Six children in blue collared shirts and khakis stand at the starting line of an asphalt track. Rodney Brown, the children’s mentor, paces the side, eyes and teeth glinting in the sun.
Brown yells, “Ready. Set!”
Three kids lunge forward.
“No sir, no sir, back behind the line,” Brown says. The kids disqualify themselves about three more times.
Brown sees himself in these Caliber: Beta Academy students, who are struggling to succeed. A Richmond native, he attended Kennedy High School. Caliber literally sits in the larger public school’s shadow. Sometimes, you even hear high school loudspeaker announcements from the Caliber campus.
Kennedy was where Brown cut hair for the first time, before spending 25 years as a barber, privy to peoples’ thoughts and conflicts. These days, he works for Peacemakers Inc., a small nonprofit that pairs mentors with students who have been flagged with behavioral or academic difficulties. He has been doing this work for three years.
“They deal with vicarious trauma. A lot of the time, these kids don’t know how to understand what it is that they’re dealing with,” Brown said, “and we give them a lot of sound advice. We do a lot of therapy with the kids to make them understand that they’re not alone.”
Brown emphasizes that he wouldn’t have been ready to do this work without a lot of introspection. He almost left Richmond for good after a harrowing experience years ago. Shortly after, he moved to Hawaii, where he “learned to see the beauty of the world again,” he says. You might just see that same wonder in his eyes now, or that might just be the morning sun.
“I am like a ship, waves get choppy but I just roll with them,” says Brown, who is preternaturally calm with the children. He has fought hard for this peace, learning that nothing can change without patience.
Back on the track, the kids stop squirming and get behind the line.
Children Aim To Please
Brown starts every school day with his cohort of 11 “tier 3” students. They range in age from seven to 10. Every morning, he takes them around the school complex — two rows of neat brown bungalows that house single classrooms — to the long tracks. “I just burn them out,” he says. They love to compete with one another — and bicker about who is the fastest.
All along the way, he registers complaints and arbitrates arguments. He also chaperones field trips and does daily classroom check-ins. He tasks himself with understanding the unique emotional terrain these children navigate, and “redirecting” their reactions.
This cause is deeply personal for Brown, who has had to do a little redirecting himself. In early 2000, Brown was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. He moved to Honolulu, Hawaii a year later. “I did a 3,650 day rehabilitation stint,” he said. “Not a detox assignment, but more spiritual.
“You’ll ask my friends. People say something is different about me: New Rodney came back.”
This personal strife happened on the heels of the crack epidemic in Richmond. Brown describes that time, and the gang warfare that came after, as a period of “confusion” for the city.
This confusion is the backdrop for the children’s current struggles. One child’s parents are both deceased. “He’s one of my precious cases,” Brown said.
Alongside deeper traumas are more commonplace, fixable problems. One of Brown’s mentees is the new kid in school. Some of his children also have difficulty reading. “When I learn they can’t read, that’s the first thing we do,” he said.
Once Brown knows that a child cannot read, he begins to put the pieces together. A kid who cannot read will likely get picked on, and will lash out in a desperate attempt to leave the classroom and the bullies behind. “Everyone views the world through the lens of their own insecurity,” Brown said. Insecurities that stem from academic and reading issues are addressed head-on, and behavioral issues start to become less of an issue as well.
Peacemaker mentors also do their best to enlist the parents of struggling children. When an adult, especially a parent or parental figure, takes an interest in a child’s successes, the child feels even more motivated to please.
Brown sees this motivation on the Caliber Beta track every morning. The kids trot from the long track in the back of the complex to the short sprinting track.
“When do we get to go Brown?” one asks. Another student discards an Apple Jacks container. “He’ll start acting up at 11 a.m. Sugar crash,” Brown says.
The kids tend to jockey for Brown’s attention. They ask him many questions and seek his approval. Each of them wants to win the little race he’s putting on, but Brown models a new definition of winning for them. If a kid puts one foot in front of another, aiming true for the finish line no matter how hard it gets, Brown treats it like a win.
“I’ve had cases where parents didn’t take an interest,” he said. “It makes it hard because the kids are looking forward to impressing the parents.”
They aim to please.
Bringing the Village Back to the Child
Brown spends his mornings popping in and out of the children’s classes. These little visits affirm his commitment to their success — and that he is aware of any misbehavior.
“They’re not bad kids though,” Brown said. He reaffirms this throughout the day.
More than personal satisfaction, he wants the children to be proud of the place where they come from. When describing Richmond of years past, the first word that comes to his mind is “fun.”
“I want them to know, despite the gloom and the doom, you come from a great city,” he said.
In Ms. Walsh’s class, students are learning how to break numbers down into ones, tens, and hundreds. Ms. Ramos has students writing “mind maps,” encouraging them to exercise creativity in the stories they share. Mr. Powell has children reading about the tongue.
One of Brown’s mentees pipes up to explain that the microvilli on the tongue send messages about taste to the brain.
According to Mr. Powell, when the school year started, the student was disruptive in class. Now, he is thoroughly engaged, answering questions about microvilli, cooperating with his seat partner, and cleaning up his workstation when asked to do so. The expectations that Brown has for his students are clear, and it seems like they are starting to live up to them.
Founder of Peacemakers, Hank Roberts, emphasizes that balance between understanding and expectations.
“Grassroots mentors is a term I use,” he said. For mentors who work in the field with the kids, he thinks it’s important to find people who are of those communities. In his opinion, this is essential in bringing “the village back to the child.”
Mentors who are of these communities might run into a child on the weekends and understand the histories of these places. He seeks out mentors who see themselves in the kids.
“There was a time when the village was more functional,” Roberts said. Part of his intention in connecting with Brown was to bring this new model of mentorship to West Contra Costa Unified Schools. According to Roberts, Peacemakers mentors are instrumental in lessening suspensions and referrals to the office. He attributes their success to mentors being in the classroom throughout the day, but also to mentors’ deep understanding of the issues that these students face.
“The kids bring the issues from home to school with them,” says Brown. “So I spend time trying to sort out what’s going on.”
Thoroughness is so important to Brown that he wants to stay the course at this one school. Though he acknowledges the great need for mentoring throughout the district, he also understands that stability is crucial for vulnerable children.
“I want something where I stay, and watch the kids grow from kindergarten through eighth grade,” he said. Nothing is more apparent than Brown’s desire to help these individual kids find their places in the world.
Brown ends his special morning runs with a huddle. Each child must share his goals for the day with the group.
“No throwing pencils,” says one boy. Another says, solemnly, that he wants to “be good.” The stakes are high, as two of the children have a field trip the next day—approval pending. They must be on their best behavior to go. After each child shares, Brown shoos them off to their respective classrooms.
Backpacks bobbing, they run to meet the day.