Interview

Surayya Barbee Empowers New York’s Inner-City Youth With The Kids League

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Written By: Deya Mensche

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When describing this true New York dynamite with a take-no-prisoners attitude, Surayya Barbee is the embodiment of determination and sheer perseverance. The founder of The Kids League gets her resolve from her mother Roxanne Jones, who is legally blind due to Macular Degeneration and is her inspiration for resilience. “My mom is an amazing woman that defied society’s expectations attributed to her disability. She went to college to get her Bachelor Degree in Early Childhood Education and a Master Degree in Social Work”, she shared. It’s safe to say that Surayya and her four siblings grew up in a household in the Bronx where no excuses were afforded and were always surrounded by strong role models. She’s always had strong ties with Harlem, due to her grandma Olive Jones, who in her own right was a visionary and entrepreneurial woman.

What makes Surayya’s story so remarkable is although she grew up in the inner-city of New York, where black kids were often disenfranchised due to a broken school system that was preparing a generation for the school-to-prison-pipeline. The Barbee children were purposely kept out that environment. Grandma Jones especially believed in the value of good education and helped Surayya’s mom send the kids to private school. She also exposed her grandchildren to architects of black culture like Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan and Dr. Leonard Jeffries, where they studied ancient Egyptian culture and hieroglyphics.

Surayya grew up in an era where black consciousness was the most prevalent, surrounded by the Black Power moment and the Nation of Islam. However her parents and grandmother were not the only influential mentors in her life. At Castle Hill Community Center then known as Pathways for Youth, where they attended an after-school program, Surayya befriended the director of programming and lifelong mentor Salaam Jaha. “She exposed me to a lot of events and social functions and gave me my footing about what was going on outside our community. Jaha helped me grow spiritually and understand who I was as a leader and that set me apart,” she continued.

The mother of a teenage daughter was able to juggle motherhood and her ambitions and has owned several businesses from the age of 19. She admits she gets her entrepreneurial spirit from both sides of the family. “I never conformed to what my environment groomed my generation to be and always wanted to be my own boss, and because of that, I was able to positively channel my ideas and go out and create my own path”, she shared. 

The positive experiences at the Castle Hill Community Center had such an impact on Surayya’s journey that she always felt the urge to pay it forward by guiding and empowering today’s inner-city kids into excellence and success. Specifically, she wants to bridge the gap in her community with education, social and emotional development. With the Kids League, which was founded in 2014, she intended to recreate a movement of people supporting students from underserved communities in New York. Currently the Kids League has over 100 kids enrolled and are piloting the program in three schools.

The participating kids are middle and high schoolers that attend workshops and fieldtrips, where they are exposed to exciting experiences. Specifically, they learn about music, fashion, sports, health and wellness, in addition to a S.T.E.A.M. program (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). “At the Kids League we apply the Connective Learning methods, which I believe is the answer to our broken school system, because it allows the students to engage instead of forced recital of the taught material. The system is failing our students miserably and funding is cut left and right to low preforming schools”, she lamented. “In April 2015, we took 25 kids to the White House, which was our first outing”, Surayya added. “We also have a community partnership with the Harlem Hospital and Touro Medical School, who accommodate our art and science programs”, she continued. 

According to Surayya, there is a big social responsibility component for the entire community to share. “With the Kids League, we are saving lives so they have a desire to be great, while developing tangible skills and tools to become successful in life”, she explained. She wants to get people involved as volunteers, financial patrons, or support with products and services. “If we don’t teach our kids to be excellent, we are setting them up for failure. We need to stop complaining about what we don’t have and make the changes for ourselves”, she finalized boldly.

Photographer: GVI Films
Hair: Pink Blush Hair
Hair Stylist: Aisha Maundy
Make Up: Tiffany Garlick

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