New-Fashioned Poet, Old-Fashioned Soul
What drives Kecia Brown? [Her fervent passion to make things right]
by Kelly Knufken
photography by Tim Mantoani

At the ripe young age of 14, Kecia Brown learned a hard lesson. She learned that not everybody in education cared whether she learned a thing.

She had taken a job filing for the superintendent of her Inglewood, Calif., school district: “I got my little work permit, and I was working in education,” she sing-songs. Yes, she was proud to work in education, as she is now. Back then, Brown remembers packing up old textbooks with missing chapters and placing “New” stickers on the spine. Those second-string books were bound for the classrooms where she and students like her were supposed to be learning. “Where was the money going? Why did the schools themselves look so much like prisons? Why was it that only a handful of students received information about college while others were left in the dark?”

These are the questions she’s made it her mission to address. She looks back on that time as defining.

“My ‘aha’ moment? Yeah, it definitely was. Then, I didn’t know exactly what it was. I just knew there was something about this education thing that wasn’t right — and I had to fix it.” She breaks into a laugh at that last part.

Her stubborn refusal to accept the status quo extends to much of her life. She says she went to college in large part to rebel against the advice of a guidance counselor who steered her toward a trade school. The attitude that college is only for certain people motivated Brown to help students of color who’ve ignored the naysayers and made it to college.

Brown is sitting in a booth in Rack & Soul, a hip, crowded Harlem restaurant that serves up soul food near Columbia University, where she works. She picks at her vegetable platter of beans, sweet potatoes and greens, and she looks out the window, thinking about what’s brought her to New York — a city whose spirit is far from the relaxed pace of her native Southern California.

She makes sure all the students she comes into contact with as assistant director in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at New York’s prestigious Columbia University know how important their education is to her. In a word? Very.

“For me, it’s my calling.”

She’s putting her 2000 master’s in leadership studies from USD to good use at Columbia.

She judges her success in her work life “by how many students come in and say, ‘You know, I really didn’t like what you said the other day, but … ’” Or, “I thought about what you said.” Knowing she’s made an impression is important.

If you’ve read Kecia Brown’s book of poems and thoughts on life, Humanity’s Cup, before you meet her, you’re in for a surprise. She seems much softer in person than on the page. That may be because the book is a gritty tour of the world where she grew up, and it’s a trip that can veer toward the hardcore. The self-published book is a candid take on racism and other social injustice, with riffs on hip-hop, PMS and relationships. There’s anger, there’s sadness and there’s a wistfulness that things shouldn’t be the way they are. Those emotions are right at home in the entries about her father who died when she was a child — “she’s got Daddy issues,” she writes — or the sister who died when Brown was working at USD after graduating.

In person, Brown exudes a kind of calming presence. After nearly two years of living in New York, she may have gotten down many of its ins and outs — she gives subway directions like a local — but she hasn’t totally warmed to the city. Her lilting description of the city’s pace gives her away as a poet. “On 42nd Street, it’s fast, fast, fast. Run across the street. Run for the train. Run for your life.”

But in this city of cities, she has found a neighborhood she can bond with. “I love Harlem,” she says. “I love it. That’s a slower part of New York, where I feel like I’m home. It’s more of a California kind of cool.”

She prefers things move at a slower pace. Maybe it’s her way of transforming the frenetic go-go-go of modern life into something she finds more valuable. And in fact, when she talks to the students she advises, she goes into old-soul mode.

“Initially, I think a lot of students thought I was a student because I look so young. But when they interact with me, I know — I know — I come across as a little old lady. I know I do, and I can’t help it. I take on all of the wisdom of the elders, I guess. I become a little old lady. I think even my voice changes.” She’s pleased with this description, relishes relating it. Brown is sitting in her significant other’s home looking exactly like a woman approaching her mid-30s. Yet, you believe her as her voice takes on a little creakiness and she becomes her mother or grandmother, counseling a young woman. “‘Oh, sweetheart, how you doin’? Tell me about your classes.’” She drags out the last word. “‘Sit down, let me hear it all.’ I have these old-woman mannerisms. I’m a little old lady.”

