Black History: Education with Benjamin Wills
Host & Executive Producer – Latasha Morrison
Senior Producer – Lauren C. Brown
Producer, Editor & Music By – Travon Potts
Transcriber – Sarah Connatser
Ad for Athletic Greens: AthleticGreens.com/BTB [Free One Year Supply of Vitamin D + 5 Travel Packs]
Ad for A Spoonful of Faith: spoonfuloffaith.com/a-spoonful-of-faith-childrens-book
Benjamin Wills: twitter.com/willsbenjamin
Peace Prep Academy: peaceprep.com
Be the Bridge: BeTheBridge.com
Latasha Morrison: facebook.com/LatashaMMorrison
Not all views expressed in this interview reflect the values and beliefs of Latasha Morrison or the Be the Bridge organization.
The full episode transcript is below.
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You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 2:51
[intro] How are you guys doing today? This is exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 3:02
[intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing racial equity and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.
Latasha Morrison 3:41
Hello, Be the Bridge community! I am so excited. I have a special guest. And this special guest is from here in the Atlanta area. I had the privilege of meeting him and his staff last fall. And so I’ve been excited to…I gave you a sneak peek around Christmas when I listed some of my favorite things. But I’m so excited to be able to have him on the podcast so that you guys can get familiar with the work that his organization is doing here in the Atlanta area. And so I want you to welcome Benjamin Wills. He is the Founder and the Head of School at Peace Preparatory Academy. This is a Christ centered, independent, community school located in English Avenue, which is one of the heart of Atlanta’s most under resourced communities. Peace Prep exists to educate whole children, support whole families, and provide growth and change opportunities for whole communities. And I love this model. If you follow me, you know that I’m a big advocate for Africa New Life, now I’m a big advocate for Peace Prep. And you’ll hear more from us about Peace Prep as the year goes along. And one of the his life’s mission of following Jesus and advocating for those who voices are unheard and for them to experience human flourishing, particularly in children and families. He currently serves on the board of the Atlanta Mission, the Good Samaritan Health Center, and the Oaks ATL Community Development. You’re pretty busy, Benjamin.
Benjamin Wills 5:39
Latasha Morrison 5:40
So I am, you know, he and his wife embody their vision as they stand in the gap of advocating for children that don’t have their voices heard by opening their homes as foster and adoptive parents. They currently live in English Avenue with their five children. Wait a minute. Okay, so okay. I’m glad to have you here. But I think I missed that part when we talked. I didn’t realize you had five children.
Benjamin Wills 6:07
Yeah, I have five children. My oldest 11, youngest getting ready to be five. And we’ve adopted three children, and so five total.
Okay, five total. So the oldest is 11. And the youngest is five.
Benjamin Wills 6:21
Latasha Morrison 6:22
Okay, that’s not too bad. That’s not too bad. You doing all right. You’re all ri0ght. I missed that. But that is so good. I’m so glad to have you. Can you tell, I know, we read the bios. But I want you to just tell us a little bit about the Peace Prep story. This, you know, our audience, they are justice advocates. You know, and this month is Black History Month. And I think this is imperative for us to have conversations not just only about history, but I think for us to have conversations around Black joy, about around Black presence. And these are things you know, things that are impacting our communities as it relates to education, housing, and, you know, wealth gap, all of those things. That is Black history. But what I thought about when I thought about this with you, is that you’re actually making Black history now. And so I think, for what you’re doing in that community. And I got to see it with my own eyes, and I just love it. And I wanted to have you on here. But can you tell us a little bit where the bio drops off? You know, you can’t put everything in the bio. But can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about the Peace Prep story?
Benjamin Wills 7:42
Yeah, absolutely. I’m just extremely humbled and honored to talk with you. And it’s been a journey. And so yeah, you can’t get it all in those words that you need in the bio. But, 10 years ago, this February, during Lent, I spent 40 days and 40 nights asking God to allow me to physically dream. And so saying, “God, how’d you make me? What’d you make me to do? And what does this whole love neighbor and love God business look like in the context of community like English Avenue?” A community where 60% of the homes are vacant or abandoned, where the schools have been failing for decades, it’s the largest open air heroin market in the southeastern United States. Sex and human trafficking is part of the story here. But there’s also kids and families here. And so just really wrestling with God and saying, “What does it look like to raise a family here and to live intentionally here in this place?” And the Lord was kind to show me a vision during those 40 days and 40 nights. And so I saw these three gears: whole children, whole families, and whole communities. And I saw those three gears turning together. And what I believe God was revealing to me was a picture for systemic justice. We talk a lot about systemic injustice, and how the systems are working just as they were intended. But we believe God has a picture for flourishing in the lives of people. And that if there’s a place in our city, where the life expectancy is 20 years less than other parts of our city, that that’s an issue that Christ followers should be concerned with. And so we got to work. We started with a school, we planted in 2015, with 12 kids in one kindergarten class. We’ve been adding a grade every year to the point of now we’re serving 70 kids in grades pre-K through sixth grade. And we’ll keep adding a grade until we get to 12th grade. But we’ve also started to address housing. So launched another Community Development Ministry to focus on safe quality, dignified, affordable housing. And so what we’re really trying to do is look at the whole ecosystem of which people that God made are being nourished in and saying, “How can we bring whatever gifts, whatever skills, whatever talents we have, and leverage those to see shalom or peace come to be in the life of a child and a family.” And so that’s the kind of roots of the work that we’re doing.
