Alumnus creates diversity program at Harvard for underserved Atlanta youth

October 31, 2018

When Brandon Fleming’s dreams of playing basketball were dashed by a knee injury during his freshman year at Liberty University in 2008, he dropped out of school. It was a low point for him, but following a failed suicide attempt, he woke up in a hospital bed and experienced a spiritual awakening.

“I prayed to God, ‘If You will make a way for me to fix my life, I promise I will not take it for granted,’” Fleming said in an interview with “Game On,” a television show produced by the Liberty Flames Sports Network. He re-enrolled at Liberty.

“I made a life-changing decision,” said Fleming, who as a child exhibited poor academic achievement and a pattern of delinquency throughout elementary, middle, and high school. “I locked myself in my room every single day and just read religiously. I read every subject you could possibly think of — philosophy, politics, humanities, the social sciences, history — and I just filled myself with knowledge and information, and I started to feel powerful.”

Fleming joined Liberty’s nationally recognized debate team and also began tutoring local youth. While still a Liberty student, Fleming founded the S.Y. Scholars Program for at-risk African-American high-schoolers in Lynchburg. The program grew into a competitive nonprofit college preparatory and K-12 leadership development program where students participated in field trips, community service, workshops, and mentorship, with the opportunity to earn scholarships.

After Fleming graduated, he was recruited to teach speech and debate at an academy for middle schoolers in Atlanta and, soon after, he began teaching youth at the Harvard Debate Council Summer Institute.

But Fleming said he saw a lack of diversity in the summer program. “I noticed that there weren’t many students who looked like me, so I decided I was going to do something about that. I came up with the idea to create a diversity pipeline program that would recruit, train, and feed students of color into the institute.”

He founded the council’s Diversity Project, which provides African-American high school students in the Metro-Atlanta area the opportunity to receive scholarships to attend the summer residential program.

“By teaching these kids debate, we are equipping them with the tools they need to be agents of change,” Fleming said.

The Georgia Center for Nonprofits named Fleming among the state’s top 30 Under 30 emerging leaders. He was inducted into Outstanding Atlanta’s 2017 class of distinguished young professional leaders and the Class of 2018 LEAD Atlanta, a premier organization recognizing Atlanta’s emerging young talent.

Fleming eventually moved into the role of assistant debate coach for Harvard.

Looking back at his journey, Fleming realizes he is living out his dream.

“All of that failure was nothing but preparation for this moment right now. It gives me the ambition, and it gives me the determination,” he said. “When I look into the eyes of all of these young people, I see myself. I see the young man who needed guidance, affirmation, somebody to tell him, ‘You can do it.’ I stop and look at my journey, and it makes me extremely grateful, and it makes me feel compelled to pay it forward.”

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