Pioneer Profile: Desmond Patton

Desmond PattonIn this Pioneer Profile, EP Alumnus Desmond Patton (Graduate School Fellow, 2006), Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan who recently had his research cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, talks about growing up in North Carolina, learning the importance of strong relationships to inspire students' love of learning, and imagining Black youth feeling empowered, loved, and inspired.

1. Where did you grow up and what was it like? 

I grew up in Gastonia, NC which is a town of about 70,000 people just outside of Charlotte; although in many respects Charlotte, “the big city,” felt thousands of miles away. Growing up in Gastonia was simple and quintessentially southern.  Life was slow and methodical. Dinners after church, high school football games, BBQ, and strong family values were an integral part of life.  

I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents.  Their character, values and integrity made up for what they lacked in formal education.

My sister Tori and I grew up in a middle class home with two amazing parents who had white collar jobs, lived in predominately white neighborhoods and attended predominately white schools. At the time, I did not realize the immense privilege of having access to strong schools that prepared me both academically and culturally for college and beyond. 

However, my school experience at times was quite complicated. Trying to develop your identity in spaces where very few teachers, staff, or administrators look, act, or talk like you was not an easy feat. I also distinctly remember being coached away from top colleges as the prevailing attitude was that it would not be a good “fit.” Luckily I had a very tight peer network of other black students who also took the advanced coursework. Today, all of my friends have graduate degrees and we remain close.

2. What do you like most about where you live now? 

Ann Arbor is an amazingly intellectual, liberal enclave.  Many of the greatest minds in the world reside in this relatively small Midwestern city. Here my mind is free, my opinions are limitless and my accesses to the greatest scientific resources are bountiful.  Ann Arbor is also a place where social justice and consciousness are not words you have to look up in a dictionary. Social justice for some is a way of life. I’m constantly inspired by the people I encounter on a daily basis.

3. What is your favorite school memory? 

In 9th grade I was given an award for having the highest grade in my physical science class. For the first time I felt smart and capable.

4. Which leader (alive or not, in any field) do you most admire? 

Bayard Rustin. He was passionate, deeply intellectual, strategic and humble. That’s the kind of leader I want to be.

5. When was the first time you thought about working in education? 

The summer after my junior year of college I worked as a program counselor at the Phillips Brooks House Association at Harvard University. During that summer I worked with Native American youth from all over Boston who needed additional academic support before going back to school. That summer I learned that education and in particular, developing a love for learning is embedded in strong positive relationships with adults.

6. What has been your most memorable moment working in education? 

My time at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago was most memorable. It was there that I had my first field research experiences that opened me up to the contextual levers that influence educational outcomes.  During this time I learned that if we do not attend to students’ needs and challenges outside the classroom (e.g. violence, poverty) then expecting them to sit, focus, and perform is futile.

7.  What do love about your job? 

I get to write and think about issues and problems I deeply care about. I also get to teach some pretty incredible students and work with an amazingly compassionate and impressive group of colleagues.

8. If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix or change? 

Tough one. But I think I would change how world views Black youth. Imagine a world where Black youth felt empowered, loved, and inspired… and then they encountered adults who were not afraid of them.

9. What are you still learning to do? 

How to balance life.

10. What or who inspires you? 

The youth who entrust their life narratives to me.  I spend time with youth who experience chronic violence, multiple traumas, poverty, poor education and still have hope for their future and perform well academically.


I thoroughly enjoyed this interview on Desmond Patton for Education Pioneers. His insight and passion are compelling and allows others to know how he has developed and maintained a love for his profession. I applaud Desmond Patton for the amazing work he is doing with the youth along with his compassion for them.

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