Are You A Changer?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

 

Local young people who say they're disappointed with their community's negative reputation are setting out to transform that image and highlight Orangeburg's strengths by coming together and giving back.

Since its inception in February, the nonprofit organization Changing the Perception Inc., founded by 20-year-old South Carolina State University student Zachary Middleton, has set its sights on improving racial harmony, decreasing voter apathy, improving health and environmental standards and cultivating positive youth-based initiatives in Orangeburg.

"We just want to introduce a different state of mind," Middleton said. "I think a lot of people feel as though our generation can do something positive. So far, young and old have really liked the idea."

The death of his uncle, Delano H. Middleton, was a huge factor is Zachary's decision to start CTP. A student at Wilkinson High in 1968, the 17-year-old Delano was one of the three young men killed in what has become known as "the Orangeburg Massacre."

"In terms of racial solidarity, nothing has changed in Orangeburg," Zachary Middleton said. "It's very rare that you see whites and blacks interacting. We haven't been able to get out of our comfort zones."

Beyond the race perception issue in Orangeburg, Middleton said the youths' perception of success needs to be addressed as well, adding that many young adults -- particularly young, black males -- believe the only measure of success is through sports or entertainment.

"We want to change the perception and show that there are a myriad of other avenues that they can become just as, if not more, successful in," Middleton said.

Middleton said he was also influenced by former executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission Hal Johnson's philosophy of nurturing Orangeburg's economic strengths in order to bring more businesses to the community.

"The key to recruiting industries, Johnson said ... is playing on the county's existing strengths," Middleton said. He said Johnson worked to change the county's self-perception and persuaded leaders and residents that Orangeburg County was worthy of high-paying jobs.

The goal of CTP is to help alter what is seen in the city of Orangeburg, Middleton said. The organization aims to implement this change through community service projects emphasizing racial solidarity, voter registration drives and increasing public knowledge of health and environmental risk-related factors.

The logo of CTP is sankofa, a West African word meaning "looking backward to move forward," symbolized by a bird with his body facing forward and his head looking back.

"Sankofa means forward progress through past reflections," Middleton said. "The bird definitely symbolizes a perception change. In order to really know where you're going, you have to know where you came from."

The group's colors are black and white, a symbol of racial unity.

Impacting the community through service projects is a major goal of Changing the Perception. Its initial project was the organization's participation in the Run for the Dream 5K run and walk, sponsored by the Beta Delta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. Money raised at the event benefitted the planned Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and a local charity.

Additionally, CTP has held voter registration drives at the Prince of Orange Mall and S.C. State and participated in Relay for Life, the Adopt-a-Highway program, Hunter-Kinard-Tyler Elementary School's Senior Day and various Habitat for Humanity projects.

CTP's board of directors is comprised of an equal number of students from three of Orangeburg's institutions of higher learning -- S.C. State, Claflin University and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. Everyone on the board is under 21 years of age.

"We want to keep it young to grasp who we're trying to get involved," Middleton said. "Everyone is very intelligent and really active in community."

When Middleton introduced CTP Vice President Krystal Lewis to the idea of changing people's perceptions of their community, the Claflin University sophomore agreed it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

"We used to talk about how there's nothing to do in Orangeburg, and everything is negative," Lewis said. "We basically just wanted to give back to the community because everyone always does everything outside of Orangeburg."

Lewis said she thinks it's a great organization for college students to get involved in and added that although most college students are residents of Orangeburg for a limited time, they can still serve the community in a positive way.

Although CTP is in the initial stages, the organization has drawn many supporters, and Lewis said she wants to encourage people of all ages in Orangeburg to help make the community a better place to live and more presentable to the outside world.

"Many adults are interested in it because they want to see a cleaner Orangeburg for the younger generations," Lewis said.

Rounding out CTP officers are S.C. State student Nick Artis, who serves as treasurer, and OCtech student Rebecca Ackiss, who serves as secretary.

Jennifer Morris, a member-at-large on the CTP board of directors and OCtech student, admits she has been looked at negatively for being from Orangeburg and graduating from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School.

"It's really not that bad of a place, but it has a bad rap," Morris said.

Morris said it's important for everyone to know CTP is not just for college students.

"It has to be a whole community effort in order for us to change the perception of Orangeburg," she said.

Future projects include collecting school supplies for needy children, making S.C. State "green" by collecting paper and aluminum to fund the Delano H. Middleton Scholarship Fund for active high school seniors in Orangeburg pursuing a college education and holding a "meltdown" at S.C. State the first day of school that will double as a voter registration drive.

More information about Changing the Perception can be found on the group's Web site, www.imachanger.org. The site, designed by Middleton's brother, Alonzo Middleton II, includes photos and links to video interviews, public service announcements and volunteer opportunities in the community.

Beginning in September, Zachary Middleton said an online community service network will be added to the site. There, users will be able to build a profile similar to that of popular networking sites Facebook and MySpace -- but with a catch: The only way visitors will be able to enhance a profile will be through community service involvement.

"The idea behind the networking site was to take what kids like to do and improve the city at the same time," Middleton said.

The community can also learn more about CTP by tuning in to Changing the Perception Radio. CTP Radio airs on WSSB 90.3 FM at 6 p.m. Mondays, with an encore presentation Saturdays at 6 p.m.

On its radio show, topics impacting the Orangeburg community and beyond are discussed with host Phil Jenkins.

"Topics range from anything from (Democratic presidential nominee Sen.) Barack Obama to (rap artist) Plies," Middleton said. "We want to capture every audience." Shows also include a "Perception Changing Moment," which presents information people might not know, such as voting statistics or facts about AIDS, he said.

Jeremiah Douglas, a CTP board of directors member-at-large, said he became active in CTP because he and Middleton shared the same sentiments about the Orangeburg community.

"I disliked some of the same things he was thinking about reforming," the Claflin University student said. "I think Zachary Middleton is a great person for starting this organization. He's not looking for any profit or anything. I am highly esteemed that he chose me to be on the board of directors. With the board of directors that we have, a lot of things are going to get done."