September 2008

Riding Tall with Compton’s Jr. Posse

With her after-school equestrian program, Mayisha Akbar isn’t just horsing around


Mayisha Akbar Photo by Eric Ogden

Mayisha Akbar is running late. With good reason—she’s at the Mandela Children’s Learning Village picking up eight students who can’t travel on their own because the area is too dangerous.

Soon, they will have an experience no one would associate with Compton: They’re going to muck out stalls and ride horses at Akbar’s home in Richland Farms, a small agricultural area tucked between gang territories.

Akbar, who works as a real-estate broker, happened upon the area while on a search for a client and fell in love.

As a child in Harbor City, she used to sneak out to ride. No saddles or reins, just the freedom and escape from daily life.

In 1988, she founded the Compton Jr. Posse, an after-school equestrian program that gives inner-city kids a chance to forget about life beyond the corral fence, if only for a little while.

While the intention of the Posse is to build self-esteem, along the way students learn horsemanship that enables them to enter competitions, such as those at Malibu’s nonprofit Trancas Riders and Ropers.

Finally, Akbar’s kids arrive, including Jasmine, a shy eight-year-old in pink boots. When she began the program 12 weeks earlier, Jasmine was happy just to sit and watch. Eventually, she began to help with the grooming. Her first time in the saddle was a huge success. Now, her favorite thing is to be with the horses.

Akbar pays for everything: gas, snacks, equipment, sometimes even clothing. To keep the Jr. Posse running, she took a second job at the local hospital. She even leased her house and moved into the back bedroom so more money could go the program. “How else are these kids going to get to ride?” she says.

The Compton Jr. Posse reintroduces kids to the outside world. “Nowadays, schools are concrete jungles,” she says, “and in cities like Compton, that is not such a good thing. When they work with Mother Nature, they understand there are other living creatures. Then they go to parades, and their friends wave at them. They are special.”

The students are required to maintain good grades and work before they ride. Not many grown-ups think they’ll amount to much, Akbar says, but her high expections show them she thinks they are worthy.

Chrissy, now 20, recalls Akbar always kept them accountable. “If you’re not doing your homework, you will not ride” was a statement she heard often. “I thought she was trying to keep me away from the thing I loved, but she was helping us to become responsible.”

Akbar says the Posse has been irreplaceable for many kids, like Brittney, a UCLA grad, whose work with horses gave her the “confidence and compassion to pursue a career in medicine.” And she proudly talks of her nephew Randall, who has maintained a 3.7 average and is attending Occidental College. The program taught him to “stay on track and stay focused.”

Though Akbar operates on a shoe-string, she dreams of adding a building for computers. Her latest fundraiser brought in enough money to start paying some of the kids. It helps to keep them out of the gangs.

Police approach her to work with troubled youth or first-time offenders, but she wants the kids looking to avoid trouble who don’t have many options.

She tells of a boy whose brother was shot and killed in Watts. The Posse put him in a place where things were good again. “I have to be like a horse,” she recalls him saying. “If they fall down, they just get up. It gives me strength.”

As Nailah White, Akbar’s daughter and Posse alum, says, “This group has given peace to our hearts. We’ve gained options in our lives...hope that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Akbar herself still sneaks out at night to ride. “There is nothing like the connection with a horse. It makes you forget everything, refreshes you—and there are no worries.”

LINDA DALY founded and writes about philanthropy. In her spare time, she searches for the perfect tomato.