Oral Lee Brown's story of perseverance and triumph goes far beyond being a heart-warming narrative. It is a sobering and revealing work that reaffirms the shopworn axiom that one person can make a difference. The Promise: How One Woman Made Good on her Extraordinary Pact to Send a Classroom of First-Graders to College, co-written with journalist Caille Millner, spotlights Brown's zeal to ensure that every student in an East Oakland, California, first-grade classroom has the chance for a college education and better future. A simple encounter in a corner store triggers this campaign when a young girl borrows a quarter and uses it to buy bread and bologna for her family.
Despite earning only $45,000 a year in 1987, Brown eventually sent 19 of the 23 students to college 12 years later. Having already overcome growing up impoverished in Mississippi during the segregation era, Brown is no stranger to beating the odds. She accomplishes her goal through a combination of strategic savings, savvy investments and juggling multiple jobs. She eventually creates the Oral Lee Brown Foundation and gathers donations from various people in the community. But Brown also endures pain and heartache while becoming a confidant, mentor and surrogate mother to the children known as "Brown's babies." The men in her life often prove unable or unwilling to understand or appreciate her efforts, and she's sometimes disappointed or saddened by the children's behavior. However, Brown also revels in their success, and she makes the same promise to three new classrooms of first-, fifth- and ninth-graders in 2001.
While not every child's final story is a happy one, The Promise certainly offers a blueprint for people who see injustice and inequality, but feel powerless to challenge or change it. Oral Lee Brown is a true giant and heroic figure whose example reflects her unwillingness to accept the notion that environment and family background inevitably must cause some children to be overlooked and left behind. Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and several other publications.