March 22, 2018

Why representation matters in the classroom

Renewal Awards finalist Profound Gentlemen is building a network of male teachers of color to 'dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline'

Jason Terrell and Mario Jovan Shaw founded Profound Gentlemen to build a community of male educators of color. Photo courtesy of Profound Gentlemen


Meet the finalists for 2018 The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind 25 nonprofits that are creating solutions in the communities they serve. Ten winners were announced in March at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans.

In many ways, teachers are our first mentors. They guide us, show us what’s possible, and challenge our young minds to think. A teacher’s role is vital in building up and preparing our youth for a successful future.

The nonprofit Profound Gentlemen serves the teachers who play this role in the lives of those who have been traditionally disadvantaged—boys of color. The organization, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has built a nationwide support network for male educators of color. According to its co-founder, and a teacher himself, Jason Terrell, the nonprofit is on a mission to make sure all students, especially young men of color, have educators who reflect their background, from kindergarten all the way through high school. “We believe that educators are gatekeepers to increased opportunities,” Terrell told us. “And we need those gatekeepers to be diverse, culturally responsive, and [to be able to] identify with their students.” We asked Terrell and fellow co-founder Mario Jovan Shaw to tell us how male teachers of color can positively impact their students, and how Profound Gentlemen is helping those teachers do just that.

The following is an edited and condensed version of our Q&A. Follow Profound Gentlemen on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @pgeducator.

Tell us about the Profound Gentlemen community.

MARIO: This question puts a smile on my face because our community is dope! I’m going to begin with our staff—our team is badass. Together, we take care of ourselves. We understand that we can’t pour into anyone’s cup if ours is empty. Everything is done with intention. “Why” is not an offensive question but a way for us to think deeper about our work. Most of our staff members are male educators of color who work part-time. Many of them treat this work like a full-time job because of how they give themselves to our Gentlemen. We recognized that PG is not a job, or even an organization. It’s a lifestyle. Our culture creates an environment for Gentlemen to devote themselves to doing the personal hard work. We are asking Gentlemen to be vulnerable because it matters to the community they are serving. We are asking Gentlemen to be authentic because it shows grace to our ancestors who allowed us to have this moment to be who we are. Profound Gentlemen is a space where you no longer have to hide. You just have to be you. We love you for you!

How is Profound Gentlemen helping your community thrive?

JASON: We founded Profound Gentlemen to build local communities of male educators of color who provide a profound impact on boys of color. Since our inception, we are leading the national conversation around male educator of color preparation, development, and retention. We have participated in national coalitions to inform and shape policies at the local and national level on teacher diversity and teacher recruitment. To date, we support a national community of over 200 men of color in education who teach across the nation. In 2015-2016, 90 percent of our educators returned to the classroom, and in 2016-2017, 100 percent of our educators returned to the classroom. In addition to our 100 percent retention rate, 88 percent of educators are satisfied with the development and training we provided, and of the 38 percent of educators who gained an additional leadership role last year, 30 percent directly attributed their additional role to the network, development, and training provided by Profound Gentlemen.

How did you start your community work?

JASON: I was taught the importance of creating change through innovation and community building at a young age. My grandfathers and my parents are deeply invested in bettering their community. One of my grandfathers was a preacher and led a church for over 20 years, and the other ran a local printing company called Six J Printing in Atlanta. When I was in the 7th grade, I started a car washing and lawn service, “Clean Cuts & Cars,” with a neighborhood friend. We both vowed to make every lawn in our neighborhood “Clean.”

The innovation and entrepreneurial spirit followed me to and through college where I found my passion working with students. I started a program called Men of Distinction with some of my close friends at Furman University. As an educator, I started a program in my class called Kids to College. In this program, students received paraphernalia from the colleges/universities of their choice when they achieved an A in the class or demonstrated significant growth. Each of these experiences has contributed and fueled my current work within Profound Gentlemen.

