The man wearing braids that stuck straight up, a wrapped-up bandanna, sagging jeans and an oversized T-shirt may have been the last person that nearly 400 educators from surrounding communities expected to see Tuesday at the Regional Professional Learning Community, hosted by Educational Service Unit 16 at Quality Inn & Suites.
But he arrived, and it turned out he was Adolph Brown III, the conference’s keynote speaker.
The “undercover brother,” as Brown said he’s been nicknamed, is currently a visiting professor at Livingstone College in North Carolina, he said.
Growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, he lived in the projects in poverty, raised by a single mother and lived through events like his older brother, his “hero,” being murdered, he said.
The first in his family to graduate from high school and college, Brown, a behavioral scientist, also goes as an “undercover brother” on the first day of some of the college classes he teaches, he said.
“When you saw me walking around today, there’s some things that came to your mind,” he told the audience, before joking that some likely thought, “That’s why I teach elementary school. Where does he work? Who hired him?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there’s always another story.”
Brown’s presentation often made the audience laugh. It ended with a standing ovation.
“I also knew I was in the right place today, because no one called the police,” he said.
The last time, in North Carolina, the theme was centered around accepting every student, he said.
While Brown worked to tell attendees about implicit bias, he also taught educators about themselves.
Students arrive at school with a backpack — like the one Brown wore in his “undercover” role — but everyone has two backpacks, he said.
Just as students may struggle with poverty at home, not being excited about school breaks because they don’t know if they’ll eat or having the electricity turned off, teachers deal with issues like infertility, caring for an elderly parent and other issues outside school.
“We’re only as safe as our secrets,” he said.
People don’t have to share the contents of their second backpack, but they should know what’s in it, he said.
Brown also spoke about showing equity at the conference.
A marathon is 26.2 miles when someone starts from the beginning. Some students begin their marathon near the finish line because of how much they have going into it, he said.
Still, as Brown shed his synthetic braids and baggy clothing for a black suit and a short haircut, he came back to the concept of implicit bias.
“Affluence does not mean you don’t have a second backpack,” he said. “Poverty does not equal disability.”
Brown’s presentation Tuesday was funded in part by John Russell Applegate Grant funds through the Mid-Nebraska Community Foundation.