From the hood to Hogwarts

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As a teen, Jason Brooks left his hometown of Watts in South L.A. to attend an all-boys boarding school. While he was there, he encountered many racist incidents with no adult to guide him through those experiences. That ignited his passion for teaching because he wanted to be there for kids like himself. In this episode, Jason recalls his teen years and speaks with his mentor Troy Kemp about how they reach and teach Black boys.


This podcast is brought to you with the generous support from The Walton Family Foundation.

Aimée Eubanks Davis is the host. This series is produced by Priscilla Alabi and Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Alabi is the producer. Kristen Lepore is the supervising producer. Story editing is by Jackie Danziger. Story consulting by Sonya Ramsey. Sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special Thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson.

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Aimée Eubanks Davis, Troy Kemp, Jason Brooks

Aimée Eubanks Davis  00:48

When we think of desegregation in public schools, we often think about it as a southern phenomenon. But what about other parts of the country? How about liberal Los Angeles? Turns out LA is one of the worst offenders when it comes to integrating schools. Even today. I’m Aimée Eubanks Davis and this is AFTER 1954. Public schools did not integrate right away after Brown. In the years that followed, the majority of schools in the South were operating on a freedom of choice plan, which meant kids can integrate if they want it, but it was not mandated. And so it wasn’t until the late 1960s at schools in the south and some of the North were finally forced to integrate. It took a second Supreme Court decision called Green versus New Kent County to make that happen. But the effects were short lived. Unfortunately, while a version of desegregation occurred for a brief period of time in the south, it didn’t happen at all, in many other regions of this country. Take Los Angeles for example. Its busing plans were barely carried out because voters shut them down through a state proposition in 1979. This meant school boards had no obligation to integrate schools and provide equal access to education because White parents didn’t want their children bused to schools outside their neighborhoods. Today, Los Angeles has one of the most segregated school systems in the country for black students. And that has a lot to do with residential segregation, neighborhoods divided by race and class. In many cases, middle class parents have just completely abandoned our public schools. For Black and Latino students. American schools are more segregated now than they were in the late 1960s. In this episode, we’re talking to Jason Brooks, an educator who grew up in segregated Los Angeles, specifically Watts, a neighborhood known for the 1965 riots that left 34 people dead, many at the hands of the LAPD and the National Guard. Much has changed since then, but the community remains under resourced. Here’s Jason.

Jason Brooks 

When you grow up rough, right? What happens is that it normalizes resourcefulness. So when you grow up without a lot of resources you learn from the get go to be resourceful. And the way I found is like, I just want to be a glutton for skills, skills and information.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  04:09

Jason’s mentor, Troy Kemp, recognize these skills right off the bat. Troy took a liking to Jason, here he is explaining why.

Troy Kemp 

So when I met Jason, one of the things I say a Black dude that majored in Spanish Wait a minute, first of all, where’s your horn there inspire whatever unicorn walking in the room and you play lacrosse. You’re like a double unicorn you got two of these you know what’s going on? I’m literally thinking about like I’m looking at a living breathing a Nygma here and you went to boarding school on top of that. He’s like all spice you know, all season all you know when you come in the kitchen, you guys season all you can be cooking all kinds of stuff, but you can shake that bad boy in the pot and I don’t care what you’re making is going to enhance the flavor tremendously.

