Andre Perry was born to a teenage mother in Wilkinsburg and a father — whom he never met — who died in a Detroit prison when he was eight. The young Perry was taken in by a neighbor, Elsie Boyd, who was in the habit of “informally adopting” children whose parents could not take care of them full-time.
While Elsie lacked many resources, there were between 12 to 15 other children, including Perry’s two brothers, who would come and go, staying with her when there was nowhere else for them.
“She was the closest thing to God that I know,” says Perry.
What Boyd could not provide to him as a child, Perry’s school supplied, he says. He attended Wilkinsburg schools until his junior year when he transferred to Peabody High School.
“School was a central part of my life, and it became a central part of my career,” he says. “It was a community good, particularly for those who may not have had other supports that a middle-class lifestyle would afford them.”
After getting a degree in psychology from Allegheny College, he earned a Ph.D. in education policy and leadership from the University of Maryland. His resume includes stints as a journalist and educator, and he’s worked with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on education initiatives.
Throughout high school and college, he was a cross-country and track athlete. He started running because he felt he had no other choice.
“Initially, running for me was a way to escape trouble I was experiencing in high school in Wilkinsburg,” he says. “In the late ’80s, violence started to bubble up, and I just wasn’t built for violence. I don’t think anyone is. Running gave me the ability to literally escape. I needed it. But now, instead of running away from problems, I run towards them.”
Perry’s work for the Brookings Institution focuses on racial and structural inequalities and the importance of supporting urban schools. He believes these issues are the root causes of violence and despair in urban communities and that only by admitting there are problems can solutions be found.
But he pushes back against the idea that single mothers — particularly black single mothers — are to blame when many of them have bolstered their communities.
“My family situation exemplifies how black women created family structures to help children when mainstream society, governments and individuals didn’t,” Perry says.
“People who continue to blame poor women for having too many children and not getting married abdicate their responsibilities of fixing the systemic problems of unequal pay, tax policy that favors the rich and discrimination in housing and employment — the factors that determine how much money people make.”
One of Perry’s points of emphasis: investing in schools in urban and impoverished neighborhoods. Good schools, he says, act as magnets when people look to buy homes and raise families. And students who have good experiences in their schools are more likely to return home or stay in their communities.
“Good schools are a building block of a great community development strategy,” Perry says. “That’s why we should always treat students with respect and love in schools. They should be rigorous, but first and foremost we should instill a sense of loyalty. Because if not, they will want to leave.
“Pittsburgh in general and its surrounding boroughs have lost population ever since some of your major companies left town, and manufacturing left. But as folks go off and get educated, we want those people to come back and explore the new factories of the future — tech start-ups and other tech fields.”