Name: Rodney Washington, Ed.D.
Profession: Associate Professor of Education
One Word That Describes You: Driven
What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?
This recognition means a great deal to me, given my own background and challenges. My work with young males of color here in the South has been an important part of my own journey for quite some time now. Priding myself on being more “program centered” and less concerned about receiving accolades, I have only recently allowed myself to ease up on receiving recognition for my work. This award speaks to me because so many brothers are out here pushing this work and are rarely noticed for their impact. Everyday brothers who really believe in moving our community forward without being boastful or making each event a media show should be acknowledged. This whole notion of “it’s our normal to be extraordinary” is just amazing and something that I believe fits so many that I am just humbled to be among those selected to share my story.
What are you doing as a BEMM to help support black male achievement now or in the future?
I have had the pleasure of collaborating on several projects with local nonprofits like CHEER Inc. in a Yazoo City middle school conducting character education with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I traveled to Holmes County to my former high school to conduct anti-bullying/character education curriculum with young males in their after-school program. I also worked with Mississippi Families for Kids on their Real FLY GUYS project designed to meet the needs of males of color. But I was really excited when President Myers offered an opportunity to fund innovation among faculty with the Presidential Creative Arts Award. I was funded to launch a two-year program for my pilot to help young males get to degree completion—JSU G.U.Y.S. (Guiding Undergrads through Yearly Support): A Research Based Approach to Retaining Males of Color in Higher Education.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
As a 45-year-old African American male born in Lexington, Mississippi, located in the Mississippi Delta Region, and known for its high concentration of poverty. My parents (now deceased) only completed elementary school; neither could read nor write. However, in spite of their own educational attainment, they emphasized the importance of an education. While I too struggled with many of the challenges of a typical family living in poverty, I was motivated by my parents to see education as an essential pathway to a higher quality of life. I lost my mom at 19 in undergrad, and really struggled with that (especially given my daughter was born a few weeks after her death). I remembered her struggle trying to ensure that her eight kids got an education and really had to reach down deep to maintain. Thanks to a supportive campus and siblings, I was able to complete my degree and move on using those experiences to write and connect with young people—because their situations could have easily been my own.
What is your extraordinary impact?
Early on in my career, I would hear people say things like, “What’s wrong with these kids today?” and “Why don’t they just lock them up?” But there were always real circumstances surrounding their actions, needs that were not met. While serving as a juvenile correctional officer for more than four and half years and attending grad school, I heard so many stories of how young people got into the chronic state of returning into the system. I would quiz them repeatedly on their lives at home and sit in the day room for hours learning about their crime, parental situation, and emotional baggage. I used this knowledge as a correctional counselor at my next gig with Oakley Training School. I think that I was able to see the real person beyond the charge and in my two years as a counselor, I assisted many young males with GEDs, workforce placement, and other skills. I would always get mail from an old student who wanted to say, “Thanks! I am back in school” or “I got a job.” On the other hand, it would be disappointing to watch the news and see that the person who committed a horrible crime was the adult version of the young person you knew from Youth Court. I have used my time in the field to write multiple intervention/prevention programs for students deemed high-risk/at-risk or whatever catch phrase we use now to say that we really don’t know. I spent eight years in the mayor’s office here in Jackson, writing programs to meet the needs of young students of color all over the district. What started as a pilot project serving 25 students in a middle school eventually turned into a comprehensive youth division serving more than 560 students across this district through programs I had written and data collected from our program sites. It was amazingly satisfying to see this all unfold and I didn’t even consider it as work. I have learned that this is not just programming that I write and implement—this is life changing. These programs have the potential to actually change the trajectory of someone’s future.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
It is my attempt to surround myself with people who are going to be honest with me. I often have robust conversations with my close friends, sharing perspectives on personal growth and professional aspirations. In the end, we may not agree but the honest exchange is respected. I am not a fan of “yes people” in general who seem to never have an individualized opinion. No one benefits from such a relationship.
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
I have several projects in the works right now. I just closed out a comprehensive three-year project as Lead Evaluator for 19 Males of Color initiatives across three states (Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana) through Foundation for the Mid South. I am now working with local nonprofits on two initiatives designed to strengthen early detection and screening. The end result would be a statewide system for early childhood mental health services and support. I am also working with a local agency specializing in HIV prevention and testing on launching a campus-based pilot on my campus.
What is the best advice you ever received?
My mentor told me once in a way that only he could, “Know what you know and only what you know and never presume to know nothing more, to do so would be fraudulent! The first thing you have to admit is the fact that you don’t know anything! But that will open you up to learn everything!” -The Late Dr. Robert Williams.
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
My advice would be to decide the scope and scale of what you want to do and decide how best you can begin your process. There are people who have great intentions on mentoring and working in their communities without understanding the level of commitment required. This is particularly true of working directly with young people coming from challenging backgrounds. Most often they have already been disappointed or had inconsistent support, so I advise brothers not to overcommit to someone without understanding the implications on that person should that relationship/support terminate. Do what you can do consistently until you can do more! Every little bit helps.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
My meeting prep is unorganized chaos. I have several notebooks and they are all organized by projects. I have several work bags to keep my projects organized so leaving the house is quite a production. I am not a tech guy. I’m old school with my handwritten notes and bulky planners. In a meeting once, a colleague joked about my big planner; however as she pulled out her device to review her schedule and availability for our next meeting, she couldn’t get service…
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation?
I plan a trip with a few close friends for international travel, and it’s always amazing to share, party, and relax with such an amazing, eclectic group. Last year, it was St. Martin and the scenery was amazing! Took a staffed boat out on the water, had a meal, and partied out there until evening. The ride back as the sun was setting really allowed me to understand work-life balance.
If you could travel and stay anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I’m a country boy and love living in the sticks! I’m low maintenance and love being in the yard and going to Lowe’s. I do enjoy travel but love coming home just as much.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I have been in higher education since I was a 25-year-old graduate assistant, moving through the ranks of faculty and later administration. I took on the administrative role of department chair in 2005 and ,while it had allowed me great success, it also pulled me away from the hands-on work with males of color I was conducting in rural areas of Mississippi. I decided to step down from this position and rejoin the faculty three years ago and resumed the work I had already started in my schools and community. Sometimes your path is not what others may influence you to believe but where you know your heart moves you.
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Come celebrate the BE Modern Man 100 Men of Distinction at the first-ever Black Men XCEL Summit, Aug. 30 – Sept. 3, at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.