Remembering denise brown: Passing the Torch of Community Spirit

By Kalima Rose
Tuesday February 13, 2007

By Kalima Rose 


denise brown [she preferred her name to be written without capitals] was an artist and educator who earned the expansive love of this community. Raised on the Berkeley-Oakland border, she lived her life here at the center of endlessly creative pursuits. Common to each of them was her ability to draw out the unique gifts of each person she touched. She created collective beauty out of that raw material and delivered it back in a living example of how to be a better person in the world.  

When she died Feb. 2, 2007, everyone who knew her considered themselves her friend—especially her students.  

denise’s life moved from staging backyard childhood productions to helping build the Berkeley Black Repertory Theater, to creating community theater in the schools, to teaching kindergarten, first and fourth grades over a decade at LeConte school, to raising talented and artistic children of her own, to her most recent pursuit of building the new Arts and Humanities high school at Berkeley High.  

denise’s life was a whirlwind of inclusion. Her world embraced black, brown and white people, young and old people, powerful and powerless people, the disenfranchised and the privileged. Whether as kindergarten teacher or as dean of discipline at Berkeley High School, she treated everyone with respect. 


The center of a large family  

Born in 1956, denise was 50 years old when she died. She was born in Oakland, California, to Sarah Lee Brown and Esever I’dell Brown, the youngest of six children, including Mary, James, Esever, Harold and Edward. She was raised on Alcatraz Avenue between M.L. King Jr. Way and Shattuck Avenue, where the family house is still the center of the community. 

She is survived by her children Justin LeJuan Real (22) and Sarah Mary Rose brown-Real (17), and siblings Mary, Robert (James), Harold and Edward Brown.  

Since childhood, denise organized young people in her community into creative productions. Her 25 cousins were always both enthralled and at her mercy when she cast them in plays, circuses, dance repertoires, and other performances that kept bringing them out into the world.  

“Since the time she was little, ‘Nisey’ was in charge of everyone,” said her elder brother Robert. “She could stage an entire play herself,” recalled Toska McQueen, a cousin and best friend from childhood. “She could generate all the sound effects and play every character herself, or she could organize 30 participants on the spot into a play. She worked with whatever she had in front of her.”  

She was married to Juan Real, whom she met acting and with whom she had Justin and Sarah, from 1984 until 2004.  

Justin and Sarah attended Berkeley public schools and helped their mother get recruited to teach in them. Justin recently graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene with a B.A. in Policy, Planning and Management. Sarah recently completed her senior year at Berkeley Independent High and after years of studying with Berkeley Ballet Theater and Alvin Ailey is in the process of auditioning at prestigious dance colleges in New York City.  

“She was such a supportive mother of everything we did,” said Justin. “The biggest fear I had of her was not meeting her expectations because of the high confidence she had in me.” 


Well versed  

denise attended Washington Elementary, Claremont Middle School, and Oakland Technical High School in Oakland. She started her post-secondary studies at San Jose State, and graduated from San Francisco State with a B.A. in English (1979). After college, she worked in administrative positions at UC Berkeley in the Department of Labor Relations and Affirmative Action. 

She accomplished her teaching certificate through New College of California (1992), and after teaching elementary school for 10 years, she acquired her Masters of Education Administration at U.C. Berkeley in 2002. She taught classes in family literacy to students at UC Berkeley, who in turn led Shakespeare-for-Kids workshops in Berkeley public schools. She was making plans to pursue her Ph.D. in English at Oxford University when she died.  


A community-building career 

After college, she applied to the Berkeley Black Repertory Theater as an aspiring director. Told she needed to develop experience acting, she won parts in two plays before being selected as artist in residence for directing productions. She won artist in residence appointments for three years in the mid- 1980s. 

