2023 Changemaker: Mercedes Yarbrough: Re-Envisioning Education One Comic at a Time

Photo illustration Mizz Mercedez and Sarah Whiting

Mercedes Yarbrough is not a teacher. She’s never been licensed and she’s not a lead instructor in a classroom, although she’s spent the majority of her career in the public school system. What Mercedes is, in the truest sense of the word, is an educator. Her life has been a practice of seeing past limitations of the present into the possibilities of a better future, encouraging others to do the same.

On a sunny October morning at St. Paul’s Flava Coffee & Cafe — a spot that 33-year-old Mercedes, wearing ivory and creamsicle-orange sneakers that matched the trim on her fleece, describes as “a vibe” — our conversation was speckled with interruptions. Mizz Mercedez, the superhero persona her students know her by, exchanged greetings with community members, friends, and collaborators.

In addition to working as the Community Engagement Manager at Saint Paul’s Victoria Theater Arts Center, Mercedes (who prefers to be referred to by her first name) is an active member of the Rondo community who creates culturally focused and empowering curriculum in the form of comic books, video games, cartoon animations, and community events.

Education has been a central element of Mercedes’ life for as long as she can remember. As a toddler she rode the bus with her then-teenage mom, Dr. Naomi Taylor, who is now director of intercultural life at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, one of the state’s most elite private schools. Taylor attended class while Mercedes went to the day care at Saint Paul’s Central High School before eventually attending the school herself.

“Education really saved my mom,” Mercedes says. “She’s a firm believer in education. I am too, in a sense, but I also see things differently. She believes you need to go to college to be successful. I’m actually trying to disrupt that way of thinking.”

Mercedes, now a mom of four, briefly attended college before dropping out when she had her first son. Despite the promises of higher education, she couldn’t bring herself to take on the debt that her peers struggle to pay back today. Instead, after a stint working random jobs at Walgreens, Enterprise, and the like, at the behest of her mother, the 22-year-old Mercedes became a Reading Corps member at a Hamline Elementary pre-K class. “I loved it. All these little four-year-olds were looking up to me. It really did something to me,” she remembers.

The following year she was hired as a teaching assistant, working with students with emotional and behavioral challenges. With the talent to make realistic drawings from images, she merged art with teaching by offering students drawings of their choice in exchange for getting their work done.

For nearly a decade she worked in various capacities at the Saint Paul Public School District. She discovered Freedom School, a national, free enrichment program anchored in the civil rights movement. Through training and summer teaching at Freedom School, she found the support she needed to continue the struggle of being an educator of color in a majority-white district. Freedom School is also where she gained the curriculum writing skills she uses to create educational structure behind each piece of content she creates today.

During her years in the education system, Mercedes started to notice the gaping holes in how Black history was taught — that it focused on people’s struggle rather than their ingenuity. “I never learned that there were Black inventors, so I wanted to change that,” she says.

Black to the Future, her comic book series about historic Black inventors, features characters wearing clothing from local fashion designers and Black-owned businesses across Minnesota. The books include hands-on activities including creating hair care products after Madam C. J. Walker, engineering an elevator with cardboard and string, or making a Super Soaker — all inspired by Black inventions.

The books can be bought online, and Mercedes promotes them at community events. She’s hoping to establish contracts with schools to give the material a wider audience. The goal, she says, is to “empower kids of color to see their history through a positive lens.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Mercedes saw how “kids woke up to their community distraught, destroyed, and just different,” she recalls. “I felt like that was a teaching moment, but [I didn’t see anyone else stepping up]. So I created ‘The Magic Glasses.’”

In the animated video, a young Ethiopian girl sees images of the civil unrest that followed Floyd’s murder on the news. Stepping outside, she’s saddened by the destruction in her neighborhood and the harassment from cops she sees. A passerby bumps into her, knocking off her glasses that shatter on the ground. A fairy’s magic reassembles them into new magic glasses. The glasses transform negative scenes into positive ones to drive home the message that “things in your community or life may be negative, but you have the power to change it,” Mercedes explains. “You have to put on your magic glasses and take action to make that vision come true.”

Around that time, Mercedes used her own magic glasses to see the potential in a park directly across the street from the house she and her fiancé purchased in Rondo in 2021. When they moved in, Central Village Park was not welcoming for children in the neighborhood. It was unlit at night, and the lack of family presence during the day created a void that attracted illicit activities. Despite that, Mercedes’ fiancé brought the flag football team he coached to practice there. Mercedes witnessed the energy in the neighborhood shift as cars honked and people clapped passing the teammates and their fathers.

One day, Mercedes noticed a group of people congregating in the park and went over with her comic books to introduce herself. It was the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that was reimagining how the park could be used. After hearing Mercedes’ memories of the Rondo she grew up with, and her vision for the future of the park, the organization gave Mercedes control of the funding and activity-planning for the space.

“It really shows that if you follow your heart and vision, God will put people in your life who open doors for you; you just have to be fearless and go,” she says.

Last summer, Mizz Mercedez put on an event in the park every third Thursday of the month including movie nights and a freestyle battle and DJ set. Though she has yet to learn how to do it herself, she felt compelled to resurrect the double Dutch competitions that were prominent in historic Rondo. She also partnered with a nearby church to provide free groceries and clothing.

Invigorating the park with positive energy may have been a factor in the decline of violence in the area. Mercedes says in 2022 there were multiple robberies in a nearby alleyway; in 2023 she heard of no incidences of violence. But more than that, Mercedes views the park as a space where kids can connect with the world outside of technology and make memories that will echo through their lives.

“I was blessed to be raised in the spirit of Rondo, which is one of love and community; the elders put their time into kids’ education and sports,” Mercedes explains. “Now I’m trying to give that back to this generation.”

Without opportunities to be in the moment, Mercedes fears kids — and adults — will lose their imaginations and ability to have fun. The pandemic exacerbated this trend in many families, and Mercedes says we are now in a “spiritual warfare” with our reliance on digital stimulation.

Photo Sarah Whiting

That’s not to say Mizz Mercedes doesn’t utilize social media as a tool to connect and educate — her digital persona has a robust presence on the apps — but she wants to promote balance in how we spend our time.

That’s also the premise behind Mercedes’ new comic series, a collaboration with her fiancé, called Broken Robots.

“A broken robot is somebody who has their own brain and is present in the moment, using their superpowers to live life with purpose,” Mercedes explains. “Anxiety and depression are rising because we’re using our brains less.”

The park has become a springboard for activities that reverberate throughout the community. There is now a Rondo double Dutch team, and paid jumpers teach at nearby schools. The flag football team has played all over the country, and soon the part of the park where they practice will be converted into a turf football field.

Showing up to the park consistently and spreading the word to people from all corners of the community repeatedly, Mercedes was able to build trust and establish herself as a cornerstone. Her art, organizing, and spirit help people feel safe and connected where they live.

“To me, love means safe,” she says.