitely blossomed into something that students can count on, they look forward to coming to school for, and has really helped build up a more amicable relationship between such a prestigious institution as Williams and its surrounding community,” Jaelon comments.

Through the Dig Deep Program, students from Berkshire County were able to take a trip to the nation’s capital. He adds, “I think that helps students get out of their comfort zone. I remember reading a few years ago that the majority of Americans don’t travel a step beyond a very short radius of where they were born or where they grew up. So, since that trip with that first initial cohort of students, some of them did end up going to school in regions and states that were not ones that they grew up in. I am also certain that a lot more students took their literacy seriously after engaging in this program. The students’ course loads also increased in difficulty and students were embracing that challenge in ways that they hadn’t before or didn’t feel confident to before.”

Fast forward to today. Jaelon, who had served on the Talbot County Board of Education during his high school years, came back to the county with an idea to do a similar pilot program – Needle’s Eye Academy. Jaelon got the name from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 album “Pieces of a Man.” Embedded within Needle’s Eye Academy’s logo is the Latin word that means “to sew.” He felt it was appropriate because many American populations, and their heritage, inherited ways of knowing that don’t fit through the needle’s eye. The meaning goes deeper, however, reflecting planned future aspects of a 12-month program for Talbot County’s high schools.

“I can empathize with the adversity posed by predominately white instruction and its adverse aspects on our local students of color. Ultimately, the lack of opportunities to fully showcase their capabilities and their subsequent rejection of such an instruction is often misconstrued as apathy and disinterest. Now, more than ever, students of color need educators of color who understand their local context and embrace their heritage,” he explains.

Initially, the program will be held as a three-week summer virtual experience for 15 to 20 students of color transitioning from 8th grade to 9th grade at Easton High School and St. Michaels High School – a critical time for students deciding their paths to the future. Students will engage in daily reading assignments and participate in online discussions, relating their own experiences to what they are reading. The first book, Fresh Ink, includes the voices and perspectives of diverse authors across a variety of genres so that everyone will be able to connect with something in the book.

“The scholars, as well as their parents, have been contacted by assistant vice-principals and principals of all of our middle and high schools in the county. They have reached out to students they think might most benefit from this to encourage them to apply,” comments Jaelon.

There are four basic underpinnings or principles to Needle’s Eye Academy’s curriculum, and they are unique to the Shore. The first principle is that the curriculum is place-based – focusing on the legacy of the Shore and specifically Talbot County’s founding free black community. Because there are many distinguished writers of color from the Eastern Shore, students will benefit from learning about their stories – who they are but also seeing how some of their life lessons might apply to them as their contemporaries.

“If there are any group of Americans who know what America was supposed to be or understand the vision of what America was supposed to become, it would be the direct descendants of these Tidewater communities of color,” Jaelon reflects.

“Literacy is both foundational and a pre-requisite to civic duty. People of color in our country must be literate in a variety of ways at any given moment, in order for our democracy to come to fruition as intention.”

The second principle focuses on the cost of being quiet or complicit. The Needle’s Eye Academy wants to ensure that scholars, as well as their families, understand that no volume will be dismissed. “This means if your student is a writer, great. We will build up those skills. If you are an artist – painter, singer, or dancer, great. There are many different modes of communication that students feel comfortable expressing themselves. We are hoping to empower them to be change agents, meeting them where they are,” he adds.

The third principle is that moral issues are not impractical. Jaelon explains that this means that the academy will encourage students to not only follow their intellectual passions, or employ what skills they think might be palatable in a given industry but also their hearts, to be a catalyst for civic engagement.

The fourth principle is fluid intelligence. This means that the academy will encourage students to be able to adjust previously learned skills and procedures and adapt them to new and different contexts – helping students to see that they are more than the trauma in their histories.

“This idea was really born in 2015 when racial issues were at an all-time high in rural areas. With my deep Eastern Shore roots, I hoped at that time to bring this back to my community here,” Jaelon says.

He is also currently working with officials of Talbot County Public Schools to extend the summer pilot program into the school year, with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum as a partnering organization. His inspiration for the museum’s partnership came from the Black sailmakers of the region – specifically brothers Albert and Downs Curtis – the focus of Jaelon’s composition at Mystic Seaport Museum and maritime artisans who he says “threaded countless global vectors with the canvas they built into sails.” During the yearlong afterschool program, students would engage in workshops on the museum’s campus and at its conclusion, build a large canvas together collectively expressing their own individual journeys as scholars of color. Preparations for the school-based program are getting underway this summer.

“Now is the time to ensure Talbot’s youth of color are properly equipped with, rather than deprived of, these literacies. The Needle’s Eye Academy stands to be the equalizer,” Jaelon concludes.

In addition to Jaelon, key partners in the Needle’s Eye Academy include his sister Mikayla Erin Moaney, a rising sophomore at Barnard College and Creative Media Director, and his fiancé Nicolle Vittini Cabral, co-founder and educator; Glenn E. Singleton; James Ford; Bobby Johnson; Talbot educators Vicki Wilson, Charlene DeShields, and James Redman; and the co-founders of B.E.S.T. and G.E.M.S., Dionte Hynson and Deja Thompson.

The summer pilot program is multicultural, multi-lingual, and is not selective based on gender. For further information or to apply, visit https://linktr.ee/the_nea.md or call Jaelon Moaney at 410-725-2268.

Written and photographed courtesy of Amelia Blades Steward.

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