From Berkeley to Boston: Community leaders ensure Black boys are represented

The Chris Walsh Center hosted a panel of educators, community leaders, and an FSU student as part of Framingham State’s Black History Month Celebration via Zoom Feb. 18.

The Zoom call, which can hold up to 500 people, was completely full according to the Center’s Coordinator, James Cressey.

The event centered around the documentary “Black Boys,” a film dedicated to addressing school segregation 60 years after the Little Rock Nine. The discussion was moderated by education professor Chu Ly.

The panel consisted of Dan Karanja, senior math major on track to be a secondary educator, Travis Bristol, a professor at University of California Berkeley, and Conan Harris, founder and CEO of Conan Harris Associates and former director of My Brother’s Keeper – an organization dedicated to creating pathways for young boys and men of color. 

Both Bristol and Harris contributed to the “Black Boys” documentary and were asked by Ly why they agreed to participate in the project.

Bristol said, “At the time, I was living in Cambridge and I talked about how all of my son’s teachers at the beginning of the year saw him not as a child – they saw him as an adult. 

“And, because of my own advocacy, over time they began to see him as a child, and I think that was what brought me to the film – sharing my own research as both the researcher and father to a Black boy,” Bristol added.

Harris said he agreed to be a part of the documentary because he wanted to shed light on young Black boys who may not be on the “right side of the track.”

“[I wanted to shed light on] the young boys who are always disenfranchised from professional  environments and school environments – the ones who are looked at as if they are going to be failures before they are going to be excellent,” Harris said.

“I wanted to shed light on the little Conans of the world,” he added.

Harris has also advised two presidents, most recently current President Joseph R. Biden, and said, “If you would have seen my younger self, you would never have seen this [working with Biden] possible.”

Harris also reflected on his experience growing up, and how the support he received was not the same as many young Black men in America.

“I was an ordinary person with extraordinary support. But, a lot of our young brothers [people of color] are falling through the cracks just by the way in which we [society] are viewing them,” he said.

Karanja, Bristol, and Harris were asked what went into their decision to become educators and community leaders.

Both Karanja and Bristol have family members who are educators and said they played a large role in their decision to become teachers themselves.

Bristol grew up in New York City and attended what he said many would call an “apartheid school,” which is described as a system of segregation in schools.

“I had to walk through a metal detector and I had to put my bag in to be X-rayed 180 days out of the year,” he said.

Bristol also said the education he received was less about educating him and more about policing him.

“The project of schooling was more focused on policing my mind and policing my body,” Bristol said. “I wasn’t necessarily prepared for college.

“I realized that lots of Black and brown children in urban centers were being miseducated the way I was being miseducated in New York City,” Bristol said. 

He said after seeing the miseducation young children of color, including his son, were receiving, he felt it was his responsibility to become a teacher. He ended up teaching in his home city of New York after receiving his master’s degree.

Harris said he decided to become a community leader because he felt he was chosen to help the little Conans of the world.

He said his journey to becoming a community leader started 26 years ago when he volunteered for Second Thoughts – an organization dedicated to helping incarcerated people of color get on the right path after being released.

Harris said the experience changed his perception of the world, and he began educating himself in order to better serve his community and went back to school.

“Not only do I do the work on the ground, but I get to shape and form how organizations do the work to support young people to be their best selves,” he said. 

Harris added throughout his time as a community leader, he wanted to ensure he could serve as a voice for the voiceless.

“My goal was to be an authentic voice and an authentic person for young people,” Harris said. “I made sure they [schools without Black teachers] brought in community members so the young Black boys could have representation and people who would give them a pathway and teach them the ways of success.

“No matter where I’m at, I’m going to push the envelope to make sure our young people have the right kind of people around them so they can find routes to their success,” he added.

Ly also asked the panelists how non-people of color can attract Black and brown men into the field of being educators and community leaders.

Bristol answered Ly’s question by presenting a series of other questions for the audience to consider.

“How can you attract people who come into a profession if you disproportionately suspend and expel them?” Bristol said.

“How can you attract people to join the profession if when they enter teacher preparation programs – or when they enter K-12 schools – we don’t have a curriculum to reflect them?” he asked.

“How can we get people to enter into the profession when we pay them very little and expect them to pay for the college tuition of their master’s program?” Bristol asked.

He added in Massachusetts, schools disproportionately expel and suspend Black and brown children.

“We don’t give them an opportunity to enter college because we shut off the pipeline so early,” he said.

Harris applauded the principal of a school he used to volunteer at through My Brother’s Keeper because “she was not going to have a school that did not have Black males in it.”

He said this principal put an emphasis on the importance for Black and brown children to have appropriate representation whether it came from Black and brown educators or community members. 

“That school became a turn-around school because she did not let destructions of the system define herself and what she wanted to see for her students within that school,” Harris added.

Additionally, all of the students of color Harris and My Brother’s Keeper aided in that school earned A’s and B’s on their report cards.

Ly’s final question asked what community members, parents, and other non-people of color can do to hold each other accountable.

Bristol said one of the most important aspects a community can introduce is to bring people of color into their schools as educators and mentors so that not only do Black and brown children receive representation, but also so the white-washed education system is wiped out.

“It’s essential that we reframe this idea of teachers of color and Black teachers in white communities,” he said.

“It’s crucial to your wholeness that you have somebody who looks like me.”