COVER STORY

LEADING is BELIEVING

Betty Burney is on a mission to teach Jacksonville’s youth to change the world

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When it comes to making Jacksonville a better place to live, Betty Burney is clear about one thing: The adults are getting it all wrong.

“The city misses out on what kids can do because the media focus is not on the positive,” she said.

The former Duval County School Board chairman set out to change the community’s perception of its young people six years ago when she founded the I’m A STAR Foundation, a nonprofit youth leadership organization.

Since then, each year, 45 IAS student members have given up their Saturdays and countless hours of personal time to devote themselves to their community.

“If we took the time to engage young people and do true leadership training, we’d have a much more productive city,” Burney said. “We’d see a reduction in crime,” she adds, lamenting that “crime” and “youth” are far too often connected in our civic conversations.

At least one elected official has taken notice of Burney’s efforts. “I appreciate her so much,” said Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Gulliford. “She is giving so much time and energy, with her only reward being the success of the program.”

“She’s an asset to the community,” he adds. 

Gulliford has attended several of IAS’s numerous civic events, and has seen firsthand the impact the group is making. Gulliford helped introduce a middle-school child to his very first taste of fruit at IAS’s most recent Let’s Move Jacksonville food-and-fitness carnival. He also dressed out for IAS’s celebrity basketball fundraiser for homeless students.

“Those young kids have accomplished so much when they take on projects. I’m proud of them,” he said.

The word “STAR” in I’m A STAR stands for Smart, Talented And Resilient.

Children, Burney says, must be taught that they are all of these things in order for them to be all of these things.

“If you don’t believe it, you can’t teach it,” she said. “I want kids everywhere to believe that they can change the world and have that belief reinforced in school and at home.”

 

From the Mouths of Babes

Spending time with Burney’s young “stars” proves that Burney is more than accomplishing her mission. The kids say they’ve grown in ways they never expected; their eyes have been opened to the tremendous needs of others in the community: homeless students, kids who can’t play outdoors, and neighborhoods where fresh produce is nowhere to be found. And they realize that their actions can benefit others.

Kirsten Rewis, a 10th-grader at Lee High School, was too shy to talk to her fellow STARs four years ago. Now the 15-year-old speaks confidently about the presentation she gave to the United States Surgeon General during the group’s trip to Washington, D.C.

Rising senior Larissa Houston, 17, confesses a previous “attitude problem.” Since joining IAS, she has started to learn how to channel natural leadership abilities into action. She says she was inspired by the professional manner with which one of her peers ran IAS meetings.

Tracy Davis, 18, who was named battalion commander of Wolfson High School’s JROTC chapter on June 2, recalls the fun of recording a voiceover for a YouTube video the group produced on childhood obesity, which included an interview with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. Through IAS, the rising senior has learned that adults in some places in Jacksonville — particularly our city’s food deserts — don’t even know the names of some common vegetables.

And when Larissa’s cousin, Kendra Houston, a 2016 Raines graduate, felt that young people weren’t being heard on childhood obesity, she spearheaded a youth-led obesity summit, and 1,500 public school students chimed in. Like many IAS alumni, she has chosen to pursue a health-related career. Kendra, 18, an athlete and culinary artist, dreams of combining her passions by becoming a nutritionist.

 

Credit Where Credit is Due

Each student proudly describes the group’s large-scale service projects:

  • Let’s Move Jacksonville, a food-and-fitness carnival which promotes exercise and healthy eating to thousands of residents each year;
  • Jacksonville HELPS (Homeless Students Empowered through Leadership, Partnership & Service), which has raised $57,000 for homeless students in Duval County through two celebrity basketball games;
  • Youth-led childhood obesity summit in December 2014, which led to the student town hall conference with the U.S. Surgeon General this year;
  • Healthy Stop Shops, grocery stands that are hosted near corner stores in urban food deserts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to those communities; and,
  • #FitOverFat public awareness campaign led by youth, for youth, in partnership with the Duval County Health Department.

But the students almost didn’t get credit for their biggest project to date.

On April 7, the IAS kids brought U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to help conduct a town hall conference on childhood obesity at Prime Osborn Convention Center. Murthy spoke to healthcare advocates that morning, and interacted with 1,000 students that afternoon.

