Ian Rowe on “Our American Stories”: My Coming of Agency Moment

Recently, Founder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies Ian Rowe sat down with radio veteran Lee Habeeb for an episode of “Our American Stories,” a syndicated radio program and podcast that highlights “ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things.” Rowe, who is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, frequently speaks about the Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative, an equality-based, holistic framework for embracing diversity that values each person as a unique individual and empowers charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions and help those in need.   

In this discussion, Rowe shares the idea of “agency” which he defines as “the force of one’s free will guided by moral discernment.” He recalls his parents’ journey from Jamaica to the United States in search of a better life in the 1960s and how his mother’s coming of agency story as a young black woman in Jamaica parallels his own. Rowe shares the moment he knew as a young boy in a segregated school the role he played in his own destiny and shares how it shaped him to be a leader in education today. 

Below are excerpts from Rowe’s story, featured on “Our American Stories”:    

“My parents are from Jamaica, West Indies. They met in the mid-1950s. … And my mom took a liking to this guy, Vincent, my mom’s name is Eula. He was working on a sugar plantation as an accountant there and he was very smart and they started dating while they were very young. She was 18, and he was just a few years older. … And they fell in love with each other. 

At the time, Jamaica was still an English commonwealth. And so my dad thought he kind of reached kind of the apex of what he could learn in Jamaica. He had the opportunity to go to England to finish his schooling. He went to England and after being there a few months, he missed his ‘bud’ that’s what they called each other. 

At the time the British Government required that if you wanted to marry a young woman who is under 21 you had to write a letter to the young woman’s parents asking for her hand in marriage. And so Vincent [my dad] wrote the letter of a lifetime asking for her hand in marriage. … After much discernment her parents decided yes, and so my mom, at 19 years old, in the mid 1950s, a young Black woman, took a boat all by herself, about a 5,000-mile journey, to England to meet up with my dad and they got married. About a year later they had my brother and seven years later they had me. 

They ultimately came to the United States. My dad became one of the early Black engineers at IBM and my mom started working at Manufacturers Hanover …which became J.P. Morgan Chase.” 

… 

“In some ways, for my mom, that moment when her parents said yes to this huge decision, and I’ll talk a little about my own coming of agency moment, I think that’s what she experienced. This moment where she felt she had a lot of skin in the game. She played a role in her own destiny. She was advocating to her parents to be able to go to England at 19, all by herself. Something that wasn’t done. But she knew that it was right. 

It’s a lesson I learned from my mom and my dad, as well. Every young person is going to face multiple moments in their life when the future is unknown. Where you’re facing a huge decision that you don’t know the outcome, and yet after you’ve mulled the decision, after you’ve mulled all the factors, then you commit. You commit. That’s a part of agency that you take ownership of decisions in such a way that you are leading a self-determined life. You are responsible for your behavior, for your attitude. That’s ultimately what agency is all about. 

I think for my mom, having that first big yes many years ago initiated a cascade of decisions that she, and then she and my dad made, which essentially and ultimately was to the benefit of them and their own family.” 

… 

“When my parents first came to the United States it was 1968-1969. … A lot of racial tension. … But they were very cognizant of what was going on in the country. They were raised in a predominantly Black country, so the role of race was far diminished. I remember my dad always used to say that when he was in Jamaica, he was a man. He was a man. ‘In Jamaica I’m a man.’ It was not until he got to the United States that he learned he was a Black man. And that had meaning to him because in Jamaica, your skin color wasn’t the first thing that defined you. What defined you was much more your actions, your attitude, your ambition. But in the United States he felt that based on these external forces, you were a Black man first and he fought against that. He said, ‘Well that’s crazy.’ 

They also recognized that the country was changing. You know the Civil Rights Act had just been signed, the Voting Rights Act signed. You know opportunity was opening up. So, in some ways they weren’t running from Jamaica, they were running to the United States in search of a better life.  

They instilled in me certainly this idea that your effort and your character, and what you do matters far more than the singular characteristics.” 

… 

“We first came to Brooklyn and had a very humble home. We were in a two-family house. What’s interesting about that time was my parents frankly were not that happy with what they saw (about) how young Black men were operating their lives. They thought they were too loose, and they were concerned especially given the larger context of all of the issues facing the nation.” 

… 

“I was kind of on lockdown… From kindergarten I went to school in the morning, came home immediately, did my homework, we had dinner as family, went to bed. … And so my experience growing up was very contained. My parents placed a huge value on being together as a family. They placed a huge value on faith. They placed a huge value on education. 

My parents put a very high premium on education. … They knew that if you were going to succeed in this country the opportunities are there, but you have to be prepared once those opportunities come your way.” 

… 

“In 1973…we moved to a small town in Laurelton, Queens, into a community that had been predominantly white, Italian, Jewish, but was slowly becoming more racially integrated as more Black people in particular were moving into Laurelton. And unfortunately, that slow integration led to a lot of racial tension in Laurelton, and my junior high school, junior high school 231, had become the epicenter. And the school board decided to solve this problem by saying ‘You know what, we are basically going to punt and we are going to create a new school, and annex, in Rosedale, Queens,’ which was another town a few miles over in a more permanently and predominantly white part of town.  

Essentially what happened was all the white parents that were going to my junior high school 231 in Laurelton decided to take their kids out and send their kids to this annex junior high school in Rosedale. Leaving junior high school 231 as a segregated virtually all Black school. And my parents, on the assumption that where the white kids go that’s where the better education will be, … they said to me they were going to take me out of 231 and send me to this other school.” 

I’ll always remember the Sunday night before the transfer papers were supposed to be submitted, I begged my parents. … Something about this decision didn’t feel right. I loved my school. I loved my teachers and even this very idea just because now all white kids are gone somehow it has to be worse.  Why? Why? Why just because now that everyone is Black that just inherently means that its bad. … I begged. …,’Please let me stay.’… Ultimately my parents relented.” 

… 

I always wonder that in that moment, even for my mom, did she think back to that moment when she was in Jamaica as a 19-year-old girl with this letter in the hands of her parents making this huge decision and she’s asking them to go, ‘I want to go. It will work out. I love him. I’m ready to go.’ And they said, ‘yes.’ I’ve always wondered if that experience parallels to when I was begging for the opportunity, now at 12 years old, to stay at my junior high school.  

And I like to think yes. I like to think yes because I feel like that was her first coming of agency moment where she felt she knew that she could play a role in her own destiny. And I felt at 12 years old that after my parents said yes, that I had skin in the game now in a way that I’d never had before. … That was the first movement that I experienced agency. That I was a force in my own future. That I had the ability to shape my destiny. That was a turning point in my life. 

Every big decision I’ve made going forward, particularly anything as it relates to my leadership in schools, is asking the basic question, ‘Why should it matter what the demographic makeup is of an institution? Who cares?’ What matters is the expectations. What we are asking young people to do. What is the metric for excellence? Are we holding everyone to high standards? That’s what matters. 

I’m convinced that the reason I run schools today is connected back to that moment.” 

… 

“This presumption that just being all Black meant it had to be ‘less than’ and I never want anyone of any race, of any background, (to think) that just because there are kids of a certain background in their school or institution somehow it is ‘less than.’” 

To listen to the full episode with Rowe, please visit  “Our American Stories.”   

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