Black, Brown & Bilingüe: Alums launch podcast while leading suburban schools

Lissette Jacobson
Lissette Jacobson

For Lissette Jacobson and Maurice McDavid, the connection began Day One.

Both began working in DeKalb in August of 2011, when they attended an orientation for new teachers – and Jacobson couldn’t help but notice McDavid’s commanding voice in the room: “You’re immediately drawn to Maurice,” she says. “He’s a presence you can’t ignore.”

Eventually, they were included in a District 428 group partnered with NIU for six weeks of training on social justice. They also both attended the same NIU Social Justice Summer Camp.

Their bond only grew when they found themselves in the same NIU College of Education cohort pursuing the M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration, something that birthed an unexpected collaboration.

“We were in a room where we were ‘the only.’ I was the only Latina. He was the only Black male,” Jacobson says. “We would leave class often really fired up and have entire, hour-long conversations about race and injustice and everything that comes along with that, and we would often stop and say, ‘We should be recording these conversations. This is really good stuff.’ ”

Launched in July with “A Brotha and a Latina Walk into a School,” their Black, Brown & Bilingüe podcast now has posted 15 episodes exploring such topics influenced by their own lives.

Cancel culture. Hate and forgiveness. Hip-hop education. Interracial/interethnic marriage. Immigration. Leadership. Multilingualism.

Guests have included their own spouses as well as James Cohen and Joseph Flynn from the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Abu Bakarr Bah from the NIU Department of Sociology.

McDavid and Jacobson call the podcast “a great journey.”

“I’m learning a lot about myself but also, I think, about the world around me,” McDavid says. “There have been some conversations that I have walked away from in awe – in absolute awe of some of the work that other folk are doing. I have walked away challenged, feeling like I need to do more in the fight for equity; in the fight for justice.”

Such authenticity is key, Jacobson adds.

“We are very candid on the podcast,” she says, “and I’m really passionate about bringing people forward in the world of academia and research who may not necessarily have a voice. Oftentimes, when people do research on communities of color, or language, the very people they study don’t have a seat at the table.”

Jacobson includes herself: “I was a Second Language Learner, and a lot of research has been written about kids like me,” she says, “and for all these people who have been quote-unquote ‘researched on,’ I hope that this is a seat at the table for them.”

Maurice McDavid
Maurice McDavid

A decade after that first meeting in District 428, their professional paths continue to intersect.

Both now work as principals in West Chicago Elementary School District 33, where Jacobson leads Pioneer Elementary School and McDavid is in his first year at the helm of Turner Elementary School.

McDavid’s climb into administration started before he actually completed his M.S.Ed. in December 2016, five years after he began teaching and a few years earlier than he anticipated.

“In the spring of 2016, the superintendent of DeKalb schools at that time called me into his office and basically said, ‘Hey, there’s a dean’s job at the high school. I’d love you to apply for it,’ ” McDavid says. “When the superintendent calls you in and tells you to apply for a job, you do it.”

As an administrator, he took with him lessons from his football days – he served as captain of the DeKalb High School and Knox College football teams – as well as his time as a teacher in his hometown.

Tim Vincent, now the superintendent of Galena Unit District 120, was McDavid’s boss and mentor at Clinton Rosette Middle School.

“Tim Vincent came to me in my first year and asked me if I would help lead the Black History Month program,” says McDavid, who figured he was chosen as the only Black teacher in the building.

“But we had a conversation afterward about it,” he adds, “and he said, ‘I’ll be frank with you. I see you in a leadership role. I don’t know when that will be, but I just want you to keep these things in mind because some of the relationships you’re going to make as a young teacher will have an impact on you moving forward.’ ”

Maurice McDavid engages in conversation during a 2018 Unity Walk event on the NIU campus.
Maurice McDavid engages in dinner conversation during
a 2018 Unity Walk event on the NIU campus.

McDavid hasn’t forgotten.

“I hold on to those words dearly. I really appreciate that. I appreciate they type of leader he was. He was a culture-setter. He invested in people. He invested his time and would listen, so I think there are some things I’ve brought into my leadership profile that definitely have been modeled after him,” he says.

“I’m very much aware of myself as one of the 2% in education who are Black male educators,” he adds. “I think about that. I carry that with me as I lead because I want to be that visible representation of Black excellence. That is definitely something that I think about even as I’m writing my rap songs and clowning with the kids.”