Afterward, Murthy, the students, a handful of public officials, and hundreds of other citizens marched to Hemming Park, where vendors provided fresh fruits and vegetables. Mayor Lenny Curry then took the opportunity to announce his administration’s healthcare initiatives.

A flurry ensued on social media when the Mayor’s Office appeared to take credit on its website for Murthy’s visit.

Activist and author Rodney Lawrence Hurst Sr. was the first to correct the error in an April 7 Facebook post, writing:

“C’MON MAYOR CURRY. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy came to town BECAUSE OF the efforts of Mrs. Betty Burney and her “I’m A Star” Youth Program. If you want to take part of the credit for what Mrs. Burney did, go ahead, you are the mayor. BUT in THIS story on the city’s website, mention Mrs. Burney’s name and GIVE MRS. BETTY BURNEY credit and her “I’M A STAR” program credit TOO!”

The IAS students had traveled to Washington, D.C. four months earlier to speak with Murthy about childhood obesity. Murthy was so impressed by the youngsters that he called the next day to announce that he’d visit Jacksonville. He also mentioned the group in a national speech just after the kids’ December presentation.

“They probably just weren’t aware,” Burney said, gracefully brushing off the perceived mayoral slight.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors did recognize the kids’ achievements. Former Mayor Alvin Brown nominated IAS for its efforts to reduce childhood obesity, and the conference awarded the group first place in its “large city” category in April 2015.

Even more impressive: This wasn’t merely a youth competition; it was open to all ages, including adults.

“Adults see the end product and it’s done so well, they tend to forget it’s the kids who did it,” Burney said.

 

“Take This to the Turquoise!”

Burney believes that young people can lead if given the opportunity. She says too many classrooms feel constraining to students, and lack relevance to the world beyond school walls. She likens these dull environments to the “murky brown” areas in the ocean — uninviting, uninspiring.

“The big picture is, there are people out there who need some help. We can talk about it all day long,” Burney said, “but what are we going to do?”

Kristen has firsthand experience with the bland negativity that can permeate school life.

As a sixth-grader, Rewis was hearing only negative impressions of her middle school. But when she joined IAS that year, she learned that perspective changes everything.

“I got to meet a whole lot of students at other schools. Everybody talked bad about Jefferson Davis [Middle School] and I got to talk to other students and realize that the same thing happened at other schools.” After that, the negativity was easier to ignore.

The quiet 10th-grader, whose love of drawing has morphed into an interest in engineering, contemplated her words carefully before saying what IAS has added to her life.

“I feel like students are able to find themselves while helping others,” she said.

“They don’t have to accept the real world as it is,” Burney said. “They can make changes to help people.”

Burney says she found her spiritual calling during a moment of prayer on the beach: Take them farther, she heard, looking past the churning brown waves toward the horizon. I need you to take them all the way to the turquoise.

“Now, when [the students] have a project,” Burney said, “they tell each other, ‘we’ve got to take this to the turquoise.’ And that’s where they go.”

 

A Nudge from Mom

Long before Kendra Houston learned about “taking it to the turquoise” and met the U.S. Surgeon General, she joined IAS in an unconventional way. The youngest of three children, Kendra thought she was only riding along with her mom to drop her older sister, Kierra, at the first IAS meeting six years ago. But her mother, Kim Houston, had another idea.

“I believe in keeping the kids busy,” Kim said, noting that she’d seen a flyer at Butler Middle School advertising the meeting.

“I had nine kids at the house and told them to get in the car to go to the store,” she said, which was near LaVilla Middle School. “Four of them actually stayed in the program.”

“I was told we were going to the grocery store to get orange juice,” Kendra recalled, “because my sister was going [to the meeting.] We went to LaVilla — I was in my pajamas! Mom said we were just going in for a second.”

They stayed for four hours.

“I couldn’t leave!” Kendra said, glaring playfully at her mom. “I wasn’t glad at the moment. I just wanted my orange juice and bacon. But I’m glad now.

“I liked the environment, the friendly people. We’re from different schools so I got to socialize with friends form different schools that I usually wouldn’t get a chance to talk to.”

