RapidChat: Mary Brown

RapidChat is a regular feature profiling interesting, diverse, and talented individuals in West Michigan as they talk informally about life, hobbies, work, food, and favorite local haunts. This week, we’re pleased to introduce Mary Brown. Part student, part educator, she’s an Organization Development and Learning Professional with her nose in a book, an interest in zombies, and a soft spot for the unusual suspects. 
Rapid Growth's recently debuted Q&A series, RapidChat, introduces Mary Brown this week. She's a lady who wears many hats: Principal Consultant of leeAlexander Consulting, coLearning Program Director at The Factory, adjunct professor at GRCC, and above all else, lifelong student. Read on to learn about her passion for books, zombies, and the unusual suspects.
Rapid Growth: So, I know you’re involved with coLearning at The Factory and have your own consultancy. Tell me about that.

Mary Brown: I’m a lifelong student of learning, forever. I’ve always been interested in how people learn and how they learn together. With my consultancy, leeAlexander Consulting, I’m the wizard behind the curtain. I’m not looking for credit; my consultancy is different than most. Some traditionally tell people “here’s the prescription” but I work alongside them, getting my hands dirty and pushing them to get theirs dirty, too. I work closely with The Factory’s founder and the coLearning team to build the program’s infrastructure and encourage a collaborative platform. I’m half Jamaican, so I’ve had many jobs.

RG: How’d you end up in West Michigan?

MB: I got lost. No, seriously. I grew up in the Benton Harbor / St. Joe area and I was on my way to Saugatuck or somewhere, on 131, I went the wrong way, and I ended up in Grandville, then the Beltline, and I thought this this looks like an interesting place. I went home and told my mom I was moving to Grand Rapids and a couple months later I moved and went to a small tech school in Wyoming.

My first degree is in electrical engineering. From very early on I took things apart. From junior high to high school I was on the trajectory to do engineering. I loved computers and built robots. After tech school, I was interviewing at Xerox and I missed a few things on the test, but while I was there someone told me I would be good at human resources and training and development. I never went back to engineering. I liked this aspect of people and I started researching, figuring out what is this “human resources.” I went to the library, used the Dewey Decimal System, and learned all I could. I bet you don’t know what the Dewey Decimal System is!

RG: I do know about the Dewey Decimal System; we learned about it in elementary school! Do you still spend a lot of time at the library?

MB: Yes, but it is so virtual now. When I was a kid, my mother would always find me in the library. Barbara, the librarian, would call my mom, and say “Mary is here, sitting by the usual case (with the Einstein bust in it) and she wants to read the Kinsey Reports. Can she read this?” I started reading at age three and I was always reading. My mom would debrief it all when I got home.

Speaking of that bust: Barbara has passed away, but in 2003, my big brother called me up (we adore each other; he’s an artist) and said I have a gift for you. He bought the bust for me at an auction. It’s one of my favorite possessions.

RG: Are you reading anything good right now?

MB: Oh man, I’m reading a lot because I’m a doctoral student. I have my bachelors in business, masters in organizational leadership, and now I’m pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership. I get up at five in the morning and I read, I read ferociously.

RG: Do you have time to read for pleasure?

MB: This stuff is for pleasure for me. One book on the side is the Zombie Survival Guide. I do have a zombie fascination.

RG: Do you dress up like a zombie?

MB: I’m an observer. I like the walking dead series and that kind of stuff. I did check out the zombie class at UC Irvine. It relates to my study of complex adaptive systems, which is the way I look at organizational leadership. For example, how ants communicate and work, lots of ecology. I look at the ecology of humans, how they are connecting, how they connect with each other and technology. If something catastrophic happens, how people would interact, how would ethics and formal systems change. So zombies bring up some of the complexities.

RG: You love to learn, do you teach as well?

MB: I teach in the Psychology and Business departments at Grand Rapids Community College. I am an adjunct professor. At GRCC I tell the students, let’s learn organically together and the students build the content and it morphs and goes in the direction of their interests and how they can apply it back to their interests and their lives. I don’t like to make everything predictable.

That’s why I’m interested in co-learning  and developing leaders. Co-learning can be disruptive; we’re all learning and creating more learning, as citizen scholars. It’s disruptive to the educational process and system. It’s the same reason I’m interested in developing leaders. Not just leaders but emerging leaders. I look at how the systems allow people to emerge.

RG: Is Grand Rapids a good place for leaders to emerge?

MB: I moved here in 1988 so I’ve seen it change. There is a formal system that works for those who find it. If people don’t have a network, they can miss it. We miss the unusual suspects; we always look for the usual systems. The unusual suspects, the outliers, are what I look for. Sometimes I think I’m an outlier.

I was an assistant high school principal (remember my Jamaican tendency to have too many jobs). It was an alternative school; I would call it the X school because the students have super powers, mutants. They were the unusual suspects with blue hair, nose rings, gothic, people would freak out. Or the kid who was quiet and introverted, people tried to push towards extroversion.

RG: Could you relate well to those students? Were you drawn to them?

MB: Oh yeah, I could relate and often times they would try to be naughty to come sit in my office. In my postgraduate studies I work with students who are trying to be better students. Once I'm done instructing them they can connect with me on Facebook and I can mentor them and talk to them, coach them through job stuff and life. We have awesome students.

RG: Are you connected with a local Jamaican community or the cuisine?

MB: I was born here in the states so I'm not too connected but I do love jerk chicken. I like cultural foods. One day I spun a globe and my finger landed on the map and I went to Denmark, where I met my boyfriend. I'm fluent in Danglish. Technology helps us correspond so very well.

RG: Are you pretty up on the latest technology?

MB: I like the mobile stuff. I’m an Android person. Apple is too cultish. I work across all platforms, PC to Apple to Android, no problem.

RG: Ouch, I’m very loyal to Apple - give me my MacBook and my iPhone and I’m happy.

MB: You’re an Apple Zombie!

Molly Crist is Rapid Growth's RapidChat correspondent.

Photograph by Adam Bird

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