This is the text (and video) from my closing keynote address at the Achieving Together Conference

The Space to Dream

[You know why I love librarians? When I tell anyone else that The Usual Suspects got a starred review in Kirkus Reviews, they’re like “only one star? That doesn’t sound good.” But librarians get it.]

Now me, I’m an accidental librarian.

Let me back up, I’m an accidental teacher.

Let me back up further, I’m a dad (that was done on purpose).

I have two sons. One’s now at Ball State University. The other is at Herron High School.

It’s my continuing joy to be able to walk alongside these young men. Like kids do, they have put me through my paces – I chronicle some of their elementary school antics in The Usual Suspects. I hope you heard that last piece: their ELEMENTARY school antics. When I turned in the original draft of The Usual Suspects, the initial feedback was that some of the scenes weren’t believable as stuff middle grade students would do. I told my editor one, if you think it’s unbelievable with them in middle school, when it was happening in real life in 5th grade, I thought the same thing.  Two, you may want to spend more time with middle school students. They’re kind of like … people.

Now I am fully cognizant of what I’m raising. My oldest son learns a system gets to know the rules, the ins and outs, and then figures out how to finesse that system to his advantage. My youngest son … does not care about your system. He lives to test, ignore, and break systems. He goes through the world on his own terms. Knowing this, I started shadowing my sons through school as a substitute teacher, both to be available to support my sons and, well, back up the teachers and administration.

*As a side note, I now firmly believe every parent should do some time volunteering in a classroom. If only to see what their little angel is up to with their friends during the school day and see what a teacher has to deal with when wrangling a classroom. Everyone’s ready to criticize teachers and tell them what they ought to do until they are the ones staring down a classroom and suddenly feel like a lone gazelle who wandered into a lion family reunion.

Anyway, when my boys got to The Oaks Academy Middle School, my youngest son really put his school through its paces. Changing passwords on teachers’ accounts. Trying to set the record for office visits and in-school suspension (because I raise goal-oriented students). And accidentally sets in motion a complicated scheme that called for a police investigation where halfway through us being interviewed by the detectives he leans over and says “I bet I gave you an idea for the sequel to your book.”

So, I told him “A. I didn’t need your help and B … oh, yeah, this is sooooo going to be book two.”

The detectives were very confused. (Man, this kid … also mid-interview turns to me and says something like “6947.” I’m like “what is that?” And the detective sits up and goes “Hey, that’s the passcode to my phone!” Because he was determined to be helpful, I guess.)

The situation turned out fine, but it also provided a great opportunity for me to begin the on-going conversation with my son that perhaps his way isn’t working and that he may want to look at making a few adjustments on how me moves through the world.

After walking him, the detectives, the families involved, the school through that situation, I was called into the principal’s office. I don’t care how old you are, you never get over that anxious feeling sitting outside the principal’s door waiting to be called in. And I’ve known her for ten years, but in that moment, she was the principal and I’ve reverted back to being a kid and preparing my “what had happened was” story. She sits me down and says “The way you handled that situation was amazing. Have you thought about being a teacher?”

Truth be told, I had. It hadn’t been my dream growing up. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist and a writer. Well by this time, I had spent twenty years as a scientist and at least ten as a professional writer. But being in classrooms, working with kids, woke something in me. And when I confessed this, she gets this look in her eye. I grow scared, thinking that I’m trouble. “What I’d say?”

She leans across her desk and says, “Black male teachers are like unicorns.”

I didn’t know at the time that black male teachers made up only 2% of teachers. Black students could go their entire school careers and not even see one. As a school, we’re not where we want to be in terms of representation. And looking back at my own school career, I didn’t encounter my first black male teacher until I was in high school. A biology teacher named Mr. Broadus (no relation). But did I mention my degree is in biology?

So that’s how I became an accidental teacher.

When I was six years old, my family moved to this country from England. We went from London to the metropolis of Franklin, Indiana (trust me, even if you are from Indiana, you would have trouble finding Franklin, Indiana on a map). They had trouble placing me in the school system. They skipped me up to second grade, knew I probably should have been in third, but also considered the social ramifications of me being that much younger than everyone else in the class. Seeing how bored I was in class, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Rainey, set me in the back of the room with a stack of blank paper and told me “just go ahead and create stuff.”

Let me tell you, I thought American schools were the best. I created little books, filled them with stories and poems and prayers. I was writing. I was learning the love of writing. What Mrs. Rainey may not have realized she was doing was that she allowed me room to dream about possibilities. Let me repeat that, she allowed me room to dream.

I was blessed.

I didn’t know how blessed until later. We moved to Indianapolis a couple of years later. I was placed in the “Enrichment program.” My brother, only a year younger, was not; so we ended up at two different schools. After his fifth-grade year, his school performance nose-dived. At the time, we figured he just hated school.

