“This is a journey that if I had probably mapped it out, I probably would not have believed it would manifest itself in this way,” said Dr. John L. Graham on Wednesday, as he sat in his office overlooking Harlem.

On the 16th floor of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, Graham serves as the executive director of the State University of New York’s Manhattan Education Opportunity Program. The program helps those who haven’t attended institutions of higher learning because of extenuating circumstances (e.g. teen pregnancy, dropped out of high school, incarcerated, recent immigrant who’s new to the English language) and preps them for college, the high school equivalency test or to join the work world.

Though born in Baltimore, Graham’s journey really began when he moved to Harlem as a second-grader. Graham’s talent first shined in the athletic arena as a basketball player at A. Philip Randolph High School, but it was his English teacher who put the battery in his back that he could do more.

“I had this awesome teacher by the name of Dr. Thelma Baxter,” said Graham. “Miss Baxter served as one of my key mentors because I was not a very good student in high school. I was an athlete, a basketball player to be specific, but Miss Baxter never gave up on me.” Baxter, through the assistance of her husband who worked for the city parks department, got Graham a summer job as a youth counselor organizing activities for kids. Graham says that opened his eyes up to the reality that he had leadership qualities and could use them in other ways besides hooping.

“I was able to get a full scholarship to play basketball, and when I got to college, I realized that I was a good student,” said Graham. Despite getting his scholarship from Eastern New Mexico University, he transferred to University of Maryland Eastern Shore and earned a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s in agricultural and extension education.

“I became interested in world affairs and poverty,” Graham said. “And I applied for a one-year fellowship to go to Zimbabwe. I was concerned about food security and global issues, and from there, I did my master thesis research in Zimbabwe at the encouragement of my advisors. After going through that whole piece, I decided to work on my doctorate at Michigan State. I did my doctoral thesis in a small country called Lesotho [a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa].”

While Graham’s journey has taken him from working with Africare, a development assistance organization based in Washington, D.C., to faculty and administrative positions at Delaware State University and Medgar Evers College to working as a foreign affairs officer for the government, he finds that his current position means the world to him, as it’s rooted in pride in where he came from and his desire for more representation.

“We have to show the world, and in particular Harlem, that minority leadership can solve minority problems,” Graham stated. “Because right now, it doesn’t seem like that’s happening. A lot of times, you hear about these great things taking place in America, and unfortunately, there are instances where the leadership does not reflect the picture of the people who are suffering.” That led Graham to ask why did those suffering from multitudes of problems socially, politically and economically tend to look like him, but the problem solvers don’t?

“One of my professors said don’t ask that question, just become a problem solver,” Graham said.

When Graham enrolled at Michigan State to pursue his Doctor of Philosophy in agricultural and extension education, he encountered something that many people of color have dealt with when filled with aspirations. He credited how he handled the situation to his upbringing and the place he now calls home again.

“At Michigan State University, I had a professor who was my academic advisor, and this man was instrumental in my development, but in a very unusual way,” said Graham. “As my advisor, he said to me ‘John, this is Michigan State University and we are an institution that has very high expectations of our students.’ I could tell that he was going to go on some ‘you’re an African-American, are you going to be able to make it?’ thing. I said, ‘Doctor with all due respect, I didn’t come here on affirmative action. I have a 3.7 GPA.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Son, I’m not questioning your ability to get into Michigan State, I’m questioning whether you have what it takes to get out.’”

Graham said that left him with a lump in his throat. In order to combat the experience of racial micro aggression, he mapped out a strategy that would leave him spending eight hours a day in the library while taking his doctoral classes at night. It beat following the advice of his academic superior who recommended that he just go to Detroit and help young Black men since he already has a master’s degree. Graham credited his desire to prove him wrong to Harlem.

“Harlem has made it so I can go anywhere, be dropped off and figure it out. That’s what I think Harlem gives me,” said Graham. “If Harlem doesn’t teach you anything, it teaches you how to stand up even if you want to sit down.”

Concluding, “I was born in the ghetto but the ghetto wasn’t born in me,” Graham said.