Giving back: The 821 Project
By the time Jahi Mackey was in third grade, he knew the name of every country in the world. “I was raised to have curiosity for the world and to see it not as a place to fear or survive in but to explore and take care of and learn about,” he says.
By the time he got to high school, Mackey finally got to act on that curiosity, traveling with People to People International to New York and Washington, D.C., and interacting with youth from around the world. He then traveled with that group for three weeks in Western Europe, an experience that expanded his world tremendously. “I was no longer just Jahi from north Baton Rouge,” he says. “I was Jahi who was from north Baton Rouge but who was connected to the entire world, was part of this big community.”
In the coming years, he became consumed by the reality that most people didn’t have access to this kind of exposure, particularly in his hometown. “I find that in Baton Rouge, we often have to fit in these boxes,” he says. “We are so siloed here—so geographically segregated, racially segregated, economically segregated.”
Mackey wanted to create something that brought people of different backgrounds and cultures together to foster genuine interaction and learning. “I wanted a space where people could be authentic with one another,” he says, “where you could learn about other cultures and also the issues that exist because of someone’s culture.”
Paying homage to his foundation through the digits of his first home address, in December 2016 Mackey created The 821 Project, an organization dedicated to promoting global citizenship, diversity, and community engagement in southeast Louisiana.
Using his own experiences as a model, Mackey developed programming for the nonprofit designed to foster interaction and social consciousness. For example, he says some of his most profound learning experiences come through interpersonal relationships. “Tea and Truth” is a monthly dialogue series that welcomes people from all walks of life to discuss community issues. “We try to center our topics on conversations that are not currently happening in Baton Rouge, things like ageism or adultism, media representation or regional identity,” he says.
Another pillar of global citizenship for Mackey is literature, inspiring 821’s Book Discussions. To foster a wider range of perspectives and interests, the discussions revolve around a particular topic rather than a book. Participants pick a book from a reading list that connects to a theme, and then bring their reactions and ideas to the table for discussion.
As a young African-American person, Mackey says that he is able to recognize how certain voices aren’t heard in the community, and he wanted to give them a chance to speak. “Voices” is a community summit that invites members from every community to come and share their ideas for solutions in Baton Rouge. “Our second summit focused on what it means to be American. We asked things like ‘What does America look like to you? What are some things we can do to realize the American dream?” Mackey says, “We had immigrants,
millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers, and people from various religious backgrounds, careers and life perspectives, all coming together to share their experiences and solutions.”
Community activist and former educator Jane Chandler says she believes Mackey’s juxtaposition of international and local culture and activity fills a void that people didn’t even know existed in Baton Rouge. “There’s a thing we say in international education: ‘Think globally and act locally.’ I feel like what Jahi has created I’ve been living my whole life as an international thinker and local activist.”
Mackey says all of the programming is part of a vision to create a more globally aware society in Baton Rouge. “All of the programs work together to build this change,” he says. “You have to interact with people who are different to learn to appreciate those differences. You realize that others’ differences don’t take away who you are, but actually enrich your life.”
Mackey hopes this will ripple through the community to ultimately create greater inclusivity, unity and knowledge. “I challenge people to expand their roots to the world,” he says. “Find out what is important to you, and use it to make a difference in the world. Challenge yourself to try something new and meet someone new. From those experiences, you might learn to think differently about the world and where you fit into it.”