Latasha Morrison 9:57
That’s so good and I think it’s important for us, as you know, those who embody justice, and we’re justice advocates, and we’re seeking that shalom, that reconciliation. I think it’s important for us to also not, you know, we got to do both and. We have to talk about the problems. But we also have to talk about the solutions. And I think this is a part of the solution to what some of the systemic issues that we’re seeing in our education system and our housing system, and the approach, like you said, these three gears where it’s not that you just said, “Okay, let’s just plant a school in the area and then, you know, whatever.” First of all, you live there in that community. Secondly, you know, you’re looking at the whole child and the whole family. I love that. Tell us, you know, and I know, when I was going through the area, this is an area, and I’m just going to be honest, like I’ve lived in Atlanta for a while, I moved away, and I lived in Austin, Texas. For those of you who still think I’m in Austin, Texas, I’m not in Austin, Texas, I live in the great Atlanta, city of Atlanta right now. Although Austin was great too for me. I’m back in Atlanta. But I lived here. And then I moved away for five years, five and a half years and then moved back. This is just an area that you didn’t really, that I really wasn’t familiar with, that I didn’t go there. I worked right at Coca Cola, you know, went to events at Georgia Tech, you know. But it’s just never crossing, you know, it’s always those railroads are crossing that highway, where you get into this geographical, you know, injustice of racism that we have. And, you know, I’ve heard about it but wasn’t familiar with this. So my first time going over there was when I went to Peace Prep. You know? That was my first time going there. And you know, and a part of me, I’m a little embarrassed even to say that, because we can be so detached from the injustice and the hurt and the harm in our communities. But one of the things I saw when I was driving there, I saw all this community development, like new, remodeled apartment complexes. And I was like, “Wow, this is great. This is awesome what the city is doing.” You know, this is what I thought, right?
Benjamin Wills 10:16
Latasha Morrison 10:33
And then I get in and talk to Peace Prep, and find out that these are things that you are doing in that community. So tell me a little bit about that. We can come back, just give me a little, tell me a little bit about that area, the history of that area, and then why there’s such a need for that type of community development. You know?
Benjamin Wills 13:07
Yeah, so English Avenue, like many communities in our country, if you’re not in Atlanta, experienced something called white flight. So in the 50s, as African Americans began to own property and move into English Avenue from the Black neighborhood to the south, Vine City, white people started to leave. And then in the late 50s, as schools were still segregated, they took the white only school that was in English Avenue and made it a Black only school. And that was incredulous for white people; they couldn’t live in a neighborhood where Black children would go to school. And so there was a disinvestment in that way from white families, specifically. Then we know about sort of housing policy. We know about in the 80s, crack cocaine and sort of the war on drugs, and how that decimated communities. And then you get into heroin, opioids, human trafficking, disinvestment, because of a lack of homeownership. And you sort of have the perfect storm for the kinds of things that we see today. It’s just not an environment for people to flourish. We talk a lot and we use the language ecosystem, right? What kind of ecosystem are people growing up in? There are no grocery stores here. There was not a public park here until five years ago. There’s not a library or a community center. And so there was really just nothing here to support the fabric of children and families thriving. And so when we came, we wanted to look at education, yes, because that was what God put on our hearts. I was a teacher. Those are kinds of skills and talents I was bringing to the table, but you can’t with integrity, talk about whole child, whole family, a whole community and not address the living conditions. And so where are people living? Where are the streets they’re walking? Where are the places they’re gathering? And how do all these things kind of feed into what a child’s experiencing when you have them in school? And so we just started to honestly, just through walking and through prayer, identify other needs that the Lord would invite us into with other skills and talents we had on our team. And so as we were sort of experiencing, “Okay, that used to be a house that one of our families lived in, now it’s boarded up. Oh, wait, that apartment complex used to be occupied. Now it’s boarded up.” And we started to dig into those things and say, “How can we be a part of turning around what’s going on here so that kids and families can thrive in the place they are?” We use the language oaks of righteousness, that these are planting of the Lord’s. And how do we create the conditions for them to flourish? And so that’s sort of how we got into that, and sort of the backdrop of what we were experiencing.
Latasha Morrison 15:40
Yeah, I think and, you know, when you start looking at that, when you say 60% of the homes were boarded up, you know, that is a cesspool for like crime and human trafficking and all of those things. And it makes that area and the children in it vulnerable to illiteracy, it makes them vulnerable to human trafficking, it makes them vulnerable to drug abuse. And when you have a system that’s breeding a community where everything feels hopeless, you know, when it looks hopeless, you feel hopeless. And that instills, creates lawlessness. You know? And so, it’s not for us to, like you said, just go in there and build a school and expect people, you know, students to understand math and all the other things when they’re dealing with all of this other trauma, when they’re walking outside of the school. And so I love, you know, one of the things I saw, like, the apartment complexes were so nice, that are being redesigned and redeveloped over there. And that helps people take pride in their community, when you see things happening again. And it shouldn’t be that these things don’t happen until white people begin to move in. These things should happen when Brown and Black bodies are present. You know? Everyone deserves to live in a community that is safe, that is healthy. Everyone deserves to have a grocery store. You know? And so, just and then a lot of you, you may say, “Well, you could just get in your car and go, you know, some miles down the street.” Most people in these communities, they don’t have access to transportation. And until you start understanding poverty and the impact of poverty on a community, sometimes we can look through our own personal lens for those solutions, and you really have to do what you call asset development in the community to really understand what the community needs and what they’re lacking and why it’s lacking. I think it’s good for you to understand the historical factors that create what’s happening. And you see this all across this country. So it’s not just here in Atlanta, but you can look at cities and states all across this country where, you know, especially after desegregation, where you had white flight, you know, and when you’re dealing with, you know, when you dealt with redlining, and then you have devaluation of homes that were never revalue, and how we build wealth and all these different things. So there’s so many layers. And so these are some of the areas, this is some of the things that, the decline that they’re looking at in that in that area. But one of the things you told me about some of the people that came out of that area, and you talked, and then I saw this, there’s this church on the corner. And I know the church, you partner with that church a lot. So we have a school and a church in that community. You know, I want you to talk about some of that relationship, but also some of the people that actually came out of that community, that predominately Black community now in the Atlanta area?
