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Democratic education activist Shavar Jeffries is pushing for people of color to take leadership roles

He was shaped by family tragedy and a grandmother who valued school

After an unsuccessful run for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2014, 42-year-old civil rights attorney-turned-community activist Shavar Jeffries decided to shift his focus to areas dear to his heart — education and community activism.

Motivated by personal tragedy and his own climb up the educational ladder, Jeffries is now president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), where he’s been since September 2015. He spends his time working for the rights of school-age children and those in politics willing to advocate for them.

Jeffries’ mission has its origins in the murder of his mother when he was 10 years old. Donna Johnson was killed in Los Angeles by her husband. Jeffries was raised in the home of his grandmother, a public school teacher, in Newark’s South Ward. While in her care, Jeffries developed a deep respect for the value of education.

He earned scholarships to Seton Hall Preparatory School, Duke University, and Columbia Law School. Following his graduation from law school, he moved back to Newark with the firm belief that “his path to success — through high-quality education — should not be the outlier for students in Newark, but rather the rule.”

According to its website, DFER’s mission is to make the Democratic Party the champion of high-quality public education. The group has started two new initiatives to help address educational disparities: the Leaders of Color Initiative and the Next Generation of Leaders.

“We want to develop, cultivate, sponsor the next generation of leaders of color to run for office,” Jeffries said. “We realize we need many more leaders of color, many more women of color, many more men of color involved in political and policy-making leadership. And we’re not going to see people of color involved at the level we would like to see if we don’t bring the resource and support to them.”

Jeffries’ mayoral campaign attracted national attention. He made improving Newark’s schools a cornerstone of his campaign and got more than 46 percent of the vote, a historic number for a first-time Newark municipal candidate.

Jeffries talked recently with The Undefeated about his childhood struggles, domestic violence, his inspiration, what’s needed in the world of education reform, sports and his future.

Why did you go to law school?

My mother was a teenager when she gave birth to me and she really wasn’t ready to raise me. I lived with different relatives until I was about 8. I went to go live with her and we had a broken lock and it’s amazing how fate can affect the whole course of your life. She found a locksmith in the Yellow Pages. The locksmith and my mom entered into a relationship. And a few months after that, it became an abusive relationship. It got so bad that we had to flee and we stayed in the shelter for a while. But he still knew where my mom worked and on Nov. 25, 1985, this locksmith showed up where my mom worked and he shot and killed my mom in the workplace.

That experience really shaped me on a lot of different levels. What really was problematic for me was my mom would go to the cops repeatedly, she would get multiple restraining orders against him. He’d get bailed out; he’d come back out. We got to the point where we just had no help. The law wasn’t helping us, the police weren’t helping us, we were on the run trying to get away from this person, and it just became clear to me that the law ought to be able to do better than that.

After her death, I came back to Newark. When I came back home, I saw great disparities in terms of a whole variety of different things. So between what I saw with my mom and then the kind of great disparity, it was an opportunity when I got the scholarship to go to this suburban high school, to me I was really inspired to become a civil rights attorney to try to bring equity to my community.

Why did you make the transition from being a civil rights attorney into education reform?

I received a civil rights fellowship to work at a law firm in New Jersey where I would do civil rights and public interest work. And when I was coming back, a lot of the cases were education cases. I always felt that educational opportunity was the foundation for everything. My life was turned around by that and I knew if it could happen for me, and I’m just some little kid from the ‘hood, that it could happen for everybody. I got involved in this work through my experience in Newark, where too much of the politics oftentimes got in the way of what was right for kids. I really wanted to get involved more in the policy-making world.

What problems need to be solved right now in education?

One, throughout the country, we have to make sure that school districts have the resources that are necessary to educate kids at a high level. We have some states and we have some individual school districts, particularly districts serving low-income kids and kids of color and kids who speak English as a second language, that oftentimes are underfunded.

Then we’ve gotta make sure we have globally aligned standards of accountability. We’ve got to make sure kids graduate who are actually ready to go in terms of colleges and careers that will be available for them in the 21st century economy.

And finally, we have too many colleges and university that just aren’t accepting adequate numbers of low-income kids, adequate numbers of children of color. And then aren’t providing the support that student needs in order to be able to graduate on time.

Which aspects of education are the hardest to reform?

I would say, particularly for our low-income children who are not only our kids of color but also some of these white kids in some of these rural poor neighborhoods, I think the hardest piece are the whole range of issues that impact each individual child’s availability for learning when they walk into the classroom.

So for example: When I was a kid, I told you, I lost my mom. Then after that, after I lost my mom I came back to Newark and my father popped up. He hadn’t been around much before then. I was with him maybe six months and came home one day and he literally was just gone and I would never see him again. At that time, I was 11. My father left around March/April of 1986. We have young people in cities and in rural areas dealing with all types of variations of those types of challenges and I was probably a zombie for a while just going into classrooms. But making sure that kids are living in strong families, communities. That all deals with some of these social safety net issues, these issues around the labor market, these issues around health care and decent housing and public health as well. So I think those are the harder parts, because within the school building you can control a whole lot more than the families and communities these kids are released into. I think those areas are much more challenging.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

Losing my mom. No question about that, that was definitely the hardest part. Losing my mom, not having my mom. I was very blessed to have a grandmother and a grandfather who were heroes of mine and who really stepped in and they took care of me, they took care of my little sister, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without them. But at the same time, there’s nothing like your mom, there’s nothing like your dad and not having him was a problem, too. So definitely losing my mom is something that was absolutely the hardest thing. It’s something that even at 42 years old, this was over 30 years ago, that you still wrestle with.

Is that why you’re so passionate about advocating for children and education reform?

I think so. My mom was very much about serving other people. Part of my passion there is absolutely connected to that and trying to embody her spirit of leaving the world better than you found it. And my mom was very bullish on me. She would say to me all the time, ‘You’re going to change the world. The world has never seen what you’re about to bring.’ So even as a kid … I was like, ‘What are you talking about, I’m just trying to watch Bubble Tron right now’ or Bugs Bunny or whatever I was watching.

What would be your dream job outside of law, politics, and education reform?

If I didn’t have these bad knees, maybe to be an All-Star NBA player.

Did you play in high school?

I did, I played in high school. I played baseball primarily because my grandma at the time wanted me to pick a sport. I played both baseball and basketball and she wanted me to pick one. So I picked the baseball, even though in retrospect I wish I’d have picked basketball ’cause I really love the game and my jumper still remains nice. Better not leave me open right now, I’ll still knock ’em down.

NBA teams? Who do you root for?

Unfortunately, I’m a big Knicks fan and to me it’s just an embarrassment what’s going on with my, with our team right now but I’ve been a Knicks fan for 35 years and … It’s just a life of consistent disappointment.

Who’s your favorite hip-hop artist? Dead, alive, old, new.

Nas, he’s actually my favorite of all time. I don’t know how far you go back, but his verse on the “verbal intercourse” track on the Raekwon Cuban Linx album from 1994. I think that’s one of the great pieces of literature of modern times.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I know I see myself serving our community in an impactful way. But five years ago I would have never said I would be president of Democrats for Education Reform at all. I would have never thought about that. And five years ago, I was just finishing working as a counselor to the attorney general for [former New Jersey] Gov. [Jon] Corzine and five years before that I would have never thought I would have done that, so I don’t know. But I know I’ll be serving our community in some way that hopefully has a significant impact.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.