The journey to a brighter future for 50 Minneapolis Public School high school students included reflection on a somber past, slow but measurable progress and impressive accomplishments that are chronicled by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC).
The Vikings partnered with Project Success in sending a select group of students on an expedition to Washington, D.C., in April. The trip provided a unique opportunity for students to explore themes of identity, culture, community and equity as part of Project Success' proven curriculum.
Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf; Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren; current Vikings Ameer Abdullah, C.J. Ham, Anthony Harris and Stephen Weatherly; Vikings Legends Visanthe Shiancoe and Tony Richardson and staff members joined the group.
"I'm very, very energized that you're all here and learning a lot of valuable lessons," Wilf told the group before adding that the museum effectively illustrates the importance of respecting others, which he said is critical to making a "great society."
The museum guides visitors to a subterranean level that has exhibits on the transatlantic slave trade that marred centuries, the harmful impacts of segregation and the advancements during the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.
"We started in the bottom floor, and it went from, really, sadness. It seemed like the higher we came up out of the ground, I just became very encouraged toward the future," said Warren, who is the highest-ranking African-American employee on the business side of an NFL team and recently named the sixth commissioner in the history of the Big Ten.
"I look forward to the day where they have to put more floors on this museum because there's more to happen," Warren told the group. "All of that is what's happened in the past, but there's so much that's going to happen in the future.
"When you experience something like we did today, it changes your life forever," he added.
The Vikings partnered with Project Success in sending a select group of students on an expedition to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture.
On Project Success global expeditions, students have opportunities to see themselves and our nation's history in new ways. Students explained the impact of the D.C. expedition.
Zubeda, a Roosevelt High School student, expressed thanks for the experience and said her personal takeaway is, "Don't be afraid to speak up. Nobody else can tell your story except you. This trip was life-changing."
Serena, who attends Edison High School, added: "I learned from this trip that we may have to fight 10 times harder, but we can and will succeed."
Washburn High School student Demetrius said, "I think the most important experience was being able to learn about things in a space where everyone looks like you. I loved this trip."
The players and alumni also felt the impact.
Weatherly, who grew up near Atlanta, said his mother and grandmother had taught him a considerable amount of history, and the museum experience enhanced his understanding.
"Seeing Emmett Till's casket and knowing the story of Emmett Till was a lot," Weatherly said of a Chicago teen who was brutally slain in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman in 1955.
Weatherly said the museum's coverage of established nations and kingdoms who traded "knowledge and spices and precious metals way before the slave trade" on trips to Europe "instills a certain sense of pride if you're African-American or sheds light on everything if you're not."
"[The museum] didn't hide anything. Things that might have been triggering were there," Weatherly added. "It's important that you see the full story, the complete history as Africans came into America, from then up until now. A lot of it was upsetting. I personally did shed a couple of tears when we got to the Civil Rights Movement."
Abdullah earned a history degree at Nebraska. His father and aunt helped shape it, by participating in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
"I had so many different feelings leaving that place because, for one, I was just so happy and thankful that the Minnesota Vikings do this for young students and me," said Abdullah, who grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. "Until you go [to the museum], you don't understand the magnitude of education that's left out in a lot of our history growing up, that's not really covered.
"It's critical for a lot of young African Americans, minorities in general and people to see that because a lot of times we can feel disenfranchised from mainstream society because we see a pattern systematically that's going on," Abdullah added. "You can start to believe and become a product of that system. When you see that things happen that started a system, you start to realize that you can change that system. You can catapult a revolution.
"It's all about your mindset, your decision-making, and seeing a lot of people who stood up against racism, against Jim Crow and a lot of things that took place that aren't really taught in a lot of our history books, it's powerful for a young person to see because they may be going through a trial and tribulation in their life, 'I am who I am,' until they see someone else back in those times, which were much harder than what it is now, standing up for something they believe," he continued. "I was like, 'Wow, that person could do it when they were facing slavery. What can I do with the freedom I have now?' "
For 25 years, Project Success has been committed to youth empowerment and development, having started with 200 Minneapolis North students. The organization has grown and now serves 14,000 middle and high school students in 19 MPS schools.
Project Success students have multiple opportunities to connect to their purpose through in-class workshops, participating in the arts, taking educational expeditions and earning career and lifestyle based certificates in areas such as computer coding and financial literacy.
"I had a dream to inspire young people to dream about their futures, help them see the world and determine for themselves where they want to go in that world," Project Success Executive Director Adrienne Diercks said.
The mission is to motivate and inspire young people to dream about the future and equip them with the tools they need to achieve their goals. Weatherly majored in sociology at Vanderbilt, and his grandmother graduated from Harvard and MIT. He said he enjoyed being around other enthusiastic learners.
"I took the approach of letting them try to absorb as much as possible," Weatherly said. "The thing with Project Success and the students they brought, they knew what the experience was. It wasn't just a giant school field trip where some people are not going to take it seriously. Everyone there does take a certain pride in being able to take full advantage of it, so I didn't have to start with, 'OK, everyone pay attention and make sure you take something from it.' Everyone did."
"A couple of students came and spoke to me as we were going through the museum, 'Wow, that was really a thing?' I was like, 'Yeah, that's really what happened at that time.' Or, 'Maybe it was a lot worse in some areas that you didn't know were necessarily as bad as you would have learned in grade school. This was a U.S.-wide problem.' So those students were able to make a lot of good connections."
Abdullah added: "Everyone featured in the museum made a conscious decision to be great, and to be in a room with a lot of young people who have that same opportunity to make that decision is super empowering for me to be there with them."