Benjamin Wills 19:09
Yeah, so some like well known names that went to the English Avenue Elementary School. So Gladys Knight, some of The Pips, more contemporary, Herman Cain, and Maynard Jackson. Maynard Jackson was the first Black mayor of a southern city, and was extremely influential in the building of the Atlanta airport, and some other things like that. Dr. King lived in Vine City, which is just south of us. And that was a choice he made to not live in Collier Heights where a lot of the middle to upper class Black families were moving. It was kind of their own Black suburb, but he wanted to live closer to people he was serving. And you can see if you do a quick Google search of Dr. King Vine City, you can see him marching in the streets of Vine City advocating for housing, the same type of work that we’re doing today. And then in our physical building, Andrew Young had his first ever debate for a public office in that space. And so we’re just, we’re really steeped in an area that some a lot of the Black history and Civil Rights leaders that we’re learning about, a lot of those things happened in and around this area specifically. But it doesn’t really bear that resemblance when you drive through it today. So one of the things we’re really passionate about, I think you alluded to this in your intro was, you know, to have clear vision, you have to understand the past, you have to be rooted in the present, and you have to have a vision for the future. And it takes all three of those things. And so, we try to do things to even intentionally bring up these conversations and tell these stories. So people know, “Okay, everything you see here is not the full story.” This was a thriving community, from the 60s to the 80s, when access to education was finally granted to these families. You know, you have an elementary school in our community that was a white only school, which meant that Black students had to go to school only half a day. So this is not 100 years ago. This is in, some people who are still alive today only had the opportunity to go to school in the morning or after lunch. And so then you think about that. We’ve created a school where kids can go to school from 7:30 to 5:30, can have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Right? And really try to say how do we specifically address the things that were done harmfully to us we talk about reconciliation? Right? We’re specifically addressing those things in a way that honors that history, but talks about what’s needed to move forward.
[Latasha Morrison sharing an ad for A Spoonful of Faith children’s book] A Spoonful of Faith children’s book. A Spoonful of Faith children’s book is releasing February 15th, 2022. I am so excited! This is a sweet book. It’s a rhyming picture book that reminds young readers to make their dreams come true. “A spoonful of faith is all it takes!” And this is the debut book from Illustrator Jena Holliday. So I’m so excited about this. Jena Holliday is a graphic artist and freelance illustrator based in Minneapolis. Her mixed media illustrations are inspired by the diversity of people in the world, the love of botanical elements, motherhood, and faith in every day life. And I had the opportunity to see some of her illustrations. They are beautiful! And I think this is a book that everyone is going to want to have to make sure that your children’s books are very diverse and they represent people from all over the world. And also in 2019, Jena Holliday received the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist’s Initiative Grant and she has stationary in my favorite place, Target. So her book is going to be up everywhere, even in Target. So you don’t want to miss the debut book for Jena Holliday and it’s called A Spoonful of Faith children’s book.
Latasha Morrison 23:00
I know a lot of people sometimes hear this motto. And I think the thing that makes Peace Prep really unique is the whole child perspective, like the whole child, whole community, whole family perspective. And I want you to talk about how that kind of functions, you know, within there. Because there was a question that when I was there, and I asked you that question, then you were like, “No, our parents work at night.” Because I asked you the question, I said, “Well, this is a, like a private school. Peace Prep is considered like a private school.” And, you know, and so I said, “Do the parents of the children who are actually here, you know, do they have to like serve, or volunteer?” And you know, and you were like, because you see that all the time where it’s like in order for your child to go here and you don’t have to pay tuition, you got to, you know, do all these hours or whatever. And you said, “We don’t put that burden on our parents.” And so I want you to talk a little bit about that that holistic approach and how that looks for the family in particular.
Benjamin Wills 24:12
Yeah, so I’ll say this without throwing other models under the bus. But you had this sort of movement in American history recently of charter schools, right, high performing charter schools in low income communities. And I think what we see with those oftentimes is they set this bar really high, so that if you don’t meet the certain qualifications, you’re not going to come there and you’re not going to fit in. And so what that becomes is you’re really skimming the cream off the top. And we feel like what the scriptures call us to as Christ followers is really to go the furthest depth. Right? You leave the 99 to go find the one. You turn over the whole house to find the coin. You’re really looking intentionally for those kids and those families that are not seen and that are not heard. And so for us, it starts with that foundational belief that’s formed by scripture that says, “All people are made in God’s image.” How do we find those who are not being seen by this world, and put them in an opportunity to be seen and receive the nourishment that they deserve as image bearers of God? So that looks like making sure kids have food to eat. So serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving snacks throughout the day. Making sure they’re addressed academically, but also socially, having a therapist on staff that talks with kids, that helps them with coping skills, recovery from trauma, just engaging in community together. It looks like incorporating a biblical worldview to everything that we do through something we call morning prayer. So starting all the kids off with a creed that the very first things they say in the day are: “I’m valuable because Jesus died for me.” And then it looks like addressing their parents in that same way of saying, “Hey, you are an image bearer of God, you have something to offer us, to show us about the very image of God. So we honor you, we value you, we want to engage you in community. And we want to address you from a place of want and need, and not just prescribe to you something that we think from our our worldview.” Right? Like if you’ve been to college, or if you’ve lived any life of privilege, then you have filters that you see the world through. And to say that those are the right ways to see the world dishonors people who are made in God’s image. And so we’re restoring dignity to people by saying, “You teach me something about God.” And it also restores our dignity, because we see God more fully. And so I think some of it is addressing core beliefs. And then it’s 1,000 daily decisions to choose to love people in a certain kind of way, not with an expectation that they’re going to do something for us, not with an expectation that they’re going to fund our school, but with an expectation that we’re here to serve and walk alongside you and journey with you. But you have something to offer as well. And so really partnering with parents and saying, “We’re not just trying to take your kids and get them out of here, but we’re trying to build a community together.” And so it’s kids, and it’s families that make up a community.
