Making Memories Plate by Plate

Food is sacrament. Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

Food is sacrament. Through its creations and sharing, I am educated in how to give and bless back the family and friends that purpose my living. Family albums bloom with snapshots where we celebrate anniversaries, show thanks for another year via birthday dinners, mark rites of passage such as retirement and commiserate over one’s passing.

Growing up
Picnic in Riverside Park
Family Gathering, 1995
Family Gathering, 1995
family birthday celebration
Celebrating Dad’s birthday

Growing up, creating Mother’s Day dinner was how I showed—in small part given the grandness of her love—the honor and appreciation I held for her.  I tired my father in an exhaustive day of shopping for everything we did not already have in pantry or freezer.  I used every pot and pan, to my father’s frustration as he was the designated dishwasher. I enveloped the kitchen in a fury of preparing exotic dishes (one year attempting Hunter Style Chicken for dinner, another year a complicated strawberry crepe-style cookie with homemade whipped cream for dessert) in an effort to convey a love supreme. Dinner would be met with my mother’s humble smile, receptive palate, and a willing stomach.  When an adult, and in the hospital recuperating from my tonsillectomy, she traveled a great distance via mass transportation just to bring me Carvel pistachio ice cream. Although melted after her long trip, both my eyes and throat swelled with gratitude. She came to see me, and brought with her a cherished artifact of childhood to help me heal.

The cooking for others has become for me a humble tool to thank others for the difference they have made in my life. I would throw dinner parties as a teenager, and even as a young adult. It was my parents’ way of “compensating” for being old school in not letting me go to house parties or hang out in the city.

mom and dada
Mom and Dad helping me prep and serve at one of my “tribal gatherings”

Although somewhat sheltered, I did not feel shrunken. Rather, their strictness churned my innovation to think of ways to spend time with friends. Food became a means to hang out, to preserve, affirm, and harness friendships. And, it was one of the few times my parents would allow me to be in mixed company.

Regardless of attending universities and colleges in different parts of the country, these “tribal gatherings” as they would come to be called was where over the breaking of bread we, old friends and new budding buddies, would rekindle memories of crazy times growing up, and new life experiences. And we would laugh, laugh, laugh. I remember N’Gai breaking out in singing Rick James’ part of “Fire and Desire,” and how his dramatization both impressed us (he could SING), and humor us as was characteristic of him. My home, and the food prepared there, became means to bridge the old parts of me that happened there and in the old neighborhood with the new parts of me that where happening everywhere else.

College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith
College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith

And the ethos shaping these gatherings was one I brought back to campus. One time I made collard greens with turkey, as Kim, Daryle and I took a break from late night studying to exchange stories and watch “Showtime at the Apollo.”  One time, through the graciousness of my dorm RA and family, I hosted a dinner in our rec room with classmates to celebrate Black History Month. It became a means to bridge my family with classmates of diverse backgrounds, a time I will cherish these almost twenty years later.

So food has become at times a tool and other times a bridge.  It is a means for taking care of others, affirming love for others as well as preserving and forging new relationships. One Valentine’s Day, I was upset about not having a boyfriend, so Mom made a picnic in our living room. When I was in grad school, my dad came to visit me for the weekend, and we went to an Italian restaurant and ate a simple dish of spaghetti and marinara sauce.  In that moment, I was both his little girl and his biggest dream. When mom and I hosted bus rides to Atlantic City, we wanted everyone to feel like family, and we used food to do so. It was important to my mom that our guests have something hot to eat for our long trip, a tradition I still practice in making breakfast for my family.  During those trips, we gave a bagged breakfast of sausage, rolls, and juice during the departure, and slices of homemade cakes we made on the return trip. Those experiences even launched for us a small catering venture, where we would make fried turkeys and cakes for sale.  After my father’s passing, and before her own, Mom and I created a new ritual of making food for the winter.  We would spend several weekends visiting farms and supermarkets to stock up on produce. Then, undergo the laborious yet loving task of prepping and preserving food for the winter.  I loved coming home from school to then return with pickles, spiced plums, beets, and stewed tomatoes. Just a few years ago, my childhood friend Carla came to visit me at a tapas bar where she shared her manuscript for her first book of poetry.  Later, when we went to dinner in the city to celebrate its release, she was so touched by the server’s attentiveness and loving words that she gave her one of her newly pressed books for free.  Generosity reciprocating generosity. At the annual Thanksgiving dinner where we all congregate at my in-laws’ home, my father-in-law has passed the torch of carving the turkey to me (I do a damn good job, I must say). But his humility and benevolence leave me feeling cherished and loved. I am a witness that the breaking of bread together heals, redeems and forges.

Growing a relationship plate by plate holds particular fondness for me with my husband. Morsel by morsel, we have unfolded fears, divulged personal trials, asked for and given advice, pondered the future, incessantly chortled, and healed from challenges. We have enjoyed cuisine throughout the east coast, from the fried seafood of City Island to nostalgic hotdogs with mustard at Nathan’s in Coney Island. From being blown away by the deeply developed flavors of fire and emotion conjured by the creole cooking at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope, PA (which we would later return after he proposed) to the down home savor captured by the cornbread at Warmdaddy’s in Philly.  From the pitstops made while traveling to see family down south to the lovingly prepared succotash, ribs and rice at my Aunt Shirley’s dining room table in South Carolina. We’ve counted the restaurants and eateries we visited, and we have been to about two dozen (many repeatedly, some NEVER again) in our years together.

Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown's.
Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown’s

Yet a particular collection of restaurants mark significant events with my husband and I, those of his childhood friend Craig.

