Episode 83 │ Painting the Picture for Folks (BROWNSVILLE ABROAD)
Updated: Sep 22
"International travel is part of my school's culture now, and that's something that we're beginning to be known for... I want to make it almost unremarkable for New York City students to experience international travel itself before they graduate... Let's make this common, let's make this blow up." (Eric, Episode 83)
What was planned as the last episode in August became the first episode in September, so we're a day late but definitely not coming up short in the slightest with this brand new episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad! This week's guest is a phenomenally passionate educator by the name of Bijoun Eric Jordan, a high school English teacher who's been expanding young minds for the past 17 years, and has also been taking groups of his students on educational trips around the world since 2017. Through Brownsville Abroad, an initiative that he founded at his high school (Frederick Douglass Academy VII in Brownsville, Brooklyn), Eric has been able to take students to Spain in 2017, Japan in 2018, and South Africa in 2019. I originally heard about Eric through enthusiastic Facebook group conversations that I saw surrounding the Japan trip back when it was happening, and after three years I contacted him this summer about being a guest on this show. In the days leading up to our interview, Eric informed me that he'd also done a gap year in Spain, which greatly inspired him to start Brownsville Abroad after his teaching career got underway.
Born in New York City and raised in Norcross, Georgia, Eric moved back to NYC in 2000 to begin training as a teacher at New York University. As a preteen, he'd watched 'Saved by the Bell: The College Years' and been struck by the professor character's ability to connect with young students, and so Eric decided that he wanted to have a similar impact on young people through his own teaching career. He finished his undergraduate degree in secondary English education in three years instead of four, and with an extra year at his disposal, he figured it was time to reward himself for this milestone.
Coincidentally, as an undergrad student he'd been working as a tutor at a high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where his supervisor was a graduate student from Madrid, Spain. Eric had never met anyone who came directly from Spain and wasn't a tourist, and as Eric got to know this supervisor more closely, he became more curious about what life in Spain was like. Remembering how proficient he became in Spanish in high school, his curiosity morphed into a determination to take a risk. Rather than entertaining notions of simply visiting Spain, "Oh, you know what? Nah. I don't even want to go visit there, I think it would be so cool if I actually went to go live there." That's how Eric arrived at spending a gap year in Spain. With some encouraging guidance from his Spanish supervisor, support from a travel agency that helped him book his plane ticket, and a principal that was willing to defer the start of Eric's upcoming new teaching job for a year, Eric took off for Madrid in 2003.
At 21 years old Eric essentially had to start his life over again in a new country, and he was emboldened by the knowledge that, "I am what a lot of people are looking for." Not only was he a native English speaker, but he also had a teaching degree and was bilingual in English and Spanish. So while he did have to create a Spanish CV and pound the pavement for a few weeks applying to different schools around the city, eventually he found a school that hired him to teach English as a foreign language (EFL).
Rather than having him teach on the school premises, the school dispatched Eric to various students' homes to conduct clases particulares, or private lessons. This was the case in both Madrid and the coastal city of Barcelona (where he later relocated), and commuting from student to student made Eric feel more like a traveling salesman than an educator at times. Nonetheless, his previous tutoring experience lent well toward teaching in these private settings, and in hindsight he appreciates how teaching non-native English speakers has given him an extra edge in understanding what makes English such a challenging and confusing language to learn. After three and a half months in Madrid and six and a half months in Barcelona ("My official vote? Barcelona over Madrid, end of discussion"), Eric returned to NYC in 2004 to begin his in-classroom teaching career in earnest. He transferred to Frederick Douglass Academy VII (FDA7) in Brownsville in 2007.
As Eric explained to me, Brownsville is an area of Brooklyn that has a reputation for being "the definition of a disadvantaged neighborhood" due to higher crime rates and fewer resources and economic opportunities compared to other parts of New York. But Eric insists that conditions are improving, and that on most days Brownsville is just like any other place where regular people go about their everyday lives without major incident. Furthermore, regardless of the disadvantages that persist, he firmly believes that FDA7 students (who are mostly Black or Brown) deserve the best. This belief was informed by the late Dr. Lorraine Monroe, founder of the first Frederick Douglass Academy in 1991, who championed "giving our students the kind of education that rich people pay for." (Today there are a total of eight FDA schools, spread across all but one of New York City's boroughs.)
Eric's desire to give his students the best manifested in a trip to Broadway in 2013, where he arranged for 40 students plus a few chaperones to not only see Alan Cumming's interpretation of Macbeth, but also have a Q&A session with the co-directors of the play. Alan Cumming himself even stopped by to interact with the students as well! Such an excursion was made possible by a GoFundMe campaign that Eric ran, calling it "Brownsville to Broadway", and he was astounded by the outpouring of enthusiastic support that the campaign received (to the tune of $4,700) from his immediate and extended community. So when he realized while folding laundry one day in 2016 that the following year would make 10 years since he last set foot in Spain, and that he wanted to take FDA7 students there, the success of "Brownsville to Broadway" stood out as an example that such an ambitious feat was possible. Although this new goal would be 10 times larger in scope than the previous one, "It gave me the confidence to believe that this was something else that could work. That I could have a crowdfunded, school-supervised field trip... and that there would be sufficient support around it."