Latasha Morrison 27:08
You know, when we talk about education, like there’s, you know, the education system is so riddled with injustices and just everything we hear and see now within the education system, how’s the education system failing our kids? And what ways does Peace Prep provide an alternative, a new way of thinking for the current model?
Benjamin Wills 27:41
Yeah, yeah. So I would say, our current education system, one, it structurally fails our kids because it fails to have a systems approach, it fails to have a holistic approach. It’s only looking at the educational mindsets. And so I read something recently about trauma. And this sounds kind of crass. But trauma makes you dumber, right? Like trauma impacts your ability to learn anything. So when we expect kids that are experiencing trauma all around them to show up and we’re just going to impart information to them as a transference of information, that’s the only purpose of education. That’s a failure from the beginning. Right? This model that we’re just going to kind of push you along through until you’re old enough to then go into a world that you can’t compete in. So that’s one. Two, I would say we’re failing, because we are applying these really economic principles to education. So we’re applying capitalistic principles to education and saying, “Well, in this system, there’s winners and losers. And do it’s okay if some kids lose.” And that’s bad. We should not want any kid to fail. Right? We should not want any kid to not be able to read or write or be a member of society that has the tools or skills to do something. And then I’d say the third thing is, you know, this was when you can google and do some research on but the school to prison pipeline. I mean, we are suspending and expelling African American kids at alarming rates for things that we do not suspend and expel white kids for. And what this does is it starts to put them on a path or a trajectory towards the criminal justice system, which is very, very bad. And so I think it’s the the overarching theme here is that we have bad mindsets about what humans are, and what vulnerable humans are specifically, right, as children. And we’ve got to rethink education from a more human centered approach. I think Bryan Stevenson says it really well when he says the opposite of criminalization is humanization. And I think that could be applied to the education system as well. That we have to start looking at these kids as image bearers of God worth our every bit of our investment in. We have to start having conversations about equity and not equality. We have to start having conversations about how kids in Black and Brown communities learn differently than in white communities, or just impoverished communities versus flourishing communities. And we have to start to approach from a more human centered type way and say, “It’s not just about me giving you information, it’s about really me teaching you to become something from a place of belonging. And so we really want to say that education is about creating a community where you feel safe to explore your core identity, and then where you can be launched into the world with the tools to live that out.”
Latasha Morrison 30:31
And I think we, and I think you pose a, you know, just a good pause in there is like, I think when we start talking about the school to prison pipeline, you know, there’s no other developed country that imprisons more people than America. And if our answer to our problems is always like building more prisons, there’s something wrong with us. Like, that’s not, first of all, that is not Christ-like. You know? When we’d rather not deal with the people, we just want to throw people away. We want to throw people away. We don’t want to deal with the brokenness. And I think, you know, when when you look at any other developed country, and, you know, I mean, when we look at the numbers, like our numbers skyrocket as far as like people who are in prison. And then when we look at our education system, you know, and we just go around in circles, like, with solutions within this. It just progressively gets, you know, it’s not getting better.
Benjamin Wills 31:42
Well, we’ve criminalized poverty to a degree. Right? We’ve said that to be poor is to be bad, is to be fundamentally flawed. It’s to choose things that are illegal or seditious. And that’s just not the case. Right? We understand more now. We have the books, whether we want to read them or not. We have the history, we have the data. And at this point, it’s about moral choices, so much more than it is about practical choices. Right? We know, economists will tell you, education is the number one factor in class mobility. From a Christ-centered perspective, we would say restorative justice is what God offers us, not retributive justice. And yet, and still, we participate in all these systems that do not bear the image of Christ. And so I think as Christ followers, it’s even more important for us to call these systems out and say, “This is not the world God is making. This is not the story of scripture.” And if we’re, if we want to be a people that disrupts and makes the world look more like heaven on earth, which is what we see in the kingdom, then we have to not just go with the flow, the status quo will not work any longer. And we have to speak about those things and learn about them, so that we can change them.
Latasha Morrison 32:59
Because there are some incredibly hard working poor people in our communities. And I know, several of them, you know, some of them in my family. And I think that’s the same thing we see that when we look at other countries. You know? And I think is, you know, we’ll look at building a school and, you know, resources as it relates to other countries, but not thinking about our education system and the breakdown here within America. Like, there’s a way, I don’t feel like it’s an either or, I think it’s a both and. You know, that we can do both. And so that’s really important. I wanted you to tell me maybe a story of community transformation that is happening in the area with maybe a family or something that’s happened through your school, but just a story of transformation that’s happening.