Jason Brooks 

The whole orientation of my I middle and high school years was to get out. It was a danger. It was a war zone. It was like, felt like a child soldier, like a refugee. My name is Jason Brooks. I’m from LA. I’ve taught Spanish, Mandarin and math for most of my career, 18 years. And now I’m transitioning into a new, more entrepreneurial ed tech space. What’s today is a changing neighborhood. It’s very different than how I grew up. But back when I was growing up, rampant police brutality, rampant drug use gang wars, poverty, lack of education opportunities, lack of entrepreneur opportunities, it was in many ways, the epicenter of the war on drugs, and it suffered from many of the systemic pathologies that played a lot of urban centers, right. I grew up in watts on the corner of century and central right across from a park that was called Will Rogers park when I was younger, and Ted Watkins Park now, that park for me, was a place of many, many emotions and memories that’s been ours during the summer playing basketball and football there. But also saw some of the most brutal incidences of police brutality that I’ve ever heard of, right? I was 14, when I saw police officer LAPD cop handcuff a friend, and then pick him up and bounce him off the hood of a patrol car like he was a basketball, knocked out all of his front teeth. And justification was that the boy had popped off too. That gives you a sense of the capriciousness of the neighborhood in which I grew up where at any turn, a great day can end in violence from anybody. My mom and my dad are fantastic people. My mom is from the Bronx, New York. She’s a pitbull, […] to this day, they actually ended up in that neighborhood because they met in a church and they were sort of domestic missionaries in that church wanted to have a satellite house. And they said they want to do it in Watts, my mom said, hey, I’ll do this. But I want to make sure that my kids have the best educational opportunities possible. So my mom homeschooled me and all five of my siblings until the end of middle school. It was my seventh birthday party. And I was a rambunctious seven-year-old just spinning around. And I was like, really into Looney Tunes. Tabs was my favorite person. And right around the time that we were going to eat sunset, our neighbors were having a party and I heard a really loud boom, people immediately start running I’ll never forget, like the slow-motion tumbling of my task cake as it hit the ground. And I didn’t understand what was happening. I was just really looking forward to this cake all day. And I went to go grab it. And my mom grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, Get your ass in the house. And there was a mix of excitement, panic and fear. And I had snuck back through the house through all the chaos. And I saw a woman that I known as our neighbor and her whole chest was blown up. And she had gotten shot with a shotgun. And it was still to this day, one of the most confusing episodes of my life because it’s the first time I’d seen a bear breast. And I was looking with some curiosity like, oh, wow, that’s really interesting. But then I saw her chest. And I knew something was really, really wrong with that. She was clearly dead. There’s no life in her. And I remember feeling a whole mix of emotions, mostly just being like, oh, wow, this is not necessarily a safe place to be in.

Jason Brooks  08:37

The summer before my freshman year, my first year, a guy got killed on our block. That was the last straw my mom, she’s a pretty fiery woman. I’ve never seen her this angry. It was a non-negotiable that I had to leave. So then she took me to an organization that’s called a Better Chance. And then she had me take a test. And then about a month later, I got a bunch of different results back and you know, 14-year old’s are immature. I wasn’t unlike most 14-year old’s where I didn’t understand the gravity of the moment where I’ve sort of gotten a letter that says congratulations, we’d like to grant you admission to a class and I was like, great, can I go play basketball? But my mom was like, no, no, no, you need to sit down and read this and we need to make a family decision. I think the chaos of the neighborhood at the height of watts had superseded their ability and their confidence to protect me consistently. It’s a profound thing for a parent to come to the decision that they can’t necessarily protect their child. What parent wants to see their kid ever leave much less at 14 but it had become such an unsafe neighborhood specifically for a Black boy. Between the cops and the gangs and the Crips and the Bloods and any other thing that could happen. They just couldn’t square that. So my family and I decided that I would go to an all-boys boarding School in Claremont, California. So it was a huge decision for me it was like going from the hood to Hogwarts.

