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The importance of Black History Month to SRJC’s new president

The importance of Black History Month to SRJC’s new president

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 4:16 p.m., From

As a late-blooming flower child of the 1960s, with deep roots on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside, I fondly recall my connection to the African-American community.

My idol was basketball player Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks. As a child, I spent countless hours locked in my room imitating his whirling dervish moves, hitting the winning jump shot in countless imaginary games. Ironically, the real-life sensational Knicks point-guard today is Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American.

The impact of African Americans on my personal and professional journey has been enriching and profound, and I reflect on this each year during Black History Month.

This annual month of recognition of African Americans’ achievements, struggles and challenges is an opportunity for all of us, regardless of background or ethnicity, to acknowledge the contributions they’ve made to the fabric of American society, culture, and history.

Throughout my life, African American authors, politicians, athletes and academic leaders have inspired and mentored me, and my world-view is greatly enriched by my exposure to these individuals. Reading “Manchild in the Promised Land” by Claude Brown in the seventh grade opened my eyes to another world. The African American experience that existed in upper Manhattan was worlds apart from my Chinatown in lower Manhattan.

I’ve been a longtime fan of African American music, which is ingrained in our culture. When I was a boy, my older brother, Dave, took me to see the world-renowned Brooklyn-based a capella group, the Persuasions, at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. I was stunned by the musicians’ rhythms and harmonies while learning a history lesson from songs such as “Buffalo Soldiers.” I saw the Persuasions perform earlier this month at their 50th anniversary show at Yoshi’s in Oakland, and I’m still impressed by their talent and message.

One of my best friends at Brooklyn Technical High School was Kevin Weir, an African American kid who tutored me in algebra. I am happy to say that 35 years later we reunited via Facebook. Kevin was working as an engineer with Exxon Mobil near Washington, D.C. and I, meanwhile, was working as a social engineer in community colleges for the Obama Administration.

One of the greatest influences in my life has been Willie Brown, whom I met while in graduate school at Harvard University. Former Assembly Speaker Brown mesmerized the audience for more than two hours, and afterwards, I elbowed my way to introduce myself with the hopes of landing a job in Brown’s office as one of his legislative assistants. He hired me six month later, and I began a great apprenticeship in politics and leadership.

For the next four years, I was exposed to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Eldridge Cleaver and prominent African American leaders who shared their colorful, educational, and often-poignant stories with me. Brown later appointed me to a vacancy on the San Francisco school board. I ran and was elected to a four-year term.

My journey to a college presidency was supported by African American community college leaders such as Del Anderson, George Herring, Bobby Adams, Stan Arterberry, Elihu Harris and others.

I stand on the shoulders of these African American leaders.

As a newcomer to Sonoma County and Santa Rosa Junior College, I intend to vigorously encourage diversity in the educational community and highlight the significant ways African Americans have enriched all of our lives.

When I recently participated on a panel of Asian American college presidents (less than 1 percent nationally), many of them also cited how African Americans in the academe reached out and mentored them. I am proud to say that I have been mentoring the next generation of community college leaders. Several have been African Americans and some have ascended to presidencies and vice presidencies.

While president of Laney College, I was introduced by a black student leader as “the blackest Asian-American College president.” I wear that compliment as a badge of honor and it gives the term “black pride” a new twist.

Frank Chong is the new president of Santa Rosa Junior College.