As a longtime advocate for community and education, Drema Brown is ensuring that New York City students are granted access to high-quality educational services through her role as vice president of education at Children’s Aid Society.
While growing up in a small town in rural Virginia, community was very important to Brown. Her parents instilled in her the importance of education and supported her endeavors.
After graduating as the first and still only Black valedictorian of her high school, Brown went off to Yale, where she spent her summers working as a camp counselor for the Learning Enrichment Activities Program, or LEAP.
As a student counselor, Brown lived among the families in a local housing project in New Haven, where she worked with a group of young girls—teaching, mentoring and exploring the community with them. She credits these experiences for providing her with different viewpoints on how communities interact.
“It helped me see the kids’ world in a completely different way because I was a part of their community,” said Brown. “I was there to be a mentor and resource to them, but they were also teaching me about the city I was living in as a college student and what it meant to grow up in that city, which was very different from how I grew up in the South.”
Through working in these communities, Brown was able to connect the importance of community-based education and realize her passion for working with children. She went on to earn her masters and teaching license at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“I always felt after that [counselor] experience that that’s what community-based education was,” she said. “Everyone was receiving something from it, and there was a lot we could learn from in a community whether it be from the elders, doctors, residents or business owners.”
Brown’s fight for the betterment of community education is relevant throughout her resume. Before moving to Harlem in 2002, she continued to work at a middle school in New Haven, where she helped lead a fight for family benefits for new teachers. As a new teacher and mother herself, Brown knew the only way to ensure a thriving education system and attract good teachers was to make sure that teachers and their families were respectfully looked after.
Because of her work as a principal for several years and training principals nationally, Brown realized that New York is an important place to the country for education, and what’s done here can be applied in other places.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to serve NYC kids by trying to make sure they have the best possible leaders in those schools,” said Brown. “By trying to make sure we’re thinking about schools different, this is kind of work we do at Children’s Aid.”
At CAS, Brown works to ensure that children have access to great enrichment programming, social and emotional support and even additional parenting programming. CAS works as a hub to provide students and their families with the community-based resources they may need. From her counselor days at LEAP, Brown knows the complexity of children’s lives and how many things influence how they come to school.
“The great thing about what we’re trying to do at CAS is making sure our schools are equipped to support the range of things kids come to school with that can be an asset to their learning but, also, some things can be barriers,” she said.
Of the many changes Brown has seen that are a result of CAS activity in the community she said, “I’ve watched the staff and kids become more and more vocal about and engaged in these ideas of community transformation and dealing with racial equity, justice and trying to confront the differences they find in their community versus other places.”
To learn more about Children’s Aid Society, visit childrensaidnyc.org.