A grandfather struggles to escape a robbery and is shot dead on the porch while his helpless grandchild, still growing in the womb, restlessly waits to emerge into a sometimes violent and hopeless world. Joquori Brown’s life began as that child with a beautiful defiance. Defiance against poverty that surrounded him as one of eight children born in a Milwaukee ghetto near Palmer and North Ave. Defiance against a failing education system that held little hope for a young black child to emerge from a life of ignorance. Defiance against the rage of violence and drugs on the street that traps so many young black men on the block, where there is little hope of escape.
While life casts shadows, sometimes in multiple dark layers, over his path, Joquori Brown strides over them with a peaceful, determined beauty that shows the world how it so wrongly predicts what’s in the heart of this young African American male and so many others like him who live in Milwaukee.
Joquori radiates hope, and he attributes his outlook to several influences. His mother, Jacqueline, is a woman of strength who insisted that all of her children know God. Every week, she took all eight to church, one block from their house, and made sure that their first job was in the church community garden. It was there, says Joquori, that he began to learn the spiritual and moral values of Christ, and where he began to understand that for him, there was going to be no progress without struggle.
School Choice and St. Marcus Lutheran School, 2215 N. Palmer St., opened his eyes to the dismal reality around him. Teachers laid out the facts and the choices that would shape Joquori. “When you are a kid, you don’t realize the bigger picture,” he says. “The teachers would tell me, ‘You are an African-American male, and if you don’t know what that means, we’re going to have to tell you’. It means that 1 out of 8 black males in Wisconsin is incarcerated. It means that few of us will graduate from high school, let alone college.”
“But they told me how to fix it,” he adds. “They encouraged me to be an example of someone breaking the stereotype. … It’s a spiritual school, where they told me to give my all to the Lord, and that really sticks with me. I have a purpose greater than my own, they said. Go to school. Be a good student.” Mom and school spurred Joquori to be the top of his class. But it wasn’t easy. He led a double life, a life of contradictions. In school, the environment was stimulating, beautiful, full of hope and fulfillment. Home was hell, where resources were scarce and violence, drugs and death surrounded him.
“There are a lot of people still asleep,” Joquori says, particularly of African American males in his neighborhood. “There are many smart African American males out there, and the only reason people see so many of them getting negative attention is because they are stuck in a system that keeps them uneducated. “Drug dealing and robbing only starts when there is no food on the table,” he says. Becoming victimized by circumstances happens in a sneaky, subtle way, he adds. “Think about it, the first time as a child you see anything about African Americans depicted in history it’s as slaves – that enslaves us.”
In grade school, Joquori stood in beautiful defiance, often alone. “A typical day? Getting jumped because I didn’t want to be like the rest of the kids on the block, because I was in the ghetto. Friendless. Held at gunpoint. Watching people die.” But the purpose that God holds for Joquori that his mother and teachers kept telling him about gave him a foundation from which to grow.
“St. Marcus is a wonderful program because I was pushed so hard,” he says. “College is easier. Life is easier. I see things so differently.” Even with that support, he thought twice about going to college, until his mom sat him down and laid out the facts. “She said, ‘You are an African American male and you have few options: be in jail, be dead, deal drugs or go to school.’ It didn’t take much thinking about those choices,” he says.
Joquori is a “super senior” at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in his fifth year there studying art and technology. He has his own music and art studio and hopes to use his talent someday to bring more peace and economic wellbeing to urban Milwaukee. He is running for president of the United Student Council at UWM and hopes to actively work to bring jobs and industry to the city through art. “From the struggle God has given me and my family so many talents, and for me that is art,” he says.
Joquori is quick to credit his mom and school for where he stands today. He is adamant that education, a spiritual education, is the lever that will pry otherwise poor, hopeless African American males from the neighborhood and into a better life. He has a strong message for the skeptics: “Look at the proof. I am definitely a product of what School Choice represents. I know that education still has some flaws we must address, but School Choice definitely is how we can get impoverished individuals to get up and stand up to believe in themselves.” To stand in beautiful defiance.