MARIO: I grew up in Cleveland. I LOVE my city and have so much respect for how we were forced to grow up. It was truly about the hustle. You had to move or you were going to get run over. I graduated from Collinwood High School, an inner-city school in the heart of Cleveland. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were just everyday people who sparked new creativity in Cleveland’s rap game. Students had more rap CDs than textbooks. It was a rough environment. To “make it out” of high school was somewhat of a right of passage for my friends and me. Graduating itself was community work. My experience in school motivates the work I do today. When I got to college, I continued to do work in supporting students of color. I understood the importance of having a great education and knowing that someone cared—these were key ingredients to establishing a promising future. I had a village of people who cared, but many people I knew didn’t. I know the importance of a team and having a village to move you forward.

What inspired you to do this work?

JASON: I am invested in the work of Profound Gentlemen because of my failure with one of my black male students during my third year in the classroom. The first two years of teaching were opportunities to learn and grow my pedagogical skills. By my third year, my scholars experienced exponential academic growth. Despite this, I failed to provide a specific student the social and emotional support he needed to be successful academically. This student gave up on himself because his teachers, parents, and society devalued him. Although I was aware of his struggles, I never took the time to truly engage this young man about his battles and provide him with guidance, and as a result, he failed my class and repeated the year.

I didn’t think about my neglect until the last week of school. My students completed a writing assignment on “Dreams” by Langston Hughes where I asked them to reflect on their personal and professional dreams. This particular student did not complete the assignment the way I designed. But he wrote me a letter that I now keep in my wallet. The first line of the note read, “I am stupid, and I can’t go anywhere with my education.” In my three years as a teacher, I never cried until I read his note. He further explained that he was ashamed of his skin tone, his race, and his abilities to be successful. In class, we discussed poems and lyrics like “I” by Kendrick Lamar that delved on themes on self-love and self-respect, and although he did not turn in any of the assignments, he was still impacted by the messages. I simply assumed that the lack of work resulted in disinterest; I now understand that I needed to be patient and engage this student on a deeper level.

We have to continue creating more spaces where Gentlemen can be their most authentic self and not be judged for it.

From this experience, I want to ensure that male educators of color have the opportunity to engage in development that will assist them as they work to provide enriching academic support to their boys of color. I want to create a community where educators feel empowered to share their struggles in the classroom and have ample opportunities to develop to support students like mine.

MARIO: Our educators and interns inspire me to do this work. I have the honor of hearing these amazing stories from our Gentlemen—how their work is making an impact on the communities they serve, specifically young black boys. Johnny Reed is a guy who reminds me of resilience and hard work. At the beginning of the year, Johnny knew that he wanted to further contribute to his community. At a turning moment in his life, he felt that his current work wasn’t good enough. Without a plan, Johnny left his former work to start a new venture. With just little money in his pocket, Johnny moved back to the community after his own heart. He struggled and hit a few roadblocks but eventually succeeded in the face of adversity. Today, Johnny runs his own nonprofit to support students who experience trauma. Just recently, he was recognized as Teach For America’s top 13 alumni of color to watch in 2018! Johnny’s story is like many others that I witness in PG. The energy they bring to our PG House (our office space) is contagious. When I think of them, I’m reminded of why this work truly matters—our boys deserve it!

What do you love about your community?

MARIO: I love that we love—we love HARD! We are forgiving and allow Gentlemen to truly step into themselves. This is “heartwork.” We do this work that can sometimes be unexplainable or perhaps don’t make sense. Our community is truly made up of profound gentlemen and women!

JASON: I love that there is pain and beauty in my community. In my community, there is a shared vision and a resiliency to overcome barriers through unity.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

JASON: My community is not a monolith. There is a strong sense of diversity and individuality within every face and story that we hear.

MARIO: I want outsiders to allow our Gentlemen to be themselves. Many of them are boxed into an image on how people think men of color should show up in the education space. This prevents them from wanting to do this work. Last year, we recognized that if we truly want to retain male educators of color, it starts with the mind. We have to continue creating more spaces where Gentlemen can be their most authentic self and not be judged for it.

What leaders inspire you?

MARIO: It changes daily. It depends on the moment and how I’m feeling. Today (Feb. 19), our staff member, Dominique Stone is a leader who inspires me. Also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Simba from The Lion King.

JASON: My father, grandfather, mother, Willie Brooks (Teacher in Charlotte), Huey Freeman, and Malcolm X.

The Renewal Project

The Renewal Project is an initiative by Allstate that spotlights local innovation and celebrates community change-makers.
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