Benjamin Wills 33:59
Yeah. I mean, I would say it’s, it’s so many kids, and it’s so many families. Right? I always tell people, it’s a miracle to walk through our halls and to see our kids and to see the joy that they offer and to see them learning to read and to see them learning to do the things that they’re able to do from the circumstances that we know they come. And so we see it every day. And I think in terms of specific kids and specific families, I would say the ones that have moved in to the housing that you described earlier. So about four years ago, we just said, if we want kids to be here for 13,14 years, right, pre-K through 12th grade, then we have to address the living conditions. And we have to create conditions in which people can stay. And so if our neighborhood changes, but we’re the property owners, then we can control rent prices and we control quality and we can really do something about this. And since we’ve developed to 32 units of living, we’ve seen about 10 families from the school move into those units. We’ve had staff move into those units. And it’s just created this incredible sense of community and flourishing and life and vitality. I moved to this community for the first time 15 years ago. And so I’ve kind of watched it for about 15 years just go through different stages where it was very depressing when there wasn’t life, where there weren’t people living, there weren’t kids playing outside. You didn’t hear the sound of children, you heard more gunshots and sirens and things like that. And I would say what we’re starting to see is that by addressing the physical condition, as well as the communal aspects of it by what a school gathers, you’re starting to see flourishing again. And it’s really beautiful. And those are things that we get to walk in and see daily. And so many of those families, either were couchsurfing before or living in substandard conditions, the sewage was running in their yard or there weren’t lights turned on or there was garbage piled up because the landlord’s weren’t taken care of those places. And so I think just to see that stability that’s been created. I think simple things we take for granted, like seeing kids get to walk to school, seeing kids get to play outside around the community in safe ways. I think all those things that we’re starting to see over the last seven years that we’ve been building the school have been just beautiful reminders. They’re almost like flowers that come in the spring, there’s just reminders of life, just reminders of cycles and seasons. And it’s just been a beautiful and miraculous thing to watch happen over time in our community.
Latasha Morrison 36:29
And I think when we talk about this, because you’re talking about building affordable housing. The solution is not to go in and bulldoze everything around and build something fresh in the community that live there. And some of the only houses that people could buy before the Fair Housing Act, you know, to knock down those houses or offer them, you know, undervalue in their homes and kind of take over, and then the community changes. And that’s what we feel like that the solution is in a lot of areas. You know? And gentrification without justice leading it is oppression. And so, you know, and I think that’s something that we have to think about. Everybody wants their community to grow and to change and to develop, but the answer is not bulldozing. So I think when you look at this, when you’re creating beautiful spaces for those in that community to have some stability, some safety, some security. Because what happens, it scatters the community, and then they go somewhere else where they’re living in the same conditions. And then holding landlords accountable that have these apartment complexes that are not doing any repairs on them. They have lead paint or just they shouldn’t they should not be have people living in them. I think, you know, there’s accountability with that type of ownership, too, that has to be addressed. Now I hear about people doing schools, you know, and all over there’s a lot of model of schools that are developed to serve underserved communities and people. What are some of the common mistakes that you see happening when people are starting schools like this? And how have you guys, what have you learned from some of those common mistakes?
Benjamin Wills 38:33
Yeah, I think some of the things that I spoke to earlier related to charter schools is kind of coming in with this approach that whatever culture we have is the right culture or the right way of thinking, and you just need to get on board or you won’t fit in here. Kind of like you’re saying about gentrification, really, it’s colonization. Right? And we want to avoid that at all costs. And so we want to, like you mentioned earlier, we live in the community, a lot of our other leaders and teachers live in the community. And so we want to say, “We’re listening. We’re here. We’re doing this together.” And we’re being informed by the people around us and not so much just telling them how they should be or think or live. I think that’s really bad. I mean, I think just setting up these things that are barriers like cost or uniforms or just kind of stringent, really Eurocentric type ways of thinking that like either you fit in or you get out. I think those are some really, those can be really harmful things. I think even the language you use is important. And so, you know, we often don’t say we’re a private Christian school. So we like to say we’re an independent, Christ-centered, community school. Right? And so even choosing language that becomes more inclusive and more inviting. I think just being willing to have those really hard conversations and being willing to address our biases and say like, “Is this really because this is the best thing or is just because it’s what we’ve always seen.” And so I think for us, like, trying to prescribe things, trying to take cookie cutter or trying to take models and put them in places can cause harm. And not always, but it can. So I think it’s just really important to be contextually rooted. And I think that’s what’s been a difference for us is that we’re really rooted in a specific context. And so everything we do might not work in another community, it might not work in another neighborhood in Atlanta. But there are kind of, I think, some best practices in terms of listening, in terms of incarnational living, and in terms of just kind of the way that you process a place that you’re that you’re making, and that you’re making it alongside people using language of with rather than for. I think all those things are important and thinking about, like, how do we avoid that kind of common, you know, church planter, low key colonization type approaches to things, where again, it’s not always inherently bad, but a lot of times it is.
Latasha Morrison 41:02
And I like the way that, that’s the other thing, I noticed that, you know, a lot of times you’ll see a church, and they may have a school that meets there or, you know, they, you know, allow school to use their building. But what I’ve noticed is that this is a school that allows a church to kind of, you know, use utilize, so it’s like, kind of like a, you know, a multipurpose like type facility that you’re creating, where it’s not just so much is like a church having this building this only used on Sunday or maybe twice a week, but a school having a room that a church could utilize. And so it’s a built around the school instead of the church. I saw that and I was like, that’s a great way to think of it. I know, there’s some other churches that are doing that same thing, where it’s like, you know, why are we building this big building to use just a couple times a week, when we can look more into community development, what the community needs, especially in areas like, you know, English Avenue.