 

Building Consensus

Kendra explained how the 45 students in IAS decide what their calls to action will be. Each year, they consider many topics: teen suicide, bullying, unemployment, homelessness, fitness, etc.

“Everybody had different groups,” she said. “Each group came up with a plan for a call to action. We decided which one we could reach in a certain period of time and that’s the one we’d stick with.”

Burney says that studying Duval County’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, conducted in partnership with the county health department, is integral to the students’ process.

“We wanted everyone to have healthier, longer lives,” Houston said. “The number of children who are overweight now has tripled since the ’90s. We want people to outlive their parents.”

Childhood obesity became the first issue that IAS focused on, which led them to organize their first Let’s Move Jacksonville food-and-fitness carnival event in 2011 at Edward Waters College.

Burney marvels at how well the students from different schools got along together, and how the decision-making process flowed.

“When I look at the political climate in our country, the ugliness … I look at these students and I get hope, because of the way they treat each other,” she said.

 

“They felt their voices were muted.”

Kendra came up with the idea for the 2014 youth-led obesity summit. Months beforehand, Burney took Kendra and a few other students to the 2013 Southern Obesity Summit in Nashville, Tennessee where they found that although there was a youth track at the convention, the adults really weren’t listening to the kids.

“They felt their voices were muted,” Burney said. “Within four or five months after that trip, they had put together a youth-led obesity summit.”

Rewis’ eyes sparked when she talked about the two-day gathering of 1,000 high-school students and 500 middle-school students in December 2014.

“We’ve talked to so many students,” she said.

Rewis said she learned that her fellow students have all sorts of reasons for not being able to eat right or exercise.

“Sometimes it was safety. Sometimes there were no sidewalks. It was an experience to hear about everyone else in their environments and why they couldn’t do things.”

The summit featured focus groups, workshops, and plenary sessions where students developed their own calls to action. As a result of the summit and hours of painstaking research, Rewis and her fellow STARs have become fluent in some of the most serious issues that plague Jacksonville, like urban food deserts and the lack of safe, walking neighborhoods. They’ve also had the opportunity to share what they’ve learned with the city council.

“I think they’re advanced beyond their years,” Gulliford said.

Following the summit, and after studying the most recent biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the students urged Burney, “Let’s go to Washington, D.C. We’ll go to the top doctor in America.”

With financial assistance from local law firm Farah & Farah and GCA Services, the school system’s cleaning company, 30 IAS students traveled to the nation’s capital in December to share their views on childhood obesity with Murthy.

Each student got the chance to present a portion of a speech to the Surgeon General. It was an experience Rewis initially found “nerve-racking.”

“When I first started speaking, I didn’t sound very confident, but then when I spoke some more, he did a double-take,” Rewis said.

Larissa agreed. “He actually listened to what we said.”

The 1,000 high-school students who convened with Dr. Murthy in Jacksonville on April 7 listened carefully to him, too, Rewis said.

“You see the looks on their faces when he answered their questions — and they get it.”

The 1,500-person march that Murthy led from Prime Osborn to City Hall is commemorated in a YouTube video narrated by Davis.

Davis was especially glad to have been able to interview Mayor Curry for the video. “He’s just a regular guy who wants to help,” Davis said.

Let’s Move, Jacksonville!

Davis, who has been with IAS since it started six years ago, described Let’s Move Jacksonville, one of IAS’s oldest service projects, which began in 2011, as a family-friendly food-and-fitness carnival.

“We had bouncy houses, face-painting, students dressed as fruits and vegetables, and Subway Man. He was the guy from Subway dressed as a sub sandwich, with a cape,” Davis said, smiling.

Subway donated 3,000 healthful sandwiches for the event and other donors brought fresh produce. LMJ, which drew 3,000 people to Metropolitan Park last December, also featured vendor booths that rewarded visitors for doing a given number of exercises, like “burpees,” with prizes like tickets to Jacksonville Giants’ games.

For the uninitiated, here’s a way to get the old ticker going double-time: To perform a burpee, squat and put your hands flat on the ground, thrust your legs back in a plane position, return to squat, then spring up, flourishing hands in the air. You’ve got to pop up, like a toaster waffle, or it’s simply not a burpee.

