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12 on Tuesday: Percy Brown, Jr.

Percy Brown, Jr. is Director of Equity and Student Achievement in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District

A lifelong Madison South Sider, Percy Brown Jr. followed his grandfather’s footsteps into a career in education, beginning in his hometown school district before moving on to become Director of Equity and Student Achievement in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.

Rank your Top 5 MCs. My introduction to hip-hop was in 1980 or 1981 when I was visiting family in Florida and heard “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. I lost my mind as a child and fell in love with hip-hop. My aunt bought me the album and it was the best gift ever as a child. By the way, I never heard that song in Madison because the only radio stations for Black folk back then was WORT on late Saturday nights. So Kurtis Blow is an honorary top five. But my list is Rakim, Nas, Ice Cube, Scarface and Jay-Z and Kanye West are tied for fifth.

Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? As a man of faith, I love all doubters and supporters but what motivates me is to do God’s will and fulfill my purpose in life.

Do you prefer being called Black or African American? My preference is to be called Black because I was born in America and not Africa. I’ve got nothing but love for the motherland but it’s not my birthplace. I also prefer Black because White Americans don’t identify as European-American so why should Black people have to identify as African-American?

What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? Everett Mitchell, Johnny Winston, Jr., Andre Johnson and a special acknowledgement to my brothers from the east side of Madison, Henry Sanders, Jr. and David Hart.

What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? We acknowledge, examine and deal with race with the wrong lens. We often view race based on someone’s skin color but in truth, the origins of race was based on faulty European science that ranked human beings based on skin color as well as other physical characteristics (Great Chain of Being) and America used it to create a disguised economic caste system that was designed and implemented with a white supremacist framework that kept blacks enslaved for over 250 years. And much hasn’t changed 150 years post slavery. This is the truth of our history as a nation and America continues to mask this caste system by bombarding propaganda on the American psyche to make us all believe, even black people, that blacks have dysfunctional families, lack work ethic, are less than and are no more than criminals or thugs. Yes, these things are taking place in the black community but in my opinion, these are ongoing symptoms of internalized oppression, which comes from centuries of living in a racist society. The truth will set us all free and in order for us to eliminate racial disparities, this community must be progressive, forward thinking in truth about race and do what is required to transform our community into one that is inclusive and provides authentic pathways to social and economic prosperity for all. It’s ugly, painful and will require difficult days ahead if we choose to go this path, but is necessary and as Frederick Douglass once said, “without struggle, there is no progress.”

What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? My top three priorities at this point in my life are my relationships with God, wife/family and community. These are the things that ground me as a man and they work together to allow me to do God’s will and fulfill my purpose in life.

Name your top 10 hoopers of all time from Madison high schools. Reece Gaines, Roy Boone, Rick Redmond, Alex Compton, Wesley Matthews, Jeronne Maymon, Vander Blue, Nimrod Hilliard, Myron Adams and Josh Jackson.

Why do you think kids of color are struggling in MMSD while the white kids are doing well? Students of color but in particular Black students, struggle for several reasons. First, Black students lack proper identity development and awareness building around their social and political condition in American society. This is the foundation for academic success and the overall well-being for Black students. We are failing as a Black community in playing our part in this but our public schools have failed as well and is actually guided by a narrative that in many ways work against providing the foundational tools that are needed by Black students. And unfortunately, the reason why the Black community fails to do this is because we have been educated in the same system that keeps these tools from us. Read the Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson and you’ll understand what I am saying.

Secondly, because our districts and schools have predominantly white staff, we can assume that racism as in any institution in America, continues to exist at the individual, institutional and structural levels in schools and districts. And this is not suggesting that white educators are racist, but if they don’t have a deep understanding of how race plays out at the 3 levels mentioned and create ways to dismantle racism as it exists, they will reproduce what our systems were designed to do and that is to maintain the disguised caste system. Students of color that struggle in these environments lack the tools to navigate racism. And what I mean by navigating racism is having the ability to effectively navigate a white supremacist based dominant culture while not losing your sense of self as a person of color. Moreover, having the ability to effectively cope with the day to day bias, stereotype threats and micro-aggressions that people of color face in American society is a must. In a simultaneous manner, community leaders, school leaders and teachers which for the most part are well intended, have not chosen the difficult path of truth and root cause analysis to deal with the education debt in schools for students of color because while Blacks deal with micro-aggressions, bias and stereotype threat, research illustrates that White people experience varying levels of fragility when simply talking about race. Understanding these forces and how they work makes it easy to understand why Black students are struggling in school.

Thirdly, while not resourced enough, subgroups of students that qualify for special education and ESL/ELL services have allocated resources specific to them. But for Black students, which represent the lowest performing subgroup of all students, have little to no resources allocated specifically to them and if it is, it has to be in an inclusive model.