In 1990, Justin entered LeConte Elementary School, where denise became distressed that the stage was being used as a storage area. She set out to refurbish the entire auditorium into a state-of-the-art performance facility. She recruited dance teacher Soyinka Rahim (of Our Thing Performing Arts Company) and choral director Michele Jordan (Choir director at East Bay Church of Religious Science) to help produce musical theater with the students.  

LeConte principal Barbara Penny- James, impressed by her leadership, recruited denise to become a teacher at the school, where she taught kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade for ten years. “She belonged to the world,” said Penny-James. “Her classroom reflected everyone who was there and she empowered every student. She had endless followers in her classroom.” 

Along with Rita Pettit and Linda Jackson, she founded the LeConte Performing Arts summer camp, which served hundreds of students each summer and produced magnificent productions authored by denise, including “The Vegetable Coup” where vegetables were the heroic good guys trying to win the world back from sugars; “The Wizard of Bezerkeley” who help kids solve the crises of broken families, self-doubt, poverty, and racial conflict from his home in the Campanile; “Who Was Mother Goose Anyway?” that explored the esoteric meaning of those nursery rhymes through musical theater and dramatic dance; and “The Biz,” premised on people landing on earth from different planets without a common language figuring out how to get along.  

“She could always hold the most conflicted and the most gifted children together,” said Jeannie Gee, her long-time co-teacher at LeConte, “and touch them all.” Pandora Thomas, who studied to become a teacher under denise, said “Ms. brown just poured her passion into whatever she taught, so learning math and science also became an act of poetry for her students.”  

Shortly after earning her administrative credential, the new principal at Berkeley High hired her as the Dean of Discipline and later promoted her to Vice Principal at Berkeley High, where she was working until she died. 

At Berkeley High, she ended a revolving door of discipline deans where complaints had centered around unfair discipline directed at students of color. denise built a sense of partnership and collaboration with security staff, and together they transformed the environment to one of trust and respect for students.  

denise remembered her own childhood fights to protect her developmentally disabled brother from taunting and knew there were often deeper things troubling the youth she counseled. Berkeley High authorities once tried to protect her from a large male student who they thought might be dangerous. When she insisted on seeing him, he wept at her sight, as she had been his kindergarten teacher.  

“She disciplined with dignity when dealing with kids,” said Thelette Bennett, a co-vice principal during denise’s tenure. “She was brilliant, gentle and forceful.”  

Jim Slemp credits her for vastly reducing discipline problems at the school. “Her goal would be to have the students say ‘thank you’ at the end of process, and 98 percent of the time, she succeeded.” 

As Berkeley High was breaking up the larger school into smaller schools, denise partnered with Arts Department chair Miriam Stahl and Dance Program director Linda Carr to create the Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), now in its second year of operation. As vice principal to two small schools—AHA and the Community Partnership Academy—she mentored new teachers to deliver on the visions of the schools. “She welcomed parents. She built community. She pulled out what she thought was the best of us as teachers,” said Stahl. “She didn’t go by a prescribed book of what should be happening in the classroom, but was a really good observer. She would watch, and then go from there—always good at improvisation.” 

Student comments that poured into the memorial tell the deepest story. Lizi Freeman wrote, “You started something amazing. You’ll be missed greatly, but you’ll live on in the spirit of AHA, and we’ll make you proud.” 

Former student Orissa Stewart-Rose wrote, “Her love and lifestyle affected everyone she interacted with deeply. We all can say in one way or another that she changed us for the better, helped us through a tough situation, encouraged us when we were faithless or provided wisdom when we were in need.” 

The California State Senate closed early in her honor last week, and colleague Miriam Stahl drafted her memorial portrait, casting her as the Queen of Hearts, with the caption, “Our Queen of Berkeley.” 

Her son Justin and Jim Slemp proffered the same reflection. “She was just so loving and always put kids first.”  



A community memorial service will be held at the Berkeley Community Theater on Feb. 15 at 5 p.m.  


For information about how to contribute to the family, contact BUSD public information officer Mark Coplan at 644-6320.