Brett Jordan (also known as Jordan B.) is only 31, but he’s already carved out a local reputation as a powerful, no-nonsense mentor and speaker in the field of education.
Often the insights he shares with young people — or their teachers and counselors — is rooted in his own story, many parts of which are easy to be inspired by. Jordan grew up in a single-parent household in an under-resourced westside Detroit neighborhood, attended Detroit Public Schools all 12 years, earned an academic scholarship to Western Michigan University (where he graduated in three years), then earned his master’s in public administration at UM-Dearborn (which he completed in just one year). Now, he’s finishing up his doctorate in education at UM-Dearborn.
But when he talks with audiences, his message goes far deeper than holding himself up as an example of beating the odds. We caught up with Jordan recently to talk about his approach to mentorship and his belief in the power of inconvenient truths.
So can you share a little about your own path and how you were drawn to doing this kind of work?
Well, for me, it started very young. My grandparents were married and had 13 kids, and I just happened to be one of the oldest grandsons. I realized early on that the decisions I made had an influence on my younger cousins.
I think another big part comes from my education — and in particular, my experience of how African-American men are not validated in education. From kindergarten all the way through to now, as I’m working on a doctoral degree, I can count the number of black male teachers and professors I’ve had on one hand. At the same time, I can open up my front door, look down the street and see a black man. That tells me I’m validated on the street, but I’m not validated in the classroom. So my purpose is to reach as many young people as I can and help them recognize and optimize their full potential.
You’re sort of known for being really straight-up with young people. Can you talk about that and what motivates that style?
Overall, I see myself as a person who speaks truth to allies and authority. So with every person, regardless of how you feel, I’m going to tell you the truth, provide you with the resources and then leave the ball in your court.
With students, I might start off by letting them vent about all the challenges they’ve been through. But after that, it’s all about the moment of ‘now what?’ I’m honest about what the odds are, what the stats are, what the narratives are about the black community. Like one of my lines is: I’m born into a social gap, I’m educated in an achievement gap, I go to college in a race gap, and if I graduate, I finally earn my pay gap. That is my life experience. But it’s also part of my life experience that I don’t believe the ‘odds,’ I believe the ‘evens:’ Even if you grew up in a single-parent household, you can be successful; even if you didn't go to the best school, you can make it. But you have to work for it.
When you speak the truth, the kids love it because they’re used to people lying to them. They tend to have these totally unrealistic expectations — whether that’s believing some narrative that they can’t be successful because they’re black, or the fiction that they can be anything they want to be without going against the grain. When you’re real with them, it creates credibility and rapport. I think young people can sniff out who’s fake and who’s real better than anyone.
And you said you take that same approach when talking with authority figures. Does that bluntness play the same with that audience?
I spend a lot of time talking to rooms full of teachers, administrators and parents, and it’s true that it can make people uncomfortable sometimes. I was actually just at UM-Dearborn, giving a keynote speech to a room full of urban teachers and counselors and administrators. And I made this statement about how it’s difficult to make the case to people that you want to educate their kids in an urban district when your own child is in a suburban district. That tells me you don’t trust the system you work in. And somebody was offended by that and explained that there were so many other dynamics to consider in why they might make that choice for their own child. That’s true, of course, but the idea that there are other factors doesn't erase the underlying tension.
It’s hard for me to understand how we get motivated to make change until we allow ourselves to feel the uncomfortableness of the truth. There’s comfort in the lie you tell yourself; and when there’s comfort, you don’t have to change anything.
I noticed you have a lot of lines or sayings that sound like aphorisms that really stick with you. Is that an intentional part of your style?
Yeah, I think of it almost as subliminal messaging. If you give the students quotes and short lines — positive subliminal messaging — they’ll hold on to it. I just had a young lady come up to me on the RiverWalk the other day, and she was literally repeating my lines back to me. I use a lot of them: You can’t speak butterfly language to caterpillar people. If you can’t be trusted in the wilderness, you can’t be trusted in the Promised Land; that one is about the people you choose to hang out with.
So it’s about sharing these life skills or life lessons that resonate because they frame a truth they already know on some level. Or one that blows up a lie they’ve always heard. And it’s always helpful if you can use a little humor along with it. Then if it’s one of those uncomfortable truths, it helps soften the blow.