MLK Prayer Gathering highlights life and experiences of local speaker Brandon Priester
At the age of 16, Brandon Priester was expelled from school for the second time.
While attending high school in Black Mountain, Priester got into trouble with the law and was told repeatedly he wasn't going to find a job or have a future. Upon his second expulsion, the principal told him "'maybe this isn't the place for you.'"
Priester became connected with the Swannanoa Valley Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Corporation as a teenager, while attending Mills Chapel in Black Mountain. He soon found a mentor in the deacon and later found support through connections between his work and the organization.
As SVMLK learned Priester's story, he said they were impressed by how he presented himself and wanted to hear more. After a long acquaintance with the organization, Priester was selected to speak at this year's MLK Prayer Gathering.
"I've known him since he was a teenager," said Sheila Showers, the president of SVMLK. "He's a sweetheart. We are proud of him in the community and we wanted to showcase him."
The MLK Prayer Gathering will be recorded Feb. 20 at the White Horse in Black Mountain, featuring music from the Unitarian Universalist congregation, remarks from Black Mountain Mayor Larry Harris and a speech by Priester. The recording will be available in March.
Donations and funds given to the gathering go toward scholarships for local students. Showers said there is no set amount given to each scholarship, but once a student has received one, they're eligible to receive more.
"We try to spread the wealth so as many as apply, we try to give them something," Showers said.
Having been a keynote speaker at various events over the years, including the 2017 Peace March in Asheville, Priester's experiences and qualifications continue to lead to him sharing his story with others.
"I don't just give advice, I've been through the things that I'm giving advice on," Priester said. "The main things I talk about are overcoming adversity and building strength through adversity."
Priester tells his story
Born in Asheville, Priester experienced homelessness from a young age. He was raised by his mother, he said, rarely seeing his father.
As the son of a white woman and a Black man, Priester said he didn't have any solid Black male role models in his life.
"When my mom's mother figured out she was pregnant by a Black man, she kicked her out of the house," Priester said.
After giving birth to his older sister at the age of 18, Priester's mother struggled to support both children. Priester said he remembers playing with other kids in shelters for unhoused people while his mother held down various jobs.
The family drifted between shelters and staying with family members before securing a spot with the Asheville Housing Authority. They were placed in the Klondyke apartments when Priester was 12.
"We'd been on welfare and food stamps," Priester said. "That's part of the struggle. I see that, I remember that, I know how it feels."
Pursuing education after a second expulsion
Priester said he remembers to this day his high school principal saying he didn't belong.
He decided to attend Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to get his GED. There, he discovered Pell Grants and scholarships for underprivileged and underserved youths such as himself to access education. He said he remembers wondering why these were never mentioned to him in high school.
When he came to A-B Tech, Priester excelled through the GED program, easily obtaining his degree. On his way out, he was approached about college.
Priester had never considered college, knowing he couldn't afford it. The school staff encouraged him to apply for scholarships and coached him through completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Priester was able to secure funding and earned an associate applied science degree and an associate in arts transfer degree. In addition to his education, Priester became involved with student organizations, was president of the student body and became certified in minority leadership.
Thinking back to high school, Priester reflected on his final expulsion.
"He was right," Priester said. "I didn't belong there. That wasn't the place for me."
Priester transferred to UNC Asheville and obtained a degree in mass communication. During his time at the university, he worked as a student employee, a full time student and a full time employee of A-B Tech, juggling his studies and work life.
In addition to his busy schedule, Priester also had a young son to take care of.
"It was hard, but I've been through harder situations," Priester laughed.
At UNCA, Priester worked as a visual coordinator for the Center for Diversity Education. He said much of his college work centered around diversity, equity and inclusion. Through his work, he became acquainted with locals who fought for civil rights and staged protests for equality.
With the support of the university, Priester graduated cum laude with multiple honors and received a recommendation letter from the chancellor for graduate school.
"Ultimately, all of this was through education," Priester said.
The impact of education and equity
As a keynote speaker, Priester emphasizes the importance of education. As a father and college graduate, he has been able to introduce his son to higher learning from a young age.
With his position at A-B Tech, Priester was given the chance to bring a group of young, underserved children to tour the campus. He said for many, that was the first time they'd seen a college campus or heard of higher education.
As they walked, Priester showed them his office, the school buildings and ended the tour at the conference center.
"Before I could say anything, one of the kids pointed out 'Hey, that's his name,'" Priester said, fondly. "I always remember that."
Priester's name now stands on three different buildings at A-B Tech. He said there's a stigma surrounding community college, yet it was community college that brought him to his current position.
Priester works as a program advising specialist at A-B Tech, works part time with the Land of Sky Regional Council and also as an ESPN+ operator for sporting events at UNCA. He's a member of the MLK Association of Asheville and co-chair of the community outreach program at A-B Tech.
Priester is working on a master's degree in business administration at Lenoir-Rhyne University with the goal of starting a nonprofit to educate underserved youth in Buncombe County.
"It's the people and the staff and the faculty at the community college that showed me what equity and inclusion is really about," Priester said.
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.