Life at 11: The Education of Tiffany King

At first glance. Tiffany King looks like any other 11-year-old out to make a good impression with a firm handshake and a pleasant smile.

She is dressed in her Sunday best because she’s my tour guide at the kind of event that has become necessary for non-profit organizations in Dallas: Show and tell and hope that corporate sponsors will dig deep.

This evening there’s the usual assortment of business types mingling, sort of, with the volunteers and staff of the South Dallas Cultural Center. More than one person in the room will admit they’ve never been here before. I am one of them.

The center is 6 years old, and its contemporary structure stands in harsh juxtaposition to the poorer homes and commercial buildings that line Fitzhugh Street across from Fair Park. For the last year and a half the center has been under the direction of Mittie Imani Jordan, whose mission involves much more than a regular schedule of arts-and-crafts classes. She is in the business of “reclaiming lives.”

“A place like this can’t be here just for the sake of art,” she says simply.

Last summer, for the first time, the center offered a 10-week, eight-hour-a-day cultural arts education program for 92 children from age 3 to 16, Of those, 62 were on full scholarships; the rest paid $150. At least 50 families were turned away: “People were literally begging.”

One of the students was Tiffany, who is now a sixth-grader at Bayles Elementary and who lives near Ferguson Road in East Dallas. Tiffany’s mother, Jackie, has volunteered at the center for three years, so I assumed that she had come with her mother to the program each day. Wrong.

Tiffany took a bus.

After several trips with her mother to become familiar with the route. Tiffany started riding alone, changing buses downtown and crossing two streets to catch the DART bus to the center.

“She needed some independence, some responsibility,” says her mother. “I wanted her to be aware of the environment-to come downtown, see different people.”

At the cultural center. Tiffany became aware of a world in which she could thrive.

All the classes have a strong cultural foundation based on the Seven Principles, or, in Swahili, Nguzo Saba: unity, self-determination, sharing resources, creativity, collective work and responsibility, purpose and faith. “We develop skills that are flexible for living,” says Ms. Jordan.

Tiffany may not be the typical child that Ms. Jordan is trying to help. She has a strong role model in her mother and her life was already moving in the right direction, not the wrong one. But in her time there she has become a serious theater-lover-she saw the center’s critically acclaimed The Mighty Gents six times. She has “learned how to tell stories that won’t make you fall asleep,” and she is a poet.

“My mom says I’m deep, but I don’t think so,” Tiffany says. “I usually write about stuff that’s happening today.” One of her poems is about teen pregnancy-about the costs of having sex at an early age. She knows this, she says quietly, because of a friend’s experience.

Tiffany’s mother sees the summer program as a turning point not only for her child, but for a valuable facility that has not always been well used. “You could see the progress. Now [the children] tell their friends and they want to come.”

Tiffany King will one day look back on the impact of her days near Fair Park. She may very well become one of Dallas’ cul tural stars, someone we toast for her cre ativity, insight and independence. Some one, like the dinner guests we have in this issue’s cover story, who makes us think with words and actions.

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