Jason Brooks  10:13

So at age 14, I started my first year at the Webb School of California, which is an all-boys boarding school. And this is before I think, school orientations have gotten really good in the last 15 to 20 years. When I went there, they just, everybody pulled up, dropped you off? No questions, we’ll figure it out. So there wasn’t a welcome. There weren’t affinity groups, there weren’t grandparents days, there weren’t, hey, let’s walk you around parents who just like drop your kid off. And we’ll see you at winter break. Right? So I’m walking around being like, okay, you just got dropped off at Hogwarts too what’s your name? Where you’re from? What’s your special power? Oh, wow, you just turn that thing on fire. I can’t do that. But you see me freeze that thing. You know, I’d come from lots. But then there’s guys who had flown from Hong Kong, there are people from all over the world. And as a first time, I mean, I grew up in the hood. We didn’t grow up with vacations, we didn’t grow up, you know, vacationing in the Hamptons, you know, the only people I had met or at my church, and in my neighborhood. To meet people from countries I’d literally only heard of absolutely blew my mind. I was the only Black boy. And that was probably the first time in my life where I’ve been in a predominantly White space. To be there, to be on my own. And I got there at 2, hang in my room for an hour or so. And then you start to get hungry. And then you’re like, oh, for 14 years, I’ve just gone to the kitchen. What do I do now? You know, my clothes start to get dirty. For 14 years, like my clothes just got clean. What do I do now? You know, my room is starting to get dirty. And it’s just me. I can’t blame my sisters. What do I do now? So there’s all these experiences where you have to grow up you have to become a man and self-sufficient. That first month was wild. Again, I come from a Black and Mexican environment and the first meal I’ll never forget it at this hoity toity, mostly White boarding school was beef stroganoff. Right. And they were very, very satisfied with beef stroganoff, that was cute filet, these are all words I’ve learned after, but I was like, what is this gray meat on pasta? Like, where’s the tomato sauce? Like, where’s the spaghetti sauce? Like, if we’re gonna have spaghetti just call it spaghetti. But this is weird.

Jason Brooks  12:34

And there’s a lot of sort of cultural differences where different foods are valued at different places. And I was like, first of all, I couldn’t pronounce stroganoff, right. I was like, what is this Russian dish? Like, I don’t know about this. Like, I’m used to my mom’s lasagna chicken and you know, chili. The first day we get into class, there’s a guy named Eric Zang, who tested out of every single math class that was offered at the school. No borders were allowed to have cars. Eric Zang had a car as a sophomore so that he could take college math classes at Pomona Pitzer, in my graduating class of 40 dudes, eight, got perfect scores on SAT, three went to Harvard, Columbia and Penn were safety schools for half of the people in my class, I got a 14-30 on my SAT, which I’m super proud of clearly, 20 years later, and I was by far the dumb jock. I think promise like this, this great crucible moment for every not every but a lot of high school students where you get to live out this fantasy that you see growing up in Disney films that you see in media all around, I was really excited. And I was you know, kind of feeling myself as Drake says, you know, I was starting on the football team and starting on the basketball team started getting some offers and some attention from colleges. So things are going well. According as they said, a young lady, and I was really excited to take her to prom. She’s a really cool, beautiful young lady. And I showed up to her house with a corsage and had rented a limousine with my buddies. We went in on a big stretch limo. Every guy scrounged up $15.19 and $99 to get that stretch black limo, so I was very excited to come up to her door. Knock, knock. Here’s a corsage. Are you ready to go? And her dad answered the door. And I was a little surprised. And he said she’s not home. I was like, wait, like, she okay, like she’s okay, like going to prom. Like we talked about it this morning. And he says she’s not home. I was like but wait, but I saw her. Here’s her corsage like I saw her in the morning. Like, I thought we were going to prom, like I saw her a couple hours ago. Like how could she be not home? And then he said she’s not home and she’ll never be home for somebody like you and he slam the door in my face.

Jason Brooks 

I was shocked. I was embarrassed, my buddies are in the car, sort of honkin, figuring out like, hey, what’s taking so long I thought we were ready to go. I felt like I was in a movie. where, like a racist dad has slam the door in my face. And I had to go back in the limo, embarrassed, made up an excuse on the spot and said, actually, guys, like let’s keep going drop me off at the corner. So they dropped me off and I walked back to campus, sort of still reeling from what happened with corsage still in my left hand, and then went to my dorm and just cried in sat in shock. And just was like, what the hell just happened? A dorm parent was on duty, knocked on my door. And then when he asked what had happened, I told him the story. And he didn’t get it and quite gruffly said, you know, there’s other fish in the sea. Don’t worry about it. And I remember thinking of that moment. Like, you’re right. But this is crazy. Like, I had enough awareness as a junior in high school to be like, okay, like, this adult doesn’t have the skill set that I need to navigate this. I don’t have it. He doesn’t have it. How do I find it somewhere else? And I think that’s really what for me ignited this attraction towards teaching because I felt like, this is an awful experience. No kid should feel this. No kid should feel this ever-point-blank period. And then every kid should have people who could win the traumas and the brutality of life do poke their head through, every kid should have somebody who can help them navigate.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  16:40

