His eye on a career in law, Keith Brown ’98 declared his major as political science when he transferred into Holy Names University. But a student volunteer experience quickly caused him to pivot toward a new major and a new profession: education.
Today, his career reflects dual passions for teaching and political activism.
Brown, who calls himself a product of Oakland public schools, recently completed his first year as president of the Oakland Education Association. As head of OEA, the union representing about 2,800 Oakland Unified School District employees, Brown champions Oakland students and public education through advocacy and coalition building with community members and lawmakers.
“As a student, I had access to nurses, librarians, counselors,” he said. “In elementary school, I saw a speech pathologist. These are the things I believe every student in Oakland should have now. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work in leadership.”
Flexible scheduling, including evening classes, drew him to HNU. “I was working and helping out my mom a lot, who has lupus,” he explained. As part of his HNU student experience, he volunteered for the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center as a mentor to middle school-age boys.
“From that experience, I wanted to become a teacher and help students from Oakland who have so many gifts,” Brown said.
He switched his major to liberal studies to pursue his new purpose. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve made: to become a teacher,” he said. Brown went on to teach English and history to English language learners at Bret Harte Middle School for 20 years.
The highlight of his OEA work, he said, is getting to visit schools where he talks with union members, listening intently and identifying what he likes to call “organic leaders.”
“One person can’t do this work alone,” Brown said. “As president I can’t change the public school system alone. It takes collective power to push for meaningful change.”
Routine daily duties notwithstanding, Brown encounters magic in his OEA work. At a summer new teacher orientation for OUSD, he spotted a familiar face: a former Bret Harte student who also graduated from HNU.
“To have that kind of connection makes this work so meaningful,” he said. “That’s the reason we go into this profession: to see our students succeed and really be the fruits of our labor as educators. That was such a powerful moment.”