Benjamin Wills 42:16
Yeah, for sure. And this, I think this is what you see Jesus doing. Right? You see Jesus addressing constantly the physical condition of people – giving sight to the blind, the lame walk, the deaf are made to hear, the mute made to speak. There is a real connection to the tangible lived experience someone has and their ability to walk with Jesus in a spiritual way. And so I think we always see Jesus addressing both. We always see Jesus looking at the whole person saying, “You’re going to be physically restored, and spiritually restored.” And I think that’s the kind of model we want to try to offer the world is to say, it’s great to get people into church on Sundays, it’s great to try to walk with them in some kind of small group or discipleship group. But a lot of these communities just don’t operate that way. And community is experienced in such different ways. And so if you really want to meet people where they are, then what is the expression of your body of believers from Monday to Saturday? What’s that look like? And that’s what we’ve tried to address is to say, we’re a committed group of Christ followers, there’s 20 some odd people on our staff who all follow and love Jesus in our own ways, walking with people, and we think that will make as much of an impact if not more than what a church could make on a Sunday morning. And we’re really participating in the discipleship of kids and families by spending 40 hours a week with them.
Yeah, so I think it comes from again, that like ethos, or what, like, what is the ecosystem that you’re, that you’re kind of working in. And so I would say, from staff all the way up to our board, we have tried to build a new kind of system, we believe that is the most effective way to be antiracist, is to build something else. Right? If the systems we know have inherent kind of racism built into them, then we have to build something new. That’s effectively antiracist work. And that’s from a structural standpoint. But then I think it’s all the daily decisions that you make. It’s the willingness to lean into that hard conversation when somebody says something that sounds off to you, being willing to say confront in love and say, “Hey, this is how you said that, this is how I heard it. I wonder if you could think about that differently because it might make the children feel a particular kind of way.” Then it goes into curriculum choices. Are we choosing curriculums and stories that represent the people group that we’re teaching to? Are we introducing people, our children who are primarily Black and Brown to people throughout history that have made contributions not just in February, like all year long, are we talking about the great things that Black people have done for this world? Yeah, all day. And then I think that restorative practices, right, so our discipline structure is restorative practices versus kind of these retributive policies of suspension or expulsion. And so everything that we do you see us with the kids that are having the most trouble, you see us pulling them closer, as opposed to pushing them away. And so I think it’s the it’s the structural things, but it’s also just the the choices you make on a daily basis, and constantly asking ourselves, how are we laying down our privilege, laying down our power to effectively be present with a people group that is here so that they can flourish? And so I think all of our staff that are non Brown or Black are invited into a process that’s it’s really welcoming and warm. It’s not like, “Hey, don’t be white.” Like you’re white, that’s okay. But it’s like, “Hey, here’s another perspective.” And I think when we develop real, authentic relationship within that community, really powerful things can happen over a long period of time. But it’s, I think, it’s that committing to each other and saying, “Here’s what we’re doing here. We’re not going to mince words about it. We are trying to be antiracist in a world that is racialized (to use your language). And that’s going to be hard. But here’s what we’re committed to. And here’s how we’re going to continue to think through it. And here’s why we’re thinking through it.”
We have two really, really exciting projects. We’re in the early stages of a capital campaign to actually build a 35,000 square foot facility. So our community didn’t have a school for 20 years. The school that was here closed mid 90s, and has been kind of falling in on itself. And so we believe it’s really important for the community, for those walking by, driving by, passing by, to see a beautiful school building that represents the hopes and dreams and a future for our community, an institutional anchor that can be on the corner that we believe the Lord’s doing a powerful work. And so we’re trying to build a 35,000 square foot facility. It’s a $15 million project. And we believe that it’s going to have enough classrooms for pre-K through 12, a gym, a library, some community aspects and a full commercial kitchen. So it really will enhance the life of our community in more ways than just through the school. And then another project we’re working on, which will be even shorter term than that one is, we did bulldoze one property that we owned, there were the house kind of sat between our school campus and our apartments. That was that hub for activity that you talked about, you know, you would frequently see somebody drive up, drop a suitcase, somebody else comes in Uber gets the suitcase, that kind of thing. We took that house down, and we’re actually going to build in its place three units of retail and six more units of housing on top of that. And so we’ll have a corner store, which will have, you know, a market where people can get fresh food. We’ll have a barber shop where people can spend time and get their hair cut. And then we’ll have a laundromat for our tenants. So they’ll have keycard access to a laundry facility, as well as a leasing office. And then that’ll allow us to have six more units of housing. And so that’s going to, project’s going to start next month and take about a year. And so really, again, focusing on a new layer for us, another layer of the onion, which is economic development. And so education, housing, economic development, employment, again, these are all things that are addressing the ecosystem for kids and families to flourish.
Latasha Morrison 49:00
And I love the idea. If you understand what barbershops and beauty salons mean in our community. Like, this was the hub where wisdom and nuggets and all those things are taught and learned. You know? I just, you know, just from my youngest childhood, I was fortunate to be able to go to a salon and you know, just just have great memories about that and even taking my little brother to the barber shop. I mean, you can bust a gut and there laughing and you know, just just all kinds of things. (laughter) So I think that’s something good when you think about our communities having some of those staple things, you know, and in the community. So I’m excited about that. And so you said you break ground when?
Benjamin Wills 49:48
Latasha Morrison 49:49
Okay, next month. And we’re gonna put everything…okay, March or February,
Benjamin Wills 49:53
Latasha Morrison 49:53
Okay, cool. And we’re gonna put all this information up. So those of you who want to get involved if you’re in the Atlanta area. If you’re not, and you want to donate towards this, we’re going to have all the information. I wanted to, as you know, how can others get involved? So you can tell specifically, we’re going to put some information up, but what are some things that other people can do, because I know some people are listening to this and saying, “Oh, my goodness, I want to be a part of this, I want to be a part of this growth. I want to learn from Peace Prep. I want to come and check out the community and see what you guys are doing.” You know, because you’re creating, you’re creating a great blueprint for others to follow. I haven’t, I know this is happening, you know, throughout our country, but I haven’t heard of a lot of it. And so it’s good to have this right here in the Atlanta area. And I think it’s so instrumental. And when you think about this is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, you know, for this to be happening in that area is just really significant. And so some of these people that, you know, went to these schools, you know, we need to get them on board to, you know, with this, but how can others get involved?
