Brandon P. Fleming, assistant Harvard debate coach and author, believes storytelling is the most effective way to reach someone. If you know someone’s story, he believes, you’ll be able to relate to them on a deeper level and stand in their shoes for a moment.
“Stories change people more than information ever will,” Fleming told an audience gathered in Roanoke College’s C. Homer Bast Center and tuning in virtually on Wednesday evening. “Stories change people more than data ever will, and the reason why is that stories are the gateway to empathy.”
So Fleming, in delivering Roanoke College’s Black History Month keynote address, told his story. It included joining a gang when he was 12 years old, escaping that life through basketball only to suffer a serious injury, dropping out of college and then re-entering college with almost no preparation.
Then everything changed because of one professor’s compassion, Fleming said. While Fleming was a struggling undergraduate student at Liberty University, an English professor pulled Fleming into her office and asked for his life story. Then she proceeded to share her struggles, showing Fleming that she truly cared about him. That altered his philosophy and made him understand the importance of empathy, Fleming said.
“It’s incumbent upon every single one of us to understand that we have a moral responsibility to love first and teach second,” Fleming said. “Love first, teach second. I don’t care if you’re a teacher, I don’t care if you’re a parent, I don’t care if you’re a student. We are all in the business of reaching people, and in order to reach people, we must love first, teach second.”
Fleming went on to establish the Harvard Diversity Project, which recruits and trains highly motivated Black youth into a summer debate residency at Harvard. The program has helped these students get experience at an Ivy League institution where they can grow as leaders and students.
Fleming spoke to more than 100 people in person at the Bast Center and many more watching via Zoom. His speech was called "Undoing Miseducation," and he recently wrote a memoir entitled "Miseducated."
Makayla Trent ‘23, who attended in person, said Fleming’s words resonated with her.
“I think it’s a message that we really need to hear because sometimes we forget how powerful our own stories can be to somebody else and the impact it can have on their life,” Trent said.
Students had an opportunity to ask Fleming questions, many of which were about how they can better relate to people and encourage others to open up. Fleming advised students to think about the people who have helped them in the past and to emulate them.
“The best way to discover what your purpose is and to live a purpose-driven life is to be for somebody else what you once needed,” Fleming said.
Trent, a business administration major with a human resources concentration, is involved in a variety of campus organizations including Black Student Alliance, Hispanic Organization for Leadership Achievement (HOLA), Alpha Sigma Alpha, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), cheerleading and choir. She said she hopes to take Fleming’s advice and share it with those organizations.
“I feel like it was a little reminder and refresher, and I’m going to take it, in all the positions and things I do on campus, to just spread more light and love to our campus and be more open to talking to new people and be more inclusive,” Trent said.
Students pose with Brandon P. Fleming after his Black History Month keynote address at the C. Homer Bast Center on Roanoke College's campus.