Craig is a man of great humility and few words. But the cuisine of his restaurants shouts and testifies. My initiation into the power of his food was at Smoke Joint. Having South Carolinian roots, I was primed for home cooking, and the food did not disappoint. BBQ ribs that fall off the bone, greens that summon you to hum from their deliciousness, and beans that tantalize with traces of sweet and smoky flirtations on your tongue.  But the beautiful flavor of the food was a means to something greater. It was a conduit through which we grew to know one another.  Hurling jokes, asking questions, humming, we hankered down into the succulence of food that would then begin the teaching of how we would come to feed one another in soul.

Smoke Joint

It would be at Peaches, another of Craig’s restaurants, that I would then meet the urban frontiersman of fine food, and his life partner, Laura. I knew this meeting, and the breaking of bread with them at their place, was pivotal. I was meeting people Kerwin holds sacred, as he and Craig grew up together, in neighborhood and in church, and Laura is a woman whom they both highly regard and respect. If allowed, I would be initiated into a sacred group.  The restaurant felt welcoming, the exchange of greetings and smiles very promising, and the offerings of libation by Laura let me know that this initiation and assessment would be affectionately administered. Then, and now, I am fascinated and inspired by Craig and Laura being a couple who withstood the trials and challenges of growing a marriage, a family, a dream and a business simultaneously.

Returning back to the food, it did not disappoint. The chicken and Andouille gumbo always opens and breaks my heart.  I taste home every time I have it. It harkens me back to when Mom and I made it together. I had the task of stirring the dangerous but delicious roux, harmonizing the flour and hot oil in the cast iron skillet, building the base that my mom would then complete, and we lovingly enjoy. In homage to that conjured memory, and the powerful gift of Craig’s restaurant to channel it, I continue to make it on my own at home.

Peaches

Like the role of food when growing up, Peaches has also come for us to be a meeting place for old friends and new family. Periodically, another childhood friend, Chris, visits Brooklyn. When in town we converge at Peaches to banter and make new bliss. Like me, Chris orders the same thing, the Shrimp Po Boy, as it has come for him to be the signature dish that holds his memories, heart and stomach captive.  Sometimes Kerwin and I have gone as a family, bringing at the time our oldest son, as we make a new memory savoring deep-rooted food. In similar fashion, Chris’ wife Deshae also created a special moment when meeting for the first time by having us all go out together at the local Outback Steakhouse after visiting their church. Meeting her, and spending time with them and their family, has made an indelible impression on my heart ever since.

And then there is Hothouse. The trinity of brothers met there when it newly opened, celebrating Craig’s new accomplishment and their time-tested bond. Kerwin was so taken by the fried chicken that he raved and raved and raved when he returned home.  I was intrigued. Pregnant and enlarged with our first child, we went. A tight wooden space, it resonates with the décor of a speakeasy.  But plates of that fried chicken swelled nostalgic within me, so much so that I think it is in part why our firstborn LOVES chicken. Hothouse now comes to be a place in our hearts that marks our celebration of an old friend’s accomplishments, and our celebration of growing a family.

And just this past Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to celebrate again a milestone in our dear friend’s career. The opening of Marietta. As an annual ritual, Craig and his wife Laura host several friends and family at one of their restaurants for Thanksgiving. Regrettably we missed it because of heavy traffic, and needed to get to my in-laws on time. But that following Saturday Craig, Chris and our family met there to break bread and make new memories.

Family
The family

Over the years I have come to regard Craig and Chris as my “big brothers,” feeling comfortable with asking questions, cracking jokes, and now, making sure that Keith and Maceo get to know their “uncles.”  A cornucopia of fried foods—chicken, whiting, and green tomatoes—overflowed our beige wood table.  Craig ordered on Kerwin’s behalf a variety of plates given Kerwin’s indecisiveness in what delectables to finally select. The butternut squash and mushroom risotto Craig ordered was decadent and quickly devoured. My second born, Maceo, a very finicky eater, grabbed for every plate that graced the table.

Marietta 2
Mommy and Maceo

Even under watchful eyes, he somehow caught hold of a chicken bone which he gnawed and gnawed until by his growling in enjoyment we realized what he was doing. After its removal, he settled for sneaking some watercress.  But he loved the sautéed greens I fed him by hand. Eventually I had to battle him in getting some for myself.  Good food will make you selfish.

Craig and Kerwin
Kerwin, Keith, and Uncle Craig

What was enjoyable about sitting with my family and brothers was the mutuality.  We peppered one another with questions. For Craig, I inquired what it was like to maintain several restaurants, his inspiration for the cuisine selected, reasons for the décor selected, and next ventures. Chris reciprocated in asking thoughtful questions for me to consider around Keith’s social readiness for school. For me personally, what was wonderful to behold was this band of brothers, these fathers, these spiritual kinsmen, spending time once again with one another.

Chris
Uncle Chris

Marietta and the men made me feel at home. I could be mom, and also kick up my feet.  Keith and I took advantage of the empty space (due to the holiday), giving my at times restless son carte blanche to explore.  Up and down the corridor we walked and giggled, touching plants and holiday décor, investigating textures and shapes. Ever the teacher, I built in mini-lessons about opposites, such as cold (when touching the window) and warm, outside (looking out the window), and inside. I also indulged the enjoyment of some delicious cocktails. Craig “reminded” me to indulge my quiet time. Sage and gin make a splendid mix. In my taking care of others, I was taken care of too.

