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A Leadership Lesson in Perseverance: A personal Perspective from Keolis' Tavares Brewington

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From our corporate leaders to our essential front-line employees, our team is connected by our unique experiences and commitment to bringing communities together. We recognize Black History Month as an opportunity to further amplify the diverse voices and backgrounds of Keolis North America. In this blog, Vice President and General Counsel Tavares Brewington shares a personal account of his experiences as a Black man, father, lawyer, and leader.

It was a rainy November afternoon. I was between conference calls at work.  As I waited in a line of luxury cars at my son’s private school, I thought about how different my son’s childhood has been from my own. My parents grew up poor in the segregated South. They had little formal education.  Despite their best efforts, many days we went without food and electricity.  Our neighborhood in South Florida was plagued by gang violence, and I never had access to a safe education. As I reflected on the juxtaposition of his childhood and mine, I felt a sense of pride.  My son has a stable home in an affluent neighborhood. By most standards, he has access to everything he needs to thrive, including a privileged education. 

I pulled up and spotted my son immediately. At 5’ 11,” he's taller than the other 8th graders and is one of the only black kids in the school. He wore a hooded jumpsuit, basketball sneakers, and a high-top fade.  He got in the car, said “hi,” and, as usual, immediately started to play a game on his phone.

A few minutes into our ride, I noticed his back to me, as though he was trying to hide his face.  He was rubbing his eyes.  He was crying.  What's wrong? I asked.  He seemed ashamed.  It’s nothing; I don't want to talk about it

I pressed him with a stern voice until he reluctantly turned towards me, hands over his face, tears flooding, Dad, do you ever feel like no matter how hard you work and what you do, it's never good enough? No matter how good my grades are, people treat me like my opinions aren't valid. When I say something in class, even if the teacher confirms I'm right, the other white kids try to make me feel like I'm not. Then last week at football practice, we were running drills. I was the wide receiver, and this other white kid was the defensive back. I beat him in a drill.  When practice was over, he got in my face and screamed at me that I “was nothing.”  He was out of control, angry because I won. His friends, other white kids, stood and stared at me, some laughing.  I just walked away. I thought that if I said something back to him, I would be the one who got in trouble. You always told me, "just do your best." It feels like doing my best doesn't make a difference.  

Seeing the hopelessness in my son’s eyes as he cried was a punch in the gut because I knew exactly what he felt. Like so many African American men and women, I have endured this same pain all my life, and now, despite having every advantage, my son knows this pain too. 

When I was a little older than he is now, my family moved to a small Western Massachusetts town where we were one of the only black families.  I was 6’ 2” and 225lbs, a star athlete, and an honor student.  As I watched the tears roll down my son’s cheeks, I recalled the time I sat at my mother’s feet and cried as I told her that I got into a fight in school when a white kid spit in my face, called me stupid, called me a “nigger.”   

My mother then told me about the many painful experiences she endured growing up in the Jim Crow-era segregated South.  She then looked at me with a seriousness I hadn’t seen before and said: It doesn't matter what they say you are or what they think you should be.  The only thing that matters is what you believe and how hard you are willing to work for what you want. You are part of a long line of strong black men and women who have persevered, Tavares. You will persevere too.    

Like so many people of color, my mother believed in the American Dream despite the racism she experienced and passed that belief on to me. And although my mother died my first year of law school, her words guided me as I encountered bigotry as I finished my degree then my MBA, and professionally at an international law firm, the United States Department of Justice, and Fortune 100 companies.

Looking at my son, I felt the overwhelming responsibility to do what my mother did for me. To help him understand the legacy of black people who came before him, and at the same time give him guidance to comfort and encourage as he navigates his life. I have always taught him to be a hard worker, that he will be rewarded for doing his best. But, as his tears made clear, there was no more hiding the awful truth from him that as a young black man, it's not that simple. He’s older now, and more aware of the world outside our home. He knows that George Floyd died with the knee of a white officer on his neck.  He witnessed hatred-fueled Trump supporters carry a confederate flag into our nation’s capital. He has the terrible knowledge of what a dangerous world it is for him as a person of color, no matter his accomplishments or socioeconomic status.

I’m so sorry. I hoped it would be different for you. When I was in high school, people thought I had to be an athlete or rapper or whatever they believed a black man should be. So when I excelled academically, they told me, subtly and explicitly, "That's not what you are." Even now, as an accomplished lawyer, I have to prove myself over and over again in ways a white man doesn't have to. Just like you, I'm almost always the only black man in the room. I feel the way you do every single day, and every act of microaggression reminds me of the challenges that we face as people of color.

I tell myself over and over that I am Not how other people see me. Son, you're destined for great things, but you can't be controlled by what other people will have you believe that you are. It's a mental battle you'll have to fight every single day.

He looked shocked but also relieved. I'm glad I told you why I was crying.

I continued, I don't want you to think of all white people as enemies and miss out on great relationships.  But to have these relationships, as people of color, we must continually analyze and judge whether what someone says is meant to hurt or harm us. I won't lie. It's exhausting, but you have to do it. Just know that you are not alone. 

He smiled. Dad, we've got to keep working to change this. 

He turned and started to play on his phone. 

This conversation with my son haunts me.  And I want it to haunt you too. It is just one of the countless examples of generational trauma racism inflicts on black people.  It is also an example of perseverance. Perseverance that my son and millions of other people of color continue to manifest.  My hope is that as the country celebrates black history month, we will not just talk about notable people of color and their accomplishments, but we will also commit to doing the hard work to abolish racism by addressing its root causes and fight for a world where black people can thrive without the weight of this burden.