"TO HELP A CHILD GIVE HIM A
JOB, TO FREE A CHILD GIVE HIM
AN EDUCATION. I WANT ALL OF
OUR CHILDREN TO BE FREE."
She grew up one of 12 children in the Mississippi Delta, poor but very loved by her farming parents. At 18, her brother brought her to Oakland, where she enrolled in college at night and eventually got a job in insurance and later as a real estate agent. In 1987, touched by the story of a young girl whose home life made it difficult to attend elementary school, Oral Lee Brown “adopted” an entire first grade class at Brookfield Elementary, which had a student population that statistically saw 3 out of 4 kids drop out of school before graduating 12th grade.
The deal she made with the kids and school was simple: any child who graduated from high school with at least a C-average would get a free ride through college at her expense. She had no idea how she would raise the money, but she was determined that she would find it. She did. Her commitment to those children turned out to be the incentive and opportunity they needed. Of the 22 children in her first adopted class, 18 graduated from high school and later from college. (Two were killed in gang related shootings, the other two lost to the drug culture of the streets.) Oral Lee Brown was determined never to lose another child, and that has remained her goal to this day.
What began on an impulse to help just one class graduate has blossomed into the Oral Lee Brown Foundation, which provides educational assistance and financial scholarships to school children, and has sent almost 200 of Oakland’s most at risk youth to college. Every 4 years Oral Lee Brown adopts another 20 to 25 children throughout the Oakland school system and nurtures them, cajoles them and supports them on their road to success.
Every child is expected to show up for Saturday school, which she runs out of her tiny Oakland office with the help of teachers and former students who come to teach and tutor the curriculum… and train kids on the use of computers, instruments none of them have at home. Often the parents are the biggest obstacle and challenge to their children’s success, but Oral Lee Brown somehow manages to navigate her way through the complications posed by their problems as well. She just perseveres in her mission, driven by a deep religious faith and the belief that each child she keeps in school is a child saved from the streets.
The children call her “Mama Brown,” and to them, she is just that: a loving force who challenges each child to attain his or her best, and in fact, demands it of them. They respect her and deliver grades for her, but they also know she is there to help buy the prom dress, a pair of shoes, deal with an unhappy romance or drug-addicted parents. They confide in her, rely on her and believe her when she holds out the promise that an education is their ticket away from Oakland’s inner city problems.
When the call goes out throughout the school system that the Oral Lee Brown Foundation is going to adopt a new group, almost 200 families apply. Mama Brown only takes on 20 of the most at-risk kids, figuring those who already show promise will probably succeed without her help. Today she has 62 students under her care: 22 second-graders, 20 fifth graders and 20 ninth graders. Of the 22 she adopted in first grade and who graduated from high school in 2009, every one of them enrolled in college, 4 of them at UC Berkeley. Every child will tell you, it’s thanks to Mama Brown that they are studying and not lost to the streets—and many will even cop to her saving their lives.