Craig and Maceo
Uncle Craig and Maceo

There is something about good food and good times that summons me to find the tools and means to recreate them and share them again. Craig’s food so inspired me that again, in homage, I made renditions of them at home. Kerwin delighted in the risotto at the restaurant, so I made a butternut squash risotto with parmesan cheese this past week. I was so seduced by the bite and heat of the sautéed mixed greens that I made some too. Keith was an ever-faithful tester, who volunteered sampling several forkfuls in various stages of preparation (though they did not turn out as good as at the restaurant . . .will keep trying). Knowing Kerwin is a fan of mushrooms, I was inspired to make something we never had. Grilled cheese sandwiches made with challah, Portobello mushrooms, fresh sage, and fontina cheese. Kerwin inhaled the sandwich in just a few bites. I felt affirmed.

Risotto Greens

I see in my firstborn a growing fascination with food too. When in the kitchen, he breaks from his own play asking for seasoning. Sprinkling small amounts in his little hands, he stares in study at the different grains and colored powders, devours, assesses, and then asks for more. He can make distinctions between nutmeg, cloves, kosher salt, adobo, ground onions, garlic powder, and coarse black pepper (his favorite). At just two years old he asks for them by name.  This exchange can delay meals at times, but as my Mom did with me, and Craig for his customers, I am learning how to create foods as a portal into new relationships, and bridges into new ways to create love for others.

Keith and Greens

Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

For more information about these restaurants, and menus, please visit http://www.bcrestaurantgroup.com/.

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As Educational Frontiersman: One Man’s Calling to Make a Difference

Dr. John R. Jenkins
Dr. John R. Jenkins

On any given day, John R. Jenkins, Ed.D., can be found laboring in the fray, soldiering on the frontline of education. He is an irrepressible spirit who has embodied several educative incarnations.  As English/Language Arts teacher, teacher trainer, instructional coach, consultant, researcher, faculty member, administrator, and currently Vice President of Programs for the School Leaders Network, his efforts are centralized in actualizing the potential and possibilities of urban youth.  In a candid and intimate interview, Dr. Jenkins shares familial teachings that shape his professional pursuits, revealing how they inform the practitioner and person he is today.  What unfolds is a compelling narrative of a man and educator with finger on the pulse, and reform on the cusp.  He is a trailblazer who forges to create a difference in the lives of so many others. From student to administrator, he empowers people with tools and resources. The impact is exponential, as his investment empowers people to tool and empower one another.

Family Influence and Impact

John was born in 1968 to teen parents. Although he grew up poor in the South Bronx, New York, and Detroit, MI, two of the nation’s highest areas of poverty, his caste did not become his coffin.  He thanks his family with inoculating him, as his economic status did not hinder his self-image and destiny.  “We were a working class family with resources,” John rebuffs, with resources being familial and multi-generational.

John in middle school.
John in middle school.

Resounding in John’s self-perceptions and movements are the evidence of a hard-working, deep-loving, and spiritually-convicted family.  His paternal grandparents’ entrepreneurial and industrious spirits triumphed in demonstrative alternatives.  The Jenkins Luncheonette on Intervale Avenue was a prominent neighborhood fixture, a place for food, community meetings, and entertainment.  Johnny and Dorothy Jenkins’ perseverance served as counterinfluence against the prevalence of unemployed neighbors disproportionately resorting to ulterior motives making ends meet. From them, “I got a whole lot about class consciousness early on about those people and these people and how I didn’t want to be among those people.” John did not interpret such admonishment as elitism, but as clear cautioning to do his best. Yet witnessing such circumstances laid the foundation for John directing his attention and talent servicing others within struggling communities. He would channel his professional investment into urban schools.

From very young, the roles of caregiver, protector and mediator aligned with an inner calling within John.  “I’ve always taken the kind of caretaker leadership role.”  Harboring a heart to look out for and help others, he enjoyed being put in charge of younger siblings and cousins.  Babysitting and helping with homework were formidable experiences that informed his ethos to protect and support others.  It is no coincidence that John’s favorite game was playing school, especially the teacher, as he relishes leading, teaching and serving others.  Frequently he assisted elders in their errands, and cherishes in particular helping his paternal great-grandmother, Minnie Lee Felder.  John attributes his experiences with her to imbuing him with a heart of reverence and service. Consequently, being there in times of others’ needs has become “part of my construct of myself.”  Being peacekeeper and mediator were also important roles he filled, apprenticing him for future professional scenarios.  To John, “Peace and equilibrium are really important.  Avoiding conflict is very important.”  Looking out for younger relatives, and being a helpmate to adults, foretold of labor done lovingly becoming a vocation.

John and siblings.
John and siblings.

John describes himself as a composite of several family members. His mother, Marcina Jenkins, exemplified for him a person of inner strength and resolve. She endured challenging circumstances while negotiating several roles and their obligations simultaneously.  She was a teen wife coming of age while raising three children, a daughter balancing relationships with opinionated parents and at-times difficult in-laws, and unfortunately, becoming a single parent raising children on her own.  She made an indelible impression upon him. He credits his mother with “model[ing] for me the importance of hard work and sacrifice.”  In a larger context, seeing firsthand “what society does to [a] woman when you have to take care of children and you don’t have the chance to be yourself,” also laid the groundwork for him exploring the impingement of race, class, and gender in work and education.

John as high school student.
John as high school student.

John’s father, John Jenkins Sr., also influenced who he became as both a man and an educator.  Briefly living with him in Yonkers, NY as a teenager, John culled poignant lessons about “presence and presentation.” His father emphasized “the importance of looking your best, being pressed and polished in front of folks” so “you can be trusted and get access to what you want.”  Although by John’s accounts his father’s investment and commitment to this message were at times riddled with hidden agendas, dubious goals, and compromised ethics, he still heeds to this day his father’s advice of possessing a strong vocabulary, exercising gentility and channeling a charismatic image.

