#MyBlackHistory: Why I'm Celebrating Every Black Genius From City Blocks to the White House

Feb 21, 2017 12:00:00 AM


To commemorate Black History Month, Education Post is featuring stories from parents, students and educators that connect past to present in the continued fight for better schools for Black communities using #MyBlackHistory.
  I'm thankful for people like President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama—yes I used those titles on purpose because they're still my first family—Dr. Mae Jemison, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, and STEM stars Mikaila Ulmer and Moziah Bridges because they (and so many others) make smart cool. When I was growing up in Inglewood, California demonstrating a love of learning was not cool. As a child, I did not have many examples of cool smart people with postsecondary degrees in my community who looked like me and understood what it meant to be seen as a problem because of the color of my skin. The former president and first lady understood and discussed the inevitable double consciousness students face. Today, as we celebrate the contributions African descendants continue to make, it is important for children around the world to be [pullquote position="right"]inspired by all the Black genius on display.[/pullquote] In 2012, former President Obama established the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans to increase the number of youth who graduate from college and pursue successful careers. As former executive director of the Initiative, I had the honor of supporting African-American children, youth and young adults with great intentionality and without apology. Along with a small team of talented and creative leaders, we worked to study the experiences of the experts (students), highlighting promising and proven ways to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of students, and support and celebrate individuals and institutions engaged in this critical work. The Initiative built upon a rich tradition of centering and celebrating our most precious resource—our children—and honoring the role that all caring and concerned adults play in nurturing and supporting young people as they learn and develop. Among the things I am most proud of was our summit series, which took place on college campuses of all types throughout the country. The only experts who were invited to sit on the stage in front of the White House seal were students, as young as elementary school aged. At every summit we asked every student what they needed to thrive, to feel safe, engaged and supported. No matter the age of the student or the location of the summit the one answer offered most was love—the type of love demonstrated by caring and concerned adults who do what is required to support students as they grow. When they are encouraged and inspired, young people thrive, and it is important to ensure they are supported both in school and in life. When I think about what it means to honor the rich legacy of African-American history, I think about our responsibility as adults to support our children and youth. I am reminded of the teachings of Asa G. Hillard who reminds us that we will never meet a Black child who is not a genius and there is no secret to how we support them: We first treat them as human and then we then support them with love. It is this principle that enabled me, a little Black boy from Inglewood, California, to make it to the White House. It is this principle that will enable every Black child to demonstrate cool Black genius from the block to the White House.
Photo courtesy of David Johns.

David J. Johns

David J. Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. He is the former executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Initiative works across federal agencies and with partners and communities nationwide to produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African American students. Prior to joining the Department, Johns was a senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Before working for the Senate HELP committee under Chairman Harkin, Johns served under the leadership of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Johns also was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow in the office of Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. Johns has worked on issues affecting low-income and minority students, neglected youth and early childhood education and with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). His research as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow served as a catalyst to identify, disrupt and supplant negative perceptions of black males within academia and society. Johns is committed to volunteer services and maintains an active commitment to improve literacy among adolescent minority males. Johns obtained a master’s degree in sociology and education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he graduated summa cum laude while simultaneously teaching elementary school in New York City. He graduated with honors from Columbia University in 2004 with a triple major in English, creative writing and African American studies. Johns was named to the Root100 in both 2014 and 2013, selected as a member of the Ebony Power 100 in 2015 and received an early career award from Columbia University, Teachers College in 2016.

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