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🎙Podcast: Protecting Black Genius with Tony Weaver Jr. and William Jackson

“How powerful could it be if we could leverage that ability media has to change people’s lives and do it to achieve liberation? Do it to move the needle for our community forward in ways that really matter?” – Tony Weaver, Jr.

Tony Weaver, Jr. is an award-winning writer, educator, social entrepreneur, and the founder of Weird Enough Productions, an organization that partners with educators across the U.S. to harness the power of media and storytelling to improve social-emotional learning, media literacy, and digital citizenship.

William Jackson is the founder and chief dreamer of Village of Wisdom, a nonprofit organization that organizes and mobilizes families, teachers, and students to eliminate racial injustice in schools.

Tune in to hear Tony and William’s dreams for the next-generation of Black leaders and how they’re transforming systems and utilizing storytelling to make those dreams a reality.

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Episode Transcript

TONY:
Oh boy, we get to the exciting part now. Please introduce yourself. Share your name and titles that carry specific meaning to you.

WILL:
I appreciate that, Tony. So my name is William P. Jackson. I am originally from outside of Atlanta. We’re ATL bros— I don’t know if that’s really the cool way to say that.
You know, I guess a way to kind of get to know me, that I love sharing with folks, is my parents brainwashed me into believing that all scientists were Black from a very early age. So, I think I carry the title of scientist as something that means a lot to me. I really approach my life, I think, in a very scientific way. I think the scientific method has done a lot for me and I think a lot about how evidence shows up in my work.

So I am the founder and the Chief Dreamer—some more titles that mean a lot to me—of Village of Wisdom, which is an organization that’s designed to really leverage the wisdom of Black parents and translate that wisdom into culturally affirming learning strategies. So, ostensibly to improve the learning experiences of Black children and all children in this country by making sure that their education feels more accessible and more in line with their cultural experiences.

And also, I am proud that I have a Ph.D and folks sometimes call me doctor, especially when I feel like they need to kind of recognize what’s going on. I take that particular title seriously as well. And I think the responsibility that comes with it to be a part of Black folks who are leading and encouraging other Black folks, whether they have the title or not, to participate in the powerful action of creating knowledge. And I think knowledge, as we always often say, is power. I like to think of myself as somebody who facilitates the creation of power for the benefit of Black folks. So that’s me, Tony, but enough about me fam. Tell me about you. Introduce yourself, give us some titles that have meaning to you.

TONY:
My name is Tony Weaver, Jr. But the “junior” is really important to me because I think that I have a really close relationship with my dad. And I’m constantly in awe and also humbled by how close we are and the sacrifices that he made for me to be where I am.

I run an organization called Weird Enough Productions where I am Weirdo in Chief is my primary title. And at Weird Enough, we’re focused on leveraging the power of stories to make the world a better place by using diverse stories, sequential art, comics, manga, things like that in order to help young people believe in themselves a little bit more.

**

WILL:
How did you come up with the idea for your organization? And, you know, just speak a little bit about what your organization is and how do you get people there? Like what happens with the folks that you’re engaging?

TONY:
At Weird Enough, we are really focused on storytelling. We think that stories are a transformative thing. That everybody has a book or a movie or an album or something where they can divide their life by “before I found out about this thing,” and “after I found out about this thing.” And I always had the thought of, how powerful could it be if we could leverage that ability media has to change people’s lives and do it to achieve liberation? Do it to move the needle for our community forward in ways that really matter?
When it comes to how people come to us, I think that they’re looking for representation. Most of the people that we come across that we work with are people that are actively saying, “I don’t see myself represented in the stories that I engage with.” Or even more often parents that are like, “I don’t have stories that represent my child to put in front of them. I want them to believe all these amazing things about themselves.” Because I’m not trying to throw shade on anybody, but when it comes to positive representation, a lot of it is really young and a lot of it is really surface level. So it’s very easy for you to talk to. A two year-old or a three year-old and say, “You’re amazing. You’re great. Do your affirmations in the mirror.” But do you know what happens when that three year-old is seven years-old, eight years-old? When you send them off to a school where they’re one of the only Black kids in their school, and suddenly they’re dealing with discrimination from a variety of angles.

We need representation, but we need representation that’s meaningful. We need representation that’s nuanced, that we can lean on and rely on in scenarios that are real. And we’ve built resources and infrastructure around making sure that happens. I think, as a writer, what I always think about is that I assume that any audience member that I find is in the dark. Any audience member that comes to me, anybody that picks up a story to read the story, I assume that they are in the dark. That there is something that they’re fighting, that there’s something that they’re trying to overcome. And that point of view directly influences the way that I write, the way that I create, and the tools that we develop to go along with it.