While Davis said it was exciting to hold the fifth annual LMJ at Metropolitan Park, his favorite year was when they hosted the event on Jacksonville’s Eastside, at a green space on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard.

“It was rewarding to help someone when they really needed it,” he said.

Health and nutrition are issues the IAS students have repeatedly tackled. Another area of focus is on the many neighborhoods in Jacksonville that don’t have convenient access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Local corner stores don’t have any fruits and vegetables on the shelf,” Davis said. That includes the corner stores on the Eastside. (See “Eastside is Open for Business,” Folio Weekly Magazine, May 18, 2016.)

So IAS developed “Healthy Stop Shops” near neighborhood corner stores to increase access to fresh produce.

“People were very excited about it. They were happy to go back and share them with their families. Some of them actually cried,” Davis said.

He said that although he grew up eating vegetables, he noticed that some parents who attended the IAS events on the Eastside didn’t know the names of common vegetables, like Brussels sprouts. So at IAS events, they introduce the vegetable and provide recipe ideas.

“We also had someone in the kitchen cooking it up. They came out with a cupful and [the residents] loved it.”

 

“My attitude has changed.”

While all four students agreed that they considered themselves leaders before they started participating in IAS, they also agreed that “Mrs. Betty” helped take them to the next level.

“I didn’t know I could lead in that many ways,” Larissa said, “helping homeless students, promoting health, and bringing out the leader in other students.”

Larissa referenced the second celebrity basketball games that raised $37,000 for homeless students in Jacksonville, including 10 $1,000 college scholarships for homeless students. The group raised $20,000 for homeless students during the celebrity game’s first run.

The students enjoyed seeing local celebrities like Artis Gilmore, School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, and Jacksonville Giants players suit up and hit the court for a good cause.

“Dr. Vitti is very competitive,” Kendra noted. The others agreed wholeheartedly.

All four had only good things to say about each other. Larissa described the group as “another family” in which she has flourished.

The 17-year-old, who will be a senior at Raines next year, says she’s gained maturity from her time with IAS.

“My attitude has changed. My attitude was the worst. It’s still in progress.” 

She had a habit, she said, of not being able to let anything go.

“I hate sugarcoating things. I’m very blunt. Back then, I just let it fly,” Larissa said of her first year at Raines.

Of the teachers she had then, she said, “They’re, like, I can’t deal with this child. I always got in trouble,” she said.

“Now, I really know how to look at the big picture: Just because I’m mad now, is it really worth addressing?”

She credits her growth to Mrs. Betty and an older student in the IAS group who became her role model, Khalsea Gordon.

“I wanted to be like Khalsea. Seeing the way she ran meetings, the way she spoke to people. She never got mad.

“If Mrs. Betty needed anything, Khalsea was on it.”

Larissa still struggles with how best to channel her leadership abilities and cultivate her voice.

In the Raines Viking Center where we spoke, a piece of posterboard lay on the table. It was homework. Larissa had been asked to redo an assignment about the American Dream, this time including her positive role in it.

The original poetry she had written, which referenced fatal police shootings of young black men, asked whether that dream was for everybody, including young people of color.

“More like an American nightmare,” she said. “We work hard but it doesn’t always elevate us.

“In America, it’s not what you know but who you know to get where you’re going.”

At 17, Larissa is already negotiating a tough, adult battle: how to keep her authentic voice while learning to maximize its impact. But she’s already got a piece of the puzzle in place, relationship building.

She has begun to develop her own
“who-you-know” network, her personal social currency. She’s already part of the tight-knit family that is IAS. She knows Mrs. Betty Burney.

And a handful of local elected officials.

And the U.S. Surgeon General.

Larissa recalled Murthy entering his office in Washington while the students were in the middle of giving a presentation to his assistant.

“His uniform was pretty intimidating,” she said.

Larissa still sounds surprised that she and her fellow students were received so well. “We actually made an impact on this man.”

Burney said that being heard is important to the IAS students — and to all young people.

“The thing I loved about Surgeon General Murthy and his entire staff,” Burney said, “is that they gave the students the real impression they were listening to them. It taught them that there are people who will listen.”

“I tell them if the first person doesn’t listen, try the second.”

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