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Student Retracing Freedom Riders' Steps

TUCSON - UA junior May Mgbolu is one of the 40 students across the nation to retrace the route that Freedom Riders of 1961 were unable to complete in the South.

It was in the moments after a high school peer called May Mgbolu a racial slur that she was ignited with an intense desire to aid the oppressed.

Mgbolu, now a University of Arizona junior, has since volunteered and worked for a number of social justice-orientated organizations, particularly those supporting youth and people of color.

Today, she is among the 40-member delegation of students from across the nation selected to participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, a group that will trace the original path of hundreds of Freedom Riders in 1961.

"It's huge. I'm still so shocked and so ecstatic," said Mgbolu, also a YWCA Racial Justice Program intern and a member of its youth advisory committee.

The May 6-16 ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans will include visits to designated stops, workshops and discussions about issues related to social justice.

"Fifty years after the original Freedom Rides, young people all over the world are once again having their voices heard," American Experience executive producer Mark Samels noted in a news release.

"They're using new and very different tools to do that, but drawing on lessons from history to inform how they use those tools," Samels added. "It's those lessons from 1961 and how they are informing civic engagement today that we look forward to exploring on this ride."

The trek coincides with the bus rides' 50-year anniversary and release of "Freedom Riders," a documentary about the original riders that will premiere in May, airing on American Experience on PBS.

The documentary's filmmaker, Stanley Nelson, will join the students on the tour, as will some of the original Freedom Riders, a civil rights group acting in opposition of segregation.

"I did not learn much about the Civil Rights Movement in school," said Mgbolu, who also is a fellow with Young People For, a national program that identifies the new generation of progressive leaders.

"I saw it as an opportunity to start doing more research about the Freedom Riders," she said. "To go from not learning about this to now getting to hear from the source is so exciting."

Maria Moore, the UA African American Student Affairs program director, has known Mgbolu for years and said she is "all heart," and it shows both in her words and in her actions.

"She really cares about people and she really cares about doing the right thing," Moore said. "She's always had that concern for social justice. She is very much in tune with her moral compass."

For Mgbolu, the opportunity to participate in the Freedom Ride symbolizes an important intersection in her life – validation for her work and a preface to what she intends to be a more intensified devotion to social justice.

In addition to her high school experience, Mgbolu said she has been motivated to work as a social justice advocate for two additional reasons: Witnessing the challenges her Nigeria-born parents experienced after moving to the U.S. and hostility for other immigrant populations.

"Through these experiences, it is showing the willpower to do things to help people realize there are others who are out there trying to make positive changes people's lives," said Mgbolu, who is also participating in the upcoming Roosevelt Summer Academy.

As an Roosevelt Institute fellow, she will spend the summer in Chicago working on an environmental justice project investigating low-income communities to help inform public policy.

Upon returning to Tucson after completing the Freedom Ride and her internship in Chicago, Mgbolu intends to continue her work with youth.

"I do hope that whatever I learn I will be able to share my experience and inspire young people to seek out opportunities to create positive change in their community," Mgbolu said.

"I am confident that the Freedom Ride can only complement my studies at the UA and the community work I am involved in," she added. "The mission of the Freedom Riders continues today, 50 years later. It may not be a black and white issue as it was in 1961, but today it's all underrepresented communities that do not have a voice." 



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