Meet the Next American Vanguard: Sean Brown

An interview with Sean Brown of Camden, N.J., founder of Young Urban Leaders.

Sean Brown.

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Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in May 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Each Monday leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in May, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in early 2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.

Sean Brown
Sean is a Master’s student at Rutgers-Camden. He is the founder of Young Urban Leaders, an organization whose mission is to empower young people to be effective leaders that address the most crucial issues facing their communities through training, service projects, and a support network. He has devoted his life to community service in Camden, is the son of a public school teacher and was recently appointed to the school board.

What is your typical workday like?

Meeting with different people and juggling different responsibilities; no day is the same. But everyday I addictively check my e-mail and read local and national news. I try to prepare for the next day’s meeting by researching topics that will be discussed or writing my ideas in a memo that serves as a part of the agenda during meetings. I follow up every phone call with a summarizing e-mail. I always have a legal pad on my left side and a glass of water on the right, with a radio station playing music that reflects my mood.

Why do you do the work you do?

I love making systems and institutions better that will help them help people. I see problems deeper than oceans with solutions that are reachable in shallow waters. I do what I am passionate about. Donating money to a faraway charity is not enough. I have an urge to act and do, and not just hope and deserve.

What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement is being appointed to the school board. The mayor appointed me, the youngest ever, despite the fact that I did not support her candidacy and despite that I have been a critic of the current system. I have been an advocate for students, public schools, and reform for several years, so to be at the decision making table is a great and humbling honor. I get to sit at a decision making table and reflect the needs of the youth in my community.

Who in your city inspires you the most?

I am inspired most by people that were raised in dysfunctional families and attended bad schools, yet were still able to become educated professionals that do effective things in the city. They stayed. They endured. They inspire me to keep working for reform and sustainable progress, even though the challenges are daunting.

What is your favorite thing to do in your city?

My favorite thing to do is go to free public events that bring people from the region. There are free jazz concerts on Tuesdays in the summer and a few parades every year. I love seeing the displays of talent and the comradery of neighbors, as smells of barbecue fill the air with already crowded sounds of children laughing and guitar riffs.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

Of course former community organizer Barack Obama is a great leader. I also am a fan of Thom Hartmann (author), Geoffrey Canada (HCZ), Alan Khazei (Co-Founder of City Year), the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and artist like Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Dave Matthews that are great musicians that use their money to help people. I also like the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr, Mohandas Gandi, and Henry David Thoreau.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge is getting powerful people to use their influence, which may be expressed by vote, speech, pronouncement, donation, or support to agree to do what is right for the people all of us work to help.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I hope to either work or run a large foundation that funds social initiative is cities that help children and families. I want a job where I can travel and teach. I want to have my PhD by that time and a few little children that give me unconditional love.

What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?

Read the writings of others that have done similar work. Know that your aim should be best and not right, because what is right is not always feasible and what is best is not always attainable in the short term, so be realistic while keeping your idealism alive. Surround yourself with people that share your values and share your vision with anyone that will listen.

How would you define the “Next American City”?

The “Next American City” is a place where opportunity meets people. Tall multi-use buildings, healthy food, environmentally safe products, and are utilized by an educated and socially conscious consumer. Corporate profits are not compromised for human capital. Crime is replaced by jobs.

Check back next Monday to meet the next Vanguard member.

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