 

Educational History and Emerging Career Path

Dr. Jenkins’ high school and college experiences were pivotal to him identifying his strengths and designing a professional path for their expression. Although enrolled in Yonkers High School’s Gifted and Talented Program, attending college did not initially interest him. Having only one uncle attend and complete an Associate’s degree, “It was not a big thing on my radar that I had to attend college.” However, a small group of peers applied to the University of Albany in New York. John, influenced by them, followed suit.  While he did not initially fulfill traditional admissions requirements, he was accepted into the university’s Minority Recruitment Program.

Dr. Jenkins’ college experience proved transformative.  He began “coming into my own as a person.” He recalls key experiences that began shaping his identity as an African-American man, and compelling him to give back to the community.  While a junior, he saw the dance troupe Black Gold Dancers, and was so impressed that he joined.  “It was the first time that I had seen men as part of a dance ensemble and I just thought I could do that!” He credits the troupe with affording him the opportunity to artistically express himself, particularly within the allegiance of other men. He encountered brotherly love, and opportunities to serve a greater good, as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  He acknowledges the organization instilling within him the conviction that while “I had a legacy of excellence to uphold as a Black man,” he was “responsible not only for me but particularly for other young Black men.”  As member and president of the university’s chapter, and later as member of the graduate Kappa Xi Lambda Chapter in New York City (affectionately known as the “Wall Street Alphas”), John fulfills the calling to shepherd young men of color. Efforts include partnering with local high schools and community centers to help young men graduate high school and matriculate into college.  “We support and mentor [young boys] through the graduation process, help them with college and scholarship applications so that they can transition successfully into college. This is the program that I am most connected to.”  He also mentors young boys coming of age in issues regarding responsibility and relationships, and in building life skills. Familial and childhood lessons he learned in how to take others begin to take shape and root within his actions as an adult.

John and fraternity brothers.
John and fraternity brothers.

John’s introduction into political and social issues began at the university. Taking several courses in Africana and women’s studies opened his eyes to how the world is different for people that in his words “did not fit the norm.”  “I became aware of the different challenges people experienced based on the social, gender, and cultural groups they belonged to. And I realized that life was not the same for everyone.”  Consequently, he applied his emerging epiphanies in issues of race, class and gender to his work within student government.  As the Affirmative Action Officer for the Student Association, his responsibilities were to handle student complaints of discrimination within Student Association affiliated programs.  Another was to provide mandatory trainings to student leaders around issues of diversity, “to educate every organization about their obligation to support all students and make every organization accessible and inviting to all Albany students.”

Heeding lessons of putting family first, John returned  to the South Bronx after graduation in 1991.  He moved in with his aging great-grandmother to take care of her until she passed.  John attributes this experience as “a nice completion of a circle of giving.”  Yet while being home, it was a chance conversation with a principal that led to his entre into education.  Harkening childhood lessons of advocating for others and making a good impression, he stepped into the role of a liaison for his cousin who was trying to transfer to Lehman High School.  After making the case with the principal for his cousin’s enrollment, the principal was so impressed with John’s argument and presentation he immediately offered John a job to substitute teach.  A week later an English/Language Arts teaching position was vacated that the principal needed immediately to fill.  He offered it to John. John accepted.

John with Great-Grandmother.
John with Great-Grandmother.

Teaching at Lehman High School became “the opportunity that showed up to meet the preparedness that I had been honing all of my life.”  John taught 9th Grade Honors, 11th Grade Regents Prep, and a Regents-level African-American literature elective which he authored and developed.  During his five years there, John created curriculum that was academically rigorous and socially relevant.  He culled myriad educational, social and personal experiences, both personal and historical, to create content and assessments.  His most memorable unit was “Fathers and Sons: Success and Manhood.” He taught two  novels, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the play  “A Raisin in the Son” by Lorraine Hansberry. These texts were lens for students to investigate and examine the development and consequence of the relationships shared between fathers and sons, examining “how the cultural, social and racial issues played out in each relationship.” Also, John encouraged students to further their education after high school.  As the only faculty member of color within his department, John had personal stake in availing to students post-secondary possibilities.  Frequently he shared his college experiences with them, “bringing it right to their doorsteps.” Consequently, several chose to follow in his footsteps and attend UAlbany.

Teaching at Lehman High School.
Teaching at Lehman High School.

John furthered his own education as he taught. He completed his M.S. in Secondary Education and English in 1994, and two years later received his NYS permanent teaching certification for grades 7-12.

From Teacher to Scholar to Leader

Ever pursuant of opportunities to improve schools and communities, John returned to teach in Yonkers, NY as a way to give back.  He began in 1996 teaching English/Language Arts at Roosevelt High School. In the late 1990s, Yonkers was found in violation of providing disparate and unequal educational opportunities to students based on race.  Again, John was placed in a situation to teach and mentor students, noting this time though their particularized needs for affirmation and self-advocacy. “The Yonkers students seemed to be more deprived socially and had greater struggles academically. They need[ed] much more social interventions to get them ready for learning and to keep them engaged in school. Thus I had to be much more nurturing and teach them how to advocate for their needs more.” This intersection of supporting students while transforming a school district would provide John not only new avenues to create change but unfold a new career path to do so. 

