Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks: In Schools for Kids

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks.

A Kalamazoo native and proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Reverend Mo attended Northeastern Elementary School, Hillside Middle School, and “the great Kalamazoo Central High School.” He went on to graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in social psychology. A number of summers ago, he also served as a youth development worker in CIS Think Summer!

Reverend Mo is the Director of Youth Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a position he’s held for almost three years. He’s written a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You, and is working on another book, also geared to youth. And still, he makes volunteering with youth in the schools a priority. For the past two years, he’s volunteered with CIS at Kalamazoo Central High School, supporting young men in a group that meets on a weekly basis. The young men have named the group, KC Men of Change.

Alright, Reverend Mo: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

Thinking back on your years as a student in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was your favorite teacher?

I’d have to say my favorites were my English teacher, Mrs. [Sandra] Daam and Mr. [Topher] Barrett. He was a forensic coach and I was also in his drama class. Mr. Barrett was patient and challenged me to be a leader. Mrs. Daam was loving and hard. Oh, she was hard! But a loving hard. She helped me out a lot.

How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

For me, the work is really meaningful, especially because when I was their age, I wish that I could have been a part of something like this, to have someone help me make wise decisions, and challenge me.

Last year, I was able to meet with them twice a week and this year, we’re meeting once a week. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to go back to doing the group twice a week. When we meet, I’m able to ask the hard questions of them because of my experience growing up, and we have deep conversations. I like impacting them in a positive way.

I sense a great deal of respect for our youth, whether it is here at the church, in the schools, or in the community. Kalamazoo cares about its young men and women.

CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough said one of the most impactful sessions for the students was one that had to do with self-love.

Yes, Deb wanted to have a few sessions that combined both the males and females [Young Women with a Purpose], so we did. I had them list five or more people that they love. I then asked them to name the things they do for them because they love them. They identified things like I protect them, I’m loyal to them, I make sacrifices, and so on. I asked them to list five more people they love and then asked, Now how long does the list have to be until you’re on it? It was an eye-opener for them. Too often, our young people aren’t taking care of themselves because they’re busy worrying about others. We then talked about loving ourselves and how that involves things like trusting one’s self and protecting one’s self.

When it comes to engaging our youth, what do adults often forget?

I think they forget that they were once a youth and, along with that, they forget their mistakes.

I can remember my mistakes vividly. In 2015, I wrote a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You. In it, I share my own struggles of when I was in high school, my mistakes and regrets, as well as being somebody who I wasn’t. Students often struggle with that.

Sometimes, adults do too!

Yes, and while the book is geared to youth, I’ve had adults who have read it tell me: I’ve needed this!

When it comes to working with young people and connecting with them, what’s your secret?

One, recall your own youth and know your own mistakes. Also, know that their emotions and feelings are real. Too often we can cast them aside or don’t recognize them. Youth don’t always share their feelings but just because they aren’t communicating them to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing the feelings. They may be bottling them up, so offering them a safe space to bring out and express their feelings can help. When I share my story, my path, and the wrong things I’ve done, that helps get the process going. They see this guy wearing a suit and tie, and think, well, he has baggage and pain and if he can open like that, maybe I can too. And they start sharing, because now we’ve got this trust thing going on and are connecting on a deeper level, having real conversations.

Speaking of suit and ties, Deborah Yarbrough also mentioned that you implemented a “Dress for Success” day and that that too, was a huge hit and brought the group closer together, identifying even more as a team.

Actually, it wasn’t me but the young men who came up with the idea! Each week, I come wearing a suit and tie to group. We had a tie session last year and taught the young men to tie ties. Last year, the group decided to have a dress up day and it went so well we thought, why not keep this going? And so, this year we had another tie session and then another dress up day!

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading and listening to books. Right now, I’m listening to Meet Generation Z. It’s written by James Emery White. He takes a look at this next generation that follows the Millennials, or “Generation Z.” He explores the trends, how culture is shifting, how we can reach these young people, minister to them, and serve them.

What is one way, according to the book, that we can reach this next generation?

Answer their questions. With the age we are living in, young people have a lot of questions. We need to listen to those questions and have answers.

James Emery White points out that we are living in a post-Christian world, one in which the norm is that people are no longer connected to a religion. More often than not, as a minister I’ll hear, I don’t have any religion. I’m spiritual, but I don’t belong anywhere. This generation is asking, Is religion necessary? Is it relevant?

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

Home, here [church], and Sweetwater’s Donuts. That’s about it…I’m really a home body!

Favorite word?

Self-assessment.

I feel like a lot of people have the inability to self-assess. I want to know, how can I grow? What could I have done better? We live in a blame generation. So, when things go wrong, it’s easy to point the finger and blame anybody but ourselves. But if we stop and assess ourselves, recognize hey, I could do this or that better, well, when we do that, we can move forward. If everybody did that, we could really move forward. We need to self-assess.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

The importance of habits as well as practicing those habits. By training on whatever you’re working on, you can build upon good habits. While I’m always learning, that’s the big one right now: habits.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

During my elementary years, I’d have to say it was Mr. Gary Vanstreain. He was our basketball coach at Northeastern Elementary School. He was so positive, caring, and challenging, and would give you the shirt off his back.

In middle school, there were quite a few. I’ll go with my coach at Hillside, Steve Dunning. He was a disciplinarian and made sure you were on track and what you needed to do to stay on track. Even outside of the court, outside of basketball season, he cared and was on me. He showed that tough love.

In high school, it was Pastor James Harris. I will never forget, I was in a low moment in my life and Pastor Harris came to my house, spoke with me and prayed with me. He set out on a notecard representing where I was and then set out another notecard showing me where I could be, my potential. I doubt he’d remember that, but that moment really impacted me.

Then, in my college years, it was my own pastor, Pastor Moore. He really poured into me, invested in me, mentored and disciplined me.

Thank you, Reverend Mo, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What’s The Ugliest Lie Of All?

uglysweaterOne of my colleagues kept suggesting I write an ugly post to remind folks to come out to our Ugly Sweater Party with the Young Professionals that is going on later this afternoon, Tuesday, December 9 at Old Burdicks Bar & Grill. 5-7pm. I told them no. “Admission is free with minimum $10 donation or a new item from the Wish List,” they’d remind me.

“I’m coming to the party,” I said. “But I DO NOT WANT TO WRITE AN UGLY POST.” But they didn’t seem to take the hint and kept nudging. I must admit, we’re all pretty good about that at CIS.  About not letting go or giving up when we believe in something. Especially when it comes to kids. (There must be something in the water here because it is a trait we share with Kalamazoo Public School teachers, staff, administrators and countless community partners and volunteers.) So, buckle up.

Here comes ugly.

That’s what he said. It feels like I heard that a thousand times as a young girl. For the first two of my school age years, I walked to my friend’s house, waited while she finished breakfast so we could walk safely together to school. My friend’s father would regularly tease me, say, “How are you doing, Ugly?” Or “Hey, everyone, here comes Ugly!” I didn’t say anything to my parents or teachers. I was embarrassed because a part of me believed him. I did have a huge gap in my front teeth. So big it felt like a car could drive through it. And why did I agree to that stupid shag haircut in first grade? What other classmates looked like Mrs. Brady?

Kindergarten picture, pre-shag haircut

 

Fortunately for me, my friend and her family moved after a few years. I also have a pretty strong ego. (My husband complains that it’s too strong.) And it didn’t hurt that I was accidently born into a family that could pay to close my gap with braces, that I had opportunities outside of school to feel good about myself. Mostly, I got over the ugly because of caring adults. This experience, though, is one of the things that drew me to CIS. It took a while to believe in myself, for a host of caring adults, like my parents, an orthodontist, two piano teachers, and a slew of fine school teachers to wipe away the ugly. It left a scar I’m content to bear—it’s made me hyper-focused on all the ugly things children hear along the way. The messages we send—intentional or not—that seep into their psyche until they believe the ugly.

Here is the ugliest truth of all: too many of our kids lose hope in themselves every day. Kids  who have come to believe they are nothing but a bad grade, who feel as empty as their tummies, and begin to believe that theKalamazoo Promise® isn’t for kids like them.

It’s hard to take in all this ugly. But we owe it to our kids to hang in there with them and give them hope. Every day, our CIS Site teams along with hundreds of volunteers and school and community partners are doing just that. Here’s just one great example of the kind of beauty that cuts at ugly:

When Kalamazoo Central High School identified some young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough jumped into action and started meeting with each student to connect them to a men’s group. Some of them told her: “It’s no use. I’ve messed up too badly. What’s the point? The Promise isn’t for kids like me.”

“Just come once,” she said. “Promise me that.” And they did. Again and again because CIS partner, Pastor James Harris and his team were surrounding these young men with love, speaking to each, as Nelson Mandela says, “in his own language, that goes not to his head but his heart.” So the site coordinator wasn’t surprised, when one day Pastor James dragged a bag of trash into the group.

“What’s this?” he asked the young men.

“Trash,” they said.

“You sure?” he replied.

The young men realized that they couldn’t be sure, not until they searched through it. Turns out, mixed in with all that trash was a 100 dollar bill Pastor James had tucked inside an envelope. The lesson learned that day? Despite missteps along the way, value resides inside each of them and they do not need to throw their life away.

This is the kind of beauty that CIS Site Coordinators are orchestrating every day. Putting just the right resources—volunteers like Pastor James, Kalamazoo College students, or a grief therapist from Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan—with the right kids at the right time. They do an awesome job of it and kids can’t help but stumble into their own beauty.

But the ugly side of this same coin is that we need more people to step up. Todonate, volunteer, and partner. To advocate for both integrated student services and stable and adequate school funding.

So, if you have survived this ugly ride, thanks for hanging in there. Come on down to Burdick’s and hang out with us from 5-7pm. Bring a donation of $10 or some newclothing item for CIS Kids’ Closet (packs of underwear, winter boots, and sweats especially needed). They’ll be plenty of food, fun, and prizes for the ugliest sweaters. (I even hear that Burdick’s is making a signature drink for CIS!)

And, if you didn’t like this ugly post, I don’t want to hear it. Stop downtown at Burdick’s and let my colleague know. (You can’t miss her. She’ll be the one wearing an ugly sweater.)

Can’t make it? We understand. It’s a busy time. We just ask that you take a moment to consider making a donation to CIS. No matter the amount, your contribution takes a bite out of ugly. ‘Tis the season after all. No matter what form of action you choose to take, it reminds our children—and all of us—that they are a treasure worth fighting for. That is one beautiful message that will never go out of season.