How do people end up in the Village of Wisdom? Do I submit an application? How do I get into the Village?

WILL:
One thing I just got to say though, and I think in particular, one thing that hits me about Weird Enough is that like just the spaciousness that you’re creating for Black identity, right? Because that stereotype tends to be so narrow. And so if you find yourself out of that stereotype, then that sounds like to me the darkness that you’re talking about. But like one thing that Weird Enough is doing is really opening up that aperture that, Oh, I can see myself as a Black person in this particular part of identity, which I think is important for us on the pathway to liberation. Because like I said before, like we need everybody, right? Like we can’t leave the Black nerds out of the liberation conversation. You know what I mean?

TONY:
Uh, very often I find that even inside of our community, there are expectations that we put on each other that can sometimes be very, very harmful. Monolithic ideas of what it looks like to be a Black man. What a Black man is supposed to be. This toxic masculinity that gets mixed into so much of how we’re expected to behave. And I agree with you, Weird Enough is above all meant to be a space beyond those things. It’s meant to be a space that says, “You don’t have to be in alignment with what somebody else is telling you, or else you get your Black card taken away. There’s room for you to be who you are in whatever beautiful variety that is.”

WILL:
That’s beautiful. And I mean, and I think, you know, you asked this question about like, how do people get into Village of Wisdom? The way that we’re trying to attract people kind of aligns with that, right? Like, we have space for your Blackness, right. And as long as you’re not willing to give up on the Black part of you, right. As long as you’re not trying to kind of hide that part of you, like come with us. And you get to define that here. I think what you’re talking about… The word that a lot of people use for that is internalized racism. So like, I have internalized a negative idea about what Black people are and the limit of who they can become.

Sometimes I think people attach how we speak and the things that we’ve accomplished and they don’t recognize how whiteness shows up in that stuff. If you go to a PWI, for example, a predominantly white institution versus a historically Black college, you’re going to get a different experience. And one of the benefits for me of going to a historically Black college was that everybody was Black. So you found a place for your Blackness there, which I think again gets to this whole like idea of Village of Wisdom.

So many parents that come to us talk about the fact that like, “I’ve never had an opportunity to learn in an environment where I had to worry about how my Blackness was showing up in that space. Because I’m so used to code-switching. I’m so used to being worried about white gaze. I’m so used to being worried about what white people think when I’m thinking.” And that idea of having to think about something while I’m thinking in and of itself is an inequity. We call it a cognitive inequity. And so what we’re trying to do at Village of Wisdom is to remove that cognitive inequity because we see that as a barrier to us being able to dream about what liberation looks like. It’s really hard for me to imagine liberation for Black people could be if I have to do that in an environment where white gaze is present.

So when we talk about inviting folks to the Village of Wisdom, we host a lot of events. We host a lot of cultural things that try to grab people’s attention to Village of Wisdom. So we’ve had things called Black Genius Fest. We have this video called “Black Genius Breathe.” And really we’re leveraging parents’ relationships with other Black parents to say like, “Look, this is a space where you can talk to us, where you can be yourself, where you can actually heal and feel restored.” And I think that invitation a lot of times is enough in and of itself. But then we also compensate Black folks and Black parents for participating with us because we consider our work bi-directional learning work, meaning that a lot of the frameworks and the thought leadership that we’ve added to the space have come from the intellectual contributions of the Black parents who are participating with us.

And I think one of the things that the fellowship, unfortunately, helped me understand is that even as I got into this ecosystem, people’s understanding of what it was going to take to improve the material conditions of Black men in this country was largely guided by this idea of charity. Really what I realized is that we need to stop asking so many questions about the needs of our communities. And we need to start asking about the dreams of our communities. And so we talk a lot about dream assessments now. Like what are we dreaming about? What do we want to accomplish? Not necessarily, what do I want to prepare myself to experience discrimination in a classroom? No. What are you dreaming about? What is a non-discriminatory classroom look like? What does a liberatory classroom look like? And I think a lot of that evolution started in Echoing Green because I was put in a room. And there’s no way for me to sugarcoat my work because I am telling you that the stuff that we have to do is actually prepare Black children for the discrimination that they’re going to experience. And typically as white folks, there was a lot of guilt around the fact that like, “Oh, are you saying that we’re the problem?” I’m not necessarily saying you specifically are the problem but you are definitely a beneficiary of that problem. And your charity model of how you’re talking about investing in this work and kind of looking at us as, “Woe is us.” As opposed to understanding that the inhumanity that white supremacy has created a system that we can’t be successful in is very problematic.

