Seeking leadership in his community and culture

Jackson WhellerJackson Wheeler has enjoyed advantage in his young life, in part because his parents are educated, have had great careers, and have been present and influential in his academic path. His mother, Jess Lathrop, is the Executive Director for the UW Board of Regents. His father, James Wheeler, is a retired Madison Police Captain. Jackson says that his mother’s White culture—another advantage—has influenced his life more than his father’s Black culture, yet he identifies as Black. And while he sees West High School, where Jackson is a junior, as a “friendly and inclusive” school where he’s never felt central to any kind of overt racism, he has a request for his White friends—please stop telling him he’s white.

“What I found offensive is how people will say I’m white because I act a certain way or dress a certain way, even though they don’t know the experiences I’ve gone through,” says Jackson. “That isn’t to say my life is better or worse than any other Black man at West, but by whose standards am I white? I just don’t feel I fit in sometimes.”

For not fitting in, Jackson has a “decent amount of friends” and knows how to access opportunities. He seeks to surround himself with people of color and is successful in his endeavor. This he owes in part to having only one Black teacher in 11 years of school, a class in which he was a top performer. He also seeks out leadership-building opportunities. In his first two years at West, Jackson participated in MAC (Multicultural Academic Committee) Scholars to learn leadership skills until its advisor announced that, because of lack of funding, the club had to end. Jackson was let down.

“I wanted to be a leader within my community and my culture. There were about 15 kids, all students of color, and our advisor was white, which is part of the reason it fell apart. It couldn’t get recognition from the school because he was a white guy talking about Black kids’ problems.”

So recently Jackson joined Black Student Union which has been a good fit. “I like to seek to help people, and I’d really like to help my own community,” says Jackson. “I didn’t know how to be a leader outside a classroom. BSU makes it a lot easier because they teach you to respect your peers and have a voice for the voiceless. It’s just integrated into the club that you learn ways to support policies and things that support your Black community.”

His parents say Jackson has an amazing capacity for empathy. “He has always had a strong interest in learning about and understanding people and situations to make things better” says his mother, Ms Lathrop.  “He leads by example and with kindness, and challenges us to be better and do better because of the example he sets.”

Jackson also shines in baseball, and academically he’s no slouch. He maintains a 3.47 GPA with strengths in English and Math. After graduation he hopes to attend a state college with his sights set on UW Eau Claire, or UW Parkside because it has a large population of African American students. Meanwhile, Jackson will continue pursuing leadership activities, such as his teaching assistant position in a history class taught by Antonio Zappia, a mentor Jackson says just “gets him.”

“Jackson has a maturity level that allows us to have conversations that I value very much,” says Mr. Zappia. “He can help me relate to some cultural and social situations that I may not fully understand and I can help him navigate some of life's issues he may be facing. Every once in awhile you meet students that become much more than students, they become someone you trust and enjoy their company. Jackson is one of those students.”