From the ashes of sorrow, Birmingham native Te’Andria Ellis has cultivated a garden of rebirth, hope and change in her community. After gun violence took the life of her little brother, this youth minister took her newfound purpose to the community at large. She founded The Surge Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering, developing, and expanding the lives of youth by strategically combating violent crime and thereby alleviating its emotional and economic impact on parents, friends and entire communities. We are delighted to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Te’Andria Ellis, founder and Executive Director of The Surge Project.
Tell us about the inception of The Surge Project.
Eight years ago, my brother was killed. He was 22 years old, and the young men who went to jail for the crime were 16 and 17 years old at the time. Just sitting through court and watching them receive verdicts, I saw the tears in their mothers’ eyes, and my mom actually went to talk to one of the young men’s mothers. My mom asked to give her a hug, and she said to the lady, “I want you to know this doesn’t make me feel good because neither one of us wins. My son is dead, and your son is going to jail, so I just want you to know that doesn’t make me happy.” I thought that was a really powerful statement coming from the mother of the deceased.
I’ve been a youth minister since I was 13 years old. But from that moment, I felt like God was really pulling me out of the walls of the church, and my call was to really proceed forward in the community with those children who still need someone out there reaching for them, showing them they have support, and that decisions can be redirected. So, I literally just started The Surge Project in 2012 as a community Bible study, and the nonprofit was officially born in 2016.
Tell us about The Listening Room and The Lab.
That’s my self-designed mentorship program that’s a part of The Surge Project. The goal was to give our constituents what I felt like I didn’t have as a young child. I came from a home that saw domestic violence, and I never felt like I was heard. I felt like people would kind of jump in front of your face and give you advice, but I was never asked the question, “Well, how do you feel about this?” I want our participants to know they’re being heard, so The Listening Room is where we listen — we ask those questions. How do you feel about what’s going on in your world right now, whether it’s school, something in the home or outside of the home? Is something going on with your family? Just talk to us about where you are.
Then the goal is to go to The Lab — our invisible lab — where we share with them tools to help them navigate their emotions and their decisions. And we’re hoping that they grow from that exchange.
Tell us about the different areas listed on The Surge Project’s website: conflict resolution, positive self-image, and a new lens on life. How do you address those with young people?
We really want to see a reduction in violence among youth. When my brother was killed, there was a way things could have been handled without a gun. So it’s important for us to address conflict resolution because in the bigger scope of things that’s what helps reduce violence in our city among youth.
As far as self-perception, it’s important for a young person to see themselves in the best light because some decisions are made on the basis of how they see themselves, or how they were taught to see themselves. Not every child has support or positive reinforcement. So if you’re walking through life and nobody’s affirming your genius, you may not see yourself in that light. If I think low of myself, I’ll make low decisions, so we want to combat that. Our goal is to reveal things they may not have even discovered about themselves. Some of them don’t know how creative they are because they have never been presented with the questions, “What are you good at? How do you see yourself?” It’s important for them to raise their level of self-perception because it raises their quality of life.
As far as a new lens on life, as a child, I didn’t have aspirations outside of what I saw — even as intelligent as I was. I was an A-B student throughout school, but what I saw helped to build what I dreamed about. I didn’t think I’d ever even be able to fly on a plane because I thought plane tickets cost too much and my mom had never flown. So, what I want to do with the organization is say, “Hey, let me give you a new lens. I want to expose you to things you may not have seen. I want to take you and give you a well-balanced view of some college campuses, four-year institutions, community colleges, training programs … museums and other positive things to be involved in so we can help give you this well-rounded view of the world and the contribution you can actually make in it.”
What is most challenging about your work?
The most challenging thing is for people who have been emotionally battered — and I don’t just mean the children. I mean the community. They’ve been emotionally battered; they’ve been financially battered. It’s hard for them to accept cheer. It’s hard to basically revive hope. So that’s the biggest challenge for us. Reviving that communal hope, like, “Hey, we can turn this around if we all work together. So after [your kids] leave from our presence, when they come back to you, [the parents], we need you all to say the same things. We need you to offer the same positive reinforcement.” It is difficult because, you know, we’re talking to families who are impoverished. Poverty really just brings a different energy to the conversation, and it makes our work a lot more challenging.
What is most rewarding?
Doing the work. I get the opportunity to do for those children what a village of people did for me. At 15 years old, I felt called to take my ministry to a church where I had no family, and from that, I was able to take my first flight. I worked for some of the members in the congregation, like ironing clothes for one of the members, and she helped fund my first plane ride to Phoenix, AZ. The church was a part of a larger organization — the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World — so I got the opportunity to meet people from Africa, Asia, South America and Canada. The families that took me in as their own were the ones who were the first “project” for me. The Surge Project is literally what happened to me at that place in my life — this amazing experience I had through this ministry. It just connected me to something bigger and exposed me to things outside of my neighborhood I never thought I could do, afford [or] accomplish. And I’m so thankful for that. That’s what we’re trying to create with the kids.
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What’s your best piece of advice?
Be authentic. No one can be you better than you.
And be okay with having to adjust in life because that’s literally what life is. It’s just these different phases of adjustments. Don’t be so connected to a phase that you can’t move forward. Be okay with adjusting and reimagining life. I mean, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re going to have to be okay with adjusting and reimagining the way we see everything because life shifts on the basis of what happens around us, and we have to be okay with that.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
I can’t live without my phone. I can’t live without movies — true story movies and documentaries — oh yeah, we can’t live without those. And I can’t live without tacos.
Thank you, Te’Andria! To learn more about The Surge Project and its mission, visit thesurgeproject.org.
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