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Steven “The Prof” Cleveland: “You can’t love it so much that you don’t provide for your family or you’re struggling”

It’s important for you to know your worth. You can’t love it so much that you don’t provide for your family or you’re struggling. You have to be willing to let go and move on if it’s not fulfilling and providing for you. You’ve got to find a place that gives you joy because that’s […]

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It’s important for you to know your worth. You can’t love it so much that you don’t provide for your family or you’re struggling. You have to be willing to let go and move on if it’s not fulfilling and providing for you. You’ve got to find a place that gives you joy because that’s part of your worth, but you also need to have a livable wage. Knowing your worth is about the money and the joy it brings.


As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Steven “The Prof” Cleveland.

Filmmaker, educator, and activist Steven “The Prof” Cleveland uses a marriage of cultural exploration via the arts to make an impact in his work. After cutting his teeth in production on music videos for such artists as Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Mandy Moore, Steven began to develop media-based service-learning curriculums aimed at producing high-quality media by pairing professionals with youth. At Cal State University, East Bay, he is a Black Studies Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Professor in the Department of History and an African American (AFAM) Faculty Fellow at the Diversity and Inclusion Student Center (DISC). Currently, Steven resides in Los Angeles where he wakes up every day and works to infuse Black Humanity into a variety of educational media projects, namely his current project, A King in Paradise.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

After having been the first in my family to go to college, I was really encouraged to change the message of hopelessness that I saw in my community back in Birmingham, Alabama. My education really opened me up to the impact of using film and education. As for my current endeavors in activist and educational film, I partnered in my current project, A King in Paradise, with Academy Award-Winning director and writer Charles Burnett, who is the reason why I became a filmmaker. His film Killer of Sheep inspired me to become a filmmaker, which then led me to apply to film school.

Film school brought me to a program where I met Charles Burnett, my mentor, and in meeting him I ended up working at a post-production facility that he edited at. That connection brought me into the inner circle with Charles and allowed me to connect with other filmmakers. A friend of mine from USC then invited me to work with him on a project in Hawaii, and that’s how I ended up in this specific work telling the story of Dr. King’s five days in Hawaii alongside Charles.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The thing about being a first-generation college student was that I never felt like teachers understood me or the things that I was facing. There were teachers who tried to remove obstacles out of my way, as a way of “serving me” [but really] assuaging their guilt. And then there were people who held me to standards that required me to have knowledge and experiences that I didn’t. I never really was excited about teaching as a career path, but what ultimately brought me to teaching was a desire to serve and use film as a way to empower young people.

One of my best memories of teaching was a project I didn’t do in the classroom. It was a project I did with the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County (WDBCC). We put together this project where we took a group of students that I had worked through their Summer Youth At Work Program, which was funded by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). WDBCC asked me to produce a promotional video highlighting the success of the Summer Youth at Work Program. Instead, I allowed the students I had worked with to produce the video, thereby creating a learning experience where we brought professionals to work alongside these students and teach them how to do the work while delivering this high-quality, consequential product that mattered, rather than something theoretical.

That was really one of the best experiences I had; meeting a lot of first-generation students and high schoolers who were approaching their transition…so I got to advocate for college as a pathway for some of them, and I got to advocate for film as a pathway for some of them. It was overall one of my best teaching moments, getting to work with these young people and advocate to help them change their lives.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

A King in Paradise is my current project consisting of a documentary, curriculum, and other associated impact projects that explore the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through his five-day journey in Hawaii in 1959 during Hawaii’s statehood celebration.

The goal of the film is first and foremost to entertain people, but once we entertain and we have people’s attention, what do we do with it? So, we’ve built a really robust impact plan that goes from curriculum development to experiential opportunities for young people — study away programs, lecture series, etc. We’re creating something that will do more than entertain; it will get people excited about the story of MLK’s days in Hawaii, then take that story as the entry point for audiences to answer the question, “What’s next?” It’s about realizing, “I’ve learned the truth, now what? What do I do with it?” All portions of this project — the film and its impact projects — are really aimed at empowering the audience to answer those questions for themselves.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I think that the US education system, which was built for elite white men, has been doing a great job at serving them. It’s an awesomely great system that’s been built to do exactly what it does.