It’s so sad. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the only time Jason experienced that cold reality of racism at this private boarding school in Claremont, California. Jason experienced many, many more racist incidents that we don’t have time to air out. Getting racially traumatized is an unfair price for black kids to pay just to get a quality education. And this is happening in predominantly white schools everywhere, whether overt or covert. But just like you heard Jason say, This is why he wanted to become an educator. More from Jason on that after this break.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  19:31

We’re back with Jason Brooks. Even though his time in boarding school was racially traumatizing, it ignited an interest in him to be a mirror and a guide especially to black students. But it took him a while to commit to education as a full-time job. I mean, let’s be real teacher salaries aren’t what they should be. Let’s hear more from Jason

Jason Brooks 

even though at 16 I knew how was to be a teacher, I denied the calling I come from the hood. I know it is to grow up without a salary. I don’t want to do this. It’s almost like Jonah, like in a Biblical sense of the story where you’re like, oh, man, this thing is calling me. I don’t want any part of it. And then I try to go be an accounting major, hate it. Graduated with Spanish, and History and Mandarin. My first job, I get a sales job here at the Staples Center formerly or the Center, formerly known as the Staples Center, I was selling season tickets for arena football, and being like, let me just try my hand one more time at business. And then sort of surreptitiously, the Director of Admissions at my high school, moved to the McCauley school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he called me out of the blue after I’d been working in sales, and said, hey, this is gonna sound crazy. Please don’t hang up. Come to Chattanooga. Chatter where? Chattanooga, I was like, no, there’s no way. There’s no way I’m leaving LA. I work in the Staples Center. I get tickets to the Lakers game. I’m not coming. And he said, just come visit. And that’s when I met Troy Kemp.

Troy Kemp 

Boy, look here. Jason Brooks. This is my guy right here. I’m doing I’m doing my thing. Man. I’m trying to make this work, bro. Come on, man. My name is Troy Kemp. And I am the director of strategic initiatives and partnerships with Ron Clark Academy. So Jason, and I go way back. He came to McCauley. School back when I was working there. I was a teacher at the time. And he came in to work in the Office of Admission. So he was interviewing for a job, young man, I think you were 25 years old. If I’m not mistaken, Jason and I actually ran into him while he was visiting.

Jason Brooks 

But I’d seen Troy out of my eye. Cuz I was looking for it. You know, and you know, from California is almost like you see a tiger in the woods. You’re like, okay, okay, at least there’s another one out here. And then I’ll never forget, he walked into the dining hall I had already gotten seated and have my food and I was having lunch with a few other. And he just sat down. And that to me was a huge gesture because he was very intent on making me feel welcome and making sure that we had connected formerly.

Troy Kemp  22:12

I went to the folks in the building, I said, I don’t care what he does, and what his role but we need him here, for all kinds of reasons. I don’t care if Jason was blue, I was gonna say the same thing, but also be an African-American male on that campus who grew up with his background in Watts, and going to Trinity and playing lacrosse. And the other thing is I wanted to find out where he stayed that evening because I said I need to. He’s from California, man. I got to show him a little bit. You know what Chattanooga has to offer because it’s a completely different city. And so literally, I drove downtown to the Marriot hotel. He was staying in the courtyard, and I picked him up, and I bet he was kind of surprised it was coming out of nowhere. I mean, it was in the middle of the week, right? It might have been Wednesday night and I was like, well, man, this Chattanooga is not like is only popping like it is in LA or something. But we’re gonna go to this place. I don’t know if it was karaoke night or something like that. But we going to have a cup of cervezas or something and hangout, but really just chop it up and say, you know what? You can have a career here; you can have a life here. You definitely have a friend here because I want him if he says no, at least he’s saying no, as an informed person. I didn’t know he was gonna be my brother from another mother.