And though she is little — at 5-foot-1 “and a half” — Humanity’s Cup reveals her as the young, fervent activist that grew up in Inglewood. Her formative years in that city on the edge of Los Angeles were marked by exposure to gang culture and experiences that clearly marked Brown’s early life. She saw her first murder at age 7.

The poem that leads the book makes a resounding first impression. “Defending My Profanity, errr … Humanity” is a discourse on what she considers the real bad words in society, pointing out that in her mind, misogyny is far more profane than certain epithets could ever be. She describes her sister’s funeral as a scene from a blacksploitation movie and concludes, “Drugs killed her twice. First her spirit, then her body.” And on that murder she saw as a young girl, she talks of the victim and the shooter, writing parenthetically of the latter: “(It was cheaper to buy that gun than it was for him to buy 2 weeks worth of groceries for his family. Now that’s just wrong)!”

The book began life as her personal journal. You might think a journal that holds the thoughts of a new-fashioned poet has to live up to its future. Not so fast. “My friends buy me these journals with beautiful prints on them. You know what I write in? A 99-cent book like this.”

She pulls a tattered composition book from her bag.

“I’d been writing in that thing since I was 18 years old. All in all, that’s who I am. To have people that I don’t know reading my journal … there are stories in there that you just don’t tell mom.” That category includes anything “that would have freaked her out,” Brown says, like the diatribe against an older coworker who once sexually harassed her.

She lays her journals — and her life — bare to combat a culture of silence that can keep women from healing themselves and each other.

“I can move in spaces that wouldn’t have been open to me because I don’t have shame. I just admitted to the whole world that I’m a hot mess. I’ve still got a long way to go.”

And she’s taking her “kids,” as she refers to the students, along with her. If she’s had rough experiences, she might as well share with the students who now may be going through something similar. You get the feeling Brown is exactly the right person to hear their struggles.

“I was talking to one of my students who was having a hard time recently. Some of the things she was saying to me were things I’ve gone through. ‘I’m the first person in my family to go to college, but it seems like no one cares.’ I’m like, ‘Sweetheart, I know. I can see it in your eyes. But you’re going through this because you need to help someone else who’s going through this. That day will come.’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘I know, because this conversation we’re having, someone had it with me. And that’s how I got through it. So I have to have the same conversation with you to get you through it because there’s someone who needs to hear your story.’” Brown nods as she talks, remembering how she’d lived through travail after travail similar to those the woman listed.

“I said, ‘Precious, we have work to do.’” And there was this calm that came over her face, like, ‘OK, you’re not judging me?’ ‘Mmm, hmm we don’t have time to judge each other. There’s too many of us out there.’”

She dispenses her wisdom to students needing help on best practices for their programs or with other academic or personal issues. When it comes to leadership, she’s trying to make sure students of color help their peers — especially the freshmen — get more involved.

“I think that I’m firm and I’m tough with them in a way that they may not be used to, especially with my female student leaders because they know I expect more. I say, ‘What are you doing? How are you engaging (younger students)? What does your outreach look like? They ask me, ‘Why do we have to do so much work?’ Well, somebody got you here.” And now she wants to make sure they do their part to pay it forward.

Brown has a knack for connecting with people. When you ask people who worked with her or knew her a half-dozen years ago at USD about Brown, they talk in italics. “I love Miss Brown.” “Kecia is phenomenal.”

Her enthusiasm for making things better for all students was on display during the years she studied at USD — from 1998 to 2000 — and when she also worked as program coordinator for the United Front Multi-cultural Center beginning in 2001.

“She was very charismatic and worked very well with students, and that in itself drew people into our space and made them comfortable to participate in workshops that are much more geared toward personal growth,” says Guadalupe Corona, director of the United Front. “She’s very passionate.”

Cheryl Getz, assistant professor and program director for leadership studies, worked with her for a semester when Brown was a graduate assistant at USD.

“She brings a sense of passion and enthusiasm to everything that she does. That makes what she does so good.”

While at USD, Brown tried her hand at working with another group that faces discrimination, becoming a Rainbow Educator and helping educate campus groups about issues related to sexual orientation.

“She is really passionate about working with people from under-represented groups,” Getz says. “I really watched her grow over the course of that period. She came to understand that oppression is oppression, regardless of what your under-represented status is. The experience she had of discrimination as an African-American woman was similar to what some of the lesbian students had experienced. It was a new learning experience.”

