Will Jawando is an attorney, an activist, a community leader, and a councilmember in Montgomery County, Maryland, a diverse community of more than one million residents. Called “the progressive leader we need” by the late congressman John Lewis, Jawando has worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Sherrod Brown, and President Barack Obama. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and The Root and on BET.com, and his work has been featured in The New York Times and New York magazine and on NPR, NBC News, and MTV. He regularly appears on CNN, MSNBC and other media outlets.
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How Educators Can Show Up for Black Boys in School
When it comes to educating our black boys, we could be doing a whole lot better as a system of education. And some of the things that we can do actually don’t even take that much of a lift. All it requires are the right intentions in a little bit of work. Of course, there are some issues that are completely complex and are an all hands on deck type of situation to solve. But there’s some things you can do as a Ruckus Maker that are low hanging fruit that will change everything for your students of color and specifically your black boys. Lucky for you. Today’s guest wrote a book called My Seven Black Fathers, and he talks about the importance of mentorship, the importance of seeing teachers that looked like him, that spoke encouragement into him, saw his value, and called out his gifts.
These are things that we can do and we can provide for our black boys. This is an awesome discussion. It’s a great book. Highly recommend that you pick up a copy of My Seven Black Fathers, and I hope you really enjoyed the show. I enjoyed having this conversation with Will Jawando. Hey, it’s Danny, chief Ruckus Maker over at Better Leaders, better Schools, and this show is for you, a Ruckus Maker, which means you invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school now. We’ll be right back after a few messages from our show sponsors. Learn
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All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid, or traditional educational setting. Learn [email protected]. All right, Ruckus Makers, we’re here today with Will Jawando, who’s an attorney, activist, a community leader and a council member in Montgomery County, Maryland. A diverse community of more than 1 million residents called the Progressive Leader We Need by the late Congressman John Lewis. Will has worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sandra Shira Brown, and President Barack Obama. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, in the route and on Bett.com, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, in New York Magazine, and on NPR, NBC News and mtv. He regularly appears on CNN, msnbc, and other media outlets. Will ,welcome to this show.
Thanks. Good to be with you Danny. Thanks for having me.
This is such an honor to be speaking with you today. I wanna start by going back in your history where you’re at a Catholic University, from what I remember you telling me you wanted to found the first NAACP chapter there, but the school denied it. They said no. Right. And this was your first experience with activism. What can a Ruckus Maker who wants to cause good trouble in their school learn from your experience?
It’s funny, I was just at Catholic University yesterday speaking to a class of undergrads, political science and sociology undergraduates. It brought back all these memories. I think number one is, have good intentions to start. When I started this I made up my mind to start this chapter of the NAACP, it was totally just to advocate for the rights of the workers in the university, mostly African American at a school that was predominantly white and who were being mistreated by the administration and had been complaining to me. I wanted to help bring together a fragmented African American group of students, to organize and advocate. I had good intentions, I wanted to help somebody. I think when you’re trying to make good trouble, as my late departed mentor, John Lewis would say, you gotta have good intentions.
So that’s number one, come in with a pure heart, clear eyes but also be willing to stick it out. It took me six months from kind of having the idea to do the chapter to doing all the paperwork, student life office, getting students to pay money to be in the chapter, all that stuff, only to then be denied, as you so eloquently stated. They didn’t allow the chapter. When you get smacked in the face when you’re trying to do something good, don’t give up. We kept going. We protested for three months over the summer, hundreds of direct action protests all over the school, and we got the chapter. The last thing I’d say about being a Ruckus Maker getting involved in good trouble is you gotta stick with it.
And even after all the excitement dies down. We had this big moment and we had hundreds of students at the first chapter meeting, but six months after that, it was the core group of students who still wanted to be involved, who still wanted to do the work. And that is equally as important as those high moments. What I would say is, just come to it with good intentions, stick with it when it gets difficult, and then commit to the long, hard work when no one’s looking. That actually will be what I think ultimately helps people. And now we were able to organize and get our workers at that university unionized, under SEIU and they still are today. Encapsulating some of those principles outta that experience. I got hooked on it and I’m still doing it.
Can we pull on the thread of good intentions for a bit too, because It’s nice to have ’em right. And of course we wanna have leaders that have the right heart about the work, have the good intentions, service and all this kind of stuff. I’m wondering in your experience, what you’ve learned about, maybe communicating those good intentions, or how do you get people to believe that you actually have good intentions? Like their best in mind and it’s not some type of angle that you’re working with.