As part of a court-ordered desegregation initiative, the Yonkers school district underwent a major training initiative in diversity.  John was part of the human relations team designated to train adults in diversity and to implement changes.  Through this training (facilitated by diversity expert and facilitator Dr. Cathy Royal), John became a  Diversity Facilitator.  In his new capacity as a Human Relations Officer (1998-1999), he was charged with addressing the district’s desegregation mandates.  These spanned (1) creating and facilitating mandated diversity training, (2) providing principals with support in creating school-wide plans, (3) training teachers and school aides in human relations skills, and (4) designing workshops in listening skills, student management, assertive discipline and effective communication.

Both then and now, Dr. Cathy Royal’s work has been especially influential, particularly her Quadrant  Behavior Theory. John explains it as follows:

Across all the major identifying social groups that exist—race, gender, class, ethnicity, nation of origin, language, sexual orientation, and class—there are two groups, the dominant group and the subordinate group, [that] exists within each of those categories. And the world organizes itself to provide access, privilege and opportunity to the dominant group member, and oppression to the subordinate group member.

Consequential of such grouping, John remarks that “[either] you have a certain access to opportunity or certain oppression around your access to opportunity.”  Her theoretical framework and methodology for how she then works as an agent of change in supporting stakeholders in examining and understanding social, ethnic, racial, and cultural issues have made indelible impressions on John. For him, she provides an exemplary template of consultant work with an emphasis on self-reflection, examination of social and cultural dynamics, and working collaboratively with others in pursuing institutional change.  Accordingly, her work informs his work in transforming schools and his model of consultation.  John employs her theories within his work with urban schools to help stakeholders recognize how cultural and social variables come into play within their own school setting and impact it.

Recognizing he could catalyze change on larger scales, Dr. Jenkins pursued positions with more executive duties and managerial responsibilities.  First, in 1999 he completed his NYS Certificate in Supervision and Administration. Then, he served two years as an Assistant Principal in two Yonkers public schools. In this new capacity, he created opportunities  for students to receive public recognition for their academic achievement and citizenship, such as through school-wide assemblies. He provided in-school support for students by developing and participating within a mentorship program for at-risk students.

John as Assistant Principal at Roosevelt School.
John as Assistant Principal at Roosevelt High School.

While Assistant Principal, Dr. Jenkins’ time was most invested in addressing and fulfilling students’ social needs. His biggest commitment was furthering the district-wide initiative by addressing in particular problematic dynamics between teachers and students, “[h]elping students learn how to best advocate for themselves in conflicts with teachers.” He noticed there remained racial tensions between the teachers and students, and thus committed to improving such dynamics by facilitating teachers in changing their paradigms and constructs about exactly who are their students.  “Many of the students were angry and upset, and the teachers were angry and upset with them. They (the teachers) did not understand that the high school students are young adults, and they have their own perceptions of what they need, and they can’t just be told what to do. They’re not children.” On the other side of the equation, he empowered students with language and communication tools to advocate for themselves.  “I found myself having to help students learn how to articulate their needs, wants and challenges to teachers so teachers could be more responsive.”   Yet this facilitation made for contention at times, particularly with some faculty.  While some teachers appreciated his coaching of students, others saw his efforts as subversive, misinterpreting his empowerment of students as teaching them “to dismantle the power structure in the school.”  But in all, he attributes being an assistant principal with refining his skills in working directly with adults and to lead schools.

A Trifecta of Aspirations

While Dr. Jenkins was at a pinnacle of success as a leader, he also was at an intersection facing critical decisions about where next to go. His aspirations of transitioning from teacher to leader, pursuing a doctoral degree, and creating his own consulting company would necessitate deep clarification. Going forward, he would need to be real clear on what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to achieve it, and the best steps to actualize these achievements, without being at the expense of his physical energy or mental health.  Yet there is a saying that if you honor your calling, the universe will meet you where you are. So it met John to mentor him through this potentially tumultuous junction.

The pursuit of a doctorate was activated by his grandmothers. His maternal grandmother gave him a graduation card saying “Excel. Excel. Excel.” John interpreted this message as her beckoning him to acquire his bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.  Then years later, out of the blue, his paternal grandmother passed him a note in church, asking him to get his doctorate.  Ever respectful of his elders, he complied.  While in Yonkers he received additional validation from the living examples of two men of color. They were Dr. Andre Hornsby, the first African-American Superintendent of Yonkers, and Dr. Fred Hernandez, the principal of Roosevelt High School at the time John worked there.  Witnessing these two men possessing doctorates made John think he could too. So in 1999, while an Assistant Principal, he enrolled into the New York University’s Department of Educational Administration to complete his Doctorate of Education.

“My experience at NYU was life changing.” The only male student of color in his entire cohort, it brought him face-to-face with his own vulnerabilities of being a student.

I definitely felt like I was in over my head. I sat in those small intimate classrooms of 7-10 students and felt as if I was not smart enough or capable enough to do the work. I realized for the first time that there were quite a number of things that I was just not exposed to or prepared for. Reading critical theories and research and writing my own arguments, etc. were all so new to me.

Yet this multi-layered uneasiness gave rise to John recognizing his potential, and with this epiphany came renewed effort and commitment.  It was being “resilient and focused and choosing a research topic on African-American middle school boys [that] helped me move through and I ended up being the first person in my cohort to finish.” His efforts were recognized by the school as well.  “The department chose me to speak to other ED students about how to be focused and successfully navigate through the doctoral experience.”  John also credits his dissertation advisor, Dr. Terry Astuto, as modeling and providing an example of how an educator supports a learner.  “My dissertation advisor was an amazing supportive advocate and colleague and really taught me how an educator should advocate for his or her students and work with them to achieve high standards.” Her work “became a model of how I taught my students and taught teachers to advocate and support their students as well.”