And Brown mines all her experiences, pulling forth whatever she has to so she can connect with her students.

“I enjoy working with the student leaders at Columbia — brilliant beyond brilliant, and still your typical college student. I think I have pulled verbiage from each and every text I read in my master’s program. They really push me to work harder and gain more resources to address their specific needs. The students here are dynamic, and yet they still encounter burnout, identity issues, uncertainty about the future. We tend to forget that women lead from a different place, so self-care is imperative. No one can hear your voice if it is worn out.

I let every single one of them know they are precious to me.”

As if to bring that point home, she runs into one of her students leaving the Harlem restaurant, shares a big hug and asks where the younger woman is going on this frigid night. “She’s one of my babies. She told me, ‘I’m gonna come see you. We gotta talk.’”

Brown offers up whatever her students need.

“I have a lot of black students who come in and just want to spend time with me,” she says. “I don’t know if they see a lot of women of color on campus.”

It’s Sunday at the Bronx home of Joe-Joe McManus, whom Brown has been dating for nearly three years. Brown may not live here — her own place is blocks away — but she is at home. “This is my domain, even though I pay not a drop of rent,” Brown says. “The major pieces of furniture, I put together.” She points out McManus’ awards and memorabilia, like the picture from his time in astrophysics as the first American employee of the Soviet Academy of Science; he subsequently became the first American employee of its successor, the Russian Academy of Science, when the Soviet Union fell.

On Sundays, Brown likes to settle in and prepare a big meal. Tonight, she’s cooked chicken and rice with roasted potatoes, peas and peppers. Her tiny frame, topped by a similarly diminutive Afro — “I’m doing the natural thing; this summer I’ll chop it off.” — is clad in jeans and a gray sweater. She loves costume jewelry. Tonight’s earrings are big and convex; they turn out to be coconut shells.

“The only time I really get to cook is Sunday,” she says. “That’s my chill time.”

With as many late nights as she works, she revels in the luxury of kicking back. Not that Brown is one to sit still for long. She recently began pursuing a doctorate in adult education and leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College. And she’s writing another book, with Nicole Simmons ’01, aimed at inspiring first-generation black women attending college.

In all of Brown’s activities, one of her biggest supporters is McManus. That the pair would settle into the relaxed, intellectual relationship they share wasn’t immediately apparent. The night they met, she remembers thinking, “He really has no idea that I’m anti-male and my stomach hurts.” Then he started wooing her with talk of doctoral programs — the “nerd’s equivalent” of a pickup line, she figures.

But McManus apparently made it hard for Brown to remain anti-male, with his shared commitment to educational diversity; he’s now assistant head of school for diversity and associate dean of faculty at the exclusive Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He seems easygoing, though he’s also clearly driven. It’s fun to watch them together, both talking up the other’s accomplishments. The mutual respect is apparent.

When it’s noted he seems proud of her, McManus gently corrects: “I’m proud to know her. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s a remarkable person. And she’s got a unique and remarkable way of leading. She’s got an energy, a vibe about her; people listen. She’s just very steady.”

And those attributes help her fix the problems she can with education. Multiculturalism is as important to learning as reading, math or science, she says.

“Working with student leaders, I see just how timid students become when we discuss race, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, etc. By not teaching our children about themselves and others, we are by default annihilating their self-esteem (by) leaving them to learn about who they are through the media,” Brown says.

She tries to repair educational inequalities — the ones caused by the racism and classism she believes still play an integral role in education’s problems — by working with the students who are directly affected and with those students who aren’t. “I don’t even want to say the haves and the have-nots — the have-mores and the should-have-mores. And that’s my work, to connect the two worlds.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t a no-brainer for Brown to take the Columbia position. She was weighing another job offer at the same time. Unable to decide, she compared the jobs to actors and realized the offers were like choosing between Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington and Grey’s Anatomy’s Isaiah Washington, a fine actor, but, perhaps, no Denzel. Columbia, of course, was Denzel.

“I don’t know how I got either one of them. I just showed up.”

Don’t believe it for a minute. With that fiery commitment to fixing what isn’t right, backed up with a whatever-it-takes work ethic, just showing up isn’t in Kecia Brown’s nature.