Yeah, that’s difficult, but important, coming, especially in the context of school leaders too, we all say, at least most people say, we’re here for the kids. But you have to really, I think, state your good intentions if you’re someone’s saying them to you, interrogate that in a way and say, are there actions lining up with what they’re saying? A lot of times there’s a big disconnect between what comes out of people’s mouths, obviously, and what they actually do and how they go about what they do. How do they go about achieving those good intentions? Are they collaborative? Are they kind? Do they include other people? Are they not self-seeking? All those things are important. I think that translation points from, stating them. But then again, how do you, how do you carry that out? Do you do it in a way that brings people in or pushes people away? That’s important. How you get to the good intentions. A lot of people that want the right thing to happen, but how you get there is just as important as wanting it. So, which is, I think kind of where you’re getting, it’s not enough to just say, I want good things to happen. The process is important too.
I’m thinking about sort of that’s the beginning. People see that you have those good intentions and you build trust, relationships, that kind of stuff but now, like you said, the excitement is worn off, but you’re committed to the mission And you have a vision of making this world a better place and you talked about sticking with it. So what works for Will Jawando when rubber hits the road, the excitement runs off? It’s more challenging for you to stick with it, but you know that you’re committed. Are there any things that you do? Are there mantras? How do you dig deep to stick with it?
That’s a great question. My wife is big on self affirmations. You go in her bathroom, she’s got all this, the little stick posting notes, so I say that to say, find what strategy works for you? We all need a little something different. I like to meditate, I like to pray. I also like to get really involved at the most basic level of what I’m trying to do. I’ll give an example. Yesterday I’m on the education committee here in Montgomery County. It was National Walk to School Day, so I went to a local elementary school and walked with some kids, interacted with them, and asked them about their day. A really base level, like, who are we here to help? These children are our future, literally.
Try to connect to them and their families on a personal level and see if there’s anything I can do to help. Whether it be crossing the street that day or helping with some sort of issue their family’s dealing with. I think going back to the root of why you started ,whatever year is, so if you’re a teacher, helping that kid after school or doing that extra parent-teacher meeting, if you’re a school leader, bringing together your folks and kind of talking about first principles about why you’re there, letting people share their stories. I think you have to reignite the reason you’re passionate about what you’re doing and, and remember it. I think for me, that always helps when I’m tired of the politics, tired of the drama, tired of the criticism, something comes in to remind me of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think those things, for me, are really motivating and keep me going.
It reminds me of a quote, I think from Victor Franco. I don’t know that I got it word for word, but I know I have the essence from a man’s search for meaning. But I think he talked about how man’s pushed by his drives, but pulled by his values. When you’re talking about those first principles, those core values, the reason you got into this That’s what gets you through it.Thank you. Will, we’re gonna travel further back into your past, and you were telling me you went to five schools before seventh grade Many Ruckus Makers listening will have students that have a similar experience. I’m curious, what worked for you and what didn’t in terms of how the schools may have seen you and heard you in those moments? I don’t wanna put too many words in your mouth, but I can only imagine that’s a difficult challenge to go to so many schools in such a short amount of time. Can you add to that?
Danny, it wasn’t just the schools. That was one thing, the kind of trying to do all the normal things when you move schools, friends, I didn’t really have a friend until fifth grade, like a real consistent, consistent friend. All the things that come from the housing situation. My parents were divorced, all those surrounding things that are under why kids have high mobility. Why are they in a financial struggle, whatever it is. But then I was also coming outta schools where I was dealing with structural and systemic and individual racism. I was the only black kid in my class for second and third grade and really was, disproportionately disciplined, was recommended to go on medication.
I was starting to believe the things we know, data shows, like the disparate suspension and expulsion and discipline for students of color, for example, particularly, black children. I was starting to believe coming outta third grade, the negative things that were being said about me that maybe something was wrong with me. Maybe I wasn’t smart or I was a troublemaker. So that was the danger too, that I was starting to believe the lies. I thank God I had, Mr. Williams, one of my seven black fathers in fourth grade at Oakville Elementary and Silver Spring, who was like a knight in shining armor for me, was the first teacher to my only black male teacher, but the first teacher to kind of see value in me and, and really help build my self-esteem back up at a point where it was critical.