For those who are concerned about my response, no, I’m not attacking white men. I’m saying that our education system was designed that way. It’s not that it was designed to exclude people, it just didn’t have certain groups in mind in terms of how it was designed. The assumptions were that [non-white, non-male] people came with the same set of skills, the same worldview, the same values, the same thought processes and principles as these elite white men do.

And let me be very clear: I don’t want to design a system that doesn’t serve white men. I want to design a system that serves everyone, right? And it’s a challenge because we have different needs, and so in order to do so we’d have to design a system that’s multifaceted and flexible.

I’m not trying to make enemies of folks, I just think we can’t ignore the truth. The truth is that this system was not designed to serve everyone. So, the idea of “equality” is misplaced in a sense. It’s not “equal” for everyone because we all come to it from different places. We need to look at developing systems that are more equitable; equity means that we need to serve folks where they are. We want everyone to be centered in the classroom, and we have to own the fact that the U.S. education system wasn’t set up equitably.

It’s not about blaming anyone; it’s important not to use language that continues to alienate us from one another. It’s about using language, as Dr. King talks about, that is based in love — love for our fellow man, and the desire to see everyone centered in the spaces where we’re educated.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. I’m a big proponent of community college. I didn’t go to community college, but I love the idea that unless you know exactly what area you want to go into and where you want to specialize, I think community college is an awesome place to get some experience under your belt and figure out what direction you want to go in. Especially with the cost increase of education, community colleges really do serve our communities.
  2. There’s been a theoretical shift in our education, in our language, and in our value system from “equality” to “equity”. As I was saying before, the better we become at having those conversations and looking at centering everyone, the better it is for everybody.
  3. Although there was an exploration of charter schools for a while that seemed to endanger the survival of public schools, I do think there seems to be a move now towards making public schools work. Especially now with our new head of education coming up, I’m excited to see where we go in terms of centering public education for all and making it equitable for all. I hope the next four years consists of making public school [education] more robust.
  4. I like the idea of pre-school being made more mainstream, especially for lower-income families of color. Giving more people access to pre-school is so important as a way of giving our young people early access to education, giving them a chance to jump-start their socialization, giving them exposure to diverse groups, etc.
  5. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s)! They have such great lessons for historically white institutions about how you CAN get great results from black students. If we can get more historically white institutions to look at HBCU’s best practices for serving black students, that would be awesome.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

All of my thoughts surround Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work and centering all students in education:

  1. We need to improve the perceptions of DE&I. White people often feel like these conversations are “us vs them”, which is false. We need to have better involvement from our white allies so that they know that DEI is good for everybody, and that diversity is good for everybody!
  2. Embracing DEI work. The idea of investing in diverse teachers, diverse curriculums, diverse student body populations, and understanding the value of that diversity. I see that becoming normalized and I love it, but I’d like to see us lean into the idea that diversity is a value-add for the community even more.
  3. Having education tied to tax. We should come up with a more equitable way of funding our education that doesn’t leave certain communities left out of the loop. That’s something that’s been floated around for a long time and I’d love to see it happen.
  4. [I like] the idea of moving away from charter schools as the standard or “savior from public institutions”, and instead using them as a way to pilot ideas for public institutions that are accessible for the whole community.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Understand that every student won’t like you. It’s hard because when you first start out, you want to be liked! You put so much of yourself into your work, and you would hope that everyone will connect with you. I have so many examples of students who didn’t like me, but I also have instances of students who I thought didn’t like me. Many times, I come back and a student is like “You were the most important professor I ever had!”

I worked at an environmental studies academy, and I had a student who I thought was not at all connecting with me or my material. Five, six years later he added me on Facebook and was like, “I remember you and all the study we did really stuck with me!” I was like, “For real???” The person I remember interacting with was not enthusiastic at all. But the idea is that it’s ok that not all of your students are going to like you.

