For Bridney Skipper, the Mississippi Delta region has always been home.
She was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and educated in the city’s public schools. For the last 10 years, Bridney has worked – as a teacher and instructional coach – in the same schools she once attended.
Today, Bridney is also raising her 9-year-old son in the city. She believes in the Delta and its potential.
So when kids in Clarksdale tell Bridney they believe the only way to find opportunity is to leave, her first instinct is to get to work finding solutions to change that way of thinking.
“The growth of this community means a lot to me. Those kids sitting in the classroom at school, they are not just kids sitting in a desk. They are the kids growing up down the street from me. They are the kids sitting in my Sunday school class,” Bridney says.
“I want all these kids to be productive and not feel like home is somewhere they have to run from. It should be a place they can be proud of.”
Bridney is putting her beliefs into action as director of the Shifting Rhythms Enrichment Program, a new after-school and summer program that helps students from ages 9 to 15 in Clarksdale and surrounding Coahoma County explore technology through their interests in arts and entrepreneurship.
Shifting Rhythms provides underserved students with access to technologies not readily available in local schools, from 3D printers and laser cutters to virtual reality headsets and web design software.
Equipped with new tools, students not only get hands-on experience developing technical skills but also exploring their own creative sides – designing everything from 3D-printed keychains to silk-screened t-shirts to digitized versions of their own homes.
As their skills become more advanced, students learn to make speakers with the 3D printer, musical instruments using wood and metal fabrication techniques and have immersive experiences through virtual reality. The ultimate goal is for students to explore their own creative ideas for products, services or experiences that can be a platform for learning about launching a successful venture.
“They are learning critical thinking and how to think out of the box of what’s immediately around them,” Bridney says.
Shifting Rhythms was developed in partnership with the Affordable Design & Entrepreneurship (ADE) program at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.
Faculty and students from Olin, as well as students from Babson College and Wellesley College, worked closely with local leaders and students to identify gaps in after-school programming in Clarksdale and Coahoma County.
In conversations and meetings with more than 650 local residents, the Shifting Rhythms team found that while many after-school programs are offered, only approximately 25% of youth participated in after-school programming on a regular basis.
“We wanted to be responsive to what educators told us the community needed as well as what young people told us would be most engaging to them,” says Kofi Taha, a visiting designer and instructor at Olin College who teaches in the ADE program.
Coahoma County students “were really honest about what they were passionate about and what their hopes and dreams are,” says Kofi, who serves as a Shifting Rhythms board member.
“We wanted to create an engaging curriculum that introduced new technologies and concepts like entrepreneurship, increased a sense of self-efficacy and built upon the wonderful creativity young people in the area already possess.”
The program, supported by the Walton Family Foundation, is currently based at the J.W. Stampley 9th Grade Academy in Clarksdale.
A key feature was developed in response to community concerns about the lack of after-school programming in small, rural Coahoma County communities which lack public transportation.
To address this, Shifting Rhythms built the capability to take its technology on the road in a customized mobile lab. This allows instructors to serve students in communities such as Jonestown and Friars Point, and to partner with other organizations providing youth programming.
“We try to make it as versatile as possible. The young people we’ve worked with have a lot to offer their community and the world. We want them to view Shifting Rhythms as an opportunity and a place to not only learn about technology and entrepreneurship but also to explore their own ideas,” Kofi says.
The name ‘Shifting Rhythms’ was coined by students who want to shift the narrative about opportunity in the Delta – “from one that says we are not going to have a future towards a trajectory that says we have the ability to shape our own future,” Kofi says.
Bridney sees the enthusiasm when traveling with Shifting Rhythms’ mobile trailer. “Students always want to know when we are coming back,” she says.
By providing an inclusive space for young people to exercise creativity, acquire new skills, and learn about new technologies, Bridney believes Shifting Rhythms will build self-confidence and motivate students to take ownership of their own learning and their futures.
“Our idea is not just for Shifting Rhythms to grow, but for the growth of the kids of this community,” she says. “Our community can’t grow if we are constantly sending our best away. We have to invest in our children right here.”