I had key folks like him. Obviously my mom was big and recognizing what was happening and moving me, even though to be moved is traumatic in of itself, but to stay in a toxic situation is even worse. I think there were multiple actors that helped pull me out of that. And then I mentioned my best friend Kani, who I met in fifth grade on the basketball court,at yet another school. But he’s the first kind of peer mentor that connects with me. And we become really good friends and teammates and our friends for, until he unfortunately passes away when we’re coming outta high school. It was a combination, great teacher, a friend, and my mom that helped get me through what was a very difficult time.
What were those things that the teacher said that communicated to you that you had value?
Mr. Williams, even though he is a math teacher, he also taught us other things. He would allow us to be inquisitive. One of the things that was a big difference between second and third grade and fourth grade for me is that, like, that which could be interpreted, you’re not on task. You have a question that may be tangential or not related. There’s a couple ways to answer that. Hey, stay on task, stop being distracted. Or you could say, Hey, that’s interesting. You could find a way to work it into what you’re talking about, a broader lesson, or pause for 30 seconds to just acknowledge that moment? We talked about the civil rights movement. We talked about working together, we talked about professional dress, we talked about a whole bunch of things that weren’t math related in math class, but they helped us be collaborative and to be acknowledged and to feel valued and seen. I think those strategies I hadn’t experienced until I got into his class. And it was really helpful.
You mentioned your book My seven Black Fathers, which we highly recommend that Ruckus Makers pick up and get. You told me that the core thesis is that relationships with black men and boys, as a super human power to combat structural racism and inequity. Now, I think you started to illustrate that idea, but is there anything else that you’d like to add?
The premise of this book, and while I think it’s applicable to anyone, because we all have mentors, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, special people that have stepped up and made us who we are, given us the skills, the love, the attention, the care to become the people we are. In the lives of black boys the data, the sociological. Data also shows, and my personal life experience, which I talk about in the book shows, for example, on the data side, if a black student has a black teacher in elementary school, they’re gonna have higher grades in middle and high school and be on track to graduate. That’s just a fact. But when you dig beneath that, what Mr. Williams gave me, the intangibles, the care, the respect, seeing the value of seeing someone like you in a setting of authority and prestige, just, you can’t oversell that you can’t over, overvalue that.
I think that these relationships, particularly for black men and boys who are at the bottom of the pecking order as far as the system of institutional structural racism that was created to devalue and denigrate black people to justify slavery, our economic system that built the country. At the bottom of that totem pole were black men. Intentionality was put in to tell us in the world at large, who and what we are, which most of which was negative. We’re still counteracting that. We all need to work to do that. But when you have the presence of engaged black men in the lives of black boys and men, I personally can attest that it has a superhuman power. And the study I write about in my book bears that one of the factors in where you have these black boys safe zones, where black boys from the same neighborhood as white boys in this longitudinal study that looked at IRS and census data, one of the things in these 1% zip codes where black boys and white boys are doing similarly well economically, 40 years later, only 1% of the country is that happening, which is devastating.
But one of the things in those zip codes is that they had a higher percentage of working class black fathers in them that were able to engage with these young men. And I grew up, my mom worked in one of these zip codes, these safe zones. I met several of my seven black fathers there. I personally can attest to it, but you also have a building body of research that shows it. And the premise of this book is that we all need these relationships, but they can be particularly potent and powerful for black men and boys. We need to have and enable more of them.
I shared a little personal information with you during our pre-interview, and I’m interested in black fathers, because I think about my future kids That’ll be biracial and what I can learn from your experience. I think too about my wife’s experience growing up in Zimbabwe, and she’s like, listen, the president, the bankers, the lawyers, the doctors, everybody looks like me. I guess the value of that, and I think you’re talking about that in the 1% zone, where you met some of your seven black fathers. When it comes to creating more equitable schools, obviously, like a very, I won’t say easy, but a thing that every Ruckus Maker needs to do is to find awesome black educators that can be there for black students. Other than that, what would you challenge the Ruckus Maker listening to do to create a more equitable school?
That’s a great question. I don’t wanna undersell what you just said though, there’s Mr. Williams and teachers like him, black male teachers, black teachers make up 8% of the teaching workforce, but black male teachers make up 2% of the teaching workforce. An intentional strategy to recruit, retain, compensate black male teachers and black teachers in general, that is an important strategy that not enough time and intention and money goes into. I just wanna say restate that’s an important strategy in the school context for sure. But there’s other things. After school programs, wraparound services from non-profit providers, every kid who needs it, and all kids do, should have something constructive to do after school. When those critical hours that the after school alliance tells us are three to six, that’s when kids are gonna either get in trouble or not stay on task and not learn or not.
