After an injury stymied Brandon Fleming’s Liberty University basketball career, he dropped out to earn a living as an assembly line worker in Atlanta, Georgia. After attempting suicide, he was determined to turn his life around.
He re-enrolled at Liberty University on a full-ride despite having a middle school-level reading comprehension. Fleming, however, only passed his courses only by cheating. His English professor caught Fleming cheating; rather than flunk him, she forced him to redo the assignment—by her side over the course of multiple months. In the process, she taught him to read and write, exposing him to Black authors like Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.
As a side hustle, he coached a debate team at an inner city Atlanta middle school. After the team became undefeated national champions, Harvard recruited him to coach their debate team. In turn, Fleming founded the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, which recruits highly motivated Black youth from Atlanta and trains them through a year-long debate residency with Harvard that culminates in competition against top-ranked debaters from 25 countries. So far, the three cohorts Fleming has trained since the program’s 2017 inception have won the prestigious national Harvard Debate Tournament. This month, Hachette Books published Miseducated, Fleming’s memoir.
Forbes spoke with Fleming about his childhood, plans to open the first truly equitable boarding school and heart-first teaching.
Alexandra Sternlicht: Tell me about how you ended up in debate.
Brandon Fleming: I didn’t know that Black people were scholars. In the world that I existed in, there were nothing but Black gangsters and Black drug dealers and Black athletes. When my professor introduced me to Black writers, she opened up this world in which I never knew there was space for me. I just became hungry for more. I started watching movies and reading books about Black scholars. I was Googling movies similar to Malcolm X and found another movie starring Denzel Washington about a Black teacher. It’s called the Great Debaters, and it changed my life forever. I was like, “If only this was a real thing.”
I grew up an athlete, and I got hurt. I had nowhere to direct my competitive drive. So now I was like, ‘You can be competitive in smart stuff?’ So I came to find out it was a real thing, and that my college had a debate team—and then I tried out and made the team. I was so captivated by debate because it was not only helping me learn but discovering my voice and identity.
Sternlicht: You made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list as the founder of the Harvard Diversity Project. Are you still involved in that?
Fleming: Absolutely. I always wonder why I was the one who made it out of the ‘hood because there are so many people out there who never made it out. In fact, most of them never made it out. Some of them aren’t even alive anymore. When I made it from the hood to Harvard, I knew that my being there had to be far bigger than just me. I realized the reason I was there was to build a bridge—to create access for more people who look like me.
For three consecutive years, every group of students that I recruited and trained in Atlanta through the Harvard Diversity Project—every single one of them won the Harvard Debate Tournament. It shows the world that it’s bigger than debate. It shows the world that anything Black and Brown people have not achieved is not due to ability; it’s only due to access.
Sternlicht: From your own drive and from encountering some amazing mentors, you’ve had incredible success—all through education. Do you think that the education system is the main way to achieve racial equity?
Fleming: When we look at the plight of American education, it’s not a policy issue. It’s a heart issue. The reason is that we don’t understand that the way we create a more equitable world is through empathetic education. What does it look like? It looks exactly like what that professor did for me, which is meeting me where I was.
English did not change me. Academics did not change me. Love is what changed me. Empathy is what changed me.
The reason I wrote this book [Miseducated] is because we can’t reach people that we don’t understand. When we talk about reaching at-risk youth, that’s how we can reach them: love them first and teach them second. Once we learn how to do that, education will transform.
Sternlicht: How do you think educators and academic institutions can institute heart into their curriculum?
Fleming: We have to understand emotional learning. It goes beyond intellectual intelligence. You can’t be concerned with reaching the mind and not reaching the heart. We have to meet them where they are—that’s the definition of equity. It’s what that professor did for me: being willing to go the extra mile above the call of duty.
The other part of it is culturally relevant teaching. When my professor wanted to teach me to read and write, she didn’t go back to William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald. She understood the importance of culture and representation. That’s the definition of culturally relevant teaching: it’s marrying our agenda with their interests.
Young people are not disinterested. Young people are not disengaged. It’s easier for us to say they’re disinterested because that negates our responsibility.
English did not change me. Academics did not change me. Love is what changed me. Empathy is what changed me. Brandon Fleming
Sternlicht: What is the role of higher education in this system?
Fleming: One role higher education can play is creating equitable summer programming, which is what we’re doing at Harvard. We’re giving access to Black and Brown students because the other option is to leave these kids to fend for themselves.
Sternlicht: How do you think your impact will be most felt? Through your book? Through Harvard? Or other sorts of career things?
Fleming: I can let you in on something I haven’t shared with many others. If I have discovered the tool that levels the playing field for marginalized people, it means I have a responsibility to get that tool in the hands of as many people as possible, and I can’t do that at Harvard. Right now, I am in the process of building a school that is called the Veritas School of Social Sciences. It’s going to be the most equitable school in the world. It’s going to be a boarding school for people of color. It’s in Atlanta, Georgia and the development is already underway. We plan to open the school in either the fall of 2023 or 2024.
Sternlicht: You mentioned over email that your book is being optioned for a movie?
Fleming: Yes, it is! There’s not much I can share—only because now we’re negotiating with different production companies and studios to determine which contract we want to sign.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Alexandra Sternlicht, Forbes Staff