J'Saun, BGA class of 2017, is attending Boston College and majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in African Diaspora studies. He has a week filled with tests (he is taking five classes and a lab), and after our interview is scheduled to drop off paperwork that will help him choose between a summer internship in France or one in Ecuador. In January this year, his dance team became the number one African dance team in New England, and he runs track and field at the Harvard campus because "BC is a football and basketball school." Tomorrow, he will be running for the first time since November because he is still dealing with a torn hamstring. Before I can ask whether he's sure he is okay to run crazy distances really fast, he bounces up and down to demonstrate how ready he is. J'Saun is a busy man.
In 2013, J'Saun was leaving middle school where he was finding every way possible not to fulfill his potential. With report cards filled with Ds and Fs, something inside him clicked when he was about to head to high school. Realizing that what he needed was a break from his routine and an opportunity to be among classmates who didn’t know him, he decided on Boston Green Academy, then located in South Boston. J remembers 9th grade when the school was still young, and just beginning to grow its middle school. “You knew when someone was absent because the school was so small. During any day, I would see everyone, so we knew when someone wasn’t there.” He also recalls that the “Green” in BGA wasn’t very present at the beginning, but that soon after he arrived, “they really ran with it. In every class, including math, there was a focus on sustainability. And then of course, the Green Talks.” J recalls the same discovery process related to Project Week. “In the beginning, there were a couple of projects with green themes, but people weren’t picking them. I was, but not many others. Then those options picked up and students discovered how cool they were.”
Something else picked up during that time: J’s grades. He recalls one particular moment with a rueful smile. “I got my report card and it was filled with Bs and As and I had never seen anything like it. I was so excited I brought it to my advisor and she told me it was good, but that I could do better. I got really upset because this was really good for me, but I knew she was right.”
So J got to work. He started the “Little Big” program, where older students mentored younger students. Not everyone, he says, has a stable home life and they take to the streets and friends to find some stability. He wanted to be a resource for the middle school students who needed the same push that he had needed. The program “allowed me to use my experience with kids who were acting out and doing that helped change my own junior and senior years. I’d get to know them and their challenges and even made a rubric for how their day should go. I remember the first kid that I mentored. He was a really great kid, really smart, but had so much going on at home and just needed someone to talk to. He went from detentions to attendance to honor roll. I am still in contact with all of them. I had about 6 kids and would find them at lunch and play board games or do homework. We started with 2 days a week, but had to move it up to every day because it was clear that the program made a big difference. On the days they didn’t see their mentors, the kids misbehaved. And it really helped me so much.”
J was a student rep on the BGA board, and contributed his perspective to the conversations about how BGA was growing and developing. He also took advantage of the school’s partnership with Thompson Island Outward Bound and became a Green Ambassador for three years, and then was hired by TIOB as an intern, where he became known as “the plant guy”. After the program, where he was the youngest park ranger in the National Park Service (NPS). “My job was to teach volunteer groups (like those from UMass) studying the natural environment how to remove the invasive species from the environment to help native plants grow and thrive. It was the best job ever.” And, while all of this was going on, J’Saun also ran track and field. In his senior year, his team broke the Massachusetts 4 x 200 Meter Relay and their time placed them as “6th or 7th” in the nation.
We are talking in the upstairs balcony of the cafeteria at Boston College where J’Saun is a sophomore. There is a fire blazing in the fireplace downstairs and students wander in and out in groups, in pairs, and individually. J’Saun lives in a nearby dorm with a roommate and a bearded dragon, registered as a companion pet. J’Saun is a self-declared “herp guy”, with 7 of his 11 pets reptiles (no snakes). His dream job? “I always wanted to be a veterinarian and study with a cross discipline of zoology and ecology, but I will have to do that in grad school. My dream job now is to start a wildlife sanctuary with a zero carbon footprint. I want a place where no animal will be turned away. We have to stop our anthropocentric view of nature.”
Since my meeting with J, he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity to study in France this summer. On his Go-Fund me appeal “From Négritude to Hop-Hop”, he describes the opportunity this way: "I will be studying Black culture and its interactions within the
environment in France. As a Black student attending a predominately white institution, Boston College, I believe this is an extremely important experience to have. With everything that goes on in this country relating to the subject of race, I need to see what it means to be Black outside
of this country to give me hope.” He is almost half-way to his $4,500 goal.
J’Saun is considering BC for grad school, and is also looking at The University of Pennsylvania. He speaks often and fondly of everyone at BGA and says “I owe BGA a lot. If the school ever needs me for anything, any time, any place, I will never say “no”.