**
WILL:
Tell me about some of the early challenges you had or early successes as a founder and entrepreneur that put you on the path that you’re on now.

TONY:
I hesitate to call it imposter syndrome, right? It wasn’t, “I don’t feel like I’m qualified.” It’s, I know what I’m doing. I just don’t know how helpful that is in the context of what everybody else knows. I go to a PWI where very few people are going to question me on anything that I say about race. What does it look like when I get in a room full of heavy hitters that have been in this space for a while? And, I think that was my early challenge in entering the community and also entering my work. Sure, I have all these big aspirations but where do I fall in the pecking order? Is there a pecking order? Obviously, there is because I’ve noticed that the same five organizations get called for every multimillion-dollar check you give, but what makes them different from me? What do I need to do in order to get there?

And I think that it’s through that process that I had a really early success. So at the first All Fellows Conference for Echoing Green, I sat down with Kareem who’s another Fellow. Tiffany, our portfolio manager, recommended that I talked to Kareem. So Kareem sat down with me and he said, “So tell me what your goals are.” And I say, “In five years, I want us to have a multimillion-dollar budget. And I want to have a staff. And in 10 years, I want to be achieving this and accomplishing this.” And he says, “Cool. So what’s your business model right now?”

And I walked him through a very early idea of what I thought would work, which was we were doing school-based in-person workshops over the course of two or three days. And he broke down the math with me and was like, “Sorry, bro. The math is not mathing.” If you want to accomplish the goals that you just laid out, then you’re going to need a different business model. You need to enhance your model in some way. You either do a “train the trainer” model, or you go through technology and you take what you have, you build it in a way that’s accessible, and you scale it out. And that’s how I realized that we were an ed-tech organization. And that one conversation in a hotel conference room fundamentally shifted the way that we do our work and put us on the path that we’re on today.

**
WILL:
I’m curious, Tony for you, what have you picked up in navigating the world of philanthropy?

TONY:
Very often when people come to this work—whether that’s Black Male Achievement, anything in philanthropy— they’re so focused on the raw output of what they do, that sometimes they don’t think about the skills that need to go into that. And one of those skills is always writing. You gotta be able to write, you got to know somebody that can, or you got to have a really good editor. And I’m lucky in the sense that writing is what I’m good at.

When I go talk to students about writing and they say, “I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer.” I say, “Do you though? Do you want to be a writer?” Because you want to write the book. But do you want to write the proposal that gets you the book? Do you want to write the query letter that gets you the agent and that gets you to the proposal so you can get the book? Do you want to go write the grant application that gives you the funding so that you can go focus and write the book? You gotta be ready to do it from a variety of different angles. And that’s like a little kind of trick that I’ve learned. What tips or tricks have you picked up that, that have helped you navigate this space?

WILL:
I think some of my tips are more specific to me. And I’m always careful about how I give folks advice, right? Like when I think about this particular thing.
And so for me, what I have found is being very transparent about the inequities in people’s funding practices that I can tangibly see– that are backed up typically by other evidence outside of the anecdotal evidence that I can give them, that’s directly related to the situation that I’m talking about— has put people in philanthropic spaces on notice when they want to do better. What I have seen happen is that has led to funders and other people asking me to come into spaces to give them advice about how to change their practices. And then on the back end, those particular practices end up either benefiting me or other people in the community.

And so one of the things I’ll just say quickly when I think about tips and tricks is I remember getting flewed out. To California, they paid for a nice plane ticket, stayed in this nice spot in Silicon Valley. And I got in this room and we were supposed to be talking about equity and education and all this other stuff. And I remember somebody asking a question like, “Well, are we going to go this far?” And they were talking about like, are we going to be this radical basically in the proposals and the suggestions that we’re making?
And I remember, and this is a tip or trick for me, was listening to that pain point inside of me. Which basically the ancestors are like, look, you don’t have the privilege to find yourself in this room where you have the opportunity to drive how people are going to make decisions with hundreds of millions of dollars. And if you can’t in the comfort of that room, say it with the deepest part of your chest, that yes, we need the most radical solution that I can possibly think of in this moment. Then what is even the point of you being there?