Benjamin Wills 51:04
Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think it’s fun to talk about on this podcast, because we had somebody who listened to an episode you did with Lecrae, who heard about us, and then ended up coming to volunteer at our golf tournament. They came from Alabama to volunteer at our golf tournament, and then they came and spent some time with us on campus. And so it’s a good reminder that come and see. Like, come and see. And yeah, so the number one way is to come and see. Get in touch with us. And come see what we’re doing. Come walk, come walk it with us. I love the story in the gospels, where John’s disciples come to Jesus, and they say, like, “Hey, are you the one? Or is there another one to come?” And he says, you know, “Yeah, go back and tell them the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.” And that you just have to see it, you have to see the evidence and the miracles of God to really get engaged with this story. So you can find more information about that on our website, you can go to www.peaceprep.com. You can follow us on social media, on Instagram and Twitter at @peaceprep or @peaceprepacademy or Peace Preparatory Academy on Facebook. But get involved, you can sign up to receive our newsletter, you could become a monthly partner, or peace partners, who give on a monthly basis. Or you can just follow what we’re doing, just watch it. We send lots of information out through our website, though our podcast, through different channels. Because we want people to know what God is doing in such a way that they want to go do it in other parts of their life. So we know some people will come and they’ll get involved with what we’re doing specifically. And that’s great. And we know some people will come and be inspired, and then go do it somewhere else. That’s also great. And so we love to be a learning lab if we can. So come walk the grounds with us. Come see what we’re doing. And then connect with us and stay connected to us.
Latasha Morrison 52:48
What’s next for Peace Prep? So I know you’re building, you know, doing some economic development. And you know, you have this plan for this new school. What else? What’s next for Peace Prep?
Benjamin Wills 53:04
Yeah, so middle school. So we’re going to seventh grade next year, we have sixth grade this year which is kind of middle school. But yeah, getting into middle school. We’re going to relaunch our after school program, hopefully, as the weather starts to warm up and COVID starts to do something different. Those are a couple big things on our plate. And so if you’re looking for a great school to work at, we’re getting ready to kind of release all of our job postings. We’ll have a lot of positions available next year for our growth. And then we’re hoping to get to 100 kids next year, which will be really exciting for us. That’s a milestone in growth. And we’re just excited to really do more of what we do and at a greater depth to continue loving and serving kids and continuing to grow roots in this community. And just opening our hands and say, Lord, whatever you have for us, we want to walk in it.
Latasha Morrison 53:50
Okay, so growing to 100 kids, opening middle school. Good luck with that! (laughter) Middle school students are the best. And I know some people are listening and said, “What! I have one. Nah.” But they are. And it’s such a, just critical, it’s critical years. You know? And that’s when you really begin to see, you know, some of the cultural and racial divisions happening in that sixth grade year, you know, some of the beginning stages of middle school. And so I think there’s a lot that could be done, you know, within that age ranges that can benefit society as a whole if we really focused on it and leaned into that and not tried to pretend like it doesn’t happen or it doesn’t exist. (laughter)
Benjamin Wills 54:41
Yeah, yeah, I was a middle school teacher. So I have a special heart for that age group. Because I think, yeah, they’re right on that cusp of they still listen to you a little bit. And they can be influenced and then they start to get to eighth grade and have a mind of their own. And you can see kids do some really amazing things in the world. I still talk to several of my students. One of them comes back and substitutes at Peace Prep all the time. She’s graduated college now. And it’s just special to see kids start to get excited about something. And we really get the opportunity to just to water what the Lord is doing in their lives. And so I think, yeah, we’re really excited about this next season for us. It’ll be, we’re in the middle of our seventh year. And so I think the Lord does something with sevens, too. So I’m excited to see what the Lord does to just increase what he’s already done in these first seven years.
Latasha Morrison 55:35
So what are the things that, you know, I always ask this question with the guests on the Be the Bridge podcast. Because we talk a lot about lament, you know, because we feel like that is a process of reconciliation. And it’s something that we don’t do well as the church as a whole. And I think it’s good to practice, because lament, I believe, leads us toward hope. It is a part of our way of worshiping God and communioning with God. What are some things that you’re lamenting right now?
Benjamin Wills 56:13
Yeah, I mean, I think I’m lamenting the reality that schools like ours have to exist. Right? There is something I would say, again, for people to kind of dig into the history of this, in the south, specifically, white Christians are really the ones who kind of established private schools as a mechanism to maintain segregation. So there’s a very, it was a very racist intent in the initial creation of white Christian schools, Christian private schools. And I think I lament the reality that we still have to convince people that kids are worth investing in in this way. That people still ask a lot of questions about how much it costs and why this and why that and you have to really prove to people that this place deserves to exist. I think I also lament the reality that there are generations in our community who didn’t get to experience what we’re creating. There are parents, there are grandparents, who innocence are still hopeless, right? They don’t believe that there’s anything else that’s possible. And I lament the reality that that 20 year life expectancy gap exists in our community, because a lot of kids die young, and a lot of kids don’t get to even finish school. And so, you know, by the Lord’s grace, and we haven’t had to experience any loss like that in our history. But we’ve seen the funerals of kids who either died to violence or were run over or just the different things that we know happen all around. And so I just lament the fact that the conditions in our community are not for the flourishing of people. And that’s sad. It is. But like you said, it’s not without, we’re not without hope. But there are some really just sad realities about the situations that our kids and families walk in and out of on a daily basis. And there is something that we need to own in order for real reconciliation to happen. I think that we have to own that Christian people perpetuated systems of injustice, to the point that we’re still trying to change the trajectory in the life of someone. And I think that is something we have to be honest about and lament.
