Though she’s not yet considered an adult, Brieona Carter has already put a stamp in her passport, and miles of culture underneath her feet.

At just 17, her “must-do” list already has a scratch through the “travel Africa” line, and like many other youths from the Baltimore area, she has taken full advantage of the community organizations encouraging teens to push past their native borders to become trekkers of the globe.

“I spent 10 days in Ethiopia and the remainder in Ghana,” Carter told the AFRO, at a recent open house for Afrikan Youth Alchemy (AYA).

“It wasn’t like I was thrown into everything, but you were set into a regular African community. We were organically immersed into the culture.”

Participants camped at different locations, got into the habit of walking to markets to get fresh fruit and other necessities and directly engaged with African community members while partaking in their daily routines.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said.

And the AYA Project isn’t the only group focused on exposing area teens and young adults to the possibilities beyond Charm City’s boundaries.

Fresh off the plane from Haiti, Xavier Montgomery’s life has also forever been changed as a result of his travels.

This year the 16-year-old high school junior, along with roughly 13 other youths took an eight-day adventure through the Dominican Republic and Haiti as part of The Big Payback, an initiative jointly created by Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, LaMarr Darnell Shields, president of the Urban Leadership Institute, and De La Sol, an Alabama service organization. (CQ)

“I learned about the different cultures they have in Haiti,” said Montgomery. “I took away a sense of pride and I now have a better sense of self-awareness.”

Montgomery said he learned about Haitian religions, such as voodoo and the Haitian approach to Christianity, but he also picked up a few pointers on how to become a businessman.

“It was interesting to see how Taharka Brothers Ice Cream helped the Haitian farmers turn their cocoa and vanilla into a private business. They provided them with a way to sell their product and help the country.”

Shields, who has been taking young teens on international voyages for nearly a decade, said that his own experiences outside of America helped shape his vision for other youngsters.

“My first trip was in college,” he said. “I was a Spanish student and studied in Mexico. After that I’ve always wanted to make a commitment to taking youth out of the country.”

Sheilds said that the exposure to how other teens are living and dealing with the same day-to-day issues inspires his own group to make better choices and become ambassadors for change.

“Not only have they traveled, but they’ve done community service, which I call solidarity work. They aren’t working for people, they’re working with people,” he said.

With the blessing and help of the Haitian Embassy, the group toured Haiti, interacted with local residents, worked on farms, visited hospitals and schools and competed in soccer games.

Most importantly, they were able to add images and faces to the many lessons they learned about Haiti before they traveled to the country.

“These are a people that have resilience historically as the first ones to free themselves from their captors,” said Shields, who said the program puts a significant amount of time into teaching how the Haitian revolution ultimately gave way to the freedom of African slaves in America.

The Big Payback also focuses on the arts through film and photography ventures similar to the AYA project, which is part of the Independent Afrikan Minds Project (I AM Project), formerly known as the Black to Our Roots program.

With the help of a private donor, every child with The Big Payback was able to make the trip to the Dominican Republic and Haiti for only half the $1,600 price of the round trip.

The results of the early exposure to these Black nations are clear.

Since 2002, the I AM Project has taken more than 70 teens back to Africa, 75 percent of whom earned high school diplomas and enrolled in institutions of higher learning.

And the road to next year’s unique journey has already begun.

An example of the weekly fundraising chart—that must be strictly followed to be effective- was circulated at the Downtown Cultural Art Center for the event, sponsored in conjunction with the Open Society Institute.

The first week, participants who plan to be in Ghana next year are asked to set aside $1. The second week of fundraising requires a minimum collection of $2, the third week, $3, until week 52, the final week, when a minimum of $52 dollars is needed.

By the end of the year, each participant that has kept up with the weekly goal will have collected nearly $1,400 for their travel to Africa.

To better facilitate participants and maximize the experience, the organization purchased land in Ghana two years ago as a foothold for cultural exchange.

“We’re talking about people who may not have gone much farther than the Inner Harbor,” said Olu Butterfly Woods, to the men, women, and children gathered for Sunday’s program. “They are getting on a plane and returning to African soil for the first time in generations since their families were kidnapped.”

“We call it ‘Alchemy’ because there is a spirit of transformation,” she said. “They go with a mission to develop themselves, a mission to be open, to see a different way of being, and bring that back here.”


Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer