This Black History Month, UYWI continue to highlight modern-day leaders we believe are carrying MLK’s vision, forward. Our second spotlight is on Dr. René Rochester.
Dr. René Rochester has been impacting the lives of urban youth since 1984. As the first African-American at the University of Texas to earn a Doctorate of Education with a concentration in Health Education, Dr. Rochester is an accomplished teacher, preacher, coach, and author.
Over the years, Dr. Rochester has become a powerful pioneer in the area of equipping church communities with resources and integration strategies to effectively understand, relate to, and address the needs of at-risk youth. To help reduce the side-effects of school dropout rates: juvenile detention, lack of job readiness, low college enrollment, etc, Dr. Rochester has devoted her life to addressing the disparities in education inequalities. Most notably, Dr. Rochester seeks to decrease the graduation gap between African-American and Caucasian students in America. In fact, 2016-2017 data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that nationwide, 77.8 percent of black students who entered grade nine in the fall of 2013, earned a traditional high school diploma in the traditional four-year time period ending in the spring of 2017. For whites, 88.6 percent of students earned their high school diplomas in four years.
To address this disparity more directly, Dr. Rochester is using the power of the digital space to reach students with online courses through her organization PHAT STAR® Learning LLC. PHAT STAR is a community collaborative effort to educate and empower youth through quality academic assistance and mentorship.
Her Heart for Women of Color
In addition to her work with students, Dr. Rochester spends time empowering women of color to walk in their destiny (in all spheres of life) and ensuring church leadership values (and makes room for ) partnership opportunities present between men and women. As a preacher and teacher, Dr. Rochester has also been the first and the only in many predominantly white Evangelical spaces, where she has faced the harsh reality of inequality.
At UYWI’s National Conference last year, I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Rochester. She shared with me, her experiences of leading in Urban Ministry, where white males accounted for the majority of head leadership. She shared many leaders operated out of a paternalistic, colonial mindset. Because of this disparity, she had to press through these power structures and cling to Scripture as her guide. She shared with me that a woman of color must have a renewed mind:
“When your mind aligns with the Word of God then when a door is shut on you or a ceiling is placed on top of you, you can say God is Sovereign! You can cling to scriptures like Romans 3:8 “ ‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.”
Dr. Rochester challenged me to bring my opposition and my oppressor before God, and realize that God has my back.
Dr. Rochester sees the gospel from a place that understands that Jesus was raised in an oppressive, colonial-minded environment, and had to rise above it. She possesses a deep understanding that He didn’t overcome his oppressors by might, nor power, but by the sheer Spirit of God. Jesus always took the view of His Father and pressed forward in His purpose, and so should we.
But Dr. Rochester’s work has not been without pain.
This trailblazing woman of God is living in a time where her dream of diversity and inclusion amongst women and people of color is blossoming into fruition. She brims with joy over seeing more representation in executive leadership within prominent urban ministry organizations.
Though I could sense her excitement for the representation she’s now seeing, I could also sense the weight she’s carried as a result of fighting for this dream for over three decades. I felt like I was with Moses on the mountaintop, gazing out upon the beginnings of the promised land. In this case, the promise was God’s church, which would no longer be ravaged by explicit and implicit biases and prejudiced systems.
Dr. Rochester, a lover of Jazz causes me to ponder the song “Strange Fruit.” First recorded by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday, the song is about the lynching of black people in the South in the first half of the 20th Century.
When Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939, she said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation. But because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances.
When I watched Dr. Rochester speak of her hope for an integrated future, while acknowledging the mistreatment of herself and others who came before her, I was convinced that I was sitting in the presence of a warrior—a warrior who has used her voice and the song of her life to protest oppression—a woman who is beginning to breathe in the fresh wind of inclusivity, while still tasting the bitter fruit of racism.
I know Dr. Rochester has paved a way for me as a woman of color in urban leadership. I asked Dr. Rochester what was one misconception people believe about black women. She responded:
“Our disagreement is seen as defiance. But that is not the case. It simply means we don’t see things quite the same. My aim is not to be angry, coming in like Angela Davis with a shotgun, but my aim is to challenge unjust power structures and point them to the Word of God, challenging them to check their biases. There is only one supreme being and that is God. He is the one who gives power and takes it away.”
In closing, I asked Dr. Rochester what she wanted her legacy to be?
“My legacy will be raising up the next generation to have a voice. I have a dream that one day we would live out what Paul said in Philippians 2:2: “Therefore if you have any encouragement in Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, then make my joy complete by being of one mind, having the same love, being united in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.…”
Thank you Dr. René Rochester, for opening doors for women and people of color to be empowered and not to be considered strange fruit. Thank you for your courage to fight for and with, the heart of the Father who makes room for everyone in His Kingdom.
To listen to Dr. Rochester speak, check out her podcast.
Need a resource to reach your students? Pick up Dr. Rochester’s book “Models, Mentors, and Messages: Blueprints of Urban Ministry”
ABOUT FEATURED ARTIST: SHUREE RIVERA
UYWI’s Creative Director, Shuree is also a recording artist, writer, Community Outreach Coordinator, and a Creative Arts Lead who has toured nationally. Shuree has led dynamic experiences using the power of artistic creation to bring diverse people together. She loves Negro Spirituals and loves to celebrate Black History Month with her friends. Check out her inspirited cover of the song ‘Oh Freedom!’ in honor of the struggle.
Check her out on Instagram @shureemusic