Lucas Rapisarda spent his early years in Illinois before his family moved to Bristol, Wisconsin, a village in Kenosha County. Along the way, he went to great schools and received a well-rounded education. It wasn’t until he came to the UW–Madison campus that he had his first in-depth conversations about poverty and social justice in the United States.
These conversations, which took place in classrooms led by community and environmental sociology professors Gary Green, Leanne Tigges, Monica White, and others, inspired Rapisarda to join Teach for America after graduation. He was placed in Rosedale, Mississippi, as a science teacher in the local public schools.
The experience brought educational lessons to life for Rapisarda, who had never been to the South before. Rosedale, located in the Mississippi Delta region, is small, rural, and poor, with a majority African American population. The school where he taught didn’t have a lot of resources to support learning, and he felt his students deserved so much more.
Toward the end of his Teach for America service in 2017, Rapisarda joined the Rosedale Freedom Project, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to provide summer education and enrichment programs for Rosedale youth. As director of operations, he is part of a small team that helped the organization expand to offer year-round programming with a much wider focus on academic, artistic, economic, experiential, and leadership opportunities. The project has served more than 150 area youths.
How did you end up joining the Rosedale Freedom Project?
When I first started teaching in Rosedale, I was shocked by the conditions of the public schools and the ways students were marginalized. There was this sense among the students that nothing would ever change.
My students were some of the most intelligent, bright, wonderful, funny, caring people that this world has ever seen, and I kept thinking there’s no reason they shouldn’t have the same opportunities as anybody else in the country. I joined the Rosedale Freedom Project because I believe it provides a needed space for students to learn and grow.
What kind of programming does the Rosedale Freedom Project provide?
We are a nonprofit youth empowerment organization. We serve students, whom we call Freedom Fellows, in grades seven through 12, and provide support for graduates of the program when they are in college. During the school year, we have after-school tutoring as well as special programs, such as filmmaking, creative writing, and a social justice reading group. In the summer, we hire amazing undergraduate students to work as teaching assistants (TAs). They help lead classes in reading, math, art, and fitness, as well as the other programs that we offer throughout the day.
All of our programming has a civil rights focus. We expose Fellows to the history of social injustice in our country by talking about the civil rights movement and openly discussing racism in the state, both in the past and today.
What does success look like?
This year, we will have our first graduating cohort, which is very exciting. We plan to hire our graduates as TAs each summer during their collegiate years, and then, once they graduate from college, we can snatch them up and give them a job. That’s the model. The ultimate goal of our programming is to empower our Fellows to expand their critical consciousness and challenge the status quo that our country sets for them based on their race and their gender.
One of the ironies of our organization that I always like to point out is that we are an all-white staff from outside of Mississippi. One of the big pushes for our organization right now is figuring out how to phase out the founding staff in favor of local people of color. I may be leaving sooner than I would otherwise, and I think that’s actually really important and healthy for the organization.