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Dr. Elmore Lowry’s mother invested her last $3,000 she had into his college education. And then he got kicked out. This is the story about someone who was called an “academic miscarriage” pushed through hardships to get a PhD and inspire thousands of others.
Dr. Lowry is all about giving hope to people who come from environments where hope has been drained. From a career in criminal justice to many years as a dean at a college, he has inspired a lot of people to see beyond what life gives them.
What we learned from this episode
-When you hire people from a background different from yours, you must look at the systems you have in place around you. Don’t expect them to act like everyone else, but learn about them first.
-Working in a new environment can be very overwhelming.
-Don’t hire someone just because you feel sorry for them.
-When you only hire people who are like you, you multiply your weaknesses.
What you can do right now
Ask people these two questions:
-Whose pain do you feel? And whose tears move you?
“Sometimes you may not need the best applicant, you just need the applicant with this one gift. And you have to bring them in. And you’ve got to build a team around them, not only a team, but you have to have a system in place that keep them from failing or keep them from being overwhelmed. “
“But the problem is that you almost double your weaknesses if you just hire the same people like you, because it’s just going to be just multiplying your weaknesses as well as, it’s just unfair.”
Today, our guest is Dr. Elmore Lowery. He is the lead instructor for criminal justice with Fayetteville Technical Community College and also the founder of People Builder. Hi, Dr. Lowery. How are you today?
I’m doing very well. I hope you are.
I’m doing excellent. I’m really excited to talk to you. You have a very interesting background, a lot to tell us about. So, why don’t you start off with a little bit of your story, how you got to be an instructor and what you’re doing with People Builder, too?
Absolutely. Well, I was born and raised in Chesterfield, South Carolina to a single mother, who worked 27 years in a cotton mill. And once the cotton mill went out of business, she lost her retirement, she lost everything. And so, I was able to live the first part of my life with my grandparents, who was in their mid 60s when they began to raise me. And so, being raised on a farm, education was not a high priority in my family. And we did not realize that I had a major speech impediment until I entered into the 7th grade. And so, during that time, I had to go and take some speech therapist classes. And on the second day, my therapist came in and she set a big bag of candy down on the table. And I say to her, “Wow, I must have did good the other day.” She said, “No, sir, there’s no hope for you. And so, what we’re going to do is we’re going to eat candy throughout these sessions.” And so, as a result of that, it caused me to fall behind on my academics. And so, going into high school, I was in remedial classes throughout all of my high school career, and did not realize I was going to graduate high school until like the last week.
And I’ll never forget, I had an opportunity to see my friends standing outside of the guidance counselor’s office. And they was getting their SAT paraphernalia. And I said, “Well, I’m just going to do the same thing as well.” I stood in line. And I’ll never forget, I entered into the office with Miss Williams. And I said, “Miss Williams, which one of these colleges would I be able to attend?” And she reared back in her chair and she began to laugh. And she said, “Did they not tell you that you are an academic miscarriage and that you’re not going to be able to attend college?” And it took the breath out of me because I had to walk back through a gauntlet of my friends. So, before I walked out of her door, I made a promise to myself. And here’s what I promised myself, I would never do anything else in life, but cut grass for the rest of my life. Because I don’t have to articulate myself, I don’t have to read anything. There was no major expectations of me in terms of articulation. And I walked out. And so, years later, I ended up going to college on a football scholarship. And I had a weed eater outside of the college campus. As soon as classes were over, I would just go cut grass, because that particular moment scarred me.
And now being in a position where I was a leader of 115 to 120 employees, I gave them my philosophy and my statement is that we as educators, we have the power and the ability to build a billionaire or a beggar, it all depends on how we treat that student or that person that we’re responsible for. And so therefore, we treated students with a high level of respect, never giving up on students because at that particular time, she didn’t know that I was a doctor in higher education, because she never took the time to invest anything in my life at that moment. And so, I went on, and I finished college, barely finished college, ended up getting my double major in criminal justice, sociology, finishing my master’s degree as well as my doctorate in executive leadership and higher education. But my point is never give up on students, connect them to the workforce. College is not for everyone, but something out there is for them. And so, you’ve got to tap into their passions, tap into their desires, and begin to create pathways that’s going to be relevant to their goals, relevant to their dreams, and more importantly, relevant to their abilities.
Now, I’m really inspired by this story so far. I want to go back. And you used this term, academic miscarriage. What does that mean?
