Since the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation’s start in 1971, its leadership has moved from founder Rowena Moore to board presidents Johnny Rodgers and Sharif Liwaru to newly elected board president Leo Louis II.
In succeeding Liwaru, who had a two-decade run as board president, Louis is following a leader who became closely identified with the organization. The 36-year-old Louis is a well-known community organizer in his own right. His association with MXMF goes back to 2010.
“A lot of my organizing and advocacy efforts have been within the confines of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation,” Louis said. “The network of individuals that have traveled here have become my friends, advisers, confidantes and supporters.”
Louis feels being a catalyst for community mobilization has well prepared him for his new post.
“I think community organizing is underrated,” he said. “It’s my gift. It’s the thing that makes me feel good. It’s the thing that I love. It’s my art. It’s my passion. It’s what I do.”
Louis’ community organizing career began with an action he instigated as an Omaha North High School sophomore.
“There were still remnants of gangs,” he said. “A lot of fights, a lot of issues, a lot of drama. I got tired of the conflict. I got tired of hall sweeps. There were no school assemblies talking about the issues and culture. So I drafted a 10-point email addressing these issues and cc’d every person in the school.
“I didn’t know it was bold, I just needed to say something, so I sent it out.”
While he described himself as a then-unmotivated C student who was “flirting with the streets,” his state-of-the-school critique hit home.
“By the end of that day people had copied the email and were telling me this is the best thing ever, like, you’ve got to keep doing this, I’m glad you said this, somebody needed to say it.”
Students told him he should run for student government. Teachers praised his writing. But the administrator suspended him from using email.
The experience of taking action empowered him.
“It was so impactful,” he said. “I was just a quiet guy trying to float behind the radar. But I was still ticked off about the social condition in the school, so when I decided to speak up, I did it loud. I figured it was worth doing, so I did it. That was my first time organizing.”
Urban agriculture next became Louis’ means to build community as well as address food desert-insecurity issues and give youth positive outlets away from the streets.
“Doing community gardens I found a niche in community organizing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Louis got involved at MXMF where his passion and experience eventually led to creating the Shabazz Community Garden there in 2018-2019. “We do have a very sincere interest in being a good steward of the land,” he said. “The garden is a testament to that commitment.”
The last decade’s seen big changes at the site. Land acquisitions have increased the nonprofit’s property to 18 acres. It’s been cleared of debris and weeds and now offers an undulating, open span of native grasses and wildflowers. Much of it is to be developed, once funding is found, to realize long-held plans for a library, museum and conference center. The visitors’ center is a former worship space MXMF purchased. A small greenhouse was built last year.
“People come expecting only an historical marker, not acres of open grasslands and a community garden,” Louis said. “It’s just been a lot of growth and a lot of transition. The organization has always had to flow with the times … We’re still adapting to what it takes to maintain a building and 18 acres.
“We’re stabilizing this part and then we’ll move into the build-out. We’re not very far away.”
Louis said the thinking has generally been that it will take the foundation many years to build out its master plan, but he doesn’t see it unfolding that way. “I see real acceleration simply because I understand what we need to do,” he said. “The people who came before me laid a very solid foundation of where we need to go as an organization.
“Once we demonstrate we’re good stewards, then we can move onto bigger things.”
Louis is taking steps to enhance administrative and operational resources. “Those mechanisms will propel us forward,” he said.
In terms of making the master plan a reality, he said funding could come locally, but to a certain degree, the perception of Malcolm X has to be overcome. “There’s an educational curve we have to deal with when it comes to who Malcolm X was and what he stood for,” he said.
“It just requires more conversation . . . It’s giving people the perspective we are not carrying guns and chanting ‘by any means necessary.’”
Guided school tours at the site help dispel myths.
Records aren’t kept but even a cursory glimpse at the MXMF Facebook page reveals visitors to the grounds come from far and wide. The center displays photos of famous guests, including film director Spike Lee, author and activist Angela Davis, comedian Mike Epps and poet/recording artist Amir Sulaiman.
Louis takes in stride the changing of the guard in progress within the organization. In addition to Liwaru moving to Portland, Oregon, to accept a new position, MXMF lost four other veteran board members this year, including Aframerican Book Store owner Marshall Taylor and journalist Walter Brooks. Louis counted Brooks as a mentor.
“Five board members transitioned off the board within a short time span,” he said. “It was a huge impact. Each circumstance was different. It was definitely not a situation where I did not have their blessings. No one left with any ill will. It was just their time.”
The remaining members have also been with MXMF and embedded in the community a long time. They include local communications specialists JoAnna LeFlore and Angel Martin.
“We’ve been groomed and trained by those who left,” Louis said. “We are still here. It’s not a situation of trouble. It’s just a transition time.”
Louis said the center is in the process of replenishing the board and is looking for cross-generational wisdom and experience. Board candidates must also be committed to growing the organization and realizing its vision, Louis said.
Meanwhile, MXMF is busy between hosting yoga and self-defense classes, community cleanups, public forums and other events, including two major public festivals it presents annually: The Malcolm X Birthday Celebration on May 19 and the late August Sōl Food & Music Festival.
Historically, the organization’s operated on a roughly $100,000 annual budget, but Louis said that’s increasing as the center hosts more activities.
Justice for Kids began as a Louis-led initiative and now is an official program focused on reducing or ending disproportionate school suspensions of black children and the school-to-prison pipeline it feeds. Funding’s also being sought for a “freedom school.”
The center also hosts conflict resolution workshops led by facilitators with the Alternatives to Violence Project.
“I know from doing gang intervention, a lot of people act violently because they have no other tools,” Louis said. “I’d love for them to have another tool in their belt to reach for rather than something violent.”
MXMF will also be active in voter education-registration for the 2020 election. “It’s in line with Malcolm X’s principles. He believed you should be an educated voter.”
Louis wants the public to know MXMF is here to stay.
“We have been, with very little resources, great, unwavering advocates for this community,” he said. “We have stood on principles and values that uplift Afro-Americans, which is what Malcolm wanted to do, but that also uplift all humanity. We want people to know our works to be good works.
“I want them to understand we are a human rights organization with an emphasis on African-Americans because Malcolm X was a human rights activist with an emphasis on African-Americans.”
Just as the organization’s evolved, so has Louis, and he feels he’s come to lead there at the right time.
“The Leo of today doesn’t say everything he thinks,” he said. “I’ve realized I don’t have to say everything. There are others who can speak to points. That’s how we’re going to build this organization.”
Growth also comes from being an incubation space. The
Mind & Soul 101.3 FM radio station that operates there grew out of a proposal from then-board-member Carlos Carr Sr. The three-year-old station “offers a distinct voice that can’t be heard elsewhere,” Louis said.
Social entrepreneurs Shomari Huggins and Alisha Davis brought the idea for the Sōl Food and Music Festival. “They came to us with this vision and we gave them the place to plant the seeds,” Louis said.
More recently, Tiffany Gamble of Emerging Ladies Academy pitched a girls coding school. “She understands there’s a lack of girls of color in the tech field,” Louis said, “and we are incubating her project right now.”
African-American girls, ages 11 to 18, are participating in the free, six-week intensive “build your own app” course aimed at personal empowerment and supporting diversity in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts. mathematics) fields.
MXMF welcomes collaboration.
“We’re putting out a call for more programs we can incubate here,” Louis said. “We want to give a platform to people serious about making social change and dedicated to their cause. If you’ve got a passion for something, we will incubate it as best we can.
“We aim to ‘be known for the work’ and developing people just as Malcolm X himself did.”
Visit malcolmxfoundation.org.Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.