We’re still arguing about, we still have these deserts of after school programs where kids, so many kids don’t have access. And that’s a policy decision and a personal decision where they’re gonna interact with some of these positive mentors, youth, sports, another vein of that. That’s why I’m a big proponent of youth sports. It’s another place where kids often can meet these mentors in an intentional way. A personal responsibility, like one of the calls to action in my book is that, if you know these kids and young people, whether you’re a teacher or parent or administrator, we need to be enabling these relationships. If you’re a person yourself, like all of us should be doing this. But particularly if you’re a black male, for example, every young child you meet, you can have a mentoring moment, a positive interaction. I truly believe that the aggregate of these interactions can change lives. Imagine if every conversation, every interaction that a young child is having with someone who looks like them is someone who’s giving them encouragement pouring something into being positive that aggregate has, has a power to it. And I think we need to think about it like that too.
Yeah. Exponential power All those deposits being put into those students. I can’t multiply it over time. The impact is incredibly significant. loving this conversation. , we’re gonna pause really quickly for some messages from our sponsors. And when we get back, I’d love to ask you about the difference between a decision kid versus a destination kid. Learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school success, empower your teams with Harvard certificate and school management and leadership. Get an online PD that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy, and innovation. Leading people and leading learning. Apply today at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard. School Leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time. Give your students more opportunities to learn in class by monitoring talk time.
Check out Teach FX for yourself, and learn about the program. Teach FX helps educators see how their instructional practices lead to student talk and learning. And you can learn [email protected]/blbs. Today’s show is proudly sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning, timing, task management, study strategies, and organizational skills, and more organized binders. Color coded system is implemented by the teacher through a parallel process with students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. You can learn more and improve your students’ executive [email protected]. And we are coming back with Will Jawando, who is wonderful and so accomplished. He’s got a new book out, which we want you to pick up. It’s called My Seven Black Fathers. There’s the covers. Highly recommended for all Ruckus Makers. Please check that out because Will’s doing some great work and his story is super powerful. I promised before the break, I wanna ask you about a decision kid versus a destination kid. I know you alluded to it a little bit earlier in the podcast, but can you break that down for us? What’s a decision kid versus a destination kid?
I talk about it in the book as well, and I use the example of my best friend Kahani. Kahani I met in the fifth grade, middle school, awkward time. He’s better at me than everything. He’s like the cool kid. He’s good at basketball, handsome, he’s smart in class. I’m the opposite of all those things. I’m awkward. I’m not a good athlete. I’m wearing these big specs. I’m just like the quintessential, onlooker, I’m chubby at the time. Kani takes me under his wing and becomes one of my best friends and teaches me basketball. One of the things that I learn over time is, his mom is working two jobs. She’s a night nurse, and then she cleans houses in the wealthier part of town.
She’s not home after school. She’s not around and his dad wasn’t in the picture. He’s what I call a decision kid? When the bell rings at 2:40, he’s figuring out every day where he’s gonna go. Some days it was a good decision. Some days he went with me to my mom’s job because I was a destination kid. I had a place to go. I had a structured environment and not only that, it was centered in one of these black boys safe zones and these zip codes, whereas a larger percentage of mentors and black men and black fathers. I actually met three of my seven black fathers at my mom’s job, my stepfather and the reporter there and the IT manager. Literally in the building that I had a place to go.
I just think we often discount the kids who have places to go, whether it be sports or after school programs, or places like a parent’s job and kids who don’t. Those decision kids versus destination kids. Some days Kalin made bad decisions cuz there were people waiting for him to get him involved in things he shouldn’t have been. And he ultimately loses his life in a drug deal gone bad. I think in part, maybe in large part to the fact that he didn’t have these types of mentors or a place constructive to go every day and that’s frustrating. We can do something about that, whether it be after school programs, whether it be childcare, whether it be making sure that parents can work one living wage, paying jobs so that they can be home and be involved. There are policies, there are strategies in and outside the school building that can contribute to making more kids destinations, which I think is something we need to do as a society and individually.
Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that story. It pulls on some threads that we were already talking about throughout the conversation. Most importantly, that three to six, well, I don’t know about most importantly, but that three to six PM. It’s a privilege to have somewhere to go and have that structured environment and then add on the mentor component and that kind of thing. Like what a gift, a school system that takes that incredibly seriously to provide for all kids. What an opportunity there for Ruckus Makers. I’d love to invite you to answer the last three questions of all the guests on the show. The first one being, if you could put a message on all school Marquis, around the world for a single day, what would your message be?
It would say, welcome. You are smart, you are valued, and you can do anything. I’ve actually seen versions of that message on Marquees but not exactly worded that way, but I think it’s just really important. If I could, I put it in every language that’s predominant in those communities. I think we absolutely, we want schools to be open, we want to be welcoming, and we want to state right off the top what we’re trying to do here. We’re going to bring you in, we’re gonna accept you, we’re gonna work to make sure that you know your value and that you know your potential and that you can accomplish it here. Those would be my messages.
Brilliant. And shout out to Sheron Brookings. He’s a black male educator. , I worked with him for years. He’s moved on from principal to operations role within the district in Oklahoma, they have a rule that you can only have one marque by the school And the reason I’m just bringing this story into our conversation is he met in front of the board city council and that kind of thing, and he got approved a second marquee, which they just don’t do. , but based on traffic flow and this kind of stuff on one of his high school campuses, it was so important to him to communicate in both English and Spanish because those are the languages represented at a school. Just what’s going on. So everybody knows And you communicate. I see you, I hear you. I appreciate what you shared there. Let’s talk about your dream school. You have an opportunity to create this school. You’re not limited by any resources. You’re only limiting your imagination. How would Will Jawando build his dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
I was thinking about this and we could probably talk about this all day. You’re building a dream school, but one would be that every student starts the day ready to learn. And so a big part of that is food. One of the things during the pandemic that was so great from the federal government is we were able to provide breakfast, lunch and take home dinner to all students all the time for free. that has not, is not the case anymore. I think we should have places where kids can come in early if you need early care for people going to early shifts where they can eat, where they can kind of wake up, socialize a little bit and get ready to start the day.
I think that’s a critical component of just creating a welcoming space and making sure kids are ready to go when they get in the building. We need to compensate the people to be there and make sure we have the budget in place so that there can be right supervision and everyone’s paid appropriately. On that childcare piece, and then I would say, we need to make sure that we are particularly in our hot in all schools, but that there’s resource, resources to meet the kids, the needs of students Whether it be an inclusive class where you have English language learners or where you have kids on the autism spectrum. I have a daughter who’s autistic, or you have other students with disabilities that you have the appropriate amount of lead teachers and paraeducators and others and supports in the classroom so that they can be, everyone can have individualized instruction that’s appropriate.
We know the ratios are way outta whack right now. And that doesn’t happen in most places. I would say adequate staffing and support for teachers so that they can also rotate and have planning time and have professional development. The last thing, it was something we were talking about pretty much all this conversation that every school would commit to having robust after school programming for every child that needs it. Obviously not everyone has to opt in, but a lot in our school district, we are in the 14th largest school district in the country in Montgomery County, over 160,000 students. If there’s programs you gotta pay for them .and there are limited programs that are, that you don’t have to pay for.
We have some, but not enough. And I think that robust commitment, where you have this true community school model where it’s, where you can get all the family can get help with all the needs that they have the school building’s open for most of the day, and that we’re not stress. It’s not that we’re doing that. It’s stressing out the providers that we’re providing, having enough and paying enough so that those things can happen for all families. Those would be my three food proper resources for the adults in the building and after school programming. We could talk about it way more, but those would be my three kinds of big picture things for my dream school.
Maybe on a second podcast. My last question would just be, first of all, thank you for being a guest and your true Ruckus Maker. We really appreciated you on the show today for everything we talked about, we talked about a lot. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
I want Ruckus members to remember that there is nothing too small in the life of a child or an adult. We all have the ability to mentor. We all need to be mentored and loved and taught things. Whether it’s a mentoring moment or a long-term mentoring relationship, we all have something to give of value and to receive value. And remember that I think sometimes we complicate mentorship and we think that if you can’t dedicate a hundred hours a month, that it doesn’t matter. It matters. And you have something to value as imperfect as we all are. So that’s what I would say is important to remember.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership at Better Leaders Better schools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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