15 Minutes with LeadBoston Alum Dr. Roger Harris
YW Boston sat down with Dr. Roger Harris (LeadBoston Class of 1997) for our latest “15 Minutes With” interview. Dr. Harris spoke about his LeadBoston experience and his career in education.
YW Boston: Could you tell us a bit about your experience in LeadBoston and how it has impacted your career path?
Dr. Harris: When I think about my LeadBoston experience, it was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in terms of professional development. I have spent over 40 years in K-12 education in Boston. My LeadBoston experience enabled me to step out of the educational sector and spend time with professionals from other sectors around the city and state. It was eye-opening and so rewarding, because often you can get into a career path and the only people that you interact with are those that are in that same circle. The LeadBoston experience allowed me to step out every month and spend time with others and learn about their various sectors as well.
YW Boston: What are a few of your most meaningful professional milestones since you participated in LeadBoston?
Dr. Harris: I’ve been blessed. I was selected as a Massachusetts principal of the year. I was selected as a national distinguished principal. I was awarded the Boston University Distinguished Alumni Award. Recently, the University of Massachusetts William Joiner Center honored me as veteran achiever of the year, as I’m a Vietnam War veteran.
I retired in 2015, and people asked, why aren’t you just fishing and playing golf? And I think about how blessed I am. In Vietnam, we were the most northern outpost that the United States had, and my unit got bombarded every day. Ken Burns captured some of it in in his Vietnam War documentary. There were so many guys that were with me that died, so many guys that lost arms and legs, and so many guys that got just messed up mentally. And I was able to come back and go to school and get a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree and a PhD. I don’t take that lightly. As long as I can breathe, I’m going to do as much as I can, for as many as I can, for as long as I can.
YW Boston: What led you to pursue a career in education?
Dr. Harris: It’s a very powerful profession. Educators can nurture and develop students, or they can crush and destroy. I grew up in Boston and I went to Boston Public Schools, and I’m not going to go into all that I experienced, but it wasn’t what I dreamed. As soon as I got out of high school, I joined the Marine Corps. I was young and I wasn’t going to college. At least, I didn’t think I was. I grew up in a household with my mother and my grandmother, who was the descendant of slaves in North Carolina. [My grandmother] only went as far as the third grade. My mother only went as far as the 10th grade, and they never spoke to me about college. To them, graduating from high school was an accomplishment.
When I was in Vietnam, I experienced all the atrocities of war. I didn’t think I was going to make it back. I had an opportunity to call home and spoke with my mom who said “I talk to God every day. You are special. You are not going to die in Vietnam. God has a plan for you.” I started praying and I made a promise that if I make it back, I’d dedicate my life to working with youth so that they wouldn’t have to experience what I had experienced. I received a scholarship to a Junior College in Nebraska and graduated and was given a scholarship to play football at Boston University. I majored in education wanting to emulate my first Black teacher, Mr. George Johnson, a physical education teacher and coach at the Lewis Junior High School in Roxbury. I wanted to have an impact on kids like he did. My first teaching assignment was in 1974, which was the first year of desegregation in Boston. I got assigned to Hyde Park High School, one of the three most explosive high schools in Boston that year. We’d have riots every day and fights on the steps of the school. We had to protect the black and brown children from angry neighbors from their buses to the school, and then later in the school throughout the day.
At the time I didn’t understand why I had survived the war when so many guys died, and it wasn’t until 1974 at Hyde Park High that I realized the impact that I had on the kids and my mother’s words echoed in my head: “God has a plan for you.” For over 40 years I’ve been operating on the premise that my life was spared in Vietnam to help children and try to make a positive impact on their lives.
YW Boston: As you said, you’re continuing to work after an initial retirement. What is the kind of work you’re doing now?
Dr. Harris: When I retired as superintendent of Boston Renaissance Charter School, I was offered a job at Boston University (BU) as a professor. My wife Cheryl [Watson-Harris, LeadBoston Class of 2009] was working in BPS as a deputy superintendent at that time. Cheryl is from Brooklyn, and she had spent 20 years in Boston with me. She was offered an opportunity to go back to New York as Director of Brooklyn South Schools, so I gave up my position at BU and we moved to New York. I went to work as an adjunct professor at New York University (NYU), and shortly thereafter I was offered a full-time professorship at New Jersey City University. I was also appointed director of the Institute for Collaborative Education at New Jersey City University (NJCU), overseeing the partnership between NJCU and Jersey City public schools.
Later, Cheryl was offered a job in Georgia as Dekalb County Superintendent. I had a consulting business that I hadn’t done much with, Urban School Specialists LLC, and began breathing new life into it. I’m also co-chair of the 100 Black Men of Dekalb County Inc. 100BMOD is local chapter of an international mentoring group. We presently mentor a little over one hundred teenage boys and girls two Saturdays per month.
YW Boston: You’ve had a long career in education and right now a lot of the backlash around diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is getting played out in schools. What are your thoughts on the current situation? Dr. Harris: Education in the USA is different than it is in other places because in the USA each state is pretty much autonomous. The governor of each individual state pretty much determines what’s going to be taught and how it’s going to be taught. So, you have all these variances.
I’ll start with Boston. Boston has made tremendous strides regarding not just the school department, but in the entire city. When I grew up in Boston, it was one of the most segregated cities in America. When I think about diversity and inclusion in my hometown, I’m pleased with the progress. But I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the country and experience different school systems. In lot of places, it’s still kind of backwards. There’s a lot of work to be done across the country around diversity and inclusion.
YW Boston: The 2023 cohort will be graduating in November. Do you have any advice for them?
Dr. Harris: My advice to them would be to embrace the experience. Make as many new friends as possible and stay in touch with your cohort and the other classes as well. I haven’t been as active as I should be, but I have made friends from my class and we’re still friends to this day. Lifelong friendships have been made through LeadBoston with brilliant, professional people who truly care. We all need support from time to time as we deal with the highs and lows of life. It’s nice to have a network.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Our signature leadership program, LeadBoston, supports all individual participants as they create and implement a leadership commitment. This leadership commitment is an action plan that confronts some of the systemic inequities they’ve learned about and that are showing up in their organization. This plan, and the collective LeadBoston experience, empowers leaders to create meaningful change in their workplaces, in their communities, and in the city of Boston itself. Staff work alongside alums for a year following the program to ensure participants have what they need to see their plan through.
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