Graduating with Doctorate of Education from New York University, 2003.
Graduating with Doctorate of Education from New York University, 2003.

Harkening to his own experiences of attending urban schools and teaching within them, John chose the topic of African-American boys and their middle school expectations. “I chose to study African-American boys in their middle school context to learn more about how they interpret their school quality and experiences.” John believed that he “had an obligation to reinform myself and informs other educators about what they needed to improve their school experiences.” He was tired of “all of the stats that show that African American boys were at risk and endangered and failing but there were no solutions.” His case study helped him articulate “that African American boys in middle school wanted rigorous instruction, high quality teachers who cared, and curriculum that was relevant to their needs.”

Concurrent with his doctoral program, John became the principal of several New York City and Yonkers public schools.  Each experience would hone his skills as a leader, as well as reveal the places within his leadership he would need to grow.  The years that followed situated him learning how to support schools under pressure, dealing with district-based political wrangling, innovating approaches to school leadership, and venturing into working within the world of charter schools.  The catastrophe of September 11th, 2001, occurred with John as a new principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Yonkers,  thrusting him not only into the new role of running a school for the first time but also helping and supporting the mending of an entire community too.  Following this event, wrangling between the superintendent and district occurred, whereby newly hired principals were caught in the crossfire, with them having to accept a substantial pay cut if they wanted to remain principal. John left and sought new leadership opportunities. He was recommended by his former superintendent for a principal position in the Bronx, and for two years served as principal there in two middle schools. In his second middle school, the NYC Department of Education piloted an innovative model, testing out the benefits of co-principalship and collaborative leadership.  While the opportunity was appealing, John began to feel the compounding weight of the school’s needs, the demanding investment embedded within a dual-leadership position, completing graduate work and launching his consultant business, and left at the end of the school year.

Yet it was the needs of a failing middle school, and an opportunity to participate in the charter school community, that inspired John in 2003 to pursue and accept the position of principal at the Community Partnership Charter School in Brooklyn.  Founded by parents in Fort Greene, in partnership with the Beginning with Children Foundation, the vision for the school was to provide an unprecedented opportunity for parents and educative stakeholders to collaborate in a holistic approach to educating, serving and supporting students. However, shortly after opening the school stood to lose its charter.   “It was really high stakes and when I joined I was the 3rd leader of the school in 3 years.” Turning the school around was a “tall order for a new principal.” Though under extreme pressure, he deemed his priorities as working “to stabilize things, establish routines for safety and [create] a strong school community.” Through his two years of leadership and transformative efforts, integrating involvement from “dedicated staff and amazing parent body,” the school’s charter was renewed for five years, a rare occurrence.  John appreciated “the autonomy of being able to make my own choices and decisions about instruction and programs.” “I was able to really do what we felt was right for our students.”

John’s other contribution to the charter school movement is serving as a founding board member and chair of the International Leadership Charter School in the Bronx.  For three years he “support[ed] the leader in establishing a high-quality high-performing high school for students of color.” In 2012, after only being open for six years, ILCS was ranked #7 of the top ten high schools in New York City. In 2013, the school was recognized by U.S. News and World Report, making its list of “Best High Schools.”

An insightful observation that John made during his interview was the belief that each of his career experiences has been in service not only to that specific position, but as preparation for the one to come.

 [T]he cycle has taught me is that at each level of my professional career, I am never doing the work that is only about that piece of my career. I am doing the work that is preparing me for what I need for the next career ahead, particularly when I am experiencing things that are new, that are challenging, that push me, I know I am experiencing them as a capacity builder to do the work at the next level, and that I need to ride it out, learn how to ride those rough places out in a way that I had not been able to do before in my career.

While discussing his several principalships, he shared that he carried around feelings of remorse, feeling at times as if he abandoned and deserted kids that needed him the most.  Although believing he made the best decisions he could for himself, and not regretting doing so, he looks over the shoulder of his career with contrition.  He shared that he carried this indictment of his performance around for almost a decade, until assuming the position of Regional Director at School Leaders Network, which gave him a different opportunity to harness his regretful reflections. During a training in which he facilitated principals in reflecting on their leadership over time, John created a leadership journey timeline of his own career as a model. In the process, he came to an epiphany that his own  frontline experiences could be used in service to supporting principals currently on that same frontline, and the sharing of his experiences could benefit them.  This reflective opportunity proved redeeming and restorative for John, as he would amalgamate his experiences to be in service to other school leaders in the years to come.

The ethos of family first resounds strongly in John’s beliefs and actions, even if at sacrifice of self.  After completing his dissertation in 2003, two life changing events occurred. John was married, and later that year expected his first child.  He sought ways to further his career aspirations while also expanding sources of revenue to support his growing family.  So John pursued opportunities to do consulting work and teaching at the post-secondary level.  These pursuits would later inform his future professional endeavors. Consulting work granted him access to discussing with school leaders their visions for their schools, and working collaboratively with them and stakeholders to employ tools and resources that actualized that vision.  Teaching on a college/university level gave John access to being an agent of change within education. It provided him access and opportunity to educating and enlightening the horizons of new teachers and administrators entering the profession.

John and wife, Renee
John and wife, Renee.