So, I don’t know if it’s so much a tip and trick. I guess what I would just say is to remember, to be true to self and understand who you are and what you stand for. Because if not, like they say, you will fall for anything. And, even worse, when you get in that room to speak up for other people, your suggestions, if they are watered down will probably lead to people looking like you not getting the resources that they deserve. This is the time. Be bold. Be radical. Because I don’t want people saying no to a watered-down idea. If you’re going to say no, at least say no to my biggest and wildest dream. That’s my tip and trick.

TONY:
I feel like mine is very similar in the same vein of remembering who you are. I think the largest thing that I’ve learned is don’t let the fact that somebody else can’t see it stop you from seeing it. There have been so many occasions where we’ve talked to potential funders and they’ve said, “Well, I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.” And I’m like, I don’t know what you don’t understand. I just laid it right out there for you. I got documentation, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and PDFs. And I think everyone reaches a place where they break a few barriers and they’re like, all right, I’m going to go break the next one and they run into it. And it stops them in their tracks like you walk into a glass door that you didn’t know was there.

And at that moment I hadn’t had the experience of rejection in this space yet. So I hadn’t built up the calluses and the muscle to be able to graciously accept a no. I’m like, I just got told yes five times and then somebody told me no. Maybe there’s something wrong. Maybe there’s something that needs to shift. Maybe I didn’t explain this the right way. Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.

When it comes to funders, when it comes to supporters, there are people that are going to look at what you do and think it is the most amazing thing in the world and tell literally everybody about it. And there are people in the same space with the same dollar signs and with the same check sizes that look at it and go, “I can’t even explain this. And I just listened to you talk for an hour.” So you got to have that confidence to know that what you’re doing is important, that it has value, and that it matters even when they don’t see it.

Your responsibility as the visionary, if you will, is to see it when nobody else does.

WILL:
Speaking of no and whether people understand us, and all that other stuff… Can you name a specific trend innovation in media and ed-tech that worries you and another that excites you?

TONY:
When it comes to media, the relationship with me and media is different than what you would normally find because yes, I run this social impact organization but media is a core part of our work. As a result, we’re constantly talking to journalists. I’m just over half a million followers on Tik Tok and there’s a significant part of our work that involves me being in the public eye at all times. So I recognize media trends that happen relatively often. But what concerns me is that we are currently in a place where the reliability or the functionality of the solution doesn’t really matter. What matters is, can you condense it in a way that gets it to go virtual? It doesn’t matter if the work that you’re doing is actually important. What matters is, can you make it go viral on Instagram? Can you scale it to 50K followers on Instagram?

And I think that what worries me is that I think we’re going to get to a point where the reliability, the scalability, and the impact of the work isn’t going to matter? What’s going to matter is how many likes can I get? How many shares can I get? And I’ve seen a lot of organizations that claim to support our community. They claim to be for our people, that even claim that they’re about positive representation. But really when you look at them and what they do, what it boils down to is social media theatrics. But that’s enough for them.

What does excite me though is something that’s on the flip side. Yes, social media offers this giant megaphone to people that might not deserve it, but for the people that do, occasionally they find their place. And that’s what excites me. I’m excited about the concept of more people finding their place in that way.

WILL:
To your point, there is a lot of — and this has come up I think especially in the Black organizing space— the complications of visibility and the tying of social justice to our capitalistic systems and the people who would love to leverage the “vogueness” of social justice for the benefit of their capitalistic gain.

And that is tricky, especially when we’re in a system that requires resources to do our work. And so navigating that, I think it’s just difficult but I think, to your point, like there’s a lot of opportunity in the decentralized nature of how media is consumed. Right? And so now, because of the Instagrams and the Facebooks and the TIk Toks and all this other stuff. Everybody almost has access to a voice. I mean, it’s a sword, it cuts both ways, but the reality is that folks like us can put together a movie and put out something like “Black Genius Breathe” and have a whole bunch of people watch it.

And previously, how else would we get a video up pre-2000 in front of a whole bunch of people? And I think in particular, one of the things that we’re really interested in tech. With the advancements of Web 3.0 and Blockchain and all these other things that are associated. And the idea of further decentralization and the decentralization of finances, how we might be able to leverage those markets to be disruptive to the traditional capital markets that many times take advantage of and are exploiting labor? I am not naive enough to believe that web 3.0 is going to fix all of that. What I am saying is that it is entering a new player in the market, which is disrupting the old market, which gives us a greater window for disruption for equity and justice. Now, whether or not that is actually able to happen, I don’t know. But I do think that there is some promise there.

