Dontavius Jarrells' Columbus African Council hosts another in a popular series of monthly events examining issues affecting communities of African descent

When Dontavius Jarrells looks out across Ghanain, Somali, Nigerian and African American communities in Columbus, he sees beautiful, distinct cultures. But he also sees a lack of cohesion. He sees silos, and he wants to unify them.

“We’re all experiencing similar things,” Jarrells said. “How do we work together to empower each other through our difference, knowing that at the end of the day, when you're getting stopped by a police officer, the police officer doesn’t care where you come from? … How do we develop spaces that empower the diaspora to come together and actually address issues that are impacting all of us?”

To that end, Jarrells founded the Columbus African Council, which has been hosting monthly events themed around “the state of black.” In May, the council hosted the State of Black Mental Health, and last month the group tackled the State of Black Wealth. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 5:30 p.m., the Columbus African Council will hold a panel discussion on the State of Black Education at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s main branch Downtown. (The free events have been attracting hundreds of attendees, so Jarrells recommends arriving early; the discussion will also be streamed via Facebook Live.)

The event will kick off with an open-ended question: What do you believe is the state of black education? Five panelists will chime in, including a teacher, principal, Columbus School Board member James Ragland and, perhaps most notably, Talisa Dixon, the new superintendent of Columbus City Schools. “We don't want everyone singing the same song,” Jarrells said. “We want folks to have the diversity of perspectives that these topics deserve.”

The Columbus African Council also puts out a call for public questions before the event, but Jarrells anticipates the discussion touching on hot-button issues, such as academic success in charter schools and public schools, as well as broader ideas, such as defining educational quality for a person of color.

“How do we assess what is considered good quality education for a black person or a person across the African diaspora? How do we make sure that we're creating strategies and opportunities to ensure that those students are going to be successful?” said Jarrells, who is also chairman of the black caucus of the Young Democrats of America. “And then, overall, what is the state of black education in Columbus? What are the things that parents should be thinking about as they think about their child and their future? How do I make sure that a child born in any zip code in the city has the same level of success as a child who may be born in a much more prominent area?”

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Jarrells grew up in Cleveland and graduated from East Tech High School, then went on to Hiram College. He still thinks about the guidance counselor who took a chance on him. “It changed my entire life,” he said. “But I was an outlier. I probably turned out better than most of my colleagues who graduated. … How can we make sure we do those things earlier?” 

Through these events, Jarrells hopes to not only push the conversation forward, but also point people to resources in the community. Various organizations set up booths at the “state of black” events for attendees to explore before and after the discussion.

“There’s all of these communal organizations that are doing some amazing work,” he said. “If your child is not getting everything they need in school, there's some opportunities in the community to connect them to spaces of success so that your child can get the enrichment that they deserve.”

Jarrells doesn’t expect to come to a consensus on complicated issues or even get to all the necessary questions in one night. The State of Black Education is merely a starting point. “We may have a State of Black Education, Part Five.” he said. Next month, in fact, the Columbus African Council will host the State of Black Mental Health, Part II. (“You're not going to solve mental health in two hours,” he said.)

So far, Jarrells is encouraged by the blend of community members attending the events. “Some people come in with a very distinctive perspective on some of these issues, but they walk away with a much more multifaceted perspective,” he said. “You never know whose life you're saving in those rooms. That one pamphlet or one program or that one financial literacy class could literally be saving their life."