Transcript: African American mentor finds strength in numbers

Intro: You’re listening to Fiat Vox, a podcast that brings you news from UC Berkeley by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. I’m your host, Anne Brice.

[Music: “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Brice (host): February is Black History Month. To honor the month, every Monday we’ll hear from a different African American leader on campus. Today, we’re talking with graduate student Kenly Brown, who sees mentorship as an essential part of what it means to be a leader.  


[Music: “And So Then” by Lee Rosevere]

Brice: When Kenly Brown collects data, she doesn’t think in numbers. She thinks in people.

Brown: For me, it’s like these are people’s lives. There are consequences to these numbers.

Brice: As an undergraduate in Colorado, she was one of only a few African Americans on her campus.

Brown: A lot of times I felt isolated and alone in the classroom and not really understood.

Brice: Now, as a Ph.D. candidate in African American studies at UC Berkeley, she’s made it her priority to be a mentor to students of color — to teenage girls at a continuation school and to undergraduates at the Justice Interaction Lab at Berkeley.

Brown: It’s really important to see people who not only look like you, but understand that there’s an investment in the work and stakes in the work that we do.


Brice: For her dissertation, Brown is looking at how continuation schools in California exclude black girls from society instead of giving them a second academic chance. Continuation schools are alternative sites where students are sent who are at risk for not graduating from high school — for falling behind in classes and sometimes for discipline issues.

Brown: A lot of continuation schools don’t allow you to play sports or be part of extracurriculars. A lot of times those schools can’t fund those types of programs on their sites alone, so you really see a discrepancy in funding and opportunity for these students.

Brice: And Brown says continuation schools don’t hold students to the same standards as traditional high schools, so students graduate without the skills they need to further their education and establish their careers later on.

Brown: So the short term goals are met, but when it comes to long term, like preparation for community college or universities or careers, you see that gap.

Brice: Brown says black girls, in particular, face special challenges.

Brown: If we look at what their experiences mean, we’ll be able to understand better why black girls are the way they are.

[Music: “Under Suspicion” by Lee Rosevere]

Brice: To understand some of the challenges they might face, Brown has spent more than a year at a California continuation school interviewing students.  

Brown: They feel like the whole world is on their shoulders. A lot of girls felt like they had to manage their home life, their school life, their romantic relationships all at once, and they were pressured to do so in ways that other family members were not.

Brice: She says these girls feel they need to fill a kind of adult role that a lot of other kids aren’t expected to fill. That might require them to communicate in ways that help them to survive at home, but leads them to being punished at school.

Brown: That type of character that builds up, being able to speak directly, to speak your mind in a way that your siblings or your parents can hear you might not resonate well in the classroom. Then you are vulnerable to punishment there because you’re speaking out of turn. You’re being too aggressive, you’re being too dominant.

Brice: Brown says this can lead to some girls being labeled “bad kids,” which sets them up for failure in the public school system. But she says instead of blaming the individuals, we need to change the system that has let them down.

Brown: You see a lot of the work now about at-risk youth and changing young people to read more, engage more and to do better and be better while our institutions stay the same.

Brice: Brown believes the failure of the public education system to serve African American students is rooted in slavery.

Brown: You have ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass, who said to educate a black individual means they will seek freedom and they will want to change the systems that we have. So we can’t be surprised then that we see underachievement of black and brown kids today. 


Brice: As an undergrad, among mostly white students at the University of Colorado Boulder, Brown often felt singled-out.

When her classmates would discuss issues related to racial injustice, like mass incarceration or poverty, her classmates would often turn to her, expecting her to respond as a spokesperson for all black people.

But one summer, as part of an internship, she did a research program on a different university campus. Her instructor was a black woman. It was then that Brown realized how important it was for her to have black mentors in her life.  

Brown: Just hearing her say, “You can be in this space,” made it that much more real than I felt at my institution.

Brice: Brown went on to work with many mentors, including her adviser Nikki Jones, an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and the author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner City Violence.

Brown actually came to Berkeley as a transfer graduate student with Jones from UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Together, they set up the Justice Interaction Lab on campus. At the lab, students examine and document video footage of police interactions with civilians in big cities.

Brown: We can actually see in real time about what’s actually happening and the significance of their actions with civilians on the street.

Brice: As the lab’s project manager, Brown has trained more than 30 undergraduates since it opened four years ago. She says students of color have been especially interested in being a part of the research.

Brown: It started as a way for them to get research credits and experience. Then it really evolved into a type of mentorship and training for students of color to get a taste of what original research looks like.

Brice: The video footage is a combination of dash cam footage provided by police departments and video from a series of ride-alongs that Professor Jones and one of her graduate students at UCSB went on with officers. In transcribing and coding the footage, researchers are finding patterns in the police encounters, like who gets stopped and why.

[Music: “Curiosity” by Lee Rosevere]

Brown: And so you really get more of a nuanced understanding about why police officers do what they do to a certain extent. And so that’s the interesting piece of the work that hasn’t really been done, especially with video. And so that’s really fascinating.

Brice: After Brown graduates in 2019, she ultimately wants to become a professor at a top public university, where she wants to work with students of color, providing them the mentorship and resources that have been vital to her academic success.


For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

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