Take Five with Derek Lipscomb ’11

Derek L_cropped
Derek Lipscomb ’11 is a reading specialist and director of after-school programming at The Buckley School in NYC. He recently launched The Work, an educational resource to facilitate discussions of race; Lipscomb hopes to not only get conversations started but also create a more comfortable space for parents, workspaces and communities to embrace vulnerability while learning about racism. During his time as an educator, Lipscomb has been called upon to discuss racially traumatic events with his school community, but no action steps were put in place. The idea of The Work began after discussions with Black friends about the shared feeling of anxiety upon being asked by other friends and/or colleagues, “Where do I begin?” Lipscomb recognized that one should have ownership over their journey to educate themselves on the subject of race.

At the College, Lipscomb played both football and rugby, and he continues to play rugby for Old Blue RFC and Rugby United New York. His experiences playing rugby in the United States and in London, along with his experiences teaching in independent schools, gave him an understanding that race can be a difficult subject to address in predominantly White communities. Lipscomb and his friends formed Roots Rugby in order to have conversations surrounding race and sports; the prominent grassroots team has given Black players a chance to play rugby at a higher level.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

After attending Perspectives on Diversity earlier that year, I left Cincinnati in 2007 already thinking about what I wanted to do with my first few months at the College. I had dreams of exploring all of NYC’s boroughs and being able to learn my way around, in totality, within a few weeks. I was wrong. At the time, I could not fathom just how large the city is; while I thought I was really trekking by taking the 1 train to Houston and walking around, I realized it would take me a solid year to get my full bearings in the labyrinth known as the MTA. I remember taking the V train in the wrong direction on a random Sunday afternoon and ending up in Queens, and then deciding to have lunch in Long Island City. It felt like I was truly embarking on a four-year adventure and I was happy I could take my time to enjoy it.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

JJ6 was that weird spot where you weren’t really allowed to take the elevator, but after climbing the stairs of Hamilton every other day, you couldn’t be bothered to take more stairs just to avoid the stares of others. I loved that tiny space. I loved JJ’s Place as well. I did not see a lot of Black people on campus and JJ’s Place was a quiet affinity space for me. I was outgoing, but even extroverts lose steam sometimes. Being able to hang out with Charlie and Al at the grill did wonders for my development in understanding what NYC culture was like and learning how to navigate socially. I did not know it at the time, but that was the first bodega I would be introduced to. I’d eventually joke about wanting a chopped cheese with them and I even managed to get one made my junior year. JJ8 and JJ14 contained a solid amount of my friend group throughout my time at the College. We began studying together and it evolved into cooking and exploring together, and even now we can immediately pick up where we left off a decade ago and it will be as if we’re back in the hallways talking up a storm about our dreams — but without other people yelling at us for being too loud. We apologize to everyone we disturbed!

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

Lit Hum taught me how to truly read. High school taught me how to say what the teacher wanted to hear but Lit Hum — more specifically, Professor McAdams — taught me how to thoroughly analyze and discuss a text. It was my first class at Columbia and also where I met some of my first friends, Zila Acosta-Grimes ’11, LAW’15 and Brian Grimes ’11 (who are now married and have a baby boy!). We had a great time in that class and Professor McAdams’s energy was a great part of that. He was Clark Kent-esque in appearance, always clean-cut and awake as he bounced into class. Then he and his wife had a child in December 2007. I distinctly remember seeing a 5 o’clock shadow on him for the first time when we came back from break. I remember wanting to read as much as possible just to make it easier for him to teach. I never got a chance to thank him; now that I am a reading specialist, I’ve adapted his strategies and begun teaching them to 6-year-olds (obviously with a few tweaks).

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Aside from JJ’s Place, I did not have a lot of different spaces to hang out. Because I played football and rugby, there were not many times when I was not typing a paper or catching up on my reading. As a result, I mainly did a lot of my work at SIPA and on Hamilton’s seventh floor. I stayed far away from Butler, as the spirit of that place reached even from the quad — I felt like a puppy going to the veterinarian’s office when I stepped foot in there. I am certain it’s haunted and I am willing to bet the History channel will be sending in four brave souls to investigate the stacks in the near future. Only two will exit.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

There is not much I would want to do differently. My friends have been long-lasting; I met my wife, Ruqayyah Abdul-Karim ’10, and her friends there; my college rugby career is the reason I am currently playing; and my education ultimately set me up to traverse NYC with confidence. Traipsing across campus with my Zune on full blast (no judgment) headed to Schermerhorn to sweat profusely in one of the lecture rooms were some of the best days. I learned more about myself in four years than I had ever dreamed possible. My experiences are a big reason why I look forward to attending Perspectives on Diversity every year in April — it was where I got my first glimpse of the College and it helped me understand how I could persevere and make this city my home.

If I had to do anything over, I think I would do a little more community work. It’s something I have developed a growing passion for, and Columbia has many opportunities to interact with surrounding communities. It is always good practice to understand the needs of your communities and those around you. It brings a tighter sense of belonging overall and when the time inevitably comes for you to call on your community to come together, it will be just like heading down to JJ’s Place to strike up a conversation with Charlie and Al.