Jason Brooks 

I think for me, the decision to stay and how Troy helped me make that decision was really fueled by community. In a small town, in any small town anywhere in the world. There’s certain dynamics and me coming from a big city. I wasn’t really familiar with those dynamics. But having his friendship, having his generosity of spirit, and just having his wisdom really helped me decide that it was the best decision for my future to stay. I mean, I got to see every part of this man’s life, right, the good bad, the ugly, right? The stuff that’s happened in the discipline. I mean, we tell stories about the kid doing crazy stuff. So to really be grafted into his family meant and means the world to me. It really it really does.

Troy Kemp  24:10

Even went on family vacations.

Jason Brooks 

There’s a lot of good things about Chattanooga, and there’s a lot of great things about the school that I worked at. There are also a shadow side to that. Chattanooga, like. All of the South has a gnarly history when it comes to race. One of the first thing that smacked me in the face, as a Californian in California was the gross inequity, the gross socio-economic inequity, where you look at the black side of town, and those houses and they were literally ramshackle houses. And then you’ve got to understand the geography of Chattanooga. So there are two major mountains, that overlook a valley there rich and powerful White people live on the mountains. And then everybody else lives in the valley, the valley, there are parts of the valley that flood, there’s parts of the valley that are not safe to be in. So the power lives upon the mountain high on the mountain, and they call they say, like, Oh, where do you live? I live on the mountain. And people will say which one, Signal or Lookout, this is the same Lookout Mountain that Martin Luther King quotes in his I Have a Dream speech. To be in that physical space was, for me, created a profound connection to history that I don’t know, I would have had had I not lived there. I had kids from Mississippi who never, never in 18 years, 22 years for some of them, right? You go through elementary school, middle school, all boys boarding school, you go to University of Ole Miss, never have a Black person in a position of power over them. For 22 years, I think that’s important to understand about the history of the South is that most people never have to live in discomfort. They never have to live with somebody who doesn’t have the exact pedigree over them. Even though there are a lot of cultural challenges, especially me being from the West Coast, and living in the southeast, there was a lot of familiarity with the life of a boarding school. So on one hand was culturally quite challenging, especially in terms of race, but also the familiarity of living 24 hours with a group of people in a community on a campus, to me is something I’ve been familiar with since I was 14. It’s a school where you live there, right? I think the magic happens when you get to see seamless lives. And I had that privilege when I was 14. And the same person that taught my math class, coach, my basketball team is also the same person I saw as a 15-year-old get into fights with his wife. It’s also the same person I saw, build a slip and slide for his kids in the summer. And it really modeled for me oh, that’s the type of man I want to be right. And every human is asking that question, Who do I want to be? And the gift of a boarding school is that I got to see a bunch of different varieties. As I’m figuring out this central existential question. I got to see a bunch of different models who I like a little bit of that. I don’t like that, who I want more of that. How do I become that. And to give that gift back as a teacher, for me is one of the biggest blessings of my life.

