Chess & Community: The Coolest Athens Change-Makers You’ve Never Heard Of


Story by Rachel Bailey.

Athens Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman hit the deck, face down on the floor of the stage in front of hundreds of kids and their parents. Step by step, the kids in the crowd, mostly young black men, hollered instructions: “Put your hands palm-down on the ground!” “Legs straight!” “Feet flexed!” “Now PUSH!” “Push again!” “One…Two…Three!” Following the children’s instructions step by step, the Chief began doing push-ups for the crowd.

Was this a scene from some youth’s benign payback-for-the-police dream in a Black vs. Blue Lives Matter world? Quite the opposite. It was a highlight of 2016’s Chess & Community Conference, with Four Athens director Jim Flannery leading the crowd in coaching Chief Freeman — one painstaking movement at a time — to do push-ups, all part of a demonstration of how easy it is to write computer code. After all, if you can teach a police chief to work those arms, you can teach a computer to run the program you’ve dreamed up.

Chess & Community

With Chess & Community’s 2017 Conference fast approaching (January 7 on the 5th floor of UGA’s Tate Center, with doors at 10 a.m.), My Athens caught up with Executive Director Lemuel LaRoche (better known to some as Life the Griot) for a chat about how the Athens nonprofit is working “to bring this divided community together.”

“Chess & Community is a youth development organization that develops leaders in Athens,” LaRoche says. “This is a youth-led conference.”

That means that kids are not only taking the lead when it comes to teaching Chief how to get buff; kids also run much of the show. One of the 2017 conference’s three top-billed speakers is pre-teen ice cream mogul Beau Shell, known around town as the Lil Ice Cream Dude, perhaps Athens’ youngest entrepreneur. The event will also feature remarks from winners of the Think Before You Move Scholarship.

Chess & Community

“We want to parallel the young strategic thinkers in a room with young scholars,” says LaRoche. “The focus with the whole 20 year plan [project, paralleling Athens’ own 20-year Downtown Master Plan] is having high school students say what their 20-year plan for Athens is — what they want to see for Athens.”

Along with empowering kids early with the idea that their vision for the future of the city can become part of the reality of Athens future, C&C’s year-round relationship with local police is one of the group’s biggest strengths, as they work with our local police force — who are dedicated to community policing in their own right — to bring the children in the communities they serve in contact with officers across the chessboard from one another. One of the biggest thrills of the conference each year is the Justice Served event, pitting local officers against Athens kids in the battle to holler “Checkmate!!” There’s a little anti-authoritarian pleasure in it for everyone, watching the Boys in Blue topple before the superior strategy of a pre-teen chess master.

This year, members of the UGA football team and local commissioners will join the fray to take on the kids on their checkered turf.

Chess & Community

And that’s why Chess & Community’s work is so noteworthy. Using the game of chess, they teach kids from an early age that by using strategy and taking the long view, they can envision the steps to their own success. Rather than preaching leadership, they find ways to make it engaging, challenging and fun, rewarding their Knights (as youth members of the organization are called) along the way with access to everyone from football heroes to the local powers that be.

2017’s Chess & Community Conference kicks off at 10 a.m., January 7, on the 5th floor of UGA’s Tate Center and is FREE to the public. More info available here.