Being born on the “wrong side” of the railroad tracks. There are countless forms of art, statistics, and anecdotes about how a thin geographic line — a railroad track or a zip code — divides those given the opportunity to flourish and those who aren’t.
Caught in the crossfire of it all? Students with no control over where they’re born, and, as a result, what schools they get to attend.
“We educate 5,000 children from 3-years-old to 12th grade and support an alumni group of almost 2,000,” Brantley says of her role overseeing multiple campuses in the Friendship network.
And she never forgets that her education started on the wrong side of the tracks in racially segregated New Jersey — literally.
“The school district in New Jersey had a railroad track in the middle of it. And on one side of the track, there were two elementary schools in the middle and all Black people,” Brantley explains. “The other side of the track, there were two middle schools, and they were all white. And we just wound up on this one side of the track.”
Eventually, her family moved to the “right side” of the tracks, which allowed Brantley access to a better high school — academically, at least.
“I did well at that high school,” Brantley says. But she remembers that it was the first time that she and her Black peers “weren’t celebrated for being Black.” They weren’t praised for their academic achievements, “or what we could do in school.
That’s part of why she carries a philosophy of appreciating your Blackness, striving for the highest achievement, and uplifting everyone around you to the highest degree. And she’s committed to making opportunities and excellence a lived reality for students no matter where they come from.
Stepping into Destiny
Brantley says she always understood her Blackness, despite being born in the segregated 1960s.
“We are talking about a real history of segregation — segregated housing. I was born in a Black hospital because that was the only place we could go,” Brantley says. “I didn’t know until looking back in history that the only reason that we went to the pools on Thursdays was because that’s the only time that our family was allowed.”
She gained her love for African-centered culture and education during her childhood. Her parents enrolled her in the Chad School, an Afrocentric, independent, non-secular elementary school in Newark, New Jersey.
As an adult, her love for Black culture and Black people showed up in her work as the chief development officer and adviser at the National Council of Negro Women. Working with Dorothy Irene Height, a civil rights activist and former president of the organization, helped Brantley understand that service and reform were needed in education.
She realized she needed to use her skills and abilities “to improve education for our children and to do something better,” Brantley says.
In time, she’d move from manning phones and advocating for justice alongside Height to working specifically on behalf of underserved children.
“I don’t know how many decisions I made, but my steps were ordained,” Brantley explains about her career shift.”
Building a Philosophy of High Achievement
Since joining the Friendship network in 2003, Brantley has secured $95 million in private and public funding to support her vision of success.
Aside from raising the much-needed funds, she’s led and encouraged multiple initiatives to bridge opportunity gaps that Black students face. With the creation of efforts like the Friendship News Network, and the Friendship Teaching Institute, a model for professional development, Brantley is set on instituting programs that empower participants in real-life experience.
“I get a lot of joy out of being in classrooms and seeing what the kids can do,” Brantley says. “When you ask what kind of leader I want to be, I have always had my eyes firmly fixed on the kids and doing, you know, whatever it takes.“
The need to uplift teachers is at the forefront of her mind as well.
“You cannot say you believe in the children if you don’t believe in the adults,” she says. And she says a big part of believing in educators is giving them the grace to be their best self as individuals and to be the best teacher they can be to their children.
“We’ve got to be proud of our own kids, but we should be proud of all of the kids,” she says. “I’ve seen greatness in kids coming from all backgrounds. I think that we can have them feel like we’re proud of you. It doesn’t matter if you start here or start there.”