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Blazing a decades-long trail of educational equity across deep Southern Illinois

It was the strength of the timber across the region that originally brought her family from Galena to Alexander and Pulaski Counties eight decades ago. But it was the strength of the people that kept her here. Long before she became Dr. Andrea Brown, she was the fair-haired oldest daughter of a rugged saw mill and timber man who had been hired to fulfill the order for pilings to be used in the cons-truction of Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Among Dr. Brown’s core beliefs is one that stands above all:

that the connection between school, child, parent, and community is essential to successful outcomes.

Dr. Andrea Brown

By Craig Williams

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When they arrived in Southern Illinois, the first thing that caught her eye was the library in Mounds, a simple affair housed in a simple wood-frame house. But she developed a love for books and a life-long love of learning there.

 

Andrea may have obtained her formal secondary education from Mounds High School but she picked up a very practical set of lessons that would play into her ongoing life’s work from watching and helping her father in his timber business. She learned how to get things done and how to find cooperative opportunities. She learned the value of hard work and of helping people get what was most important to them. And as she blended those lessons with her sense of humanity and gave them her own spin, she became an important agent of change and a force for good across the region.

 

With a freshly-minted teaching degree from SIU under her arm, she began her career as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Olmsted before moving over to Olive Branch and eventually on to a Special Ed role in Cairo, where she soon found herself being handed the administrative reigns, ultimately leading to a role as interim Superintendent, a title held by very few women at that time. During her years in Cairo, she was a tireless advocate for the region’s educational infrastructure, programming, and grant funding. When her board at Cairo struggled to attract Black educators, she went to HBCUs across the Mid South to recruit teachers who looked like the students they’d be serving in Cairo. She was on the front lines of the civil rights movement unfolding in the 1960’s and championed universal access to education, something she deems every bit as important as medicine ‘and a whole lot of other things.’

 

In the early ’70’s, as she was finishing her Doctorate at SIU, she was asked to bring her talents to the Regional Office of Education serving Alexander, Pulaski, Union, Johnson, and Massac Counties, where she would focus on broader regional initiatives. Among Dr. Brown’s core beliefs is one which stands above all others; that the connection between school, child, and parent is essential to successful outcomes. This is why she always made it her professional priority to create opportunities for access, engagement, and connection for the entirety of her career.

 

Working with political leaders, from Paul Simon to Jim Edgar (and everyone in between), Dr. Brown was at the vanguard of educational opportunities across this region, to include the early days of Shawnee Community College, library funding, Special Education Co-op, and so much more. She was appointed by the Governor to serve on the Illinois State Board of Education and has given much of her career as an activist advocate for rural and small schools across our region. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more vital contributor to the opportunities, access, and advocacy for those most in need of educational services across the Southern fifth of the state than Dr. Andrea Brown.

 

Today, after a very positive six-decade impact on the lives of young people across deep Southern Illinois, Dr. Brown reflects regularly on what she has left to do. It is, perhaps, fitting when this 87-year-old daughter of a transplanted timber man tells me that of all the things she hopes for, it is equity in opportunity for all, that comes first to mind. But, of course it is.

 

“And for there to be plenty of libraries,” she tells me, as our interview draws to a close. It’s a beautiful bookend, really. It’s where she started and, in her own words, “The one thing I hope is the last thing to be gone.” Dr. Andrea Brown is a treasure whose impact will be felt for decades to come, for, whether or not you've had the privilege of knowing her, you've benefitted from her work.

Dr. Brown's Actionable Takeaways

1. Access to a good education is an American right
2. Equity in opportunity leads to a better America
3. Education is our greatest economic lever
4. Together we can solve big problems
5. Service to others is a love letter to us all