BY JEANETTE LENOIR
The scenic drive to Hamilton Central School District can be deceiving, but then again so is most of picturesque upstate New York. It’s not a revelation that small town America has secrets; secrets that continue to silhouette a place still unwelcoming to many non-white citizens. Even so, HCSD hired its first black Superintendent in 2015. Some argue it was also a hiring move to be more inclusive and boost diversity.
Superintendent, Dr. Anael Alston, who is also Jewish, took up the challenge as the area’s educational leader two years ago, but not before inquiring about being received by the community at large because of his skin color. He says, “One of the factors I considered in accepting the position was the kind of community that it was. I was frank with the search consultant when I asked; is this community ready for an African American to be the educational leader?” He says the board that hired him thought the community was ready for the change and wanted the best candidate.
Alston says being the first African American in high profile roles is not new for him. “A lot of my career I have been the first in some of my communities but I was also well aware that being the first African American brings certain challenges with it, challenges that no one would necessarily speak of. And, I take that on because I just believe that I’m not going to be limited by other people’s lack of knowledge or world view, or world exposure.” Alston boosts an impressive resume that includes an Ed. D in Curriculum and Teaching from Columbia University, a B.A. in Sociology and spent 10 years as a principle in Long Island before accepting his latest challenge as HCS Superintendent. “The community in large part has been very welcoming, very accepting. There is certainly a faction that really struggles with some of the positive changes that are necessary in order for the organization to be effective and efficient in the long term.”
Some of the challenges, Alston points to concern the district’s spending, finding new revenue sources, updating their technology and taking a look at administrative and staffing efficiency. “Taking a critical look at what we do and how we do it. That has been a challenge to some people,” he says. Alston says the pushback he has received is not uncommon in public education, especially when it challenges the status quo and the district’s culture. He says 70 to 80 percent of the district’s budget deals with staffing. “So, ultimately how you use your staff dictates your budget,” he adds. When asked if the pushback had to do with being a black man at the helm, Alston pauses to consider his answer carefully and points to studies on the subject. “There’s a ton of research on African American and male leaders and how they are perceived by Caucasian cultures, and so you never really know the reason because no one will say it so I will just rely on the research.”
In the midst of this uncomfortable truth, can Dr. Alston still be an effective leader? He says yes. Adding, “I’m choosing to not judge circumstances. It just is and I’m aware of it. And, that I have to choose how I’m going to respond, or not respond. I am aware that in 2017 there are people who are just not open to the world that is changing in front of them. I think that I have to behave in a way that is true to who I am and my position as a global citizen. And quite frankly, for the ignorant people who still harbor bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia in their spirit, I can only model what I believe to be the correct path and hopefully my behavior and interaction has a positive impact.”
Alston says he tries very hard to not let racism get in the way of his “Why’s”. “Which is to educate, empower and inspire people to live closer to their human potential and using my platform as a public educational leader to do so,” he says. His young daughter who also attends school in the district gets the same message but with an added reminder of her privilege and according to Alston, “Also that life isn’t fair. We are clear on the history of this country and the world and as it relates to politics and power.”
He says his daughter is thriving in her new home and despite some of the challenges of the job the superintendent points to the successes he’s ushered in thus far. “We’ve done well with grants. We’ve done over $200,000 in grant money over the last two years. We’ve been able to lobby with a not-for-profit who gave us about 50 reconditioned laptop computers. We were able to forge a stronger partnership with Colgate who gave us about 27 iMacs. We’ve been able to identify the need to seriously update our technology which was very old and outdated,” he says. Another significant initiative Alston is spearheading is the accreditation for dual enrollment that aims to help students and their parents pay less for college. “The cost of higher education is becoming very difficult for those who are working class poor and even middle class at this point. And, what we’ve done here is we’ve doubled the number of college credits that a student can take while they’re at Hamilton Central School District and walk out of here with up to 30 SUNY college credits.” He says that’s two semesters of college high school students can earn before entering the State University of New York institutions. “That’s something we have accomplished as a school district in the two years I’ve been here.” He calls it a “win-win situation” even though it means more work.
