When Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past – History, Organizing, and Power) began in 1993 activists Nancy Murray, Pam Ellis , and Bill Batson were tired of going to rallies and other social justice events and seeing children of the 60′s and almost no people under the age of 30. All of them had been doing anti-racism work in some capacity and felt that the heavy emphasis on diversity and interpersonal racism often failed to the raise issues institutional racism. Recognizing that many American young people born in the 80′s and 90′s were not taught about institutional racism and had very little context for social justice movements, Project HIP-HOP’s founders decided to connect Greater Boston area young people with the living history of the Civil Rights Movement in order to inspire them to fight racism by building their own movements.
The summer of 1993 Project HIP-HOP embarked on its first Civil Rights Tour of the South. Nine young people and four adults piled into two vans and headed South to connect with a history which was still living in the memories of hundreds of unsung heroes throughout the South. In meeting with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and visiting important sites of struggle, young people were confronted with a history unlike that which they learned in school. The multicultural group of 9 youth was challenged to think about racism not only as an interpersonal dynamic but as a large institutional structure at the heart of the American political, economic and social system. This 3-week “rolling classroom” allowed young people to get out of their own environment and begin to really think in new ways and share ideas with other young people who they may not have met in their everyday lives. The result was powerful, and everyone agreed that this experience needed to continue.
The summer of 1994, Project HIP-HOP embarked on its second trip with a new group of youth. Like the first group, they too were changed by the experience of being in the backyard of the Civil Rights Movement and meeting with incredible people. This group came back ready to share their experience with others and they began doing presentations in schools around the state. Many educators understood the power of peer-to-peer learning and welcomed Project HIP-HOP into their classrooms and assemblies to share what they had learned. After the 1994 trip PHH was doing about 3 presentations a month and getting information into so many different cities and towns and recruiting participants for its 1995 trip. Again the 1995 trip proved to be very powerful, and we continued to do presentations, but the youth wanted to see more. Many participants wanted to get more directly involved in social change work and were not satisfied to just do presentations.
At the same time that Project HIP-HOP was looking to go deeper in its work, we got an invitation from Bill Batson to come to South Africa. Bill had been doing work in South Africa and felt that there were some powerful connections between the history of Civil Rights Movement in American South and the history of the Anti-Apartheid Liberation Struggle in South Africa. South Africa was an incredible country, and in 1996 one was still watching history unfold in a nation that had to deal with the racial injustices of its past while attempting to forge a new future for itself. The most incredible part of the trip was meeting young people who had a remembrance of the movement that changed their country. The youth in South Africa tended to have a greater level of wisdom than we were used to in America, they had a greater sense of the political, economic and social realities of their country and many had ideas of how they wanted to change their nation. On the other hand, the PHH youth got a greater sense of the role of American foreign policy and international poltics in promoting both justice and injustice.
The life changing experience in South Africa amplified the participants desire to deepen the work of Project HIP-HOP. Upon returning to Boston, the youth who participated in the South Africa trip worked with Nancy to figure out what concrete work Project HIP-HOP would do during the 1996-7 school year. That plan included the revamping of the slide show to make it more effective, the creation of a website to highlight the work of Project HIP-HOP, and the development of a book and a curriculum about the work of Project HIP-HOP. All of these ideas were designed to allow Project HIP-HOP to reach more young people with information about the Civil Rights Movement and the need to fight racism. The youth also focused on the planning of a retreat of youth organizations in Boston to talk about how the groups could collaborate to work for more justice in Boston. The retreat was not as successful as its planners would have liked because the other groups involved were generally not ready to collaborate in the same way as Project HIP-HOP. PHH youth were talking about movement and social change, not thinking about the fact that other young people had not had the same experiences and were not thinking in the same way. There was a clear schism between youth who had allegiance to their organization and the youth who wanted to think about a larger movement. Nonetheless, a group of the willing formed and coined itself Youth for ACTION (Achieving Community Through Involvement in Organizing Now).
In September 2001 Project HIP-HOP became an independent youth-led organization that focus on leadership development through youth organizing. After 8 years of being housed at the ACLU of Massachusetts, we decided that is was time for us to expand and move in new directions. We filed for our 501c3 tax-exempt status, moved into a new office, and hired a former HIP-HOP participant as the Executive Director.
For the past 8 years Project HIP-HOP has been looking to lessons of the past and sharing history with youth from around Boston. Many civil rights veterans have told us that they did not effectively of “pass the torch” to the younger generation. They express disappointment with the state of our nation after their years of struggle. We believe that we can work with other youth groups around the country to create a new chapter of history. We see our commitment to youth organizing as a way of honoring the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Our goal is to pick up the torch, and to develop leadership in a new generation of young people who will organize for civil rights and the inclusion of all peoples in the decisions that affect their lives.