A local nonprofit known for its work in Oak Park schools recently hired one of its former participants, closing a virtuous circle. The nonprofit, YEMBA Inc., hired Oak Park and River Forest High School alum Amari Wilkerson in January to serve as its new program director.
“One of my high school friends’ mother was the program director before me,” said Wilkerson, 25. “She introduced me to the position last year. I thought it would be a great opportunity. I was part of YEMBA’s first cohort class, so it was pretty cool to be able to hear from her what they’re doing now.”
Wilkerson’s road from Oak Park to college and back home again was circuitous. After high school, she attended Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington D.C., before taking a job in Houston after graduation.
At Howard, Wilkerson said she acquired a new way of seeing the world.
“I learned a lot about myself,” she said. “I got to learn from an Afrocentric lens. Everything we learned at Howard was from an Afrocentric lens because everything starts with Africa. A lot of times, history in America starts from slavery, but I feel it’s important to be able to go all the way back to the beginning of the human race. As we know from science and excavation, the oldest human remains have been found in Africa.”
Wilkerson said she got “bits and pieces” of that Afrocentric perspective at OPRF, particularly from her former track and field coach and history teacher Tyrone Williams, who teaches an African-American history course at the school.
“He did start from the beginning and taught us about Mansa Musa, the richest man in the world,” Wilkerson said.
That course, however, was an elective and that kind of deep historical approach wasn’t common across the high school’s curriculum.
“I feel it’s important to have that in U.S. history and world history courses, as well,” Wilkerson said. “That [Afrocentric lens] would change the perspective of students of other races and it would change how we think about the origins of races, creating an environment where Blacks are respected more and not necessarily held in a light where they’re oppressed or thought of as less than others.”
Now, as YEMBA’s program director, Wilkerson is planning to provide for the young people in her stewardship the kind of experience she gained at Howard (or “The Mecca,” as the university is fondly known by alum).
Some of Wilkerson’s responsibilities include planning curriculum for participants of YEMBA, the nonprofit started by Edward Redd, an electrical engineer and youth advocate, in 2007. The nonprofit provides mentoring and development training for Oak Park middle school and high school students.
“I try to bring in the Afrocentric lens in whatever lessons we do,” Wilkerson said, adding that for Black History Month, she created a lesson to highlight the namesakes of Brooks and Julian middle schools.
“It’s important to highlight the namesakes because when I was at Julian, we didn’t have an assembly or specific lesson where we focused on Percy Julian,” she said. “It’s important to highlight his struggles and the struggles of Gwendolyn Brooks. These are people who live in our community.
“I want the students to know the legacy these African-American leaders left behind, so that hopefully they can follow in their footsteps.”