“The obstacle is the way” Alston explains as he delves into another program that may challenge the secularity of a small town like Hamilton, NY but also take on the district’s financial and declining enrollment problem. The International Student proposal, Alston argues, will not only boost funding for the district, it will increase diversity in CNY, “and, exposing students who would not be able to travel around the world and experience different cultures so I would argue better preparing them.”
The committee studying the proposal has already met with Homeland Security to ensure all legal issues concerning immigration are being followed and properly administered. “In order for us to do it we have to be able to issue I-20’s, which then the student participant can take to the U.S. Embassy and get their paperwork processed.” He says despite the “selective immigration” woes flaring across the country the process for HCSD International Student Proposal would be consistent with the laws and regulations concerning immigration to the U.S. He says there are some downsides to the program, including the political reality, housing and financial needs, the districts liability and the different cultures you bring in to a small town like Hamilton, NY. “And, that is something that people will have to struggle with.” Alston says when it comes to the community’s acceptance of international students it depends on who you ask. “I wouldn’t call it a resistance…I would call it a cautious apprehension. I also think because I’m an outsider there’s even more apprehension. And, I’ve been accused of being a resume builder…like, ‘what does he want to do here’…I understand that. I have strong credentials and some people feel that this is a resume builder for me.” When asked how that makes him feel, Alston says, “It doesn’t make me feel one way or the other; it just is because at the end of the day I’m back to my Why’s.”
What does the future look like for the first African American Superintendent in Hamilton, NY? “I don’t know what the future looks like. I know what today looks like. I plan for tomorrow but there are factors that I ultimately don’t control. But, what I do control is how I behave and how I respond to circumstances and conditions and what I do each day to add value to the organization.” Alston says the progress the district has made under his leadership is not because of him, “but it’s because of We.”
Dr. Alston’s contract is up for renewal in June 2018. And, although it is common practice to bring up the issue of contract renewal before a fast approaching deadline, the new school board has not presented the issue for debate or a vote. In other words, Dr. Alston has a new school board to convince to keep him on and thus far, no decision has been made about his future in the district. Alston says he did not expect to deal with as many issues—some political—so early in his superintendence but he says he strongly believes in his own worth and contributions to the district. “The district is making progress under my leadership,” he says.
Dr. Alston brings more than his Ivy League credentials to his position as Superintendent. He brings a world view to his community despite hailing from the same state. Alston grew up in Brooklyn, NY. “I’m a kid from the ghetto,” he says as he delves in to the cultural divide that’s evident in the two very different parts that make up the great State of New York. “I am representing the hopes and aspirations of a lot of people in multiple ways. I’m from the hood where this kind of success just was not part of the daily grind.” On the other hand, Alston says he also represents the hopes and aspirations of upper middle class families. “I believe God is using me because for a lot of the people I have interacted with, they only know African Americans through rap and some of the foolishness that’s on television. And, I recognize that in Central New York some people, in particularly Long Island, have never had an African American boss or an African American male boss and that kind of change is uncomfortable for some people. That is not their reality. And so I try to inspire people who are willing to show some kind of interest in the journey.”
Alston’s journey hasn’t been a cake walk despite being an overachiever coupled with a determination to live purposely. As if the stresses of our societal struggles with equality, discrimination and lack of access for blacks in America wasn’t a big enough battle to overcome along the way, Alston is also living with the pain of losing two brothers to violence. In 1990 his brother Raphael was murdered. He was only 21 years old. Nearly three years later, he lost another brother to violence. Ariel was 23 years old when he was murdered. Both crimes are still unsolved. “There were 2500 murders the year Raphael got killed,” he said. His brother’s memories are the cornerstones of the “Why’s” Alston relies upon as his life compass. “I am who I am and proud of it whether people get me or not. And my responsibility to give back to this land and this world goes beyond any box that someone would check for me, or that I’d be asked to check.”
