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Being told, 'You can't,' motivated education master's student

STANFORD -- "All my life, people have told me what I couldn't achieve," said Julie Hadnot. "When I was in elementary school, my teachers told my parents I was a 'slow learner' and would be fortunate to graduate from high school."

Instead, she graduated at the top of her class with honors.

"In senior high, I was told by my counselor that I would not get into a major university and should apply instead to a community college; he told that to all the black girls," said Hadnot, who receives her master's degree in education from Stanford University June 13.

While a freshman at UCLA, the president of the firm where she had a law-office apprenticeship told Hadnot her life goals were "too high" for an African-American woman.

"In all these and other instances like them, I have replied, 'Yes, I can. Yes, I will. Yes, I am going to do it.' "

As a result, the 26-year-old Hadnot has decided to dedicate her life to the children of her native Oakland - children who, like herself, may have been told all their lives what they 'cannot' do.

"For children of color, there are so many opportunities out there," Hadnot said. "Yes, sometimes you have to work harder than the others. But the choices put before them are not as wide and as varied as the choices that are out there."

Hadnot initially planned to become a lawyer. Upon graduating from UCLA in 1989, Hadnot received a Lyndon Baines Johnson Internship in the Washington, D.C., office of Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) At the end of the six-week program, she was offered a permanent position; eventually she was promoted to legislative assistant in the areas of education, children, youth, families and women's issues.

"As I began to submerge myself in learning as much as I possibly could about my issue areas, I couldn't help but take a special interest in education. I saw the rising concern not only of educators and parents, but of corporate executives," she said.

"They were asking, 'What can be done to save our children and our schools?' "

That, along with her work in a Los Angeles public emergency shelter for abused children ("I saw kids whose parents did things to them you'd think only a stranger could do"), began to turn Hadnot's career ambitions around.

She scuttled the idea of becoming a lawyer: "It really dawned on me that the only way to make the world better is to start with the young children."

"I look at my home community - some of those children never see a 30-year-old. They don't see themselves as grandparents someday, sitting on a porch.

"We don't live in Bosnia - but you'd think we did."

Hadnot does not view her diploma as a ticket out of what many view as a troubled community: "It's where I grew up, my family is there. I owe it a lot. It's a wonderful city, with such a negative stereotype. Don't believe the hype.

"What a great place it is! Hispanics, Asians, black, white - for the most part, they coexist in a peaceful, cooperative way."

She reminds critics that Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers, "who started a free lunch program in the schools and put a stop to police brutality."

"Many African Americans migrated to Oakland from the South - and they brought with them a tradition of hospitality, a family atmosphere. I look on everyone there as part of a family."

Growing up 'mixed'

Hadnot attributes much of her outlook and tenacity to her unusual background. Her mother is Italian Catholic. Her African American father, a 6'10" former professional basketball player and now a scout for the New Jersey Nets, is Methodist.

"We used to joke that my mother got mixed up in the hospital when she was a baby - that she's really black," laughs Hadnot. "She is in love with black people, black culture."

"My father used to ask me, 'How do you feel about being mixed?' I used to say, 'I'm proud of it. If others can't deal with it, that's their problem.' My cousins used to ask me, 'If you had to choose - what would you be?' I'd say, 'If I couldn't be both, I wouldn't want to be either.' "

She describes her mother's family as a "League of Nations." Her cousins range from German Jewish to Puerto Rican. On her father's side, she recalls family gatherings with her father's 70 first cousins. "We'd be sitting at the feet of my great grandmother - she was the matriarch - and she'd be telling us stories about how her own grandmother came from the West Indies. There was so much pride there."

But her mother, she said, taught her about racism. "It was harder for my father, because he was living through it. But she could view it from the outside."

"My mother used to say, 'Julie, I don't know what it is to be black. But I do know what it is to be called a 'nigger lover.'

"'They will tell you there are some things you can't do because you are an African American woman. Don't believe them.'" Inspired by her mother's strength and faith, Hadnot still describes her as "my biggest role model."

Fighting racism

Another reason for Hadnot's commitment to living in Oakland is her skepticism of "experts who live in tree-shrouded communities, then come to places like East Palo Alto and tell people how to live."

"How do they understand people who can't even walk down their own streets? That's the reality in West Oakland. We're just struggling to get by."

She is concerned about what she sees as the recent, nastier turn in race relations; she fears that it may be getting too late to address issues peacefully. "We may be reaching a point of no return."

"Black people are very, very angry. From the dominant culture, all they've ever heard is, 'You're violent, you're lazy, your hair is nappy.' " In some places, she said, African American youth are "becoming savages because, for so long, they've been told they are."

"We didn't asked to be lynched and raped and enslaved," Hadnot said. "We were brought here for a purpose - we were hated and despised, and brought here as a labor machine. It was back-breaking labor - I think people thought it would destroy us.

"When we didn't disappear - that bothered people. It's a fear of the 'other.' A fear of their strength. We are owed such a debt. It will never be paid. Until you've walked a day in an African American's shoes, you don't know this."

Hadnot said racism exists even as close to home as the Stanford Shopping Center. "People treated me so bad, I stopped going there. That's why black people so often congregate together - if black people don't like me, at least I know it's because of my own qualities."

Although Hadnot's degree in Administration and Policy Analysis reflects her political background, Hadnot is not sure when, or even if, she'll return to policymaking. First, she said, she might even want to spend a few years in the classroom.

"I am applying for teaching jobs, and jobs as an education coordinator. Maybe one day I'll start a school. I'm open to anything."

What is certain, she said, is that she has an "undying commitment to educating young people in this country.

"I want to ensure that their futures are not filled with ideas of what they cannot achieve, but with what they can."



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