Interviewed by Mohamed Kaba
Podcast by Joseph Entin
It’s hard to exaggerate Robert Scott’s impact on almost two decades of Brooklyn College’s students of color. Working at Brooklyn College for 17 years first as director of the Mellon-Mayes Fellowship and later the Black and Latino Male Initiative, Scott used humor, care and a relentless soft-spoken enthusiasm to encourage the students whom he mentored, counseled and encouraged to go farther.
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., down the street from a steel mill, Scott credited his mother and grandmother with giving him both the strength and hope to push to achieve. “Birmingham, Alabama in the 1940’s was the height of prejudice and yet my mother helped me to see different things,” he said in his interview with Mohamed Kaba, one of the students who Scott worked with over time. When the family came north to New York City, they lived in the Rockaways before moving to a housing project in Brownsville.
Kaba, who is a sociology graduate of Brooklyn College and is now pursuing an M.A. in sociology, said “Mentors like Mr. Scott are hard to come by these days, especially in higher education, where there aren’t too many African-American men.”
What Kaba particularly appreciated Scott for was for “sharing knowledge. Some individuals who possess knowledge hoard it. . .There is no love in hoarding it. Mr. Scott was free flowing with his knowledge.”
When Scott retired from Brooklyn College in 2012, students put together a remarkable video, https://vimeo.com/40890008 joshing him, laughing about him, but mostly sharing how much of an impact he had on them. They talked about the fact that he had canisters of cookies and candies in his office to share with them and that “he has the dietary choices of a six-year-old boy,” said one student. They laughed that the first time he met them, he started talking to them about getting a PhD or going on to graduate school.
Many of them tried to explain his essence. “His humor really gets to you. I really like that about him,” said Sabine Saint-Syr. “It’s not always being straight forward and saying ‘you have to do this.’ The humor helps you to get relaxed.”
Scott realizes what he is doing. “Humor allows the world to laugh at itself. Laugh both at me and laugh at them,” he said. “And then, we part company with a little love in our hearts.“
Many, many students discussed on the video about how Scott was always there for encouragement and an open ear. He flew to Jamaica to dance a father and daughter dance at Ornesha Reagan’s wedding. Her father passed away while she was at Brooklyn College.
For Mohamed Kaba, doing the oral history was one more chance to hear stories and insights from Robert Scott. “When he discussed growing up in a low-income community, he said he didn’t know he was ‘poor.’ He was just a kid playing. Personally, I could relate. It wasn’t until later in life, as a college student, when I started to study sociology that I better understood the environment I was raised in. And as I gained deeper insight into inequalities, I even appreciated even more men like Mr. Scott who encouraged me to persist.”
As Scott said in his oral history, “I still have those rosy-eyed glasses on. I haven’t taken them off. I see the beauty in this world though I don’t say it’s perfect,” he said. “Is it perfect for black people? We know it’s a pain in the rear sometimes. We know there is economic injustice and many things… But education is where mankind flowers because there is hope for the future.”