Jason Brooks  27:32

I’d been teaching there for eight years. And again, eight years and living in the South, I gotten exposed to more direct racism than any time in my life. But like, it was my first time where the community and the school administration had really trusted me with a position of responsibility where I was in a dorm working directly with students supervising students, and worked as a dorm parent. And quite literally, you’re raising other people’s children, right. So these are really intimate relationships that I had developed with my students over time. And this group every year, every group is different. But this group, you could sort of see it come in where they fought like brothers. And given that those brothers had come from different cultural backgrounds, some were White, some were Black, some were Korean, some were mixed race. So I sort of felt that there was a different energy in the dorm that year. At one point, it hit a crescendo. And it’s a Saturday night on dorm duty. So I was in my apartment watching football, just watching, you know, sports, and then I hear a knock on the door. And this young Black man from Atlanta comes in, as if he’d seen a ghost and began to tell me the story of a bunch of boys had been gaming, you know, things got heated in the game, the Black boy from Atlanta got called the N word aggressively and with intent by a White boy from Mississippi, and pretty severely bullied him online. And he needed some help. Kids in especially at hyper macho, all boys boarding schools. They don’t want to break the code of silence. So if a kid comes and tells you something I’ve always operated as if, if a kid tells me something, it’s probably worse than what they’re leading on. Right? So it really did feel like the full circle. It felt like oh my god, like this is now my moment that brought me in to teaching. There was some alignment in the universe where I didn’t have this person when I was 16. And now this 16-year-old needs a person like me. Yeah, so he came in my apartment. He told me what happened. He I told him that he was physically safe, that I would protect him that what was happening his body and his emotions were normal. That what just happened to him was not representative of the whole world and so much laid ahead of him. I told him, this is crazy and nonsense. And I want before we deal with those folks, I want to make sure that you know that you’re solid in your body, you’re solid, in this space that nothing that you have done is wrong. It’s a Saturday night, you’re playing video games, it should be fun, you should be able to talk trash with your buddies, go back and forth, and then put the controllers away and go to sleep. You should not have to be here right now. And I’m so sorry, that this is happening for you right now. I want to make sure that you’re good before we move to the discipline piece, because what I’ve seen in these incidents is that there’s a righteous indignation that comes over when teachers run into these situations. And there’s I want to go solve this problem. And then we quite literally lead this kid who’s emotionally bleeding, gaped open by this emotional wound and go run to punish the transgressors and forget that we’ve just left this kid emotionally bleeding with no support. So I was like, because that happened to me, let me support this kid first, make sure they’re patched up, loved on, connect to make sure their parents know make sure that everybody that is in that kid’s healing sphere is informed. And then and only then move on to the sort of disciplinary aspect of that interaction. It’s a really traumatic thing to watch somebody’s dignity get snatched out of their hands, it’s really sad thing to watch an innocent person get their innocence taken from it’s really sad to see someone traumatized in front of your eyes and to have them see the world differently. You know, when you’re a 14–15-year-old kid who’s just vibrant and bouncing with life, and, you know, when they don’t have that inner for the weeks after they walk around, guarded, and less open. That’s a hard thing to have to walk with somebody through.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  34:23

So here’s the thing, you probably know that teaching is a female driven profession. There just aren’t enough men in teaching and admin roles in our schools, especially Black men. Their absence has major implications for our youth. It is a contributing factor in the school to prison pipeline. And so where do teachers come in? Well, Black students are less likely to receive detentions, suspensions or expulsions and drop out when they’re taught by educators who look like them. School becomes a safe place to learn and to grow the pipeline. Promise and success gets stronger for our black boys. It all starts at school. Jason Brooks and his mentor Troy camp know this firsthand. That’s why it was so important for Troy to diversify his staff at McCauley the all-boys private boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he met Jason.

Jason Brooks 

Oh, not just Black. All applicants went through the roof. Once he stepped into the role as director of admission, not only did I choose to stay at McCauley, but also we recruited four new, like new brand new to the school, African American teachers, our female teachers went up because of him, right? So I think not only is his resourcefulness and representation really important, but when you have somebody who allows you to imagine, right? And that’s what a teacher really does. They take physics and biology and chemistry and Spanish and history, and they inspire through imagination, and that’s what he did. And that’s what I watched him do in that role. I admire the heck out of Troy, honestly, because he just got a contagious energy. His energy makes you want to be the best version of yourself, always.

Troy Kemp  36:18

I was a migrant worker, I worked in the field picking tomatoes, peppers, things like that. And people said, don’t let the soup fool you now, I didn’t live in a lab. I lived in the street. I learned things. My hustle comes from my family. We had concessions before we knew what the word was. I say anything. It’s the ones like my brother, who didn’t color inside the lines and ended up behind bars, because somebody mismanaged and misunderstood. So you know, for me lacrosse. Yeah, I coach that I taught math, but it was never about the subject or the sport. It was always about the people and always about how do you connect with them. And when you do that, they’re less likely to be disruptive.

