Dr. Randy Brown
Driving into Como is a different scene from most of Fort Worth. Como, a neighborhood in the heart of the city, is a community with the stigma of being a “bad part of town.” It’s a predominantly African American community surrounded by upper-middle-class white neighborhoods. And on the surface, Como does present itself as a poorly kept and suspicious area to enter as an outsider. Most Fort Worthians have their presuppositions about Como and “hope” is not typically on the lineup.
Passing by run down or boarded up homes, a neighborhood convenience store with a gang of loitering men, littered yards and streets, it’s hard to know what to reasonably expect from Dr. Randy Brown and his new endeavor, Rivertree Academy.
Dr. Randy Brown, a tall and quiet-spoken man, asks to start the interview with prayer. He prays for Como, for Rivertree Academy, and that we would tell the story well. As he closes, there’s a certain weightiness to his prayer and my own presuppositions surrounding Como. Perhaps the general perception of Como has been misguided or viewed with the wrong lens. And it seems Dr. Brown, a permanent resident of Como, has the insider’s perspective to help provide clarity.
Dr. Brown, a family practice physician, could be represented as the “Healer” – a healer of bodies, young minds, and the Como community. But this assumption would include the belief that Como and its members were sick, weak, and wounded, and thus in need of healing. While those individuals do exist in Como (as they do in all communities), after meeting Dr. Brown it’s becoming evident that wounds are not what define or plague this neighborhood. Dr. Brown defines his new home as “tight-knit… rich in community, full of history, and dignity, and pride,” and with a desire to self-sustain. It’s a neighborhood desiring to grow, but that needs leadership, tools, and opportunity – not fixing or gentrification.
But how does someone so completely different from his surroundings infiltrate a foreign place and effect positive change? How does he become accepted? How does he shape (not change) a different culture and actually see fruit from his efforts?
Dr. Brown’s infiltration of Como ultimately has not been about the revitalization of a neighborhood – of a place - so that it would be more aesthetically pleasing, more walk-able, with better property values. Dr. Brown is about the revitalization of a people. Not to displace them or replace them, but to encourage them and their future lives. Not to heal the sick but to cultivate a garden. To help the current tenants flourish – to educate, provide resources, and guide growth. Dr. Brown’s profession may be a physical healer, but he is a seed planter, a gardener of people; a cultivator of opportunity.
He sees that “everyone of these kids has the potential to change the world.”
What this community really needs are young leaders with the opportunity to fully thrive, and Dr. Brown has become their resident caretaker.
Dr. Randy Brown was raised in an upper-middle-class white family in Midland, Texas. At a young age he realized he had a heart of compassion for the poor and felt called to be a missionary. After completing medical school, Dr. Brown and his wife Anda eventually ended up residing in Fort Worth. With five kids, Dr. Brown was ready to fulfill his missionary calling and move his family to Thailand. While his wife was supportive of her husband’s life calling, she was less than enthusiastic about uprooting her brood of children and moving to a developing country. Seeking a new plan, Dr. Brown was receptive to the Lord’s call to instead be a missionary in Fort Worth, a missionary in Como.
Starting in 2002, he spent the next few years learning the community. He asked questions, seeking to know the neighborhood’s needs and dreams. Driving around one day, he stopped to talk with a group of men. Clearly an outsider, he explained that he was here to sincerely help the neighborhood. These Como men answered that he should help the children. Heading their directive, he began focusing on ways to reach and develop the kids of Como. By 2006, as connections and relationships continued to build, Dr. Brown’s family was ready to sell their home and move into the neighborhood.
To begin helping the children of Como, Dr. Brown first started taking Como kids to a summer camp called Opportunity Camp. Op Camp is a week-long summer camp for students from Como Elementary. School counselors nominate the students who demonstrate leadership potential. The week focuses on “raising up [those potential] leaders with high moral character, vision, and skills that will make a dramatic difference.”
While this week is highly instrumental in shaping the children, students would experience a camp high and still come back to broken homes, a tough school environment, and peer pressure. The kids needed consistent mentoring. So Dr. Brown created a discipleship team called “Mighty Men.” This was a group of ten young boys who Dr. Brown has mentored over the past few years. When talking about this group, his response is tainted with weariness. These tough relationships have clearly had their ups and downs. Only four of the ten boys have graduated, and the last young boy is on track to graduate this school year. The other five boys have not graduated and have dropped out and fallen prey to the gang culture.
But instead of giving up and moving on, this trying experience led to the idea of a school and the birth of Rivertree Academy. After nine years of living life alongside Como families, it became evident to Dr. Brown that the pressures of gang life overpowered the leadership development and personal investment that the Mighty Men had experienced. By late middle school and early high school, the boys struggled, like most teenagers, with choosing the better path. Only their submittal to peer and cultural pressures typically ends with crime, violence, and gang involvement. With only a 50% success rate for graduating, Dr. Brown knew he needed to get these boys out of the negative and recidivistic environment.
Rivertree Academy includes an elementary day school in Como and also a boarding school in south Fort Worth called, Malachi’s Farm. Starting this August, the kids will attend Rivertree Academy in Como from Pre-K to 5th grade, and then, during the crucial teen years, move to the boarding school for 6th-12th grade and separate from the negative culture. The kids will live at the boarding school and not only receive a quality education, but also learn tangible farming skills on the campus’s 120-acre grounds. The parents can come and visit the kids at the farm on the weekends, but the goal would be to provide a new and gang-free environment for these Como kids to grow up in. Most important, this opportunity is for Como families only. No other applicants accepted.
Here the kids will be taught to...
“learn well, love well, work well, and lead well.”
This mission’s purpose is really a part of cultivating opportunity in the community– planting seeds of education, providing tools and resources for nurturing personal growth, and ultimately providing a safe and hopeful future for these kids. But most importantly, the end goal is not that these kids would graduate, go to college, and move on, but that they would move back home and be community leaders and end the cycle of poverty and crime that is the current day-to-day life in Como.
Dr. Brown changed his life for these boys, for this community. He uprooted his family and replanted into a new neighborhood struggling to produce real fruit. He cut his professional career to part-time, sacrificing financial potential and career growth for the sake of a new and less predictable path. He’s inspired others to join him, and these other “outsiders” have moved into Como as well. But the beautiful part is that he and his team have been welcomed with open arms into the Como community. Como and its members have defied stigmas and are partnering alongside Dr. Brown and his team to cultivate opportunity for their future.
A lot can be learned from this City:SHAPER, this Opportunity Cultivator, about believing in and investing in the people of Fort Worth. Dr. Brown referenced a quote by Henry Ward Beecher, “Gold is evidence of gold wherever it may be,” and it is his faith and belief in the human dignity that exists in Como that has inspired revolutionary change in the current culture.
Dr. Brown and his Rivertree Academy team are doing amazing work to bring about hope and opportunity in Como. Join or support these City:Shapers by volunteering, providing resources, or through financial support.
The School (pre-K – 2nd grade) opens this August. And they will add a grade each year, until the opening of Malachi’s farm in 2018.
If you want to learn more, contact Rivertree Academy – Dr. Brown will not only impress you, but also inspire you; and you may find yourself relocating to the tight-knit and welcoming community that is Como.
By Miranda Holland