Then when my cousin and his family moved up here from Jamaica, the same thing happened. He had the same fifth grade teacher as my brother and then his school performance nose-dived. Turned out, his teacher had, we’ll be generous and call it “an unconscious bias” against young black males. She gave up on them pretty much from the beginning, writing them off as trouble-makers, not interested in learning, and essentially created self-fulfilling prophecies. One bad teacher derailed we don’t know how many young black students with a label and a bias.

My brother managed to recover after high school when he joined the Marines.

My cousin became an unfortunate statistic.

I think back to the idea of being a unicorn and how the presence of a single black male teacher in their early years might have course corrected them. Even just the power of their presence as a model. My students have the luxury to take seeing me and other black male teachers in their school. So, they can take me for granted and do imitations of me walking through the hallways. They got me strutting like I’m George Jefferson or something [and thank you for getting that reference].

In high school, I developed my love of libraries. Now, rather than tell about my high school experiences, I will tell you about this novel I wrote. You have to keep in mind that I write for me. So, I have several books that I have written but never published. This one is called The Lost Griot. It’s about this kid in high school who has such trouble with his bullies that he has a break with reality and is now narrating his life as if he’s a wizard in training in a Tolkien-like fantasy novel.

*As an aside, this of course is a ridiculous premise. The reality is that in my junior year, I decided I was Batman, made everyone refer to me as The Dark Knight, and at my twenty-year reunion, I bumped into some of my bullies who confessed that I had gotten so weird they decided to quit messing with me.

Also, I mentioned this “ridiculous” premise to my colleagues. They said that they currently had three “Harry Potters” in their class.

Anyway, this wizard in training could only find escape and solace in this safe haven called “The Library.”

It was a thirty-minute walk to the neighborhood library from the high school. A trek my character made every day, along with some of his friends. To hang out, to study, to just … be. You see, the library was this magical place that had all these portals, called books, that took me—I mean, my character—to new worlds. It’s where he was able to learn new things and practice his craft, as he was also becoming a storyteller. The library was a place that allowed him the space to dream.

Now, to be fair, I’m also an accidental librarian.

While I was still a substitute teacher, our school librarian went on maternity leave. They asked me to sub for her, because (hello! WRITER) I love books. When she finished her maternity leave, she transferred to the lower school and I’ve been the school librarian ever since.

If you ask my wife, I was born to be a librarian. I archive everything. I still have all the notes I passed in high school sorted by who sent them and when.

Smart writers love libraries. And librarians. They know stories and they know books.

People have asked me about the “secrets” to my writing career. When I’m stuck, I turn to libraries. And librarians.

I was on a panel at ALA a few years ago promoting my urban fantasy series, The Knights of Breton Court. They asked me what I was thinking about writing next. I mentioned turning my steampunk short story, “Pimp My Airship,” into a novel. And they nodded. Then I mentioned that I had this idea about a detective novel starring two black boys. The whole audience leaned forward and a librarian shouted, “tell us more.” I was convinced it was a book no one would want, but they encouraged me to write The Usual Suspects.

Now I still planned on writing Pimp My Airship, but I was stuck on the worldbuilding. I wanted it set in turn of the century Indianapolis but had no clue what that might entail. So, I turned to librarians. Professional researchers who get, well, far too excited when you tell them that you are looking for some information. They directed me to all of these arcane books and microfiche and a warehouse of photos and maps.

Okay, now I’m starting to feel like that guy in the bar who spills all his problems to his bartender, except that in this case, the bartender loves books. But I had gotten to a point in my career when I knew that I had to go to conferences for professional development but had no money. This librarian asked if I had considered grants. “Grants? For writers?” Which was all she needed to hear before she told me about their grant workshops, databases, and other resources.

It’s my privilege to be a librarian. I manage the Shared Systems at The Oaks Academy Middle School. Although the bulk of my job seems to be having the same conversation with my students over and over again:

            “Let me get this straight: I can order a book, from any computer, it will be delivered to this school. I pick the book up from you and you check it out for me.”

            “Yes. And as long as you return the book to the school, there aren’t any late fees.”

            “It’s that simple?”

            “It’s that simple. You know, back in my day …”

            “Nah, Mr. Broaddus, you trying to run game on me. Let’s go over this again.”

Because middle schoolers aren’t the most trusting of folks. They’re kind of like … people.

However, teachers I only had to tell once. And explain that they can have an additional library card just for their classroom to order extra books with extended loan times. Just this week, our art teacher ordered 47 art books for a project.

Forty-seven.

Art books. Art books are not light.

My room is on the third floor. Sometimes I … really love my job.