2.) You can learn as much from your students as they do from you. As we get older, we tend to think we know better, but that’s not the case! I really see teaching as creating an environment for learning, rather than us having to show up and deliver the learning. If you create the right environment, your students can teach themselves and mentor each other. I love the idea that as a teacher, it’s not my job to show up with all the answers, it’s my job to create a space where the answers can be found.

3.) Be ok with modeling imperfection. A lot of us want to be perfect, have perfect classrooms, create perfect lessons…but sometimes it just doesn’t work! Sometimes I have bad things going on in my life, and I try to share that with my students. Rather than act like I know what I’m doing and I’m smooth, I try to really be human with the students so they know that sometimes it’s tough to show up. Let them know that humanism exists on both sides of the desk.

4.) You have to teach what you love. Please avoid teaching things that you’re not passionate about or that don’t resonate with you. It’s like when people say “Pick a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” that’s really what it is! If you pick a topic to teach and you don’t feel passionate about it…this is not a gig you do for the money. Don’t take work that doesn’t really connect with you.

5.) Lastly, its’ important for you to know your worth. You can’t love it so much that you don’t provide for your family or you’re struggling. You have to be willing to let go and move on if it’s not fulfilling and providing for you. You’ve got to find a place that gives you joy because that’s part of your worth, but you also need to have a livable wage. Knowing your worth is about the money and the joy it brings.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

The challenge with getting top talent is a simple one: we don’t economically value our teachers. We pay our teachers a pittance of what other folks who apply the knowledge we’ve learned as teachers get paid.

No matter what else we say about [teaching] being a noble career, people who are not in relationships with folks who can help finance their lives cannot be teachers. You need someone to help supplement your life if you’re a teacher because teaching does not allow you to have the upward mobility that other careers do.

If we’re not going to literally adjust the income that allows other benefits, we have to come up with housing programs for teachers or other supplemental pieces to attract folks to the profession. I’ve seen it done in local communities — having things like housing deposits for teachers, special rental rates, etc. — who then have the benefit of attracting [teachers] who are connected with the community more closely. Coming up with an economic model that values teachers in order to be able to recruit and retain top talent is key.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my biggest lessons in life is the importance of doing things in action rather than in theory. My brand philosophy, The Prof Life, was inspired by my time following and listening to Tupac Shakur, and his philosophy of “Thug Life”.

“Thug Life” was about taking what life gives you and making it dope; taking the idea that [people] think of you as a thug or “less than”, and flipping it in a way that becomes powerful to you. I identify with that; I grew up in communities where I was labeled and people assumed that they understood me just by looking at me [or by] seeing where I was geographically. I, through education, was able to flip that, and a lot of the lessons that I got from watching people in my community…I used those fundamental lessons in education To me, “he Prof Life like “The Thug Life” is really using [those lessons] as a way to take yourself to the next level.

The biggest piece of all of that is you can’t live life in theory, you have to live life in motion, which means to not sit, wait, and live life hypothetically. It’s about making decisions and moving on from one thing to the next. That’s the biggest thing I take with me; the knowledge that my lived experience — reminiscent of the “Thug Life” philosophy — has taught me to be hungry, to defy people’s expectations, and that all of those things are a benefit. Living in Motion is not being worried about perceptions and waiting for the shoe to drop, it’s about moving and making. And that has guided me as a teacher; to create experiences for young people that are consequential and to not only teach theoretical things.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Barack [Obama], I still want you to come over! I’m really interested in some of his worldviews on some of the stuff connected to black identity, particularly during and after his presidency.

But I really want to talk to everybody — my peers in the NAACP, my Black Lives Matter folks, even some black conservative thought leaders — to see the diversity in thought on how we move forward in shifting systematic racism, which is what I’m trying to do with my project A King in Paradise. I think it’d be very interested in having those debates. But we’ll start with Barack Obama.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow my project on Instagram and Facebook @akinginparadise as well as our website akinginparadise.com, and if you want to get involved you can contact us there or via my personal socials @theproflife.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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