Originally published on Source.
Some might consider Stephen Brackett a superman of sorts: activist, educator, and hip hop artist.
In any given week, Brackett (Philosophy, ’06) says he may be speaking at four or five different public schools, giving a music workshop, sitting on a mayor-appointed arts council, working on new music tracks, mentoring young musicians, showing up at a protest, and training activists on how to do the work better. Member and emcee of the hip hop and rock band the Flobots, Brackett helped found and is on the board of Youth on Record, a nonprofit that uses music education to help underprivileged kids in Denver.
“I work at the intersection of education, activism and advocacy, and music. It’s a venn diagram of the three,” he says. “The main premise is that I’m trying to speak the people’s power – what that is, what their skill sets are, and how they can bring them to the community conversation.”
The conversation is of critical importance to Brackett. And as an educator and activist, the classroom is his favorite form of activism. “[I like to] help them find what they believe and how to express it,” he says. “That’s how you make a democracy function.”
Thriving in School
Growing up in Denver, Brackett started piano lessons at nine years old and started rapping at 11. His first cassette with grade school friend and Flobots founder Jamie Laurie was in 1994. “It [music] was always a fun thing,” he says.
Brackett’s mother passed away when Brackett was 12, and he and his sister were left to fend for themselves. Though Brackett’s father wasn’t around a lot, he did introduce Brackett to computers and computer programming: a passion that Brackett pursued through middle and high school.
Because of his love of gaming and hacking, Brackett started as a computer science major at CSU. But he soon found himself unhappy and unfulfilled. “I looked at the people around me and thought, ‘this might not be the right choice for me,’” he says. So, with an interest in why we do anything and how our minds work, Brackett turned to the study of religion and philosophy.
“Every day I was working on how I thought; I was challenged on every idea I ever held and how I even created those ideas,” he recalls. “Every day I felt I was becoming a better person. I couldn’t believe that everyone wasn’t doing this.”
And though Brackett normally had trouble with homework, once he found philosophy, he started achieving As. “It was incredibly challenging and called forth so much from me. This is what school ought to be,” he says. “It was the most amazing major.”
In addition to his academics, Brackett found success on stage and on the dance floor. He and some friends started the Hip Hop Culture Club at CSU, where break dancing, rapping, and all forms of hip hop were explored. “It was a way to blow off steam,” he says. “We were pretty serious students, and dancing was a release and a fellowship.”
Brackett also got involved in theatre on campus, starring in productions of West Side Story and Six Degrees of Separation. And, he took on an art minor in sculpting, studying in Tuscany, Italy, for a semester.
“It was the best time. I studied under a self-taught sculptor who was from the country, illiterate, and a Savant with stone. He would make a chest of drawers out of stone with working locks,” Brackett recalls. “My Italian was nonexistent – we would communicate through joy and gestures. I learned so much about the craft from him.”
But this superman is not immune to something all people face: humility. He first faced it in the philosophy classroom. “I always believed and had gotten support that I was a smart guy. It had gone to my head. My first year as a philosophy student destroyed everything I thought was original. I learned that these are questions people have considered for thousands of years,” he says.
After that, Brackett reframed his approach to his interactions with others. “Any thinker that I encountered that I didn’t like right off the bat was not their fault but my inability to understand what they were saying. If I suppose someone has expertise, even in themselves, then I have something to learn,” he says.
Toward the end of his time at CSU, Brackett experienced humility again when he didn’t have enough 100-level courses to graduate on time and had to take a class in Denver to get his last credits (graduating two years after completing coursework at CSU).
And, in work, he has found humility when talking with children in elementary schools. “There is the devastating power of the question ‘why.’ And in elementary school, the students wield that power with far more expertise than any adult,” he says. “Humility comes quickly.”
As the Spring 2019 Commencement Speaker for the College of Liberal Arts, this will be Brackett’s first time on the commencement stage. Because of the time span between his CSU coursework and the completion of his degree requirements, along with his father’s death, Brackett never walked for commencement.
“I had so many opportunities at CSU. I would unequivocally choose CSU again. Because of what it [CSU] is, it gave me an opportunity and safe place to try to find out who I was and who I wanted to be,” he says. “As intimidating a prospect as student debt is, the answers I got to those questions [of who I was and who I wanted to be] are worth it. When I left CSU, I had utter confidence.”