By Joel Hall
Former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Chris Draft, as well as a number of Clayton County leaders and elected officials, encouraged an audience of 180 local, high school students to "take back their righteous minds" during a forum hosted at Galaxy Cinemas in Riverdale.
Friday, 20 students from every high school in Clayton County were treated to a free movie screening of "The Great Debaters," staring Denzel Washington. Afterward, the students shared their opinions about the movie, as well as the state of the county with a panel of Clayton County leaders.
The panel -- moderated by Nicole Watson, an anchor at the Atlanta Falcons Radio Network -- included state representative Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale); Clayton County Solicitor Leslie Miller-Terry; Lamar Scott, human resources chief at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; Adolphus Graves, alternative detention program director at the Clayton County Juvenile Court; Frederick Douglass Taylor, a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, and retired Atlanta Falcons Buddy Curry and Dewey McClain.
Draft, who heads The Chris Draft Family Foundation, has sponsored programs to encourage youths throughout the metro Atlanta area for years. The movie screening and forum was the third of its kind -- the first of which involved the St. Louis Public Schools on Jan. 11, and another which was hosted for Atlanta Public Schools on Jan. 25, at Magic Johnson Theaters at Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta.
Draft, who now plays for the St. Louis Rams, decided to use the movie as a springboard for youth dialogue after being treated to a private screening of the movie by fellow Rams running back, J.D. Washington. Washington's father stars in the movie as an innovative professor in the 1930s, who motivates a team of young black debaters to win a national debate championship at Harvard University.
The movie shows that, "you're not too young to make a difference," said Draft. "It shows that when you are educated and knowledgeable, you can make a difference at any age. We're trying to make the students aware of people in the community doing great things and inspire them to do great things."
In the discussion after the movie, students controlled the course of the conversation as they shared what they learned from the movie and how it applied to their lives in Clayton County.
"African-American males, a lot of the time, we feel like we have to defend ourselves," from negative criticism, said one North Clayton High School student. "We have to pick our battles."
"The majority doesn't make the decision for you, your conscious does," said one Riverdale High School student, quoting a line from the movie. "We must learn how to think for ourselves ... we can't let the majority speak for us."
While many of the students selected for the forum were among their school's academic leaders, Abdul-Salaam said she and other organizers took great care to include more than just "the good kids" in the audience.
"We consciously made an effort to get a mixture of students," said Abdul-Salaam. "Leadership skills are leadership skills. A lot of these gang members are leaders, but we just need to redirect their leadership.
"If you talk to students about some issues that they might not be familiar with, it's like catching a fire," Abdul-Salaam added. "You can really start something."