Hence, the initiative now known as Brownsville Abroad was born. And the mission encapsulated much more than simply affording Eric the chance to revisit the country he loved. His strongest intentions for the Spain trip (and all Brownsville Abroad trips to come) were for students to experience "travel as education" and see themselves in the world beyond the confines of their day-to-day life, "I want our students to understand and know that they belong everywhere, that Black people are everywhere... People who look like you, we go everywhere, we do everything." Eric and a handful of chaperones took 10 students to Spain in 2017 (Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Madrid), 15 students to Japan in 2018 (Tokyo, Hakone, Takayama, and Kyoto), and 10 students to South Africa in 2019 (Johannesburg, Kruger National Park, and Cape Town). Including travel time, these trips have lasted seven to 11 days, taking place in the summer. For his part, Eric prioritized being an active family man at home over going on the South Africa trip, and a trusted individual went in his place. He accepts that he can't be on every trip, and he's eager to hear post-trip feedback from students regardless of whether he gets to go or not.
Speaking of students, as both a disclaimer and an incentive Eric impresses upon students that preparing for these trips is an active rather than passive process; they're expected to contribute to each stage of said process because their involvement gives them a vested interest in making these trips successful. The nucleus for Brownsville Abroad is FDA7's International Club, in which Eric and interested students collaborate to select destinations, organize fundraising campaigns and events, and participate in cultural learning activities. The initial goal was for Brownsville Abroad to visit six continents in six years, but with the COVID-19 pandemic suspending their 2020 and 2021 plans, Eric and his students are currently aiming to take not one, but two trips in 2022. One of their slated destinations is Ghana, which they'd planned for 2020 in connection to Ghana's framing of 2019 as the "Year of Return". When I interviewed Eric in early August 2021, the destination for the second trip was still being discussed. Although careful not to reveal any specifics just yet, he expressed excitement about the countries that students have suggested so far.
"We can build it bigger, but we can't build it smaller."
As much as Eric is the face of Brownsville Abroad (he is the leader, after all), he is quick to give honor where honor is due when it comes to the various people who help pull this program off. With a wife, two kids, a full-time teaching job, hobbies like gaming and painting, and a need for a decent amount of sleep, there is absolutely no way that he can make the trips happen all by himself. He is grateful for the overwhelmingly supportive staff at FDA7, who assist with logistical and financial matters as well as helping to boost student recruitment for the program. Furthermore, people in multiple countries have volunteered their time and expertise, including: an ample supply of chaperones, a local Brooklyn librarian who gave Eric's students Japanese classes ahead of their trip to Japan, a Black female Tufts University employee who presented a custom cultural workshop on what to expect in Spain (including information about African influences on Spanish culture), another Black woman who chatted with them about the realities of traveling as a person of color over lunch in Madrid, and a Black male journalist who interviewed Eric and a few of the students for The Japan Times when they were in Tokyo.
When I asked Eric for any tips he has for other educators who might want to arrange international trips for their students like he has, his advice was threefold. One: Tell their fears to shut up (or "Silenzio, Bruno!", as Eric quoted from the Disney movie Luca). Two: Take the pressure off by acknowledging that the trip doesn't have to happen within the timeline they initially set (in other words, have a back-up plan and be open to rescheduling). And three: Still act with the conviction and urgency that the trip must happen, that it shall be, and don't let anyone diminish the vision. As Eric phrased it when reflecting upon his own past doubts and people who tried to deter his plans, "We can build it bigger, but we can't build it smaller... It works because it's big."
Looking toward the future, Eric is "really amped" to go on the Ghana trip in 2022, and he wishes to finally take his family to visit Spain someday so they can experience it with him. Additionally, his dream is for Brownsville Abroad's example to influence other schools in forming similar initiatives, as well as to push the city of New York to create new programs that make international travel a viable option for more students across socioeconomic statuses. Eric can be found on Facebook (Eric Jordan, currently accompanied by an illustrated image of himself on a green background), and Instagram (@so.they.can.fly). Brownsville Abroad can be found on Instagram (@fdavii_ic), and via their fundraising page on GoFundMe (Brownsville Abroad).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Painting the Picture for Folks (BROWNSVILLE ABROAD)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Ghana's "Year of Return" (2019)
Frederick Douglass Academy VII (Eric's school)
Traneka René (Melanin Madrid founder)
Brownsville to Japan Trip Fund (old GoFundMe page)
Japan Times article about Eric/Brownsville Abroad (behind paywall)
Shangaan Village (Kruger National Park, South Africa)