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From the Desk of the CEO: How Desegregation in Pasadena 40 Years Ago Prepared me for Leadership and Community Involvement

Jesse Dillon, CEO of Beacon Media News. – Photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

By Jesse Dillion,
Beacon Media News CEO

I grew up in Northwest Pasadena.  My neighborhood was predominately black except for a small pocket between Glen and Lincoln that was made up of Asians due to the Japanese Buddhist Temple in the area.  Within walking distance to where I lived were Washington Elementary and Junior High and John Muir High Schools.  I entered Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) in 1963 as a first grader at Washington Elementary.  I remember vividly, as though it was yesterday, every morning my mom would pack our brown bag lunch, made sure we had clean underwear on and sent us off to school.  My sisters and I would make an adventure out of walking to school each day by taking short cuts, meeting up with friends along the way and getting into a little trouble.  As far as I could tell, life was normal and good.  I liked my teachers, took pride in my school and was a good student.

In 1970 everything changed, US district court judge Manuel Real found that the Pasadena Board of Education had “Knowingly assigned” blacks and whites to separate schools. (Which violated the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson desegregation mandate.)  At this time, I was entering the eighth grade and was at Washington Middle School.  I had already been informed that our school would receive the kids from Upper Hastings Ranch, a middle class all white community on the east side of town.  I was somewhat familiar with the area because of Christmas tree lane and Sears’ department store.   My only familiarities of white kids were those on television shows like the Brady Bunch, Marsha and Greg Brady.

Upon returning to school after summer that year, I immediately noticed how different or better the school looked.  We had a fresh coat of paint on the walls, floors waxed, lockers repaired, new desks and textbooks.  Then it happened, the doubled doors popped opened, and all I saw were a sea of white kids, blondes, brunettes, red hair.  I only noticed the difference.  I had heard that their parents and other community members had attempted to block the buses from leaving east Pasadena and there had been protests.  Throughout the day and weeks to come, teachers and staff created space to talk about the what, why and how of this monumental occasion.  By the end of the year, I had several friends and acquaintances that didn’t look like me but we learned to gravitate to these things we had in common like sports, music and hobbies. Of course, I could elaborate so much more on how impactful and transformational desegregation was in my life, but I would need the entire publication to do so.

In short, integration of the schools in Pasadena exposed me to new ideas, opportunities and possibilities in life.  I later graduated from Pasadena High School and went on to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  My experience at PUSD prepared me for racial challenges I faced while living on campus.  I believe my roommate and I were the only two blacks in our dormitory of more than a couple hundred people.    My first job was with the AAA Pasadena in the travel department.  My job was to escort groups to Hawaii, Mexico, Europe and other destinations.  The members in these groups that I escorted were usually older, wealthy white men and women.  Again, my earlier experiences had prepared me for being able to relate to people who were different than me.  I continued to find myself in these environments as I furthered my education in graduate school, received promotions in my jobs and got involved in various organizations.  The bottom line is desegregation 40 years ago prepared me for the real world made up of challenges, opportunities, and diverse cultures.

I know there are many who feel the desegregation plan is a dismal failure, and PUSD continues to suffer from what took place more than four decades ago.  I admonish you to revisit PUSD as an option for your child’s education.  I currently have a great nephew, Jameer, at Pasadena’s McKinley School. Initially I enrolled him in a private school because what I was hearing about all the failures of PUSD.  A couple of years ago, I gave PUSD a chance and I am pleased I did.   When I walk on McKinley’s campus, I always feel touched and moved to see the diversity of the student body and how well these kids interactive with each other.  It’s interesting to see how my nine year old great nephew, Jameer, does not see people’s differences the way I did at his age.  He loves his school, friends and teachers. Every night I assist him with his homework and I am very involved with his education.  I am very pleased and impressed to share that he is getting a well -rounded quality education at McKinley.  His goal is to become a doctor.  I have no doubt the foundation that is being constructed for him in the third grade will be strong enough that he can build on it and move on to college and medical school.

I encourage my generation to get involved in our community as leaders.  “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” – Vince Lombardi. We need to be transparent and build a community that allows the tough questions and honest conversations so we stir up change in one another.

There are several organizations in Pasadena that are doing good work that you can join like the Pasadena Educational Foundation (PEF).  For more than 45 years, PEF has been supporting, enhancing and supplementing the programs, initiatives, and priorities of the Pasadena Unified School District.  Please visit their website at to see how you can join with PEF and support our schools.

April 5, 2018

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