Listening to Black Voices

Dr. Janjay Gehndyu on Emotional Intelligence and the Power of Education

Gehndyu is the principal of Visible Men Academy.

By Heather Dunhill February 6, 2023

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Dr. Janjay Gehndyu

Dr. Janjay Gehndyu

Dr. Janjay Gehndyu has always made it his mission to make a contribution to his community. And today, he's doing just that as principal of Visible Men Academy (VMA), a public charter school for boys in kindergarten through fifth grade in Sarasota-Manatee.

A second-generation Manatee County resident and the first in his family to graduate from college, Gehndyu—who was also a highly recognized soccer player—earned his doctorate in education leadership from Nova Southeastern University. 

He has traveled the world, from the Galapagos Islands to Qatar to his father’s homeland of Liberia, where he speaks the tribal language of Grand Bassa. Closer to home, he has extensive experience in STEAM (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) and has served as an educator and in leadership roles in Sarasota and Manatee counties for more than 14 years, including at Braden River High School, Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences, State College of Florida and Southeastern University. He believes that “with the right guidance, students can accomplish great things.”

In 2020, after years of preparing students for college, he founded the Academic Empowerment Agency, which mentors under-served students for the high-stakes college entrance exam and admission processes. He has worked with more than 75 high school students who have all earned bright future scholarships

Today, he resides in Bradenton with his wife of 11 years, Jackie, and their two children, Ellie and Emmitt. In addition to his full-time job as principal of VMA, he volunteers at the Sarasota Housing Authority, as a volunteer reading coach, and teaches computer programming at Selby Library.

Tell us about your parents.

"We can’t choose our family, but I am pretty darn happy with what God has given me. My mom and dad barely graduated high school and met at what was then Manatee Junior Community College, but they dropped out. Dad was adopted by a missionary and is an immigrant—first generation from Africa. He was a force when I was a kid.

"My mom was born and raised in Bradenton. Her perspective on the community helped me navigate the tricky waters that still existed from when she grew up there. And for only having a high school diploma, she is the smartest person that I have ever met. She was of the never-back-down mentality. I have never known my mother to be scared. It was my mom who instilled in me to always know the environment I’m in. She’d say, ‘Don’t put yourself in a situation where you can’t make it home.’

"After my parents were divorced, she raised four kids and held the household together while juggling three jobs and when to pay which bills. Even [dealing] with all of that, my mom put the four of us through college."

What was it like growing up in Manatee County?

"We lived in a low socio-economic part of town. Our parents told us that we had to be inside before the streetlights came on. Blacks did not want to be outside after that. My mom would yell my name before the streetlights came on. Her voice would carry wherever I was, and I would take off running home. If I took too long to get home, I was in trouble.

"In elementary school, I had a few white teachers that said I couldn’t follow the rules. When I would get a note home about this, my dad was furious and asked, ‘How come you can’t do this? You have to follow rules.’ I vividly remember how upset he got. Because of the lack of educational opportunities that were available in Africa, this was of the utmost importance to him for me.

"The experience with those teachers made me develop the skill of emotional intelligence at a young age. It taught me to be mindful of my surroundings and to know who I was working with—like my teachers—and how to make my teacher happy so they did not write another note like that."

Did you feel singled out? 

"I was an energetic kid, enthusiastic about learning, but I was mislabeled as special-ed student. Again, I had to learn that I did not want to make that teacher mad. At one point, I went on a boycott and didn't speak to avoid getting in trouble.

"In first grade, I was on the school playground laughing and playing with my friends who were white. When my teacher, who was also white, called us in, they all jumped off the monkey bars. I began to follow, until she looked at me and scolded me to not jump off the bars. I did jump off and was the [only] one reprimanded. I was sent home with a referral.

"My mother discussed with me how there are different rules for different people and how to use that as motivation to rise above. She said, ‘Once you know the environment you are in, you can navigate the landscape.’ My mom saved that referral to show me what it was like and how far I had come."

Did it get better in high school? 

"In 1998, I was bussed to a new high school in Lakewood Ranch, which was 20 minutes away, even though I lived five minutes from Southeast High School. This time it wasn’t the teachers who were making my life miserable, it was the students. Ugly fights would break out with the so-called rednecks, who didn’t like us because we were Black.

"It would begin as we got off the bus in the mornings, with them calling us the n-word and telling us to ‘get out of here.’ I had never experienced anyone say that word outright like that, but what could I do? There were no consequences for those boys with dominant and prominent voices who felt that we were invading their property, which was a public school. Black students had to watch our backs as we walked the halls. A friend even carried a small baseball bat to protect himself. It was the most bizarre thing.

"If it wasn’t for leadership at the school, including the teachers, my life would not have accelerated. There, and at home, it was instilled in me that I could do anything. However, I did use that racism experience to propel me to excel.

"One white teacher, Mr. Don French, who I am still I contact with, made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow. He would say, ‘Son, you have so much to offer.’ He opened my eyes to what life could be. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if we would be having this conversation right now. He was that influential. And it wasn’t only me—he changed the lives of many other Black kids for good."

W.E.B Dubois wrote that the problem with race in America was what he called “double-consciousness,” a sensitivity that every Black person possesses in order to survive. What does that mean to you? 

"To survive, I learned how to read body language early. I had to get to know people and pick up certain mechanisms. For instance, my mom taught me to smile or speak to others, not necessarily to be nice but to gauge them for cues. I knew where I stood by their verbal or facial expressions. It was protection. I would not put myself in a negative situation based on those skills.

"There was also my language, which goes back to emotional intelligence. Around college, I learned that I had an accent on certain words. I said them in a way that people could not understand. But to me, that was normal. So, to improve my interactions with people, and to not be judged, I had to polish the way I spoke and express myself. I talked one way at home and another in public."

Tell us what you love about your work at Visible Men Academy.

"I love waking up every morning. I can create pathways and positively influence the VMA kids based on the experiences I've had, from the way students learn to how they view the world.

"I also enjoy creating opportunities for the students to experience a STEAM curriculum and sports besides football and basketball. That brings me complete joy."

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

"First, it’s important to say that all white people are not bad. If it wasn’t for a lot of white people, I would not be in the situation I am today. Even though racism is still prevalent, there are great people out there with a heart. My wife is white, and so are two of my best friends since fourth grade. Both were in my wedding. In fact, my son has two middle names, one honoring each of them. When our friends get together, it’s Black, white and Latino. That’s the way the world should look.

"I’d like others to try what my friends are doing now. They get out in the community or come to VMA to hang out with the kids. Aside from that, go speak to someone who doesn’t look like you and read their body language the way I did to survive. Ask yourself, 'Are they a friend or foe?' Trust me, if they don’t like you, you’ll know quickly."

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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