“Just a Kid from Queens”

Jeff Dess, Kevin Garland at Parsons Beacon

Queens natives inspire a new generation at our Parsons Beacon afterschool program

The Child Center of NY prioritizes hiring people from the neighborhoods we serve and providing relatable role models that convey to our children just how much they are capable of achieving.

Our Parsons Beacon afterschool program’s “Just a Kid from Queens” virtual speaker series, which ran from December to June, highlighted Queens natives who are doing amazing things with their lives and gave participants a unique opportunity to ask questions, learn about fulfilling career paths, and connect their current lives to the future they envision. Equally important, the young people in the program learned how people like them faced challenges, both personal and societal, and met with success.

The series was the brainchild of Parsons Education Coordinator Brian Johnson. “As a teacher working with a very diverse population of students, I noticed something that I felt was problematic,” Johnson says. “First, my students typically identify success as being a professional athlete or entertainer. Second, my students feel that they don’t see enough people who look like them or grew up like them that they can relate to. In response to this, I decided to engage my fellow Queens folks in order to help showcase success stories of success that they can relate to.”

Each session, conducted via Zoom, featured a speaker sharing their own personal story — a story that started in Queens. Drawing on details familiar to participants, speakers described their journey from their Queens roots all the way through their current life. After sharing their Queens story, each speaker led a Q & A session, engaging in honest dialogue about everything from difficulties in school to what it’s like to be Black in a field that’s predominantly white. Questions were insightful and thought-provoking, and showed just how much participants saw themselves in the speakers.

Talik, 14, attended every session. “‘Just a Kid from Queens’ makes me feel good. I can see people from Queens who do great things, and they grew up like me. My favorite speakers were Jeff Dess and Bernard Sebastian because they made me feel like I can do anything. I couldn’t wait for every session.”

Wes Michel flierJean-Wesley “Wes” Michel, for example, talked about being a Black man during the course of a career in interior design, as a restaurateur, and in his new endeavor as a sommelier. “When I first got into wine [3-4 years ago], I didn’t know any Black men in that space,” Michel told attendees. He then conveyed how he felt that he needed to take his studies seriously “so I could take others with me,” he says. “The most important thing is bringing someone with me.”

Michel also spoke about his aversion to math when he was a child, how he overcame it, and how he now uses math in his career every day, all of which resonated with a lot of folks in attendance, both children and adults. One parent recounted how he told his son, “If you don’t like math, you don’t like money.” His son worked at it, never gave up, and earned his first A in the subject as a senior in high school.

During the Q&A session, a student asked Michel if he could have five people from history over for dinner, who would they be and what he could cook for them (that’s what we mean about the insightful questions!). Michel answered that he’d invite his paternal grandfather, President Barack Obama, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Mary McLeod Bethune, and he’d make them “old-fashioned barbecue … comfort food,” which they could eat while telling really good stories.

The series featured two Parsons alumni as speakers: Calvin Wright, a private chef in Charlotte, North Carolina, and founder of Black Farms Matter; and Bernard Sebastian, district manager of Starbucks in Tampa, Florida.

Read our Q&A with Sebastian and learn all about his early life growing up in the NYCHA Pomonok Houses and how he became a regional leader for one of the world’s biggest corporations.

See below for the complete list of dynamic, inspirational speakers who made “Just a Kid from Queens” an inspirational success:

Jeff Dess, chief education officer of Trill or Not Trill
Chef Calvin Wright, private chef, creator of Black Farms Matter, and Parsons alumnus
Maru Ponce, contributing author to Los Otros Dreamers and other works
Bernard Sebastian, regional manager for Starbucks and Parsons alumnus
Kerri Mulqueen, Ph.D., professor at Manhattan College
Jeff Kohn, member of the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development group that facilitates Community Services Block Grants
Alexandros Orpahnides, doctoral candidate at Stanford University
Robert Berk, chief operating officer and managing director, U.S. Bank
Arron Muller, LMSW, chief operating officer and therapist at Life Matters
Jo’Rell Whittfield, co-founder of I Am Perspective
Kevin Garlan, vice president of transaction banking, Goldman Sachs
William T. Johnson, principal of Academy of Medical Technology
Chris Fields, independent music artist
Jean-Wesley Michel, Wine with Wes

Editor’s Note: If you have any questions about the Just a Kid from Queens series or want to become involved either as a participant or speaker, please email Education Coordinator Brian Johnson at brianjohnson@childcenterny.org. The series was such a great success that it has become an ongoing part of the program.

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