The Fillmore-based after-school program Project Level makes distance learning succeed

Richard “Big Rich” Bougere 

by JR Valrey, The Black New World Journalist Society 

Distance learning has proven to be a failure in many cases over the last two months throughout the Bay Area and the nation for a myriad of reasons. For example, teachers were never trained adequately in how to pivot from classroom teaching to a cyber environment; school districts had to organize distance learning without having planned for its implementation; huge portions of the student body in the Bay’s Black and Brown neighborhoods don’t have access to the technology needed to be able to engage; and many students have no internet access at home. 

And these are just some of the technical issues. There is a whole ‘nother group of psychological issues rooted in the trauma and confusion created when school-age youth are told that they cannot interact with their friends for months at a time, being made to stay indoors for fear of being infected by an airborne COVID-19, and that their schooling now consists solely of staring at a computer screen to get instruction for at least four hours a day. 

Fillmore community advocate Richard “Big Rich” Bougere has had a different experience with implementing distance-learning into the teenager-young adult curriculum of Project Level, founded in 2012 by Rich and his wife Danielle, which is a daily music and media after-school program based at The African American Art and Culture Complex at 762 Fulton in San Francisco. 

The different effect may lie in the fact that the youth respect what they are learning at Project Level while, on the contrary, they hate being indoctrinated with lies and half-truths that make up the rigors of regular schooling. Only time and intense research will answer that question. 

I wanted to tap in with Big Rich to talk about how Project Level has been able to make proverbial lemonade out of the lemons served to us during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. Check out Fillmore’s “underground mayor” as he gives insight into what the youth in his program are going through. 

JR: What are San Francisco’s youth going through during this quarantine?

Big Rich: I think that the severity of what’s going on is not really hitting them because they are not able to fully grasp what’s happening; but like most youth, what they are dealing with is the result of society. Instead of dealing with issues in society, they’re dealing with the results of it. 

So a lot of depression, bro, a lot of self doubt. They miss their friends. They miss school all of a sudden. We hear that a lot. Some used to hate school; now they miss it. They’re missing being social; they’re missing being active. They don’t even realize why it’s happening. Usually when confusion happens, depression comes too, because you don’t really understand why you feel that way. So we have been seeing that a lot. 

JR: How are San Francisco’s youth that you deal with feeling about distance learning? Is it effective, or is it hard to cope with?

Big Rich: Honestly from talking to them, we have been dealing with about 60-65 kids on our online platform because of the ones that can’t make it to Project Level, or the ones in Hunters Point, the ones in Sunnydale – they’re able to log on and really get into it. 

So like our core 30, they’re excited. “This is dope.” “This is what we needed.” The other 30 overall are still struggling with normal distancing at school, the SFUSD ones, because they’re missing the social element. It’s like “it’s boring sitting on the computer for three hours; I can’t concentrate.” 

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is kicking in like hell right now. Their attention span doesn’t last that long, so it’s a struggle. The teachers know it’s a struggle as well, so they’re trying to break it up a little bit so they’re not sitting there zombied-out for three or four hours, you know. I’m glad to see that the teachers are aware of that, and that they’re working on that too. 

I think as far as the after-school hours with Project Level, it has been great though. They feel like, “All right, cool, I can do some stuff that I am actually interested in.” 

The new 30 (students) are being introduced to Project Level for the first time, so they have that first time excitement. It’s been going well, like yesterday we had them from 2 p.m. all the way to 7:30 p.m. They didn’t want to leave; they didn’t want to get out. We had some guest speakers and they just wanted to lock in. We had them for five hours, and I was surprised.

JR: So you have a new 30 students after the pandemic?

Big Rich: Yep, 35 new students after the pandemic.

JR: How has Project Level transitioned to online?

Big Rich: It’s actually better in a way. It’s actually worse and better. The worst part is not being able to be right there with them, socialize with them, and be able to do hands-on stuff, but we have been able to pinpoint stuff better. 

We’ve been better able to separate them into their groups, and they’re able to have better focus on whatever they came to Project Level for because you don’t have the social element. They’re actually learning at a higher peak right now, because there ain’t nothing to do but soak up knowledge and soak up training and the stuff that we’re offering. So it’s kind of cool. 

When they get to Project Level, just like all youth, they like to socialize and talk, and they might waste an hour or two just BSing around, so that’s been the good part. I think the cool part in the way that we transitioned is that the teaching, training and everything, we have that. The lectures are there, the guest speakers are there. The curriculum is set, but now we have been sending them at-home studio kits to be able to train. 

So if you’re into social media, we’re sending the lights for the camera and the backdrop so they can sit there doing YouTube videos, do interviews, vlogs and a whole bunch of things for social media campaigns. That’s their way of being social now. That’s the way that they communicate with each other through social media, so we’re still keeping that element going. 

So we try to encourage their creativity and their imagination to keep them from falling underneath this depression.

With the music (section), we’re sending home mini M-boxes and things like that so that they can continue to record. So it’s like they’re not missing a beat. They’re at home doing the same type of things that they were doing here, but they’re doing it at the crib, and then they’re able to socialize with about 60 of their friends every single day. So they’re cool. They’re straight.

JR: What’s the downside? Because when I talked to you a week ago you were telling me about some problems, but maybe they’ve adjusted?

Big Rich: This is what they say about the prison system – the oppression, the isolation, the institution – this is like mental jail for them. Then the uncertainties of not knowing, and sort of like your emotions being played with. And as teens and youth in general, they don’t have any authority over themselves so they’re really at bay for whatever the government, or whatever society, or whatever this pandemic is offering them. 

They are just kind of there, stuck and hopeless in that. So we try to encourage their creativity and their imagination to keep them from falling underneath this depression. I even noticed that sometimes when they got in a group, the first few days we had to perk them up, like, “What’s up, y’all?” “What’s good?” “This is what you love; don’t forget that,” and we really had to go all in and start bringing some celebrity guests up in there to talk to them, to really get them going. And now every day, it’s like, “What’s up?” “What’s next?”

So they got something to look forward to now, and that has just changed within a week. Just a week ago when I spoke to you, it wasn’t like that. It was still the struggle, and it’s still going to be that. It’s an up and down process. We had a good week this week; it might not be the same next week, you know? 

They just extended (the quarantine) to May 31st; that might set in on them. They’re missing out on birthdays, of course, but, right now, they’re missing out on prom. They’re missing out on graduation. They might miss out on their summer. 

And then next thing you know, we’re hearing that Gov. Gavin Newsom said school might start back in July. They’re not feeling that, because they’re like, “When do we get our summer?” We missed our spring. We missed our graduation. What do we get? So imagine erasing half a year out of somebody’s life, that’s what folks in prison are facing all of the time. So they’re going through their own version of prison. It’s crazy.

JR: Can anybody join Project Level at this point? 

Big Rich: Well now, we’re able to hold 100 students in the Zoom. I think the biggest number that we got up to is 82, which is amazing. It’s a girl named Victoria and she’s in Nigeria, and she is there every single day. It’s  2 p.m. our time, and it is past midnight for her, and she’s up, and it’s dark outside. She gets up with her light, and she literally is in there. We have a kid in Brooklyn, his name is RJ. Of course, we have kids all over California. 

If you’re interested, go to Projectlevel.org or Project Level on IG to apply.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories written about COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.