From 2000 to 2006, John was an adjunct professor in Bergen County Community College’s Department of Literature and Composition, Mercy College’s New Teacher Residency Program and Department of Speech and Communication, and New York University’s Department of Administration, Leadership and Technology.  He taught courses in administration/supervision, educational philosophy, English composition and oral communication.  John explains the ethos and rationale underlying his work with college students:

My chief goals were to help my students see the challenges, gifts and diversity of the student populations they were working with and not shy away from either of these things. I openly shared my journey as a student born and raised in the South Bronx and helped them to understand that they were the conduit and advocate to limitless life possibilities for their students. I did this by exposing them to theories of Quadrant Behavior and dominant and subordinated group memberships. We discussed privilege and oppression and I helped them to discover that they had to actively help their students break through barriers that had been constructed for them by society. I got them excited by sharing that education (their roles) was a key tool in shattering those barriers. I helped them learn tools and strategies to be able to communicate with families and students as advocates from an asset-based perspective and teach students to be strong academes and advocate for themselves as well.

As part of their “real world” experiences, he conducted site visits of his administration interns and teaching candidates in their field placements, providing them critical feedback about their performances. He supported new teachers through both instruction and field work. In this capacity he could be of service to the field of education by working to shape the educators emerging from it, and how they in turn would educate others.  This juncture continued to cultivate and advance his skill sets in preparing and assisting stakeholders working in urban school systems.

John worked for several education-based consultative companies, learning different models to address school needs and implement change.  He reflects what this line of work taught him about the importance of relationship building and how best to do so:

The chief asset of [these] experiences was that they built my capacity to work more closely with adults and develop stronger one-to-one coaching skills. These skills helped me to become a better listener and to assess problems in schools authentically through the lived experiences of the people in them. I also increased my tool kit of knowledge with the programs offered by Ramapo and Kaplan. They also helped me to learn how to balance my emotion[al] involvement as an external consultant so that I was not overly judgmental or engaged in an organization such that it hindered my ability to effectively coach.

As a learning and development consultant for Kaplan K-12 Services, he facilitated NYC training teachers in test readiness strategies for city and state assessments, provided coaching and modeling, and developed training materials. As a Coach for Ramapo for Children, Inc., he supported NYC school leaders and teachers in implementing effective classroom management strategies. He also became a diversity instructor with the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied and Behavioral Sciences (the organization who supported Yonkers’ diversity initiatives). His work spanned contributing in designing curriculum and co-facilitating training sessions. Working as a consultant helped John grow and develop his skill set supporting school leadership and providing professional development.  Yet working as a consultant also spawned within him the creating of his own consulting company.

Unlike the model of consulting where a pre-packaged program is simply delivered and administered, the Jenkins Learning and Development Group was created to provide customized on-site support specific to the needs of a school and its staff, involving stakeholders in the process of change.  John’s experience as a diversity instructor with The Diversity Facilitation Certificate Program under NTL and lead by Cathy Royal of Royal Consulting (the organization who supported the Yonkers initiative), inspired him to open his own consulting company, and shaped his consulting model.  He details below the theoretical and experiential underpinnings of his work, and shares examples:

[I] saw a tremendous need for professional learning in schools that was rooted in both pedagogy and social justice. I began by just working with and for principals I knew and they remain my chief clients today. My work helps to build a sense of confidence, commitment and capacity in teachers and leaders to educate all students and develop all staff to be most effective in their roles….Building all of these skills allows me to go into schools and literally work in a seamless way from all angles in the system to achieve maximum impact. Through coaching I am able to help leaders and their teachers cut through the challenges and get to the opportunities they have to improve their practice and impact their students learning and take healthy, productive actionable next steps.

Using a participatory action research model, John discusses with clients their mutual interest and need for collaboration, determines the scope of work, gathers data, engages and inform key participants, decides priorities, mobilizes energy for change, targets ways to build capacity, validates changes, evaluates progress and determines next steps.  He has worked for such clients as Youth Build USA, Bronx Lab School, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, and Eagle Academy for Young Men. Work has included facilitating whole staff retreats, designing and implementing project-based learning tasks, facilitating leadership teams, developing professional learning communities, creating protocols for classroom walkthroughs and providing feedback,  mentoring new teachers, instructional coaching, and writing concept papers for new school proposals,. Services also span the onsite teaching of courses; examples of courses taught are Effective Communication with Acting Out Students, Planning for Quality Instruction, Classroom Management and Student Learning, and Improving Writing Instruction in the Classroom.

Coming Full Circle, Transforming the Landscape of Leadership

In 2006 John joined Diploma Plus as an Instructional Manager. Servicing urban students who are over-aged and under-credited, this position afforded John the chance to harness and amalgamate his wealth of knowledge and experience as an educator, administrator, instructor and consultant.  For the next 3 ½ years he systemically supported networks of schools on both micro and macro levels.  John’s success lay in creating intimate relationships with principals where they could talk in detail about their visions and aspirations for their schools, while also divulging their concerns, hesitations, and challenges.  As he does within his consulting work, John’s orientation to supporting schools is to foster each principal’s analytic and introspective processes, to deeply reflect upon their strengths and areas needing improvement, and strategize around what is needed to actualize their visions for their schools.  He helps them ascertain the ways they are enfranchising stakeholders in having a vested interest and stake in their school.  After the development of a work plan, he hits the ground running.