Exposure to different cultures and people changes a person’s perception Alston says, adding “That is why I make it a point to engage with people different than me.” He goes on to say, if ones exposure is limited to people of color than they’re going to have whatever narrative they’ve been told or received from the media. Another narrative of Alston’s story is his boxing career that started during his college years as a way to fend off his Freshmen 15 and deal with some difficult times at home. He was trained by his uncle whom he says he desperately needed as a male role model at the time. “Some of the successes that I’ve had in my career are related to my exposure and training in the fight game,” he says. The former champion boxer who earned his golden gloves says on tough days it feels like he left one boxing ring for another. “You always have to do your homework before the lights come on. If you haven’t done your homework and the lights come on, you will be embarrassed. That’s true in this seat also.” Part of his learning he says came from watching the promoters behind the boxers and the business end of the sport. “That was very helpful because I wasn’t a typical boxer.” Nevertheless, similar to his boxing career, Alston says he has great mentors and trainers in education. “There are so many lessons that I’ve applied from being a champion in that ring into this arena. I would like to believe that I build on the parallels.”
“You have to be double good in order to be an African American,” is a phrase as common as a greeting Alston grew up hearing from his mother and grandmother. “I don’t know if that’s true or not but I can look and see my credentials verses other peoples credentials and accomplishments and worry about that but I don’t because at the end of the day it’s about human potential,” he says. Instead, he credits the educational thought leaders who have guided him throughout his career that in turn have helped him add value to his own work for the communities he has served in public education. “Quite frankly, it wouldn’t make me feel good if I find out what my grandmother use to always say. So I’m going to stay away from that and I’m going to focus on adding value and building myself and my team up.”
Part of reaching back for Alston comes in the form of speaking engagements. He says he enjoys sharing his wisdom with young people and inspiring them to consider career goals that aren’t as glamorous as being a movie star, entertainer, athlete or even a more hazardous route like taking up illegal activities. “I have some of the toys of success and sometimes I’ll let people know I have that stuff and I don’t rap, I’ve never sold drugs and I do travel. And, I can tell you how I did it. And I tell them how much more fun it is. I am not worried about the feds taking my assets. That’s a freedom that hustlers don’t have.” He says there’s a shift in terms of young people choosing to live a “hustle life” however; he wishes the shift would happen faster. “I let them know it’s doable. Once a person can see and touch success than it can become attainable.”
Despite the national noises that threaten to reverse some of the progress made in America, we’ve come a long way as a society. Even so, Alston adds, “To hire the first African American is progress. To hold them to the same standard that you did the people before them would be the next step.” He goes on to give examples of the criticism former President Barrack Obama received and the benefit of technology that clearly and sadly showed the hypocrisy and blatant double standard he, along with other black people in America have had to endure, and that are culturally rooted in our identity, still. “Either there is one standard or there isn’t, or there’s a person of color standard and the other standard. And, is that equal and if not, why? And, what’s that really about? That’s a conversation that can be uncomfortable,” he says.
In spite of the political nature of the job and the obstacles he’s working to overcome, Dr. Alston, who can easily be described as upstate New York’s very own Cory Booker, wants people to know that he remains optimistic about his future as the educational leader in the district despite the uncertainty that comes with the rapid change in the school board since his arrival. He says, “While I report to a corporate body called the school board, I ultimately answer to a higher authority.” With regard to the recent protests, racial tensions and civil acts of disobedience, Alston says, “In order to be able to be the super power and a nation that is great, we have to really examine our thinking and beliefs. I’m hopeful that people are aware of that giving what is going on in the country now.” He says people have to think before choosing a political camp, “because the talking points are not serving us. The polarization’s are not serving us. We are marred in levels of foolishness as a result of us, as a country, not consciously deciding to be aware.”
Challenges can be opportunities. And, that’s the attitude Alston wears as a merit badge as he makes his way through the school building visiting class rooms, engaging teachers, students and staff alike. “This is not a job for me. It is my mission,” he says, adding that, “when I show up to work in my capacity as Superintendent, I am living my Why and I’m expressing it through my What.” He says part of his Why is to reach those not being served or adequately challenged in the classroom. And, it’s deeply personal as the tragic deaths of his two brothers. “There are people who are brilliant sitting in school who are not connected. My job as educational leader is to tap into their potential.” Alston explains that his work is the mechanism that allows him to live out his personal and professional goals…even if he has to use an “intellectual uppercut” to get the job done. “I believe in the goodness of people, be it the people of Hamilton, the people of NY, the people of this country and the people of this world. After all, it is people who have helped me get this far.”