Over a month ago, the short documentary “Growing Our Own” screened at the Oxford Film Festival, but the impact of the film is just beginning to spread through Mississippi.
Filmmakers Tom Beck and Philip Scarborough originally meant for “Growing Our Own,” an inside look at the nine-day Summer Youth Institute (SYI) associated with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, to be a promotional video, but they quickly realized that the program warranted a documentary.
The WIlliam Winter Institute brings together rising sophomores and juniors in high school from all over Mississippi to The University of Mississippi’s campus to teach them about Mississippi’s part in the civil rights movement, something lacking from high school curriculums.
They also teach the students about community activism and how to go home as leaders.
“There’s not a program like this anywhere else in the country where they are teaching civil rights history and where they are grooming civil rights activists and community activists, which is what the Summer Youth Institute is doing,” Scarborough explained.
“They take kids from all over the state who have shown to have an interest or talent in doing this, and they are grooming future leaders. That’s important.”
Ole Miss freshman Abbie Szabo attended SYI in the summer of 2010 and experienced firsthand the effect of the program.
“SYI has had a long-lasting impact on my life,” said Szabo, who was also interviewed in the documentary.
“The experience of the program itself was enough to have an impact, but because of the interactions with the other students and the knowledge gained about Mississippi’s past, the program had a profound influence on me.”
During the program, students develop projects that they are encouraged to bring back to their communities. Szabo helped start Students With A Goal at Northwest Rankin High School when she returned from SYI.
“Students come into SYI at different places,” said Ole Miss student Kaitlyn Barnes, who has been a counselor with the institute since 2010.
“It makes sense then that they would come out of it at different places, and that has been true. Some students are going to put their community project plans into action as soon as they get home. Others won’t, but just because results aren’t so apparent that doesn’t mean that they didn’t take something home with them.”
Nathaniel Weathersby, another Ole Miss student who acted as a floating counselor during SYI 2011, said that all the students involved get something out of the institute.
“I think the program is an incredibly effective way to teach students about leadership and community organizing,” Weathersby said.
“Because we live in a part of the U.S. that has such an intense history of leaders, students can walk down any street and find excellent examples. The program is setup to help students of all backgrounds to understand the civil rights movement, its purpose and the resulting effects.”
Szabo was encouraged by many people to sign up for the program, but she had no idea what to expect going into it.
“To my surprise, it was a lot harder to fit in and adjust to everything than I had thought, but by the end of the ten days the group had united and pledged to be there for each other as resources across the state,” Szabo said.
Scarborough said showcasing the program to the world was of the utmost importance.
“I don’t think people realize that Mississippi civil rights history is not taught in our schools,” Scarborough said.
“Kids growing up here, black and white, don’t know what happened in their own backyard, and they don’t know what important things happened here that changed the nation. And they need to know.”
Beck said that the kids coming into the institute want to make a difference.
“To me, that’s another part of this, and that’s this story — this story about these kids and what they’re doing and what they’re learning and that they really genuinely want to make a difference in people’s lives,” Beck said.
Currently the filmmakers are trying to get “Growing Our Own” seen.
The film has been screened at a few film festivals across the state and is waiting to hear back from more. Some teachers have requested to show it in their classrooms, something that Beck and Scarborough hope to encourage.
Those involved with the program have nothing negative to say about the documentary’s portrayal of SYI.
“It made me cry,” Barnes said.
“It really captures the spirit of the program. They did a fabulous job with it.”