An example of this is the AVID  program in MMSD. I worked in MMSD when they were considering bringing AVID into the district. I along with several district staff attended an AVID conference in Atlanta and learned about successful AVID programs that were all Black. I was surprised that MMSD was considering this for Black students but as we know, this was not the outcome. Although AVID’s enrollment is 70% students of color and the district reports that AVID is working, I’m hoping that it is resourced enough to serve Black students at scale. If not, MMSD as well as other districts need to distribute resources equitably to support Black students in producing stronger academic outcomes.

Lastly, lack of diversity in staffing and a curriculum that does not accurately portray or keeps out the truth about people of color is damaging to the well-being of students of color in schools. This is not the complete list of barriers to students of color success in schools but enough to chew on for the reader.

Your family is well-known here in Madison. You have your father’s name. Do you ever feel pressure to live up to the Brown brand? If so, how do you deal with the pressure? I am blessed to come from a family line that represents two generations of civil rights activists. The only time I felt pressure to uphold the Brown name was during my teen years because I was not demonstrating my potential to live up to it. Those years of pressure have left me for quite some time now and with the work that I am currently doing and have been doing for the last 17 years, have made my family proud. I’m thankful and blessed that God is using me to carry on the Brown tradition of civil rights and community activism.

You, Rainey Briggs, and Daniel Kigeya all went to school in Madison School system. Now you all work as administrators for the schools in the suburbs. What can Madison do better to keep Madisonsians of color working in Madison school district? MMSD has Black women from Madison in leadership roles and perhaps a handful of Black teachers from the community. I can’t speak for Rainey and Daniel, but my personal journey with MMSD has been interesting. I worked in MMSD for seven years, and during that time attained teaching credentials and a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in educational leadership. And this was under the great mentorship of the late Bruce Dahmen. I am currently a second-year doctoral student at Edgewood College, district level administrator in the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD) and serve as an adjunct instructor in the School of Education at Edgewood College. I’m laying this out because I love my community and district that I grew up in but over the last 5 or 6 years, I have applied for leadership positions in the district and have not been offered an opportunity. I either lack the credentials or skill set for what MMSD is looking for and that’s why I haven’t been able to crack the ceiling into leadership or it can be what a black pastor in Madison told me when I left MMSD for MCPASD. He told me that MMSD will never place me in a position of leadership because they wouldn’t be able to control me and that I have too much Malcolm X and Dr. King in me. I laughed really hard when he told me this but to a degree felt that it was the truth. As a man of faith, I have no ill will towards MMSD and as the scripture says, “Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Fortunately, I am working in a district where I am empowered and have been able to spread my wings and fly while working with an amazing team of leaders, teachers and community members. Outside of my personal experiences with MMSD, Jen Cheatham and her team has done an amazing job of diversifying the principal positions in the district and I believe they are also implementing a grow-your-own model, which can help empower the district to develop and hire students and community members from Madison to become teachers and educational leaders. I commend the district on their efforts to diversify staff and they are moving in the right direction.

You take students on tours of HBCU’s. Why is that important for students from Dane County to experience life at HBCU’s? I truly enjoy taking students on college tours during their spring break but my focus has evolved. I have been able to take students from Middleton High school on 3 spring break trips and the first one was a joint effort with Madison West. Sean Gray and I took over 90 black students from West and Middleton Black Student Unions to visit HBCU’s in Atlanta, GA. We also provided visits to the MLK Historical Sites, CNN and the Georgia Aquarium. The second trip was to Washington, DC and a cross cultural group of students participated this time and this was a trip with a focus on cultural enrichment. Students toured Mount Vernon, the home and museum of Frederick Douglass, Arlington National Cemetery, National Mall (Smithsonian Museums and monuments), the African American Civil War Museum, and the Department of Justice and had private meetings with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Congresswoman Jan Shakotsky of Illinois. This past March another cross cultural group of students went on a reenactment of the Freedom Rides of 1964. We stopped in Memphis and visited the National Civil Rights Museum. That was followed by a stroll through the Mississippi Delta and we toured my alma mater, Delta State University. Our trip continued on to Jackson, MS. where we visited the home of Medgar Evers and toured Jackson State University and Tougaloo College. We wrapped our trip up by spending two days in New Orleans but the highlight of the trip was when we visited the once integrated high school that my father and siblings desegregated in Rosedale, MS. The students learned about the Civil Rights Movement from primary sources because my father and uncle were on the trip and they shared their experiences about the movement and their participation as members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. These trips have been awesome, exposes our students to the greatness of this country and this year we are planning on going to New York and Boston for more cultural enrichment and visiting schools such as Harvard.

What made you join a black fraternity? I joined the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity because my father and uncle joined the organization while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The brothers that I was exposed to growing up as well as the national conferences I attended amazed me and as an adolescent, couldn’t wait to become a member of this strong black organization. I was initiated in 1996 at Delta State University and was a founding member of the chapter. I was on campus this past March, met current chapter brothers who knew my name as a founder and I felt proud about being able to lay a pathway on a college campus to unify like-minded black men. We are an organization built on service and I am glad to say that I live my life in a way that represents service and the other strong values of the greatest fraternity in the world.