Honoring Community House Founder Leonard "Len" Brown '71

Friday, Sep 11, 2020
by Charlotte Collins, Associate Director

Founded in 1969, Community House is committed to standing with families -- investing in community and supporting youth as they learn, grow, and achieve their dreams. At the heart of Community House is family. This summer, Leonard “Len” Brown ’71, a pillar of the Community House family, passed away in early July.   
 
Len was known for his big heart and personality. His genuine care for and investment in others laid the foundation for the meaningful relationships that continue to be the cornerstone of Community House today. As one of the original founders of Community House and later one of its first directors, Len gave of himself selflessly to countless youth in the greater Princeton area. The love, thoughtfulness, dedication, creativity and care Len poured into Community House has continued to grow and magnify for the past 50 years. 
 
In recognition of Len and the steadfast care he showed to everyone he met, we are renaming our annual leadership award to the Leonard Brown Leadership Award. Each May, we present this award to members of the Community House family, including youth, parents, Princeton University students, and community partners, to recognize their deep care and compassion for others. Community House is what it is today, in large part because of Len. We celebrate his life and commit to honoring his tremendous legacy in all that we do by standing with each other and investing in each other. 

If you talk with those who had the privilege to know Len, you will hear countless stories of deep caring and lasting impact. Below, Community House alumni and friends share some of their reflections about Len and his impact in their lives. (Note: Reflections have been edited for length.)

Alumni Reflections

“Len was wise, caring, and passionate about the kids in the community. With his encouragement I spent the summer after my sophomore year on campus. Each morning a group of us went bicycle riding with Len serving as our leader and guide. I was introduced to Princeton in a new light. Len talked with each of us and helped me to become more self confident in certain areas of my life. That same summer, I participated as a counselor at the Community House summer camp. I was impressed as I watched Len deal with the students on a personal level. They loved him and responded to his advice and counsel. I observed and learned. My days at the Community House have remained with me and has been part of the impetus that encouraged me to help start a non profit organization that is dedicated to mentoring preschool through high school students in Indiana.”
- Carolyn Upshaw-Royal ’73

Leonard "Len" Brown '71

Leonard "Len" Brown '71, one of the founders of Community House. Photo courtesy of Eugene Wright, Jr. '73.

“As a freshman, like many of my classmates, Len was a big brother and mentor. Len introduced me to the Community House and how I could make a difference in the lives of the kids of Princeton. This was significant for me because this conversation occurred at a time when I was feeling that I may not belong at Princeton. Len told me that not only did I belong at Princeton but that Princeton needed me. As a student I did not understand how Princeton needed me but Len convinced me that the Community House needed engineering students to tutor and help students with math and sciences. … I tutored students, became a camp counselor and a substitute teacher at Princeton High School. I say these things because Len Brown saw something in me that I did not see in myself. Len became a good friend and a mentor. Len taught me that as one of the few Black students at the University, I should be a role model for the local high school students. I will always remember and thank Len for introducing me to the Community House and helping me develop a keen sense of social consciousness that has been one of the guideposts of my career and life.”
- Eugene Wright, Jr. ’73    

“At hearing of Len’s passing, a sense of loss compelled me to reach out to my mentor and friend of 50+ years, Steve Dawson.  We engaged in an hour long phone conversation remembering Len. I later found a photo of him in his dashiki leading a protest. In all I may have spent in total only several hours in his presence but I remember every moment because Len Brown was a very memorable soul.”
- Henry Mell Coleman ’73 P03

“Len and I became acquainted junior year at Princeton University Community House. Len was a very special person and very special to me. We became best friends working at Princeton Blairstown Camp and engaged in many activities together senior year. Len had a strong personality. When he entered a room, Len made an impression on everyone. He was rather boisterous, muscular, and normally willing to share his view and opinions on many different topics. But along with great vitality and conviction, Len was very kind – a gentle giant of sorts.  Len Brown’s concern, focus, determination and perseverance in trying to satisfy the need of everyone he met was a major influence in the acceptance by residents of Princeton for the relationship Community House developed with parents and families in the community. … Lenny’s deep concern for the home environment strongly influenced development of program activities and involvement of University students and residents at Community House.”
- John Mavros ’71, Community House co-founder

“As the child of a single mother, who was a seamstress, from Brooklyn, NY, I immediately felt out of place on the Princeton campus. I was in the second class of women, and one of the few African American students from a working class, urban environment. I don’t remember exactly how I met Len, but he recognized my sense of isolation and encouraged me to get involved with Community House, where I met families from the Black community in Princeton with whom I had much more in common than my Princeton classmates. … Tutoring was the beginning. Len had a vision for service to the Black community and soon I found myself immersed in after school programs. At the end of my first year, he convinced me to spend the summer at Community House. Princeton University provided the dorms and Len did everything else. He recruited all the counselors and encouraged all of us to be creative.

We had dozens of kids from the Princeton Black community learning African Dance, playing African drums, learning life skills and improving their math and reading skills. At the end of the summer we produced a fashion and talent show in which the kids modeled clothes made by them, and took an active part in every aspect of the production. Len shared  his energy, intellect and wisdom with all of us, spending countless hours with his protégés - meaning all of us. I remember that he told me that ‘You have to live life for the moments’ and to hold on to the good moments to help you get through the bad ones. I never forgot that lesson. Len was a transformative influence in my life. May he forever rest in peace and may all of his protégés remember the life lessons he gave us.”
- Juanita James ’74

Community House's original location in 1969.

Community House in its original location on Witherspoon Street, Princeton NJ in the fall of 1969. Photo courtesy of Michael Gage '71.

“In a significant way, I owe my graduation and all the doors it opened to Len. The 1969-1970 academic year was an extremely disruptive time nationally and on campus. I, like many, had become alienated from campus life and conventional goals and was about to drop out of Princeton. Instead I found the Community House program as an off campus alternative living experience. … I left Princeton at the end of the first Community House year. Len stayed on and was instrumental in laying the foundation for an abiding Community House program as a part of Princeton undergraduate life. Len also left a personal legacy with me. That legacy is tied up in the idea that however bleak or disappointing the institutional world may at times seem, there is simply no excuse for not lending a hand to your less fortunate brother.  There is simply no excuse for not showing that brother a pathway to a better life. The example of Len’s kind of commitment helped bring me back to Princeton three years later. The Dean of Students was surprised to see me back. Len however expected me back. His kind of no nonsense indomitable example has had a role in sustaining me ever since.”
- Michael W. Gage ’71, Community House co-founder

“Community House held a significant physical and social presence in the life of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood when I was growing up - and Len Brown was at the center of it. I walked by the storefront and looked in the window everyday after school to see if Len, with his soothing teddy bear-like disposition, was there. I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school when I first met Len. The activism of the era and talking to college students like Len, who did not talk down to me, inspired me to become more aware of and active in community, national and world issues. … Len was beloved by Princeton‘s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.  

His co-founding of Community House, his dedication to fulfilling its purpose, and the quality of the services it provided melded the Black students into our community and that did more for town-gown relationships than any single effort.  As a result, Len was hired as the director of the Princeton Youth Center after his graduation from Princeton. While he was there, he translated his student activism into real life, applying it to community growth through the development of its children. I had not seen Len in over 40 years. However, my memories of him are as vivid as yesterday. I am saddened that he will no longer be able to do for others what he did for me and my community.”
- Yina Moore ’79, former mayor of Princeton and Chair/President of the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation