In his childhood New Orleans neighborhood, Larry Irvin figured out early that there were two, maybe three, paths to success – football, hip-hop and a life involving drugs and guns.
Irvin tried all three routes before realizing there was a fourth.
Football was first. Irvin was a standout defensive lineman at Bonnabel High.
“Nose tackle. The three techniques, if we are getting specific,” he said.
He headed to California on scholarship.
Football didn’t last for Irvin. He came home looking for a different path toward manhood.
“I ended up with a cast of characters. Even though my mom was a positive impact for me, I still had setbacks because of the streets of New Orleans,” he said. “The representations of success in my neighborhood were not necessarily the best choices.”
At 24, at a pool hall just outside Hollygrove, he got a gun and narcotic charge, his first.
His second came in 2011.
He was 28. His mom, a long-time Jefferson Parish educator, had just passed. She had always been a buffer for him. He realized the time had come to take responsibility.
“She always begged me to be an educator,” he said. “But like a lot of Black men in urban environments, I was going to the NFL. I did not have a plan b. My dream was football. Teaching just wasn’t cool.”
Mother knows best
Against many odds, teaching happened anyway — starting as a volunteer football coach at his alma mater, Bonnabel High, where his high school football coach, Craig Lingle, encouraged him to be a substitute teacher. Irvin’s criminal charges stood in the way, but Lingle suggested writing a letter to the superintendent explaining his circumstances and his work toward a path of redemption.
“I wrote a four-page letter,” Irvin said. “I just poured it out — my journey, how I’ve turned it around.”
“When I walked in the classroom, I was on a stage made for me,” Irvin said. “I had incredible impact on Day 1.”
When Irvin served as a pallbearer in two funerals for a cousin and a close friend in 2014, he realized he had to make more changes and that his mom had been right all along. Education could be the answer, not just for him but for others. He started Brothers Empowered to Teach, focusing on getting Black men in classrooms in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“Each young man we place in a classroom is planting seeds in that next generation,” Irvin said. “If these Black and brown children never see a Black man in front of a classroom, they’re not going to list that as a dream.”
But the problem of a lack of representation of Black men leading a classroom extends beyond New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In Lafayette, Micah Nicholas says it's a statewide issue. As United Way of Acadiana's coordinator for family and community engagement with Love Our Schools, Nicholas says communities can't underestimate the importance of putting people of different backgrounds in front of a classroom.
"Youth have to be able to see what they can accomplish," Nicholas said. "In Lafayette Parish and throughout Acadiana, we have so many great teachers, but I don’t believe we have a fair representation of teachers that reflect the student makeup."
Brothers Empowered to Teach has placed 174 men in classrooms in New Orleans and Baton Rouge since its inception. Irvin describes the organization’s approach as layered, including “Adulting 101,” or as Irvin puts it, being a grown man.
In 2021, Irvin was named a TED Fellow for his work and potential.
“We create a disposition,” Irvin said. “Our secret, if I point to one thing, is our development aspect, talking about character development, masculinity, sexuality — it creates the proverbial glue.”
The criteria to be in the program is simple. Potential members must have a 2.5 GPA, be enrolled at least half-time in college, and be a young man of color. If accepted, the program offers the member a paid fellowship.
They recruit at New Orleans and Baton Rouge colleges and this fall, in collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Education, they will go into high schools to spread the word.
After the pandemic, the organization is back on track with plans to expand to Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, for fall 2023.
Diversity is a mirror and a window
Jared Jupiter, a Brothers Empowered to Teach alumnus, is a first-grade teacher in New Orleans in his sixth year of teaching. He originally met with Irvin at a coffee shop, and “the rest is history.” Jupiter always knew he wanted to teach but said he didn’t realize until high school that he didn’t have any Black educators growing up.
“You see Black NFL and NBA players all the time. Black musicians, artists, the whole gamut, but you don’t see very many Black teachers,” Jupiter said.
Brothers Empowered to Teach is working to change that. One of their core values is to defy convention. The organization’s website states that, “only 2% of all teachers nationally are Black men. We want our fellows to turn the profession on its head.”
In contrast to Jupiter, Jerome Perkins wanted to be anything but a teacher. However, Brothers Empowered to Teach gave Perkins firsthand experience with the profession and changed the trajectory of his life.
“It showed me that every day you need a plan. Every day you have to be organized. If you’re not organized, all chaos will break loose,” Perkins said.
The program also taught Perkins how to dress professionally, a testament to Irvin’s layered approach.
“Larry always said, ‘When you walk into a door, if you don’t look like you belong there, they won’t treat you like you belong there,’” Perkins said.
Myrialis King, Chief Executive Officer of Community Academies in New Orleans, sees the benefits of the 360-degree development Brothers Empowered to Teach offers — from learning time management skills to how to grocery shop. Community Academies, a charter school management organization, hosts fellows from the program to mentor students and has two Brothers Empowered to Teach teachers.
King said she sees the impact diversity has on the students, adding that it acts as a “mirror” for students who look like the fellows but also a “window” for students who don’t.
“We’re supporting a culture of diversity for a whole generation,” King said. “Diversity helps you to become a student of the world.”
For Irvin, being named a TED Fellow in 2021 brought a new level of credibility to the organization.
“We have the impact and the numbers, but TED has given us visibility. The phone is ringing off the hook for the opportunity for collaborations,” Irvin said, adding that the “real carrot on the stick” for the program is that it offers participants to feel like they are a part of something real.
“They tell us all the time that they’ve never been a part of a space like this,” Irvin said. “We’re not just trying to make a great educator. We’re trying to make a great human.”