She used the term, “Did you not know that you’re borderline mentally retarded?” And that term just is, in my opinion is worse than the N word to me. So, I try not to use that word because we have so many students who are delayed or may not be interested in the academic material, and then they get labeled with that particular name. And then you begin to act and function like the name that people have labeled you with. And so, I try not to use that word. My thing is I have a deep passion for building people, getting them started on their life, getting them ready and positioned for their career. I believe in every student.
So, tell us more about how, I mean, you went from someone telling you you’re never going to go to college, to making it to college, to getting your masters, to getting your doctorate. At what point, was it always a struggle throughout for you? Or did you find that you built momentum after a while?
There was a little bit of a struggle throughout. And one of the major turning points in my life, I went down to South Carolina to visit my grandmother for the last time that I would visit her on her birthday here on earth. And my mother was there and I went and when I hugged my mother, she grabbed my arm. And she never would let me go. And I was like, “What’s wrong, Mom?” And she says, “Son, you know where we came from. And the college has contacted me and told me that they have kicked you out of college for over three months ago.” And during that time I was homeless, I was living in a house with no running water, no power, none of those things. And so, when she grabbed me and she began to cry. She said, “I don’t even have gas money to get back home tonight. Now, I put my last $3,000 I had to my name and I invested it in you.” And so, that did something to me because I’d never seen my mom cry like that. And then to find out that the money that she had, it was an investment. And it was placed inside of me. And I lost it. I lost all of her money.
And so, I came back to Fayetteville. I received a job at the Crown Coliseum back in 1997. And I’ll never forget this. As I was putting on my apron, I was serving hot dogs and nachos. I was an angry black man. And this Caucasian guy, he comes up to me, well, he actually yells at me, he says, “Bring me a hot dog!” And I’m thinking, “This is going to be a long day.” And his friend, who was also Caucasian, he says, “And by the way, bring me some nachos.” I say, these nachos and hot dogs are going to probably be all over the stadium. Because I’m not going to be disrespected. I’m still a human. But as I began to approach these two gentlemen, I began to recognize one of them. And he looked at me, he said, this is the first time that I can recall saying, “Yes, sir” three times in my life, and it changed my entire life. And he says, “Young man, don’t I know you from somewhere?” I say, “Yes, sir.” I dropped my head. And I said, “You kicked me out of your college.” He said, “Well, meet me at the college first thing in the morning.” I said, “Yes, sir.” And I met him at the college. He said, “Young man, I’m going to give you one more opportunity. One more. That’s it. One more.” And I said, “Yes, sir.”
And the rest of it was history. I got on the Dean’s list. And like I said, I finished up my double major masters and that started my career in law enforcement. I was a correctional officer, moved from there to a probation and parole officer. Then I went to become a Fayetteville police officer. And then from that point, I became a Special Agent in the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations. And then I became a Assistant Special Agent in Charge in the FBI, work in public corruption cases. And then I started three years with the Federal Bureau of Investigations Joint Terrorism Task Force as a criminal agent on investigate terrorism cases in North Carolina. I work at ECPI University, building criminal justice classes, as well as Homeland Security classes. And it’s just been a beautiful thing to see how drive and pain can push you into your promise or your purpose.
Yeah, that’s amazing. I want to talk a little bit more about class discrimination. We talk about racial discrimination, we talk about gender in a lot of our other episodes. But as you’re moving up through these classes, as you start to work in different places, are you constantly aware of the class you come from and the background that’s yet there? Or does it eventually rub away and you feel like an equal?
Well, believe it or not, whenever I began to apply for leadership positions in higher education, I had an opportunity to meet a senior vice president at the time that was at Fayetteville Technical Community College. And during that particular stage of my life, I dressed very professional, nice suits, bow ties. And I was working on white collar crimes. And this particular gentleman, he’s an older, Caucasian male. And he looked at me and he says, “What are you going to do about your people?” And this my first time I’m meeting this guy. And I’m thinking, “Excuse me?” And he said, “Because I’m here with your people, and I can’t retain them. I can get them into college, but I can’t retain them, nor can I graduate them, and nor can I get them a job. If you want to help me, you figure it out.” I said, “Yes, sir.” And I thought about it, because I have in a certain way loss connections with my community, because your work sometimes becomes your environment. And as I began to think about it, and I wrote my dissertation on African American males, an endangered species in higher education. And as I began to investigate, and began to write and research, I come to find out that I was very much so disconnected from our community. And so, though his words may have been harsh, they were the truth. And so, it caused me to look over my life.