Jason Brooks 

When he tells stories about growing up in migrant workers and hearing guys who just straight-talking rhymes or you know, picking How do you efficiently pick fruit that’s a that’s a really hard problem, right? Because you’re both managing the heat, the limitations of your body and efficiency. And then physical safety, emotional safety, there’s a lot of things that people are learning in those very strenuous environments. And then now you give them resources, a beautiful campus, smart kids, a budget to actually buy classroom resources and you see some magic happen.

Troy Kemp 

You know, my specialty is reaching and teaching boys. So you know, I’ll talk about how to get the and not just boys I put and others who wiggle because this is about the fucking junkie people who end up heading to the principal’s office faster than everybody else. It’s like, how do you limit disruption? By proactively doing things that will limit distractions and disruptions and negative behaviors in the classroom? How do you do that? And why do kids do that? First of all, and what is it that you can do about it? What are some strategies for that? education in general works really well for people who like to color inside the lines, but for the people who color outside the lines, the funky and junky ones? Sometimes people misunderstand them. And you know, my philosophy is that if you’re misunderstood, then you’ll be mismanaged. And if you miss manage, then you will misbehave. So basically, my philosophy is to play more offense and less defense when it comes to educating young people and seek to really understand them first, which means doing some real work, right, doing the research, getting the scouting report, before we deploy this game plan. There’s nothing like painting something with all these colors. And you haven’t even primed a surface first. You know, the education is like that we switch books, we switch curriculum, we switch devices. And that’s just paint. But we haven’t primed the pump, or we haven’t primed to surface to make sure the paints going to stick. And that means this kid may not be ready to learn because this kid has tears in their eyes because of something that happened on the way to school. And we don’t understand that piece. So we just layer in paint, regardless of whether or not the surface is ready. So for a lot of kids who have high stress and high traumatic kind of lives, and a lot of volatility in their lives, is if you get in their face when you talk to them when you are trying to reprimand them when you are trying to even instruct him. One of the things that happens is the hands go up. Now, they may not go up visibly, but they go up emotionally, they put the shields up.

Troy Kemp  39:20

So they’re sitting there trying to protect themselves, it might be a vision of their mother, the last time they talked to him or their father or someone else in authority. And even if they’re respectful, and they sit there and they nod, they’re actually using enough energy to kind of lower their shields because they’re going I’m safe. I’m safe. I got to tell myself, I’m safe. But threat is perception. And so a lot of times all you have to do is pivot and stand shoulder to shoulder with the same child and talk about the same thing. Sit beside the child versus stand in front of the child or stand beside the child and it disarms them a lot because there’s no barrier that has to be between the child and you and to protect the child. So if you see great coaches, the great coaches stand beside the players, now, a lot of people need eye contact. You know, I always tell it, the joke is with men all the time they go look at me when I’m talking to you, what you’re looking at, I’m like, wait a minute, what do you want me to look at you, or when I look at you, you don’t want me look at you. So it’s kind of interesting that you want me to confirm that you’re in charge. But at the same time, you stressing me out because I don’t know what’s coming next. I always say TBWA, teach by walking around. So when you when you walk around the classroom, first of all, you’re aware of what people do. And so you’re in proximity motivates kids. So if you’re standing next to someone, think about a big crowded room, you’re doing a lecture, and then all of a sudden, you walk down the aisle, and you’re talking from where you are. But when you’re standing next to someone, they might have been on their cell phone, but they don’t put it away, right? But what I tell people is the other thing you can do when you walk around is you can drop off instant messages, the real ones, I had no cards, and I would write messages and acronyms. SMAC, see me after class. TY, thank you so much for like, appreciate you today, you killing it. Right? I need to give Johnny a message or Susie a message over here and say, listen, I see you, I need you. I never had to send a kid out of my class in 15 years. Jason, what do you want for the future of Black education?

