For My People

An editorial by Clifford Cawthon

The late literary legend, James Baldwin, once said, “To be a Black person whom is relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” For Akin (née, Norman) Alston this indignation in the face of the limitations imposed upon Black brilliance in this society led him to becoming a local mathematician and entrepreneur.

If you’ve not heard of him, that’s no surprise. Like many brilliant Black folks, his story is one in which his creations were exploited and appropriated by his white ‘allies’. In 2003, after working as a Longshoreman, and a math teacher both in East King County and the Seattle Public Schools, Akin presented a proposal to some of his more affluent white—primarily female—clients from his time teaching in East King County: Open a mathematics tutoring program for those who could benefit from it the most. Based on his proposal, Explorations in Math was born, a non-profit that would give youth in depressed areas the kind of support in math studies that he wanted growing up.

In addition to Explorations in Mathematics (EIM), now Zeno Math, Akin also founded E-Mode and Math-Fest, a local math-based youth activity festival that has uplifted those who are frequently left behind in the structurally racist and indifferent educational system.

 

WHO IS AKIN ALSTON?
To understand who Akin is, when I sat down with him at his home, the first thing he told me was, “I want to be free”. Growing up, Akin struggled with a troubling relationship with the authority figures in his life. He describes his relationship with his father, his instructors at school and every other adult as “not safe”, according to him. Notably, the exception to this tension was the love from his grandfather, Anderson Alston, who he would later name his son after.

Growing up, Akin endured both physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of the authority figures around him: particularly, school administrators. “They would beat us”, Akin tells me, as he shows me a picture of himself as a child next to an article that he wrote in his youth about the state of education for Seattle’s students of color. This was a major motivation in his pedagogy.  “I’ll let kids, young people tell me what to do. I’ll let them boss me around and treat me like a slave…I don’t want them to be treated like the adults around me, treated me.”

In addition to his experiences in his youth, his pedagogy and his consistent entrepreneurial trajectory is grounded in his family history. For Akin, his family’s legacy was built out of the opportunities that followed their emancipation from slavery.  At his home in Kent, WA, Akin prominently displays a wall of photos of his family, children and extended family that is meticulously arranged as any altar would be. “If your last name is Alston then you are more than likely descended from slaves who were held in bondage at the Cherry Hill Plantation.”

After the civil war, his great-great-grandfather bought 310 acres of the old plantation so that his parents could die free. This trend toward ownership and self-sufficiency continued beyond his great-great-grandfather to his grandfather whom he described as “Impending, fierce, [and he] had his own farm, sold timber, tobacco, took care of his family on that property. He never worked for a white man ever again.” After his grandfather and his family traveled around the country, and after starting a gas station in Kingston, MI, they landed in San Francisco.

Akin was born after the Korean War. His grandfather bought property everywhere he went, some of which still remains with his family today. After living in Pasadena, he brought the family up to Seattle and landed in the Central District, the only place Black people were allowed to live at the time.

For much of Seattle’s history, the Black community faced segregation under a set of housing policies that have come to be known as redlining. Maps were created by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to help the government decide which properties were eligible for FHA financing. If the map contained red areas (those with the highest percentage of Black residents) then Blacks were ineligible for FHA loans.

Growing up in Seattle’s Central District, Akin felt, “[He] wasn’t safe anywhere…I wasn’t safe at school. I wasn’t safe at church and I wasn’t safe at home.” Between a father who, as he put it, “Didn’t think I was his son,” and white school administrators who “Beat [him] until near passing out at times,” his life was a “Tyranny and a home filled with abuse.” Education then, became an outlet for freedom.

Moving past his trauma, he earned degrees from Howard University in communications and journalism and his teaching degree and teaching certification from Western Washington University; he doubled down on teaching. While doing so, he experienced homelessness while at Howard University and adversity. Nevertheless, one can see how his love for his students that he wears on his sleeve is so strong. He has a deep love of both education and young people, as he said to me, “Here’s the thing that the community knows about me. I’ll die for my students. I care for them.”

As he gives me a tour throughout his house, he elevates the names of two young people: Loetta Coston and Alajawan Brown. Both young people were children in the community killed by gun violence in South Seattle in 1993 and 2010, respectively. In both cases, he helped the families with their funeral arrangements and Loetta was friends with Akin’s daughter in school. Loetta’s death motivated him to lean into teaching and mentoring youth. Likewise, Alajawan’s death still pains him and as we talk, he says, “I will still say their names, Loretta Coston and Alajawan Brown.”

Despite being pushed out of EIM (now Zeno Math) even after being pivotal in securing grant funding for the organization and founding it, as well as establishing E-Mode, he committed himself to “Teaching like I wish I was taught.”

 

SO WHY HAVEN’T WE HEARD OF HIM?
As a teacher, his approach is based on the life lessons and the pain from his youth, “I always knew one day that I would be free. Where teachers wouldn’t hurt me. My father couldn’t hurt me or people couldn’t hurt me… [I have to] be a change agent or else I just got my butt kicked for nothing,” and it shows through his pedagogical approach: empower young people and teach them what they can use.

His more critical mindset and approach to his work hasn’t come without a cost though. His perspective as a Black man who prides his independence has come inevitably into conflict with white women, one of whom was the founding EIM executive director who wasn’t interested in his and his people’s story: “When I came along, I knew no one was going to be over me as a ‘boss’. I tried to explain this to the [white women] in these positions and they think it’s funny and I’ve tried to tell them…we came from the plantation and the word boss, overseer, Jefe, you know ‘master’, I don’t like that. I tried to explain it to her and she didn’t care.”

With frustration and disappointment in his eyes, he shared that the first executive director of EIM (later Zeno Math), “Laughed in his face,” upon sharing the story of his family, his struggles and generally making the case for a level of respect that isn’t often given to Black people in the public, private or non-profit sectors of work in our society.

For white folks in these spaces, this dynamic may be foreign though. What Akin experienced is happening in non-profits, the private sector and national politics all the time. America’s racial dynamics have always allowed white women to leverage their whiteness in order to exercise power over people of color, which is compounded by prevailing stereotypes of ‘aggressive’ and hyper-sexualized Black men and ‘aggressive’ and simultaneous disempowered and irrational Black women.

Akin, though, isn’t angry. “For me I have to let stuff go…I have to move forward. If I hold on, you have me and [they] can’t have me. Every time I start a company, it seems that there’s some white woman that wants to take it from me,” he reflects. Nevertheless, he still teaches. Recently he was honored for his work as a mathematics teacher and youth mentor by the city of Philadelphia, where he’s also tutored students. He continues to work as an instructor at a new organization, Engageable Designs.

Akin’s north-star in his career has been that his work is for his people: Giving back and uplifting young students of color. That work continues to be vital as the achievement gap for Black/ PoC students in the Seattle school district is high in comparison to other districts around the country according to a Stanford study. Akin continues to work as a thought and pedagogical leader in the Puget Sound area to this day.

 

You can view the full interview between Akin and Cliff here:

 


About the Author

Clifford ‘Cliff’ Cawthon is an educator, community activist and freelance journalist and writer who has been featured in several publications. When he isn’t enjoying excellent films and literature, he passionately advocates for racial, economic and housing justice. He received his Masters Degree from the University of Manchester in Human Rights- Political Science.

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