And so, I became the Dean of collegiate and career readiness where I dealt with GED students, students who were trying to get a GED, and disenfranchised students as well as the underserved population, students with mental disabilities. And so, I was able to have some great success there. Our retention rate went from 67% to 98%. We created a food and clothing closet where we offer them free groceries, not only for them, for their families as well, baby diapers, baby formula, car seats, you name it, we went the extra mile to make sure that we can remove some of those hidden barriers that students face on a day to day basis, or where you and I were typically not paying attention to those things. And then from that point, I began to adventure out and try to build my own company, called it People Builder to where we can deal with students more so on a holistic environment, because I realized that institution, we’re here to educate students between between 8:00 and 5:00. My passion just won’t let me stop at 5:00 o’clock, and nowhere allowed me to start at 8:00. And so, I have to try to figure something out that’s going to give me some major reciprocity in seeing these students recapture their lives and their dreams.
It’s a terrible thing to see a person just waste away and when you know that there’s some hidden potential within them. In terms of race and class, yes, there are some major disparities in race and class. For students who can’t help themselves, and most of the time, people in authority and power, if they don’t see you trying to help yourself, they’re not going to put forth much of their investment. And so, but they don’t know what they don’t know. And so, trying to educate them about investments, about stock market, and about 401Ks, and about paying yourself and putting money aside. It is daunting task for an educator to try to teach content, and then teach life skills at the same time. And it seems the less resources you have, the more resources you won’t have access to, if that makes any sense. And so, it’s a very daunting task for us. And I really appreciate you having given me the opportunity to speak on your show. But we all have some work to do. And we’re a lot better off than we were, but there’s still a lot of work to get done.
It’s going to be a long road. And it’s encouraging to know people are committed to this and are doing things about it. Let’s go back to a topic that you brought up before, which is about, we call it soft skills or social skills, social emotional learning. I feel like there’s a lot of difference in how the social rules of middle class and upper class living as compared to people from the working class that are coming up, what are some of those social skills that you feel like are most important? It’s really not that the middle class has it figured out and they know the real things, but it’s just the cultural rules are different and to exist in this world, sometimes you need to change and to be aware of those rules that are there. So, I want to talk on both sides. One, what is it that you are emphasizing for the students that you are providing hope for to say these are the skills, these emotional social skills you need to build. And then second, we’ll get to on the employer side, if you’re hiring people from these backgrounds, what are some ways that you can just be more aware, be more cognizant of things and make allowances for people and help them into that system?
I just had a group of African American male students come to me the other day, and they were asking me about employment and things of that nature. And so, what I noticed, and not only in African American community, but a lot of students in our generation now, they want to freely express themselves, invest in their talk, invest in the way they carry themselves. And one of the things that I share with them is regardless of how you want to express yourself, you’re going to have to be presentable to the company or the business or the organization that you’re trying to entertain. Because just because someone is my color don’t make them my kind. And so, because I’m not going to have someone to represent my business, if you’re not neatly groomed, wellkept, your language is going to have to be proper. And I realize we all make mistakes here and there, but there’s got to be an element that I’m going to sign my business over to you, I need for you to have some of the values and the morals that I entrust in. And so, just trying to get them to be respectful. I said, “Yes, sir” three times, and it changed my entire life. And then when I was at the point to where I didn’t have anything else to lose.
And so, our younger generation is going to have to understand that there are still a bedrock of principles that we have to meet in order to be somewhat successful, because we don’t have everything in our hands right now. And so, not saying to use anyone, but you’re going to have to play the game in order to fit in to where you can make a difference. And so, from a business standpoint, we have to take chances on people. We have to take chances on people. Sometimes we may have to let our guard down just a little and become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and race, sexuality, all these different things are very sensitive topics, political views, sometimes we have to take a chance on someone and see what level of talent can they bring to the table. Can this person bring the talent that I’m missing into my organization? Because sometimes you may not need the best applicant, you just need the applicant with this one gift. And you have to bring them in. And you’ve got to build a team around them, not only a team, but you have to have a system in place that keep them from failing or keep them from being overwhelmed. So, it’s a broad aspect of trying to manipulate the talent that you already have, and your goals and your future. How can we work together? Whenever we go into partnership, each partner should benefit some way. And that’s where I look at it, especially whenever we’re trying to hire students or we trying to hire employees, how can they fit into the grand scheme of things? It’s just not enough hiring someone because you feel sorry for them. They have to be able to bring some level of value to the company.
That’s what I’m seeing, too, as people are interacting in this. They see it almost as a charity thing. “I’ll hire somebody from a background like this or somebody who’s coming out of a really bad situation.” So, automatically, they have this pity for them, or they have this feeling like, “I’m doing them a favor.” And then they expect them to act just like everyone else that they’ve hired in another situation without understanding there are some differences. And then, two, three weeks later, they drop them because they missed their time card a couple of times or they said something that they felt like was inappropriate. So, we’re not really ready to make those changes, I feel like. Do you agree?