For Jacobson, who started her career at Cortland Elementary School, that concept of investing has furthered her establishment as a leader. Going to West Chicago offered the opportunity to lead a dual-language school.

“One of the things that I took from NIU was the importance of investing in the people,” she says. “You can have all of the technical things. You can know curriculum very well. You can know how to analyze assessment data. You can have great relationships with kids and families. But if you do not have the buy-in from your staff, none of that matters.”

At Pioneer, she depends on the collaborative partnership of her building leadership team toward that goal. Gaining the endorsement of those colleagues – providing persuasion that is “stronger than me,” she says – is a winning strategy she observed in her previous principals.

Doing so not only nurtures the leadership skills of educators in those roles, she says, but tells everyone working in a school that “we’re all leaders.”

Lissette Jacobson and students
Lissette Jacobson and Pioneer Elementary students.

“I alone cannot carry the banner of positive school culture. It’s every single one of us, and my building leadership team has been able to move us through some of these tough hurdles this year,” says Jacobson, who also was nudged into her role by mentors who “see something in you before you even see it yourself.”

Yet becoming a principal means that “suddenly you become aware of how much a building leader sets the tone and the culture and climate of a building. You think about exponential influence, and that for me was very exciting,” she adds.

“People say, ‘We can feel the positive energy when we come in here,’ ” she says, “and it’s a compliment when they also tell me that sometimes it’s even hard to know who the leader is, because everyone is just so warm and helpful and inviting.”

Both speak of “decision-making exhaustion” from their jobs, and of the tall order of filling the shoes of previous principals: McDavid’s predecessor left Turner last year after 13 years in office; Jacobson’s spent 16 years at Pioneer and still works in the district as an assistant superintendent.

Nonetheless, the rewards are greater.

For Jacobson, it’s the children, most of whom are Hispanic like her. They think she’s hilarious they love her “terrible dance moves” and their parents appreciate her. “They say, ‘It’s so cool that you get us. You understand us. You know where we’re coming from.’ ”

McDavid calls his staff “the best part” of going to work.

Lissette Jacobson and David Stovall at the NIU Social Justice Summer Camp.
Lissette Jacobson and David Stovall at
the 2018 NIU Social Justice Summer Camp.

This comes despite their feedback that he needs to improve his communication to help them feel supported and equipped with the information necessary to not only make it through the day but each week ahead.

“I really have enjoyed being able to be a support for the adults, because I think that can sometimes be one of the challenging pieces. You can tell a kid, ‘You need to do this,’ and it’s fine, because they’re a kid, and you can build that relationship even a little bit easier,” McDavid says.

“But I have adults who are teaching long enough to have been my teacher – I had someone remind me the other day – and when I have earned their trust, and that becomes visible, that’s beautiful,” he adds.

“When they come in and share with me something that they’re struggling with, and they feel comfortable enough to share that with me, I think that has been a really good piece, especially as a first-year guy when I’m trying to build those things. Those are all the small, little victories.”

Podcasting also is providing its own benefits as it gives Jacobson and McDavid the chance they’d always dreamed of to “do some sort of project together.”

Black, Brown & Bilingüe just delivered its first professional development component, which sold out quickly registering participants from across the United States, Canada and the U.K.

And while the two principals continue to invite guests from their own network of contacts, they’re also now receiving requests to appear on the podcast.

 West Chicago Elementary School District 33
West Chicago District 33 colleagues!

Hearing those empowering stories of human resilience – of moving forward from racism, discrimination and oppression – offers optimism.

“I hope that our listeners who may have experienced some sort of hardship or trauma know, one, that they’re not alone, two, that they’re seen, and, three, that they can get through it, too. It’s OK to lean on each other and ask for help,” Jacobson says. “We’ve met some really incredible people on the podcast. We learn from one another, and we love what we do.”

“It’s just been a great journey,” McDavid adds. “I’m looking forward to Season Two.”

Lissette Jacobson and her husband, Brett, flank U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The couple wrote to Durbin, asking him to meet with them to discuss prison reform and the school-to-prison pipeline. He agreed, coming to NIU to talk with the Jacobsons, Maurice McDavid (right) and NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor James Cohen (left).
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