“As an African-American entrepreneur, you’re always working overtime to make it work, to secure capital, to gain large contracts,” Jason Wilson, owner of Northwest Coffee Roasting, Clayton parent, faculty fellow at Washington University and candidate for the School District of Clayton’s Board of Education(BOE), said.
If elected, Wilson would become the first African-American member of Clayton’s Board of Education, but, for him, this title is not a trophy. Rather, it is a dose of reality. The year is 2018, and there has never been an African-American member of the Board; that, to Wilson, is unsettling.
Wilson’s decision to run for a position on the BOE came as he encouraged his sons Julian and Jason to keep it moving.
They had to move past the fact that a student at Captain Elementary had told 9-year-old Jason that he was not attractive or smart because of his race. Even though his son might have been able to shake that off, it was because he, as a child, was not aware of the significance of his classmate’s actions.
“I know what’s going on and I’m not letting it slide,” Wilson said. “This is third grade. What happened to my son Jason, it brought me to tears.”
To Wilson, this interaction seemed inevitable.
“Every day I’m thinking the conversation about race is going to happen sooner or later, he’s gonna get called a name, someone will say something crazy to him, it’s gonna happen. You’re always bracing yourself for these moments as a parent, as a black parent,” Wilson said.
Experiencing a sort of call to action, Wilson decided that joining the Board of Education would be the best way to take a stand to promote diversity and equity which he sees as areas with potential for improvement in Clayton.
To be clear, Wilson does believe that Clayton is a welcoming community, yet he feels that the racism in Clayton is dismissed for fear of damaging public perception.
Despite the liberal, culturally and ethnically diverse reputation that Clayton bears, from Wilson’s experience, the track record tells a different story. As owner of Northwest Coffee, Wilson is no stranger to subtle racism. Shortly after buying the business in December of 2012, Wilson noticed a shift.
“When people found out [the owner] was an African-American man, I definitely started seeing a decline in customers … Now I hear these little whispers of conversations taking place, but the thing is, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to be in the game,” he said.
Instead, these experiences motivate Wilson to acknowledge the underlying racial and class tensions that permeate Clayton. In terms of specific goals, Wilson’s main objectives are to establish diversity training in the District and to increase the number of African-American staff.
“From the Board, to the administrators, to the principals, to the teachers, to the custodian supporting staff. I’m not saying they need to all be black, but there needs to be more than one black teacher in the school. Let Jason and Julian, my sons, get a touch of one person in the school that looks like them that is not doing custodial work all the time,” Wilson said. “It’s hard at home to try to communicate things to your kid when he goes to school in a kind of environment where no one looks like him, and his world that he is growing up in is different.”
Wilson is adamant that diversity training will decrease racial and class tension.
“People who are resistant [will] quit, or they’ll do a better job of understanding. They don’t have to necessarily change their personal beliefs, but they need to do a better job of communicating with people of a different ethnicity,” Wilson said.
For Wilson, the push for diversity does not have to stop there. He hopes that he can add to the perspectives present on the BOE.
“People are making decisions about a collective that is diverse, but then it is not really a diversified group making the decisions. I want to make sure that African Americans have some ‘say-so’ in this process … I can communicate some things that are going on, and also be a part of what is going on,” Wilson said.
He further emphasized that he does not want to sit on the BOE for the sake of his own agenda; rather, he feels that he can contribute to the group through representation of minority voices in Clayton.
While Wilson does speak frankly about the existence of class and racial issues in Clayton, he also sees great progress and great potential for future advancement in these areas, but all of that starts with the children. He holds firm in his belief that how we teach our children to treat others impacts them for the rest of their lives.
“Just keep moving. That’s what I do,” Wilson said. “That’s what I’ve always done. You just keep moving.”