Nic Meliones, Community Builder

January 31, 2011
Portrait of Nic Meliones

Megan Morr

When Nic Meliones, a senior majoring in economics, was a student at Riverside High School, a Durham public school, he observed two of his principals address issues such as poor class participation, conduct, and attendance among at-risk youth. Their strategy was to be involved in students’ lives and to emphasize school pride to create a tight-knit community.

“They were always there for everyone,” Meliones recalls, “reaching out to students and making themselves available.”

Some of Meliones’ underperforming high-school peers lived in Northeast Central Durham, a community known for its high rates of crime and gang activity. Its high-school graduation rate is 56 percent—well below the state average of 68 percent. Meliones wanted to erase that discrepancy, while getting kids off the street and into a safe place.

In 2009, Meliones cofounded the Ujaama Project, an afterschool program for Northeast Central Durham teenagers, designed to help them improve their grades, mature socially, and have healthier lifestyles. The Ujaama Project built on the strengths and resources of three existing city programs. Those programs, which are run by the Salvation Army and the Durham police and parks and recreation departments, each faced problems ranging from high attrition rates to a lack of space.

“There’s a lot of synergy between these groups,” Meliones says. “We need to leverage all the resources together.” The Ujaama Project brought participants from all three organizations together under one roof, which provided a sense of community and made it less likely the teens would drop out.

One of Meliones’ primary roles in the development of the Ujaama Project was creating the Ujaama Fostering Leadership in Youth (FLY) curriculum. He researched best-practice models used by existing afterschool programs around the country, including the Harlem Children’s Zone and the North Carolina Citizen Schools.

The FLY curriculum comprises task-based learning activities including building benches, gardening, and cooking. All of the project’s activities are focused on one of the curriculum’s themes such as academics, creativity, or community.

One community-oriented activity is making T-shirts that feature a group picture on the back of the shirts and are signed by all of the students. Another activity involves three components: The teens visit Durham landmarks to learn more about their hometown; they take pictures at the sites to practice creativity; and they each give a presentation on the sites they visited to gain experience with public speaking.

Meliones wanted the Ujaama Project to include activities that would teach the teenagers about leadership, encourage them to graduate from high school, and most important, help build a sense of community among all participants. “Ujaama,” a Swahili word meaning “relationships,” carries the broader concept of a community functioning as an extended family.

Meliones, like his high-school principals, knows building a community requires beginning with relationships. Ultimately, he says, he’d like the teen participants to cultivate relationships with peers and mentors to the point that they’re able to say, “We’re in this community together.”