I agree. And a lot of times, I have experienced this is that a lot of times people will hire people that look like them, talk like them, act like them. And the good thing about it is that you may increase in strength. But the problem is that you almost double your weaknesses if you just hire the same people like you, because it’s just going to be just multiplying your weaknesses as well as, it’s just unfair. But you have to realize that most of time people feel comfortable with people who look like them, talk like them, but we’ve got to break out of that mold. We’ve got to begin to explore things a little differently. Racial disparities is major, and it hasn’t made that much progress. It’s just done in a different format now.
Yeah, that’s absolutely what we’re discovering on this show is that, I mean, whether it be about race, or sexuality, or gender, or class background you come from, in some ways, we’ve just put a shiny veneer over some things and made it seem like it’s better. But really, there’s still a long way to go with this. So, Dr. Lowery, we’re going to call this episode Work Minus Hopelessness. So give us a message. How do we give hope to people who need it?
When I began to give hope to people and what I’ve seen the major change is just giving them your time, giving them your attention, and listening to what they have to say. And not only that, out of that conversation, you as the listener must give them something to grip on, because they don’t realize the power that they have within them, and the strength that they have within them. And so, whatever they begin to talk about and their eyes begin to light up, and that’s what we as listeners must say, now, let’s continue to encourage this individual in this vein to where they can understand now that sometimes you don’t know what you have until you hear it from someone else. And so, all my coaching, all my counseling with dealing with students is just basically listening to what they say. And I ask them just a few questions. Whose pain do you feel? And whose tears move you? And once they begin to tell me those two responses, then I began to create a vision for them. And so, moving them towards and give them a bunch of what ifs. What if you continue your schooling? What if you want to be that counselor? What if you want to be a truck driver? Everybody don’t want to wear a bow tie in a suit. What if you don’t give up and let’s keep driving and get down in the ditches with these students who are having these insecurities, and these unfair disadvantages of trying to get them back into the workplace. Walk them to a job, use your influence and your authority to help make a connection for them. And don’t do it for a selfish gain. But do it because the love of the game. And that’s to help students, help people get back into their life. Because a lot of people living outside of their life in poverty. They’re down on themselves. They have no hope. And it’s just day by day. They’re going through it. And we drive past them every single day, every single day. And as educated and as talented as we are, we should be able to have something to offer them. Words are very powerful. Very powerful.
Well, speaking of words, give me those two questions again. I love those. Whose tears do you see or what was it?
Whose pain do you feel and whose tears move you? Because within those two responses lies your passion and your purpose. And we just need to start figuring it out.
Awesome. Dr. Lowery, thanks so much for being on the show. We really appreciate it. If people want to learn more about what you’re doing, where should they go?
They can always give me a call. My number is 910-224-3578 or they can email me at dr.elmorel[email protected]
I think you’re the first guest to ever give out their actual phone number on the show. So, that’s cool.
I am here for the people. I do whatever I can to help out.
Love it. All right. Dr. Lowery, thanks so much for being on the show. I learned a lot of this. I enjoyed it. It’s pushing me to learn more as we go forward. Thank you.
Yes, sir. Keep in touch and hopefully we can partner again later on.
Dr. Elmore Lowery is the Dean of College and Career Readiness Programs at Fayetteville Technical Community College. He leads, trains, develops, and creates strategic planning for the program. He is a transformational leader that is innovative, entrepreneurial driven, motivating, and highly committed to his work. In his position, Dr. Lowery has secured a 3.9 million dollar Block Grant for College and Career Readiness, and a 99% passing rate for the Basic Skills Education Program at Fort Bragg which is ranked #1 nationally.
Since his time at FTCC, Dr. Lowery has increased completion and performance measures by 14%. His department’s graduation and completion rates have increased by 77%, with a retention rate increase from 67% to 98%.
Dr. Lowery has established successful academic pathways/trades for at-risk, low performing, and students with disabilities.
Dr. Lowery has dedicated himself within the community he serves by establishing collaborative partnerships with private business owners to prepare students for transition into the workforce by starting new academic and workforce development programs, working with college foundations and fundraising activities. He also established strategic partnerships with Fayetteville Cumberland County Human Relations Commission and other local agencies to assist financially disenfranchised students in obtaining food, clothing, academic tutoring, and employment resources.
Dr. Lowery has created and cultivated an atmosphere of respect, trust, integrity, and relevancy within his department.