dark ballroom with Shannon Cohen on stage in red dress

BBMS speaker tells audience to get rid of personal baggage, assumptions about students

Adolph Brown, who was the opening keynote speaker for the Black Boys and Men Symposium, set the stage June 14 before he even took the stage at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

At the introduction, a well-dressed Black man engaged the audience with a breakdance routine. When the song concluded, another Black man dressed in an oversized, long-sleeve t-shirt and baggy pants walked on stage, carrying a backpack. The man with the backpack had braided hair sticking up from a headband. He would later say wearing braids straight up was customary for his ancestors in Tanzania as they felt "closer to the Divine." 

It was Brown, motivational speaker and founder, president, and CEO of the Leadership & Learning Institute. The well-dressed man was Brown's godson, Jahzeel Mumford, who travels with him to speaking engagements.

man in white tshirt and backpack with American flag on it on stage raising fist
man in black warm up jacket raising arms on stage
Adolph Brown, right, in academic regalia, speaks to a conference attendee on stage
Adolph Brown initially appeared on stage in an oversized t-shirt, then revealed a warm-up jacket and, finally, academic regalia during his keynote presentation June 14 at the Black Boys and Men Symposium, held at the Amway Grand Plaza. (Emily Zoladz)

Brown told the audience they entered his master class and learned the first lesson. "Stop believing everything you think," he said. Now in his 35th year as an educator, Brown said he has spent his career researching why good people say horrible things and how harmful those statements may be to a student. 

"You need to assess your values and beliefs and see if they align with the school or university that employs you," he said.

The second Black Boys and Men Symposium drew more than 350 people, many of whom are K-12 educators, college educators and others who work closely with Black boys and men. 

Brown took off his American flag backpack midway through his presentation to discuss the secret emotional baggage everyone carries with them. Inside the larger backpack was a kid's Spiderman backpack.

"I was carrying things that didn't belong to me. The past is a place of reference, not a residence," he said. "If a student or any person makes a bad choice, don't dwell on that. Look in the mirror at yourself and be the best person possible before reacting."

B. Donta Truss, vice president for Enrollment Development and Educational Outreach, reacts to Adolph Brown's instructions from the stage during the opening keynote presentation at the Black Boys and Men Symposium. At right is Laura Aikens, vice president
B. Donta Truss, vice president for Enrollment Development and Educational Outreach, is in center, at right is Laura Aikens, vice president for University Development, and left is Jenny Hall-Jones, vice president for Student Affairs.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz

Brown had another outfit change at the end of his presentation. He slipped off the oversized t-shirt and pants to reveal jeans and an Adidas warm-up jacket. He then slipped on his academic regalia from the College of William and Mary, where he earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

His last piece of advice was not to rush changes a student is experiencing and to believe in their potential.

"When students know we believe in them, they will run through a wall for us," Brown said.

three sneakers are pictured at the Sneaker Ball, red, rainbow and white
Attendees of the Sneaker Ball show their footwear.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
woman on stage in ballroom speaking from stage
Alisha Davis, assistant vice president for the Social Justice Centers and director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, speaks at the Sneaker Ball June 15.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Bakari Sellers, analyst for CNN, an author, attorney and civil rights activist, is the closing keynote speaker. The BBMS also included a Sneaker Ball on June 15, with proceeds from the event supporting the Office of Multicultural Affairs Program Fund. 

B. Donta Truss, vice president for Enrollment Development and Educational Outreach, said new to this year's symposium is the addition of workgroups. 

"We've added a call to action," Truss said. "We will create workgroups from our attendees and activate a call to action. The work does not stop at this symposium."


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.