As an instructionally- and systemically-oriented coach, he supported Diploma Plus schools and networks in implementing the Diploma Plus model. This implementation spanned one-on-one coaching of teachers in instructional methods and curriculum planning, supporting community-based organizations in integrating their support services within the school day, helping administration create measures of success and assess performance, etc.  Consequential to his efforts, his support of school leaders and their schools, several achieved high grades on their yearly evaluations, as well as accolades from district leaders.  Other than team meetings with the local NYC DP staff, John could rarely be found in the office or sitting at a desk.  On any given day, or night, John would traverse several boroughs to be constantly accessible to school leaders and staff.  He was also the informal coordinator of the new school process, where parties interested in opening DP schools would meet with him throughout the proposal development and preparation process.  His support would encompass vetting potential leaders and school teams, supporting selected teams in the writing of their proposals, compiling necessary artifacts, assembling stakeholders to support the potential school, and preparing them for their presentation and defense with the NYC Department of Education. And this is not including the work and support he provided to the Diploma Plus organization on a local and national level. Such support encompassed facilitating summer institutes in training new staff and faculty in the model, meeting with the national team to plan and implement several initiatives, and developing tools and materials for the national network of schools. As well, the position required him to regularly interface with the city’s department of education, one of the largest in the nation.  Duties spanned serving as a liaison between the NYC school network and the Office of New Schools.

As an instructional program manager, John transferred his skills of supporting schools internally, to doing so across local and national networks.  Although this two-tiered approach of supporting schools was new to John, he was able to broaden his emerging skill set of supporting schools systemically.  It was then he sought a specific professional position that afforded him an opportunity “to build his skills as a leader of leaders.”  In 2010 he became New York City Regional Director for the School Leaders Network, and in 2013, was promoted to Vice President of Programs.

John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012
John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012

Dr. Jenkins remains passionate in his work with instructional and administrative staff because they are an under-served, under-supported groups.  “There’s still a system where principals either sink or swim…the good rise to the top and the ‘bad,’ well they drown, and ‘they’ believe that’s how leaders work. You’re a good leader or not a good leader.”  The extreme focus on school performance, yet lack of investment within principals in particular, troubles him.  “Little attention is given to building the capacity of principals to create strong communities of learners within their schools.” “I don’t think there is enough of a focus on developing leaders while they are in their position from school districts.  And as a result, it is creating large scale failure, particularly in large urban schools that serve students who have been underserved in their education.” John sees the lack of support provided to school leaders having an exponential effect on students, particularly within schools with students of high need.  “The things we know that are happening in highly performing schools are not translating to the schools that are struggling because there is not a real consistent support in place for principals.”   Dr. Jenkins elaborates on this correlation between leadership and student success:

So the more challenges that the students are dealing with in their ability to learn, the more equipped the teachers have to be.  And usually the more ill-equipped the teachers are because they are [not working within] institutions that do not structure their curriculum around dealing with students who have not been appropriately prepared.” “So you have this combination of teachers who are least prepared, being paired with students who are least prepared, and they are [both] led by principals who are least prepared . . .That coupling happens most often in school districts with students of color.

John’s observation and experience has been that the “fixing” of struggling schools is in the pre-packaged dissemination of supports on the teacher and/or student level. Yet John believes it is the support of the leadership that is pivotal to the success of these stakeholders.

People are trying to fix it on the student level with all these interventions . . . [and there is] a huge market on that…And then you have a lot of teacher preparation programs saying ‘We can prepare teachers better than other people.’ However, there is not enough focus on developing the leader that will be able to take all those great programs, and all those better prepared teachers, and create communities where they are working in tandem to accelerate student achievement.  That’s why we keep having consistent failure, because at the top of the chain the leadership is not situated or prepared in a way to use all these new programs, all these new resources, to support the students who are struggling.

This disproportionate dynamic particularly troubles him regarding struggling schools, which is why he invests his life in supporting them.

John has also noticed that when schools within a given neighborhood or district experience similar depravity in the support of school leaders, the impairment and damage to student learning and achievement are exponential.  “[O]ften, all those schools are all in the same area. And if you have no leadership above that, to effectively develop those leaders [of those schools] together, so they can actually support each other,” then you can’t have success.  “A school cannot rise above its leadership.”

John notices that throughout several schools across several states that support of principals ends after the first 2 years, resulting, regrettably and too often, in “iterative, abominable failure.” The result? Collateral damage of teachers and students feeling  “disenfranchised and disappointed.”  This is why he feels his work and initiatives with SLN are so significant and meaningful.

John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012, 2
John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012.

In his current work with principals, John helpes them build their capacities to be “leaders of learners within their schools.”  “All of the current research is pointing to that successful schools are those that get their teachers and other educators to take on equal ownership to the movement of the school and the students as the principal does.” He is trying to help principals move away from the top-down, do-as-I-say approach to leadership. John helps principals to be reflective practitioners, regularly engaging in cycles of introspection and application, operating as agents of change and capacity builders within their schools and school communities.  Through cohort meetings, on-site visitations, one-on-one mentorship and staff development, he situates principals to regularly investigate and interrogate their effectiveness.  He puts them through a protocol of inquiry, to contemplate such things as,

this is how I am structuring the needs of my staff, how I should be targeting my goals and objectives, this is how I should be providing effective coaching and feedback with teachers about their practice, this is how I should be empowering teachers to take this work and move it forward, this is what a real adult learning community looks like, this is how I build trust with my staff, this is how I help them believe I have the capacity to do the same work that I am asking them to do, this is how I show value to them, this is how I root for them to support them and energize them when they feel discouraged.

John empowers principals so they act “as a group of adults learning, sharing, and pushing each other,” and with that same impetus, “take back to their schools and create those same communities and schools.” He believes this is critical work for principals.

Dr. John R. Jenkins is a restless educator who vigilantly continues to inform and shape educational possibilities for several stakeholders, from student to administrator.  Unperched from title, he ebbs and flows with the needs of the times, culling his skills to effectuate opportunities for urban education.  Expansive in reach, and cataclysmic in impact, his exertions as an educator defy his modesty.

The Jenkins Family. John, Renee, ReJohn, Nejee, Janae
The Jenkins Family. John, Renee, Nejee, ReJohn, and Janae