My day jobs are being the director of elementary education in the Middleton Cross Plains Area school district and co-founder of Meraki Consulting, LLC, which I started with my wife, and fellow educator, Julie. The word “meraki” means to do something with soul, creativity or love; to put something of yourself into your work. Our company offers a variety of services including equity institutes, professional development, mentoring, coaching and mediation. I also work with my buddy, Percy Brown Jr. at his LLC Critical Consciousness, which helps Wisconsin educators address opportunity gaps.
My path to education was a bit unusual.
I was born in Pine Bluff Arkansas, which has the highest murder rate per capita. It often gets compared to Detroit but is less than a tenth the size. My family left there, moving first to Chicago and soon after to Madison.
I grew up in an area then called Somerset Circle, now known as Parker Place. People called it “Little Chicago.” The people living there were predominantly African American or other people of color and growing up there was really challenging. There were drugs, prostitution, violence. Living there afforded me the opportunity to learn how to survive in ways that many kids and even many adults wouldn’t understand.
People often ask me, “How did you turn out differently than other people you grew up with?”
Part of it was because I was a good athlete and that afforded me some different protections. But most of why I turned out the way I did is because of my brother.
Many times when something was about to go down in our community, my brother would tell me to go home. He didn’t feel he could leave, but he needed me to leave. Would I go home? No, but I’d go hide behind a garbage can. He cared enough to make sure I wasn’t part of some of the negative things that happened in my community and that contributed to my success. My brother supported me and helped me see things differently.
By no way did I avoid all trouble. And I sit here today because all those experiences helped me be who I needed to be.
Because of the experiences I had growing up, I never wanted to have anything to do with kids and never wanted to go into education. I went to college to be a personal trainer—I wanted to own a fitness facility. I played football in college and after graduation my wife and I moved to Milwaukee. She worked for the Milwaukee Academy of Science, which is a charter school that was 99% rate reduced and had 99% African-American students at the time.
She kept asking me to volunteer in her classroom, but I wanted nothing to do with kids. I finally did and after I volunteered the first time, I thought “Hmmm…this isn’t bad.”
She asked me to do it again and I came back a second time. By the third time I was asking myself, “Why aren’t I working with kids?”
I saw the impact I was having being in classroom. My wife is white, and she had a classroom that was 100% African American, 2nd grade kids. They gravitated to me and loved having me there.
I applied for a job as a cultural liaison in the Verona school district. It was geared toward helping create a bridge between home and school for African American families. I interviewed for and was offered the job, but I said that in order for me to accept it, I had to have access to the white families as well. I felt they needed as much help building a bridge between culture and race as the students of color needed a bridge between home and school. The response was, “Absolutely,” and I worked there for three years until the district cut that role.
At that point I didn’t have a teaching license. I called the DPI (Department of Public Instruction) and asked what I needed to get one. They told me about Project Teaching, which is an alternative licensing program. I sent them my transcripts, resume, etc. and they said I could go into biology, PE or health based on my core undergrad classes. I opted for the PE/health certification since I’d already done so much in the health field during undergrad.
That led to a job offer in Brookfield for me and my wife was on her third interview in Pewaukee. But right before that interview, she got a call from Sun Prairie. Long story short, they offered her a job and I got on the computer and saw another Sun Prairie school had just posted a PE/health job. My wife accepted the job, mentioned I would be a good fit for the other job and the principals from the two schools connected. That led to a job interview with 20 people—I’d never interviewed in front of 20 people before!—and they offered me the job. That’s how I transitioned to education.
I owe that transition 100% to my wife, Julie. For encouraging me to volunteer, asking me to come in. That made a world of difference and set me on the path that’s led to where I am now.
My other role, co-founding Meraki Consulting with my wife, Julie, started in December 2019. Over the years we had both gained a lot of experience and skills we wanted to share with fellow educators. And we especially want to be role models and mentors for up and coming educators, especially educators of color.
My most memorable caffeine is none. I don’t think caffeine is good or bad, it’s just not for me and I’ve steered clear of it. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but it’s worked for me.
My current caffeine of choice is none.
My favorite place for caffeine is currently Tuvalu in Verona, but I spent hours and hours in Starbucks while I was working on my doctorate. Pre-COVID I’d often head to Tuvalu on a Saturday, sit there for two or three hours, working, relaxing, practicing mindfulness, watching people go in and out.
The reason for both is the same: They endured many of the things people of color are still enduring today and endured it as high-profile people. It would be invaluable to sit with them and learn how they navigated that pressure.
I would like to ask them how they endured everything they did for as long as they did even though it didn’t change society, didn’t change our culture, didn’t change how people saw them. And, of course, it cost one (Malcolm X) his life.
They both stood for what they believed in; they had values. That’s how I think of life, “You have to stand for something or we’ll fall for anything.”
They took stands many times to be what they needed to be for people who looked like them. People expected them to do something, to lead the fight and they did.
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: the turmoil we’re currently going through because of COVID and the turmoil we’re going through now—and have gone through for years—because of racism, are both obvious answers. But on a more personal level I’d say I’d like all three of my girls to realize their potential and the impact they can have in terms of changing our world.