When Campus Elementary principal Yamaka Bracey gets excited during conversation, she slips into a pastor’s cadence, repeating certain phrases for a powerful effect, driving home her message so that any listener leaves with no doubts about what she’s saying.
Being asked about a recent award she received from Davenport University—the university’s College of Urban Education Alumni Award—immediately creates the condition.
“I answered the phone that morning, and I remember sitting up in my chair when the young woman told me I’d been nominated for this award and not only that, that I’d won it,” she recalled. “And I remember I said “wait, wait, I won what,’ and I just started crying, I just started crying.”
“It could have been anybody from my cohort (at Davenport), but me? Me? No, it could have been anybody. But it felt good. And more than that, it’s a reminder to me that I’m in the right place as a principal, I’m in the right place at GRPS. And it’s a reminder to not give up, a reminder that God is not through with me yet. It motivated me to keep going, and it motivated me to thank the people around me.”
Bracey’s dad was a longtime Grand Rapids pastor, so she said she comes by her rhetorical flourishes naturally, the product of many hours sitting in pews listening to him inspire his parishioners, but beyond that, she said, her faith is undeniable in all she does.
She came up through Madison Park, Westwood and Iroquois Middle, and finally Ottawa Hills High School, class of 1995.
“I was born and raised in GRPS,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve been surrounded by GRPS all my life.”
But her journey from GRPS scholar to GRPS teacher and now principal at Campus Elementary School, has by no means been a straight line.
Her undergraduate degree from Aquinas College saw her juggling motherhood with being a student and sometimes, she said, all those balls didn’t always stay up in the air.
“There were times I wanted to quit,” she recalled. “I just kept telling myself ‘Struggle for a little while to make it for a lifetime.’ I tell my students now the same thing. ‘Struggle for a little while to make it for a lifetime.’ But, whooo, it was not always easy, I know that. But I just kept trusting God and trusting God and thanking him for my family and my support community.”
There were times when she had to get creative, she said. Bringing her kids to class or to campus was not uncommon. But she made it, and she graduated, standing, she said, on the shoulders of many.
And she wasn’t done. Later she went to Davenport to earn a master’s degree, this time juggling motherhood and her work as a GRPS teacher. More challenges, more creativity and more struggling for a little while to make it for a lifetime. But she made it, and she is deeply thankful to GRPS for the financial support the district provided to pay for her master’s degree.
“So thankful,” she said with a wide smile. “And I would encourage others (in the district) to take advantage of these opportunities that are offered.”
Her lifetime of experiences, she added, gives her a deep empathy for her students and their parents and a story to share with many.
She talked about that in a recent story on the Davenport website.
“I share the experience and lifestyle of many of my parents, whether it’s struggling at home, not having enough food; whether it’s being on the welfare system and trying to get off; whether it’s trying to make a difference and feeling like you’re stuck – I can relate,” she told Davenport’s Mary Eileen Lyon.
“I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell my story. It’s not perfect, but I’m here, and I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles. I’m always believing and pushing and striving, and I want to be that example for my parents, my families and my students. I know what it’s like to struggle and to be in an urban community. They’re like, ‘Oh, so you do get it?’ Yes, baby, I get it.”
Bracey is the first winner of what Davenport plans to be an annual award to honor a graduate of the College of Urban Education who has “shown outstanding professional accomplishments in a related field and who has demonstrated leadership in and dedication to the profession. The recipient is engaged in the vision and advancement of the College of Urban Education and its respective alumni community while exhibiting a commitment to public service.”
Bracey will receive the award on Saturday, October 7 at DU’s main Lettinga campus as part of Homecoming festivities.