Latasha Morrison 58:32
Yeah. So good. Thank you so much for sharing that. And it’s kind of like, we don’t want to continue to repeat the mistakes of history and perpetuate injustice and acts of racism within the body of Christ. And we see that and that’s what so many of us Christians are lamenting. You know, this denial, this deflection, and this defense, you know, of racism and systemic racism and the impact of that and how the church played a major role. So my prayer is that we repent, that we repent, and we repair, and restore.
Benjamin Wills 59:19
That’s right. Step two and three. Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of empty repentance.
Latasha Morrison 59:24
It’s one thing to reprent. There should be some action after that.
Benjamin Wills 59:27
That’s right. There should be some action. Yeah, John the Baptist says it best right: bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Right? It’s an ongoing process of repair. And I think that’s the work that we see ourselves doing. And again, we openly invite people to come and learn more about that. So they can be a part of that fruit that we’ll see from this repentance.
Latasha Morrison 59:49
Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. So good. I love that. I went in there because that was so good. But I also want to talk about what are the things, as we close, this the last question, Benjamin, what is something that is bringing you joy right now?
Benjamin Wills 1:00:08
Oh, yeah, my kids, I think are bringing me a lot of joy, a lot of joy and pain. But they’re in that stage of life where they’re getting to explore their interests. And that’s exciting to see in getting ready to kind of emerge from this COVID reality and getting to do sports again and things like that. So that’s bringing me a lot of joy in my personal life. And I think the school brings me a tremendous amount of joy. I think getting to see people come alive and come awake to God in new ways through the work that we’re doing is just, it is a privilege. And it’s an honor and it brings me a lot of joy to walk with people and see them come to realize, gosh, something really hard happened here. But something really beautiful is being made out of that. And so that brings me a lot of joy. And then the last thing I’ll say is I love reading. And it sounds weird, but I’m reading a lot of books on trauma and spiritual abuse and things like that. And it’s bringing me a lot of joy just to have a vision for how God wants to use the church to restore a lot of places that are broken in our world. And so it brings me joy to get to know more about how God made our bodies and our minds, and how we can heal from those things.
Latasha Morrison 1:01:25
So good, thank you so much. This is, I mean, you guys, this is bringing me joy, to know that work like this is happening in our community. You know, this is something I know, as a nonprofit ourselves, we know how it is trying to raise funds and do all of this. But I do believe that this is a part of the redemptive and restorative work that leads us towards reconciliation, that leads us towards shalom. And so I know as an organization, Be the Bridge is going to be getting behind Peace Prep. And we’ll be contacting you on some things that we’re going to be doing as an organization, just of a way to show, you know, we’re also working on a problem, but we also are working on solutions. And so we want to partner with organizations that are also a part of those solutions. So we look forward to developing a continued partnership with Peace Prep. Shout out to Lecrae for talking about this on Instagram and get me really curious and having him on the podcast, and being able to talk about Peace Prep and the work that he’s doing there and how he’s partnered with you guys. And then, you know, going to see for myself, you know, and saying, “Wow.” Because I go to Rwanda, and do work with the incredible organization called Africa New Life whom I love, the vision of Pastor Charles. And when I was talking with you, I was like, we have a Pastor Charles here! Right here in Atlanta! And I just, I love that because you know, Africa New Life has this holistic approach, and I love how they do it, and how it’s being led by Rwandans, and it’s a beautiful work. And that’s what I was feeling, you know, when I was talking to you at Peace Prep, I was just like, this is a part of the solution. This is a part of the flourishing of all. And just, you know, thank you. I’m just, you know, thinking about that, that time that you were talking about you were praying and fasting for 40 days, and God giving you this direction, that is around the time where, you know, Be the Bridge was starting up too. So we were kind of starting up around the same time. And to see what God is doing through your obedience and how lives are being changed and communities are going to be continued to be transformed. And we cannot forget those broken places, you know, we cannot move on and turn our backs on things that are hard. There are solutions. No one is beyond God’s repair. You know, I don’t believe that. And I think broken systems create broken people. You know? And I think when we start doing something about those systems and creating spaces like you’re creating with Peace Prep that is what this community needs, but it’s also a beacon of light for other communities across this nation to print. So thank you so much for what you’re doing, your staff. I know you don’t do it alone. You know, we got to have good people around us, like myself to help us you know, and keep our arms lifted up. And thank you for saying yes to this. I know it’s difficult work. I know it’s hard. I mean, I run a nonprofit. I know it’s hard, it’s hard work. But the resources are there. And so I’m grateful for that. So thank you so much for joining us on the Be the Bridge podcast. And I’m so glad that, community, we were able to bring this conversation to you. What better time than Black History Month, you know, to talk about this? And so if you’re in the Atlanta area, go check out the work that’s being done in English Avenue. And go to the website, we’re gonna post all the information. Follow them on Instagram and all the social media, and let’s make this happen. Like, they got a capital campaign. Let’s go out there and give and make sure that money is the last thing that Benjamin has to worry about. And I think that’s the greatest thing with those of us who are doing this work of justice, and especially this hard and difficult work, when we don’t have to worry about funds, it just frees us up to do this incredible work. So I know we can do it. There’s a lot of you out there. So you know, I just feel led to say that. And so let’s make sure that money is not a problem for for Peace Prep. So thank you so much, Benjamin. Appreciate you so much.
Tandria Potts 1:06:13
Go to the donors table if you’d like to hear the unedited version of this podcast.
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast. To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization and or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the Senior Producer. And transcribed by Sarah Connatser. Please join us next time. This has been a Be the Bridge production.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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