Rodney and Renee Brooks live near 101st and Central Avenue in Watts, and it was in that house — a modest two-story, brown stucco cube — that they raised six extraordinary children.
Jason is at Harvard, working on a PhD in education.
Veronica went to Columbia for a master’s in finance.
Amanda graduated from Boston College and is in a master’s program at Hunter College.
Virginia is studying for a master’s at Southern Methodist while working 60 hours a week in three jobs.
Elizabeth, a Columbia grad, is an actress in New York.
And Phil, a musician who uses the stage name of River St. James and is the baby of the family at 18, just flew to Boston for an audition at the Berklee College of Music.
I wouldn’t have known a thing about this family if not for Ricky Lewis, an aeronautics engineer who started the Youth Leadership Conference to mentor young men in South Los Angeles and beyond. I went to the 19th annual conference last month at USC, which was attended by 475 kids, their parents and 220 African American businessmen who are all members of Omega Psi Phi, most of them since college.
There were doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers, all of them wearing suits and hooking up with kids they mentor all year long. Next year, when Lewis puts together the 20th conference, I’ll tell you more about who he is, and about his commitment to “saving lives, one young man at a time.”
But for now, I want to tell you a little more about the man Lewis and another mentor, Drew Palmer, introduced me to, saying he was someone worth knowing. I shook Mr. Brooks’ hand and asked his story, but he seemed kind of shy. So Lewis and Palmer answered for him.
Six kids. Six success stories.
Brooks, who became an Omega Psi Phi member and mentor three years ago, is a lieutenant in the Glendale Police Department, but before that, he was a minister. In 1981, he and his new bride, Renee, moved to Watts to work at a church and start a family. They could have left several years later, when Mr. Brooks became a cop and earned a decent salary. But by then, there were good reasons not to, despite violence that sometimes flared not far from their front door.
There was more to the neighborhood than that, said Rodney Brooks. There were good, “stand-up people” working hard, striving, raising their kids right.
“The first conscious decision I remember,” said Renee, “was when Mayor Tom Bradley said, ‘Look, let’s not have black flight out of here. We’ve already had white flight, so please stay.’”
They looked into the local public schools, though, and decided they wanted something better. Rodney Brooks has a doctorate in theology, but it was Renee Brooks — who attended less than a year of college — who began home-schooling the kids. She was teacher, principal and mom all at once, learning on the job as she transitioned from breakfast to biology, lunch to language arts.
Renee then made a connection with an organization that plucks bright kids out of tough neighborhoods and hooks them up with elite private high schools. The Brooks kids were snagged by Harvard Westlake, Crossroads, Windward, the Webb School and Vistamar.
There was financial aid, but no free rides. So Rodney Brooks got a second job for nine years, teaching at University of Phoenix, and Renee became not just a teacher but a one-woman transportation director with a Dodge Caravan. For a time, she dropped off one child at Harvard Westlake, one at Crossroads and one at Windward, a triangle that took as much as 2 1/2 hours to complete. Then she’d go home, school the younger kids, and repeat the triangle to pick up the older ones at the end of the school day.
There was a Christian ethic in play at all times. You respected your elders and each other, no slang or sloppiness, and “you spoke the king’s English,” said Renee Brooks. Neighbors and friends of the kids were welcomed in and given milk and cookies, love and respect, and if they needed help learning to read, that was free, too.
On the morning Phil left for Berklee, I asked Renee if the house felt a little too quiet with the last one gone.
“It’s not emotional for me,” she said, especially with phones and email and Skype, and the knowledge that they’ll always be close in the most important ways. The kids were raised to be what they wanted to be, no matter where it took them, and to look after one another when their parents are gone.
“If they’re hanging onto my apron strings,” Renee said, “I haven’t done my job.”
Before he left for Berklee, Phil told me: “I’m going to pat myself on the back and say we’ve all done amazing things. But that’s entirely because of the inspiration my parents have given us.”
“I never felt like it was forced on me,” Virginia said of the regimented home-schooling and long commutes to high school. “My mom presented better options to us, but in the end it was always our lives, and we had to make the choice of what we wanted to do.”
In some neighborhoods, including Watts, the odds on success grow long under the crushing weight of economic and social problems. That’s why Ricky Lewis and the Omega Psi Phi brothers try to save kids one at a time, hoping for the ripple effect to become a wave, and it’s why they hold up the Brooks family as reminders of what’s possible.
But success doesn’t happen quickly or magically. It’s hard work, Rodney Brooks told me in his office at the Police Department.
“It calls for sacrifice.”