Now general counsel and administrative law judge for the Kentucky Personnel Board, Stafford Easterling’s beginnings in Staunton, Va., were humble. Though he comes from a well-educated, well-established family in his hometown, systemic racism had held the family back financially.
“In my family,” he said, “we were educated for generations back. We are veterans. For generations back, we farmed, we owned things, we built things. We are one of the bedrocks of the African American community in my hometown, and we’re still broke.”
Easterling ’02 says being poor is an obstacle in every circumstance, every situation, making the most basic situations complicated. “I dreamed of eating every day,” he said. “I dreamed of having cable. I dreamed of not being broke.”
Easterling was industrious, shoveling sidewalks and mowing grass until old enough to get a job in the service sector.
“There are a lot of people who were like me,” he said, “who were taught how to be a frontline grunt. I was an excellent frontline grunt. I could flip a great burger. I could make some great fries. I could mop a mean floor. I was good at that sort of thing.”
Having the job was important, and Easterling mused about how his circumstances were different from young people whose jobs were sort of a lifestyle accessory. The consequences of losing the job were different—for the more affluent youth, losing a job meant a lecture from parents and loss of gas money. For those of lesser means, the consequences were more cutting.
“As a poor kid,” he said, “it might mean you don’t have the ability to help your brothers and sisters eat.”
College prospects present a similar dynamic. “If I come from a wealthy home,” Easterling said, “if I come from a comfortable neighborhood, college is an accessory. College is an opportunity. It is one path out of many that are available to you. For many of us, if you’re Berean, college is the way to overcome your background, your trauma, your poverty, your particular circumstance.”
Easterling was bright, and he had college options because of that, but only one option that meant not taking on debt. In high school, he spent two summers at Berea in a program for gifted African Americans.
“After spending my two summers at Berea,” he said, “it made it clear that I didn’t really want to go to anywhere else besides Berea, no matter where else I got in.”
The future lawyer majored in business and took a campus job as a janitor. Both paths, he says, set him up for his future.
“Berea taught me the links between being a good janitor and being a good lawyer,” he said. “The rules for being a lawyer are the same as the rules for being a janitor, which are show up on time, do your assignment.”
School was tough, he recalls. “Berea was more difficult than law school,” he said. “Berea might have been the most difficult thing that I have done in any professional setting other than serving as a Supreme Court law clerk. Berea College required me to step my game up in a way that nothing else has.”
Stepping his game up meant learning to thrive in a liberal arts setting. Studying topics like colonialism and art history seemed to young Stafford to be a waste of time, but nearly 20 years later, he has changed his mind.
“I realized that the general studies courses may have been the most valuable courses I took in college,” he said. “Liberal arts colleges teach you how to think. Berea, maybe more so than any place I’ve ever been, made me very good at that. I’ve been able to deal with any number of novel situations and circumstances that the liberal arts colleges teach you how to navigate.”
Easterling bemoans the idea that there are Einsteins in the world who won’t be able to afford college or be given the freedom to explore and discover their passions.
“It seems fairly clear to me that the world’s best mandolin player is probably some poor Black kid in Philadelphia right now,” he surmised. “They’re never given the opportunity to play a mandolin in the first place.”
The possibility of going to college for free opens up possibilities like that, as it did for Easterling.
“The value of free is the opportunity to explore the best possible version of yourself without having to worry about the day-to-day paying of your bills and figuring out how to feed yourself as you’re trying to maximize your potential. Berea, tuition-free schools, allow people to chase their dreams without being encumbered for decades with that crushing student loan debt that limits your options and curtails your freedom.”