Jason Brooks 

I think for me, when I think of the future of Black education, I am most proud of my legacy of being a part of the African American tradition. And if you look into that tradition, you see score story after story of people who innovate in the face of tremendous challenge, and come to a certain set a certain constellation of results that literally move the needle, I feel like for us, like just actually powering that ingenuity will change the face not only for Black kids, but also for Black communities, and then extend out from there.

Jason Brooks 

So Harkness AI is the new venture. In the next chapter of my career. At the beginning of the lockdown of the pandemic, I was teaching online to muted screens and blank video screens. So then by hand, I began charting interactions with students. And it clicked that if I used technology to chart and to show how people connected, better conversations came out of that. And when I knew I had something was when students would ask me, Hey, Mr. Brooks, who needs to go next? Who hasn’t talked? Or these people only talk to each other? Yeah, Harkness AI is good for Black students in all historically marginalized communities because it helps address a long-standing issue of equity in conversations and discussions, who talks at what rates and to whom has tangible effects on promotions, awards, just leadership abilities, right? So to the extent that we can measure that, that we can quantify that, that we can give that to folks to help them make better informed decisions, which is something we’re really excited about. What gets you excited about the future of Black education?

Troy Kemp 

Well, one of the things that I’d like to see is representation, you have to see it to be, and there’s statistics that show that students who’ve had at least one Black teacher, by the time they reach the third grade, that their chances of going to prison or decrease in the chance to graduate in high school are increased. And so having that experience baked into the recipe, you can’t take an egg out of a cake once you make it. And so we got to integrate what the black experience is into the curriculum, and make it normal versus being the exception. So you don’t have to have any kind of politically charged arguments about it. But the other thing is that we, as educators need to wake up and inspire each other to be involved in this process, as well. So having more Black educators in the C suite of education, whether the decisions are made is part of the future of Black education that I’m excited about. Because we are connected via social media and so forth. Our ability to rise together and connect together and amplify each other’s voices is much greater.

Jason Brooks  44:05

I feel like in the last two years, it’s felt more available than ever before in my career, not only with like with a bunch of like Black wealth and philanthropy coming online, but also like society feels almost like supple like one of the things that coming out of COVID. And now everything’s on the table, stuff that would have been really hard to imagine before is like on the table. Do you feel like?

Troy Kemp 

I absolutely do. It’s sort of like a panel that would take years to try to organize and get everybody in the same room, you can do a zoom panel, and have the same conversation with powerful people in different cities. And all of a sudden people can have access to that conversation, who would have had to pay or fly or book a ticket or reserve to get there. We’re able to present that and share that with them and recorded and replicate so we can scale the greatness as opposed to just listening to the darkness. Right? You have to have hope. You know, hope is not a plan but it will help you stick to your plan.

Jason Brooks 

That’s good. That’s good.

Troy Kemp 

My man, I hope this was what y’all expected.

Jason Brooks 

That’s great.

Troy Kemp 

I hope so.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

In Jason’s case, a private school served as a saving grace from a neighborhood challenged by violence. More generally, though, private schools have acted as alternatives for parents escaping public schools. Is it truly equitable? If students have to take a test to get into these private schools? Is it equitable when you’re the only black kid in the class? We love that Jason has grown to be the kind of role model he needed in high school. But if we want all of our kids to have equal access to education, then our public schools have to be much better. Public schools have to provide a high-quality education for all of our students, so that they feel compelled to stay.

Troy Kemp 

If I think of Jason, one thing I will say if I think of him, I’m thinking of what’s one of line dance songs. What’s the one down […] I can see him because he is the player that he puts on it. The spice that he puts on it is a little different.


AFTER 1954 is a production of Lemonada Media. This podcast is brought to you with generous support from the Walton Family Foundation. I’m your host Aimée Eubanks Davis. This episode was produced by Priscilla Àlàbí And Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Àlàbí is our producer Kristen Lepore is our supervising producer. Story editing by Jackie Danziger story consulting by Sonya Ramsay sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson. help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. To learn more about the 1954 project and its mission to fund Black leaders in education visit You can also get more bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now in the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo, and then the subscribe button. To find resources about the topics in this show. Go to the show notes on this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

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