In April 2020, almost at the start of the pandemic, Jaelon Moaney, a recent political science graduate from Williams College in Massachusetts, asked a friend and former classmate, educator Nicolle Vittini Cabral, to help build a curriculum for an idea he had been developing. During his time in college, Jaelon had established a cohort program that had brought together high schoolers and Williams students to discuss, in small groups, a single book each semester. Since he was returning to the Eastern Shore, Jaelon thought a similar program could work in Talbot County.
He was right.
A Leadership Team was formed, comprised of the now-married Jaelon and Nicolle and joined by Jaelon’s sister Mikayla (Mika). They shared a dream – to spark a love of reading and civic participation in young people who rarely see themselves in textbooks. This vision became the heartbeat of Needle’s Eye Academy (NEA), which is described on their social media as a “multilingual, multinational means of unapologetic literary empowerment for the Black & Brown youth of MD’s Eastern Shore.”
In 2021, Cohort One launched as a virtual three-week summer experience for students of color entering ninth grade at Easton and St. Michaels High School. Their first book was a collection of short stories, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles. “We wanted to provide them an opportunity to engage with texts they might not otherwise have access to,” said Nicolle, Director of Academic Strategy.
Cohort Two, which began this summer, evolved beyond its initial scope with an addition of social-emotional learning and community-building components, overseen by Mika, Director of Belonging and Impact. NEA also expanded the admissions to eighth, ninth, and tenth graders. “We’re trying to engage folks that wish they had an opportunity to participate in something like this, with the ultimate goal of boosting their appetite or even their enjoyment of being civically engaged,” said Jaelon. This engagement, Jaelon hopes, will extend to their immediate community and ultimately to Talbot County and beyond.
In this, Jaelon leads by example, and his dedication to the Eastern Shore community is palpable. As a 10th-generation Talbot County resident, he has an impressive curriculum vitae, which includes serving on the Talbot County Board of Education during his high school years, working as a Regional Director for US Senator Chris Van Hollen, and being appointed by Governor Moore to the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.
With such a rich background, Jaelon does not rule out running for political office in the future, and his involvement with NEA might be a good breeding ground for that possibility–he truly cares about the people in his community. Elaborating on his approach as Director of Authentic Partnerships, he said: “We want anything that we’re building with another person, another family, another organization to be mutually beneficial, and ultimately, to uplift the people.”
Like her brother, Mika is an Easton High School graduate and now a senior at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City. She feels her experience coming from a small-town environment into a big city has prepared her for her involvement with NEA. “What drives my work at the Academy is making sure everybody feels seen, heard, and valued. And I think that drives my work in the community as well.”
After graduating from Williams College, Nicolle worked as an elementary school science teacher in DC. She lasted about two and a half years. “I was just so burned out. I knew I wanted to continue to make a change in education, but being in the classroom in the traditional way was not going to be sustainable for me in the long run. So now I work in teacher recruitment in DC, and l stay connected with the classroom by leading these cohorts.”
Despite their differences and similarities, the Leadership Team is deeply committed to those they have taken under their wing. And in that, they have a lot of support. Besides an impressive array of board members on their team, their partnerships have been the key to their success. Talbot County Public School (TCPS) has cooperated in recommending students to their program. As has the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center (ChesMRC), which helped expand the program to include multilingual cohorts. Victoria Gomez Lozano, Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for ChesMRC, found the program a great opportunity, particularly for those to whom English is a second language. Lozano also said the participating NEA scholar reported being enthusiastic about her experience.
NEA is particularly grateful for the collaboration with Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM), which has given the students the opportunity to connect literary exploration with hands-on, real-world issues. Nicolle explained, “CBMM has allowed scholars to learn more about the rich maritime history right here in the Chesapeake region. They have also given us the ability to delve and make parallels into themes the scholars read, like climate change and community resilience, and then engage with resources from the museum to amplify their learning experience.”
NEA believes that this unique approach, coming at a time when adolescents are in a critical phase of self-discovery, enables scholars to understand how literature directly relates to their lives and community, empowering them to use their distinct experiences and perspectives for positive change. The goal, said Jaelon, is to equip them with the tools and confidence to embrace their potential as change-makers. “We want scholars to believe that no matter what it is they believe in, what they want to fight for, that it is the power within them to be able to do so,” he said.
As NEA looks to the future, the Leadership Team has ambitious plans for expansion and scholar engagement. They foresee engaging more counties and year-round programming. “We’re also thinking about how we can incentivize participation and get scholars to say, ‘I’m going to participate in the Needle’s Eye Academy instead of trying out for the soccer team,’” Nicolle said.
Whatever the future may hold, the Moaneys are committed to ensuring that NEA remains a community of support and guidance for scholars. Mika said, “We want this to be a legacy, a resource for students, no matter where they are in their academic journeys and whether or not they go to college. We want to make sure that they always know they have people who are more than happy and willing to help, motivate, and give them mentorship and connections. And as a kid of color, that’s not always the case. This is not just for one summer. We want this to be for a lifetime.”
With September designated as International Literacy Month, NEA will be holding their
inaugural fundraiser, ‘Coloring the Canon,’ on September 9, at the Harriet Tubman UGRR Visitor Center Pavilion from 2-3:30. The event is described as: “a ranger-led welcome followed by an afternoon of light refreshments, inspiring remarks from a Tidewater author of color and an opportunity to design your very own book cover art.” To learn more and register, go to: https://m-scf.networkforgood.com/…/58546-coloring-the…
On September 20, NEA is co-hosting a community dialogue, ‘Read the Room,’ with the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library.
Starting in September, the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture is launching a book drive in every county across the state. NEA will partner with Talbot County Free Library to support that initiative.
Next year (date TBD), NEA will be a part of the Talbot Family Network Conversations on Race,
Look for NEA’s bookmarks at Black and Brown businesses, libraries, and bookstores. They will also be partnering with the Black Caucus of the Maryland Library Association on additional sets of commemorative bookmarks.
For more information about NEA and any of the upcoming events, go to: https://neaest2020.wixsite.com/maryland/about