Jaylen Brown turned 24 after leaving the NBA bubble. He immediately spent time with his grandpa, Willie Brown, who had encouraged him to play with the Celtics in Orlando despite his cancer diagnosis. There, he honed in on his off-court advocacy by getting in touch with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Program. He had spoken out on social justice, the American political system and police brutality early in his career, but to affect lasting change, he focused on education.
Given his own experience — nearly failing a class over different standards across different Georgia school districts — he had plenty to say about issues with school and how it connects to economic disparity and accentuates racism. Brown has joined MIT’s Media Lab and spoken at Harvard, and, given the diverse array of minds in the field of education, Boston has become .
Brown joined forces with various institutions to start the Bridge Program last year, and shared the results at TEDxBoston in Back Bay this month. The initiative gave students leadership and tools to apply science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. It’s connected to his efforts through his 7UICE clothing line and foundation, which sell expensive clothes and reallocate that money toward those that don’t have it. The MIT Media Lab and its community biotechnology group also partnered in the project.
“These students get versed in cutting edge topics that are being talked about right now,” he said. “But they’re also learning how to problem-solve through community engagement. They’re learning how to organize and things like that, which is a value.”
Brown spent 4 to 7 p.m. throughout his summer going through the Bridge Program with the students, who received instruction from MIT Media Lab professors, as well NASA and Harvard Law faculty. Other mentors came from various Massachusetts universities, the field of robotics and health tech, as well as social services.
No amount of inequality, he said, occurs more aggressively than through the education system. It’s failing children — and leading some into the prison-industrial complex. In another interview, Brown discussed the social stratification through honors classes and lower ones where teachers simply fight to keep control alongside violence, bullying and other extenuating circumstances maintained through this cycle.
Brown finished the Bridge Program impressed by the attendance, energy and projects the students brought, ranging from 8th to 12th graders. The youngest group, consisting of 13-year-olds, researched how to improve gender and racial equality among astronauts and in space science. They built a program to recruit from underprivileged communities into those fields.
Other students explored increasing access to the healthcare system for Boston immigrants through an app. A “sustainable drip” pursued environmentally sustainable clothing, while another group aimed to increase internet access across communities. The projects also addressed environmental racism, food supply, climate factors in health and battling pollution in Boston’s Charles River through bioremediation, one of Brown’s favorites among the groups.
“Ginkgo was also another amazing partner and resource for the program,” he said. “This is a lab located in Boston. I think they really gravitated to this project, and the students wanted to use microbes and bacteria and DNA to kind of depollute the Charles River. And these are 15, 16 and 17-year-olds that were coming up with these ideas. I don’t know about you guys, but when I was 15, I wasn’t coming up with this.”
Instead, Brown remembers arriving at Wheeler High School to a teacher unwilling to take the extra time he needed before school to get extra help for math. He was already confused why he needed it after being previously considered advanced at his old school, but mismatched standards across districts left him behind at Wheeler. The teacher wouldn’t accept his explanation, that he didn’t learn what he needed at his previous school to pass in this one.
“You’re going to fail,” he remembered the teacher telling him. Brown previously tweeted about another teacher telling him that they’d look him up in the Cobb County Jail in five years.
“I remember how this moment made me feel. One, because it was out of my control. I came from a different district and had a different curriculum. So therefore I couldn’t have learned last year’s implementation, which was based on this year. She said she didn’t really care. This moment kind of compartmentalized all my feelings and emotions, which gave me an awareness of some of the limitations in our education system, which caused me to help design and create the Bridge Program and ultimately lead to activism.”
Brown simply needed extra time to pass the class, eventually getting through thanks to the 6 a.m. sessions with the teacher. With the Bridge Program, he’s trying to provide that time, plus opportunity and resources, which will allow students to apply rather than imagine their ideas. He hopes that involvement leads to solutions to societal issues by allowing people who can’t normally enter impactful fields to do so.
Brown has talked for years about the fact that education roots out winners and losers early in life. It caps social mobility and establishes a capitalistic battle early. He utilized his own basketball skills to circumvent the limitations of school systems he attended in Georgia before attending the University of California at Berkeley on scholarship, fighting to take a class during his first semester that was part of a master’s degree track in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education.
He went on to highlight wealth disparities that exist in Massachusetts despite the state’s overall ranking No. 1 in public education. The allocation of resources, he showed, fall along racial lines and so the Bridge Program becomes necessary to connect people of color with the assets that allow for successful education.
Brown told GQ in 2020 the track you get placed on for your education essentially stays the same throughout your life. That’s why education has become his passion. He sees it as an investment in the future for individuals and society. Many of those ideas stem back to reading and those rooms he got into at Cal, realizing that forces beyond his control almost sent him to a different room. He’s vowed to carry those lessons forward and transform education in America.
“I ended up passing the class,” Brown said of that math class at Wheeler. “But not with my own help. My mother actually threatened to file a lawsuit on the district. The teacher thought I was just another athlete trying to get one over. In reality, I actually did not learn what I needed to learn to pass the class. They thought I was lying, so they decided to let me fail ... but luckily by the grace of God, I have an amazing mother, who was not going to let my social mobility be sacrificed to the education system. But for a lot of people of color and people who come from disadvantaged communities, they may not have that same luxury.”