Compton Junior Posse Steers At-Risk Youth Straight
What do four people from the notorious city of Compton, CA, have in common? Their love for horses, and the one woman who paved a way out; Mayisha Akbar.
Akbar's mission is simple: Keep kids on horses, and off the street. In 1988, she founded the Compton Junior Posse - a year-round equestrian program for inner city and at-risk youth. Located in an unlikely agricultural enclave deep in the heart of Compton, CA, the CJP was created to provide a haven for local children while instilling in them a work ethic and building the confidence that comes from learning to ride and care for horses.
Randell Lewis Hook, 27, grew up in Compton but recently moved to San Fernando Valley to be closer to his job as a data analyst for music streaming companies. One of the first kids to join CJP, Hook shares his experience. "Growing up in Compton, especially in the 1990s, was pretty tough as far as the whole street life thing, and the gangs. That's where the Compton Junior Posse came in. It kept me away from those things."
To this day, Hook's core group of friends are the same kids that he rode with at the CJP. "Those are my brothers," he says. "But my other friends who were gangbangers and drug dealers are either dead, in jail, or dealing with the repercussions of that life."
When the violence began to ramp up in Compton, Hook's father and his aunt, Mayisha Akbar, decided to stay put. Instead of abandoning the city, they dug in, determined to make a difference. Now expecting his first child, Hook is clear. "I want a balance for my kid's childhood. I want him to be rooted in family and have an understanding of our people. I don't think I will live in the "hood," he confides. "But I will always be closely tied to it. It's important to me to stay a part of this community where I grew up."
Twenty-five-year-old Kenneth Skyler Atkins works at his family's residential care facility for elders. He moved to Compton in 2009, and names Myisha as his mentor. "She makes sure I've got my head on straight," he says smiling. Fate intervened when Kenneth and his father stumbled upon the Compton Jr. Posse ranch. They were so taken with the area they ended up buying the property next door.
"I feel total freedom when I am riding," Kenneth says. "Release all my problems, and I always have a great day after I ride."
He rides his Tennessee Talking horse in his neighborhood. "Out here, I am like a super star. I ride around Crenshaw Boulevard and Martin Luther King, and all these gangbangers, they've never seen a real horse before, right in front of their house. When I'm riding around I feel like I am an ambassador, bringing peace to the streets. I'm not doing nothing wrong." He laughs. "It's cool to not have the most expensive car, because the best car is a horse! For real horse power, you gotta buy a horse!"
Through CJP, Mayisha Akbar exposes kids to the larger world; one beyond the city of Compton. Layton Bereal, a 28-year-old music engineer, explains, "Mayisha took us on trips with the horses. We went camping. We rode in parades. We competed in rodeos. You name it, she made sure we did it." Layton was born and raised in the neighborhood. "Growing up in Compton you either have hoop dreams, horse dreams, or gang banging. I have buddies who made it to the NBA, and the NFL. Some got masters degrees, or PhDs. But the people I know that were gangbanging are in jail or dead; or roaming the streets because they can't do anything else."
"Horses ket me grounded," he continues. "We used to jump on bareback and be gone all day. Once we were 13, 14 years old, Mayisha wouldn't mind letting us go. Plus, the horses were chick magnets, so wherever we went there was always something to do ... It feels like you are not supposed to be on a horse in the middle of a city, but that made it more fun. These last twenty-two years of riding have given us all so much to talk about; there are stories upon stories."
A big part of riding horses involves learning how to take care of them. Once mastered, it elevates the level of commitment - caring for something larger than ourselves helps us to take better care of everything in our lives.
Edwin Lopez, who just graduated high school, begged his grandparents to take him to Mayisha's ranch when he heard about it five years ago. "Everyone has their own story, and they might not get the attention they deserve in life. Horses, I think, are like medicine to heal all wounds. The CJP definitely comes with a big load of benefits." Lopez who is generally soft-spoken, says he feels strong and confident when he's with the horse. "When I am riding, I have power. The horse allows me to be in that space with it and share its power. Of course, I make sure I don't misuse that power. Horses have taught him to put things in perspective, that what might seem like a big obstacle is, in reality, just like jumping; you set yourself upright and breathe, letting everything happen on its own.
"Once you are on the other side you get to look back and say, 'I'm finally over it' - that's how it is - you look back and feel confident because you did it."