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Noteworthy graduates: Charles Briggs, Senior VP, insurance industry
“I could have been one of those gangbangers,” said Charles Briggs of the youth he serves as treasurer of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. One of its initiatives that he proudly supports is a gang tattoo removal program for erasing the marks that can doom a child. As senior vice president and consultant at Marsh USA, the world’s largest commercial insurance company, it would be easy for Briggs to forget where he came from. Arriving from Nigeria at age 12, he came of age in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when it was a capital of youth at risk. At IS 320 Briggs was a frequent guest in the dean’s office. A talented soccer player at Sheepshead Bay HS, where he graduated from in 1975, he was ejected from many a match for his hot temper. Now, at the top of his game as a corporate lawyer, Briggs emanates calm compassion as a role model for troubled youth and for minorities breaking into the insurance field, passing on what his teachers gave him.
I grew up in a traditional, very strong family. My father managed a clothing store on Delancey Street and my mother was a housekeeper in White Plains, so I was latchkey, but the Moravian Church right across Eastern Parkway had an after-school program, and we hung out there. It was a safe haven for me and a lot of other kids.
Still, I was a mischievous little man and spent a lot of time with Dean Eisenberg. I think I was ADD. I discussed that quite a bit lately with Irwin Kahn, who I ran into recently, who was my teacher at IS 130. ADD wasn’t recognized then and let’s just say I self-selected to put myself in the corner. I never did anything against the law, but I was challenged; I always wanted to be busy. “Oh this Charles Briggs, he’s the class clown,” they’d say. It was because I was bored. I wasn’t disruptive but I was always doing something, always up to something, and still was able to get a B without doing much work. Then someone recognized that. I had teachers who knowingly guided me throughout my school career.
I had a social studies teacher at Sheepshead Bay HS who instilled a passion for learning in us and I was pushed for excellence because of him. My guidance counselor, Ms. Alvarez, was also great.
I’m on the wall of fame at Sheepshead! But back then — I was on the soccer team — I was hot-tempered on the field. I was driven to be good in sports, and when you’re good, you get double-teamed, meaning they’d put two defenders on me, and that frustrated me. I caused stupid fouls that got me ejected; I got red-carded too many times in certain matches.
Those situations cost my team the match. Those were critical turning points. Sitting on the bench watching your team play with ten guys instead of eleven, because I was out of the game, did not make me feel good. But Coach [Alan] Wise helped me by patience, mentorship and encouragement.
Patience was putting me back into the game after I served my suspension.
Mentorship was calling me into the office and giving me tasks such as folding towels. It wasn’t punishment; you got paid for it. But he took me in instead of just letting me go my weary way.
The encouragement was that in the 1970s, let’s just say an African-American kid who was pretty darn good in soccer didn’t sit well with a lot of the competition in certain neighborhoods.
This was during an era of busing, and I was bused from Crown Heights to the other side of Brooklyn. I would still say in retrospect that that was good because I wound up getting the best education in an environment that was conducive to learning because I wasn’t getting in trouble with the neighborhood kids like I would’ve have.
So the encouragement was there from Coach Wise. It came out that there were things said on the field, actions done on the field, which drove my “red-cardedness.” The racial slurs caused me to go ballistic. I reacted. The mentoring, the patience and the encouragement instilled in me by Coach Wise and my other teachers helped me so much. It didn’t get any better when I got a soccer scholarship to Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvannia, where among 1,500 kids only 10 were African-American. But the foundation that my high school teachers and the school environment provided prepared me for the journey to be successful in higher education. We live in a much, much better world today.
Still, our financial institutions lack minority representation. I’m active with the nonprofit National African-American Insurance Association, helping companies meet their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“Success” is a state of being. You have to give back and help someone. People helped me become successful. So I have to reach out and help, because after all back then my teachers saw something in me.
—as told to reporter Ellie Spielberg
The series “Noteworthy Graduates” features outstanding New York City public school alumni talking about what they owe to their education.