Helping Youth Find Peaceful Solutions to Today’s Challenges at MLK Jr. Freedom Center

Helping Youth Find Peaceful Solutions to Today’s Challenges at MLK Jr. Freedom Center

Among the chemistry, computer, and other classes offered to the 30 campers at Merritt Kids College last summer, was a lesson that the campers can use throughout their lives: Let your voices be heard. The two-hour session, requested by Kids College organizers and taught by Dr. Roy Wilson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Center, was just a taste of the nine-week Leadership Academy he and his staff teach each semester to a selected group of Oakland middle- and high-schoolers from diverse racial and cultural communities in the East Bay.


During the camp session, each student was asked to write a short essay about a topic that was important to them and then read it aloud in front of the whole group. After being coached by Leadership Academy assistants, the campers turned their meek voices into much more powerful ones as their audience took notice and turned their attention toward the speaker. “If you have your voice, you can identify yourself in the context of the world around you,” says Wilson. “It’s important for students at any age to find their voice, make eye contact, and learn to stretch their words to carry across the room.”


Being able to use your voice to get your message across is the overall mission of the MLK Jr. Freedom Center in continuing the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the movement for civil rights and non-violence, according to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who was instrumental in starting the center in the mid-1990s. “We created the center to empower young people to recognize that they have the capacity to be the ones to demand change,” she said in a recent speech. And it was for just that reason that the Leadership Academy began.


Along with taking weekend classes focusing on the legacy of Dr. King, the group participates in a summer cultural exchange travel program. This year they went on a 6-week pilgrimage to 32 cities between California and Washington where they met with government officials, Native American tribes, unions, and community organizations, and learned principles of nonviolence and ethical leadership. Among the highlights were meeting with civil activist Dolores Huerta and family members of Cesar Chavez, attending a traditional powwow, and joining a stop-the-violence neighborhood march. When they returned to Oakland, the students reported on their experiences to a standing-room-only crowd of judges, government officials, school personnel, and family members who had supported their efforts on their journey.


The Academy students also are responsible for the monumental task of coordinating the MLK Freedom Center’s popular Eliju Harris and Barbara Lee’s Lecture Series. Co-produced with Merritt College, the series brings powerful guests like Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama to share their message with hundreds of community members. The students do everything from marketing the lectures to handling all of the RSVPs to serving as ushers.


According to Dr. Wilson, the Center’s aim is for the students to change the world one step at a time, beginning with their own community. “Our first goal is for the students to go back to their schools and become leaders and go back to their homes and make their parents proud,” he says. “Along with the civic engagement lessons, they are also learning practical life lessons like leadership skills and decision making and the art of negotiating. Allowing these students to have their own ideas and speaking publicly about them is the first step to holding leadership positions and seeking peaceful, non-violent solutions to the difficult challenges we all face in our communities.”

To learn more about the MLK Jr. Freedom Center and partnering opportunities, go to or contact Dr. Roy Wilson (D-178) at, to find out about inviting guest speakers, incorporating lessons in your classes, professional development activities, or other educational events. The Center is supported in part by the Peralta Community College District.