TONY:
The way that Web 3.0 three shakes out is going to be really interesting. I have no idea how I feel about it right now. I just know that I don’t want to see another NFT just like ever.

WILL:
But the art though, Tony! The people, your people can better own their art. For us, especially for Black folks, who’ve created so much culture and have been uncompensated for it. And so the idea that stuff can be held on a public ledger and if you copy it, at least it’s really clear that you did.

TONY:
I am curious to see what it looks like in a context where it’s actually owned by people that have liberation in mind from the start. I’m very skeptical about the idea of a tool that is developed by people that are generally more well off than most and also do not have to deal with any of the change that we are trying to destroy. I’m interested in something developed by those types of people being used for the purpose of liberation.

**
TONY:
So as we look to the future, whether that’s web 3.0 or something that we haven’t even heard about yet… It’s fingers crossed for me that’s what it is. What are your hopes and visions for the next generation of Black leaders?

WILL:
I love this question. I hope that we are able to invest more time in each other than in the spaces that white folks create for us.

And the reason why I say that is that… We talked about this earlier and we both have, I think, very interesting ideas about the pathway to liberation. And one of the things that Village of Wisdom has taught me, and this is going to harken back to earlier in the conversation, is that to hear Black parents say over and over again, “I don’t know if I ever got to dream in an all Black space before.”

Then I think about what does it mean if we get all of the leaders in the space to think about collectively how we are imagining, envisioning liberation together? And this whole idea of iron sharpens iron. And having that conversation while also still being grounded to our communities and thinking about the communities that we come from. What are the dreams that we create together? And what does it look like to do that not under the gaze of whiteness, not under the support of whiteness, but under our own support and in the spaces that we’ve created for each other? And how much more radical, how much more liberatory those dreams are, is what I’m excited about.

And I’m excited about that what does it look like for all of us to have those dreams and what does it look like for us to invest in leaders early on to dream in this way? And so like a lot of times in Village of Wisdom, we talk about Black genius profiles and creating a Black genius and this idea of creating new systems of equity and justice. And so what does it look like for me to ask a five year-old, what is the world that you imagine that is outside of this one that you see right now? Allowing and investing in that five year-old for the next five, 10 years. And then thinking about the fact that there’s about 8 million of those Black five year-olds or 8 million young people in this country right now.

And so I am hoping. I am dreaming. I am working towards making sure that we have that table to dream together so that we can get to this place that I know we deserve. I know that we are promised, and I know that I believe. And, this is something we say so much that we put it on a t-shirt, to make liberation inevitable. So that’s my thoughts. I’m curious about what are your hopes, visions, and dreams for the next generation of Black leaders?

TONY:
I think mine is really simple. I hope that Black leaders are able to keep the main thing, the main thing. For a generation of young people that are very keen on, “If I get X amount of money, then I can make this much in a brand deal. If I get X amount of followers, then I can charge this much for a shout-out or I can charge this much for promo. I can get this and I can monetize this way. And I can have a cameo where I get paid to do shout outs and all these things.”

There is this creeping, creeping pressure for young people to sacrifice their humanity and turn themselves into a brand. So if you would sacrifice yourself for that gain, there’s no question that you would also sacrifice your people. And I am hopeful that won’t happen. That they’ll see that beyond the numbers, there’s more work that needs to be done.

There’s a world that needs them, the person and not them, the brand. And I hope they have the courage to keep that at the forefront of their minds.

WILL:
Simple but profound.

**
WILL:
As we close out here for those who are listening in and inspired by your work, how can they learn more everywhere?

TONY:
I’m everywhere! Just look up Tony Weaver, Jr. I’m out here. Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter.

So my organization’s site is weirdenough.com. I’m at Tony Weaver Jr. on all platforms. We’re @WeirdEnoughHQ on all platforms. So you can find out more about our work there.

How about you for those that cannot physically be in the Village of Wisdom? Where can they go look and learn more?

WILL:
We’re working on that part too but we have two websites: villageofwisdom.org and Blackgenius.com. So if you’re trying to get into our work, you can find us on either of those. We’re at @villageofwisdom on all of our platforms. And then if you’re trying to get ahold of me, I guess specifically I’m at PPeriod on Twitter and Instagram.

Yeah. That’s how you find me. Like you said, you can do some Google searches too. I encourage people to reach out. We’re out here always trying to be accessible and just want to connect with good people, be in a bigger community, be accountable.

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