Before I became an accidental teacher and librarian, I was (and am) a writer. But I also wanted to help make the world a better place. I struggled because what could I do since I was “just a writer.” Well, I fell in with a few community organizations, one of which was the Kheprw Institute. They are a grassroots organization that believes in “Community Empowerment Through Self Mastery,” training up young people to be community leaders. It started because some young men in the neighborhood were struggling in the school system. Whom some teachers had given up on. Labeled. Now here’s the thing: The Usual Suspects is all about kids who have been labeled by a system, who usually are just bored and smart, but now have to navigate life within the confines of a label. Well, these young men were supported by the Kheprw Institute with tutoring and given entrepreneurial experience opportunities. From there, the Kheprw Institute has grown to working with hundreds of people in the community.

KI describes what they do as “people-centered work.” Building authentic relationships with people, not grounded in some transactional outcome, not focused on an agenda, but rooted in seeing the person in front of them. Learning about them. Caring about them. Supporting them. They believe that’s how you build strong communities.

It sounds a lot like what we do as educators, right? At The Oaks Academy we talk about “embracing the possibilities” of our students. Seeing them through the eyes of who they could be because the potential of every child exceeds our ability to measure. We all need to be about the business of doing people-centered work.

One of the first talks I gave over there was a history of African Americans in writing speculative fiction because we’ve been doing this for a while. Even W.E.B. DuBois wrote science fiction because, as fellow author, Tananarive Due, says “even the act of imagining ourselves with a future is an act of resistance.” This led to us doing a regular discussion series called Afrofuture Fridays and us building an Afrofuturism library within the community as a set of resources.

Afrofuturism is art through the black cultural lens. Art practice rooted in the past, that critiques the present, and creates roadmaps to the future. We live in dark days. Not quite post-apocalyptic, but times are rough, and the work is hard. Our Afrofuturism series has become critical to the work in ways I hadn’t imagined.

Sometimes we get so caught up in surviving today, we can lose sight of the fact that part of what we’re to be about is creating the future we want to see. In other words, these stories allow community the space to dream of what a better tomorrow could look like.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. I knew I wanted to be a writer. My mother—also known as the person paying for it—said that she wasn’t paying for that. She wanted me to major in something … respectable. Now, by “respectable” she meant nursing. And, by strange coincidence, my mother was a nurse. I told her … okay “told” is a strong word because you don’t “tell” a Jamaican woman anything. I’m going to go with “tell” because it’s my story and we’re all the heroes in our own stories. So, I told my mom—that still doesn’t sound right. I reminded my mom that I day dream. A lot. And not to put too fine a point on it, but if people’s lives are in my hands, folks are going to die.

We compromised with me being a biology major.

*As a side note, not quite satisfied with this, my mother became the second person in our family to go to college, completing her nursing degree. And later, one of my sisters became a nurse so I was completely off the hook.

But I want to think about this idea of me being a professional daydreamer. I’m reminded of my friend Rasul Palmer, who I work alongside at KI. Now he had so many labels on him, he wasn’t in school at the time. We met at my African Americans in speculative fiction talk. For matters of full disclosure, he later confessed that he didn’t even want to go. The elders in the space encouraged him to attend. He also didn’t know that he had my full attention when I was speaking because you know when you have an engaged student. Turns out that talk awoke something in him. As a writer. As a gamer. As a daydreamer. I’m not gonna lie: his head is always in the clouds. Half the time, we’re not sure he’s with us on this planet or in this timeline. And you know what? Good. Daydreaming is a valuable skillset, one to be nurtured. He’s now in his second year in college and has grown into a great strategic thinker for the organization. Because he’s been known, loved, and supported while given room to dream. Dream about possibilities for himself, the organization, and the community.

As I conclude, earlier this week, my wife came up to me with her phone in hand. She’s been struggling with her oldest baby being off on his own in this foreign land called Ball State University so she tries to check in with him regularly. This time she has this weird look on her face. Turns out, she’s received this text. Our son has discovered and making a big deal of this place called …the library. Did you know, because he was stunned to realize this, that he and his friends could gather there to study? You could have knocked me over with a feather.

As for my youngest, I’m not worried about him finding his way either. He’s only a junior in high school. He’s not supposed to have everything all figured out. I continue to encourage him to keep trying things. To fail at things. To take what he’s learned and try (and perhaps fail) at new things. As we say at KI, FAIL stands for First Attempts In Learning. Sometimes you have many first attempts. As parents, we love, we know, and we support, walking alongside our children in their journeys. All he needs is the freedom to dream about who he wants to be. I know he will figure it out.

What we have assembled in this room—creatives, teachers, librarians, administrators—have the opportunity to create space for people to dream. We create and hold that container.

As a librarian, as a writer, as a teacher, I am cognizant of the fact that we have a sacred responsibility. Because I am a writer, I choose my words carefully, so let me repeat that: we have a sacred responsibility.

As writers, we are the creators of stories.

As librarians, we are the keepers of stories.

We are the cultural and institutional memory of our society.

As teachers, we have the responsibility to pass those stories down.

            The stories that shape us as people.

            The stories that shape us as a culture.

            The stories that shape future generations.

This is how we begin to create the future we want to see. Together. To help make the world a better place.

Thank you.