Story #20: The past, the present, future by Jimmy Harvard

As our 20th Anniversary school year comes to a close, we are incredibly proud to share with you this, our final story in our series of 20 stories. As so many of the stories in this series have been, this story is deeply personal. Jimmy Harvard was an Umoja student in our earliest years at Manley High School and has served on the Board of Directors since 2009. He shares what Umoja meant to him then, and how today, he is passionately working to shape Umoja’s future…

I was a freshman in high school in December of 1999 (I can remember it vividly), and Umoja organized a school-wide event at Manley where people from the community came out to talk to the students about their experiences – from newly-graduated alumni up to someone who was over 100-years-old. I really enjoyed the event, so I walked up to Lila (Umoja’s Founder) afterwards and said, “Hey, I’d like to start filling out college applications.” I didn’t know what the process was like, but I was always told the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be. Lila said, “Great! Come and meet with me!” She didn’t know I was a freshman, so I went to meet with her, and when she found out I was a freshman, she laughed, of course. It was instant family since then. I’ve been involved most of my life now.


Umoja was a lot of fun. It was a lot of talking to Lila, talking to Ted, talking to all the other staff members; it was college trips; it was conversations that teachers didn’t want to have with me. For example, I had a problem with authority in high school, so I used to call all my teachers by their first names, and they hated it. They would say stuff to me about it, but I would still do it. I remember Lila having a conversation with me about why it was important to show respect to my teachers. Other adults would say “just do what I say,” but it has always been important for me to understand why you’re asking me to do something, and Lila gave me the “why?”

I always knew I wanted to go to college. Umoja showed me the steps I should take to be ready to actually apply – staying on top of my grades, taking the ACT (that’s actually how I met Sharon Lindstrom, who’s on the Board with me now, at Saturday morning ACT-prep.), and completing the financial aid forms.

Umoja helped me understand the right questions to ask and the right things to look for. We talked about things like public vs. private colleges, in-state vs. out-of-state, HBCUs, large schools vs. small. We talked about the experience I wanted to have. My junior year we want on a college tour. We went to the University of Michigan (Boo!) and we went to U of I. One of the things that really stuck with me, and why I ultimately chose The Ohio State University was a statement from a tour guide. He said, “You can make a big school small, but you can’t make a small school big.” I realized I could make this experience what I wanted in a way I could not at a smaller school. I believe that the person I am today is definitely related to the experience that I had in college and being able to decide who I wanted to be. It was a great place.

There were different conversations with Umoja once I was at school. I failed my first math class, and I remember talking to Lila. I had never failed a class ever, and I was completely devastated.  I thought I was going to be kicked out of school. Lila told me some of her stories from college and explained that failing a class in college is very different from failing a class in high school. She helped me find some resources, and I ultimately passed the class the next go-around. Another time, my family was having some difficulties, and I didn’t know what to do all the way from Ohio. I talked to Lila, and she said, “Quitting school is not going to help, and it is just going to be another burden for your family to figure out. You have to take this moment to help yourself if you want to help your family.” It was probably the best advice that I’ve received.


My experience with Umoja both in high school and in college means so much to me. And that is why I serve on the Board today. It is important as Board Members that we know where the organization has been as we are working to guide the organization into the future. My vision is that more people can have experiences like I had with Umoja. I am so proud that this is an organization that has staying power. I can give to something that will outlive me. I know that the work that Umoja did with me almost 20 years ago still has a direct impact on my life today. I know that somehow the work that I am doing now will trickle down and affect the trajectory of someone else’s life – that someone’s life will never be the same because of the work that we do; there are students who will go to college; that children will have great fathers and great mothers because of the work that we do. I’m so proud of that. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting this work.

Donate now to help Umoja impact more lives.

** Photos from top: Jimmy (left) with currect students; Jimmy with fellow Board Member, Sharon Lindstrom