I first met Dr. Mike Baslee at one of my first staff meetings at Centennial High, a public school located on El Segundo and Central in Compton, California, where I’ve taught English for the past two years. He was one of the first staff members to welcome me to the school community, and in our first conversation, he shared the eventful history of the school—from a time of high racial tensions to receiving state accreditation. He spoke about the spirit of activism and highlighted community hurdles and the resilience that exists. Dr. Mike Baslee seemed like a contemporary Malcolm X reincarnated into a teacher’s life.
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As a brand new teacher within the district, hungry to find spaces of authenticity and healing, I admired Dr. Baslee, who many look up to as a community figure, organizer, and leader as well as a self-healer and wellness advocate. Now at 54 years old, he runs the 100-meter hurdles with a few stretches and warmups.
Dr. Baslee was born and raised in San Diego and found his way to the Compton school district in 1996. This year marks his 24th year. At school, he plays many roles—from lead teacher of the school’s ASB leadership group to teaching History and AP Psychology. He also creates socially conscious and uplifting messages on the marquee sign that stands in front of Centennial High. The week that rapper, entrepreneur, and community activist Nipsey Hussle died, the sign read, “DON’T LET COMMUNITY VIOLENCE KILL OUR KIDS’ SPIRIT & DREAMS. APRIL IS HOPE MONTH. RESTORE FAITH BY USING LOVE! #RIPKINGASHEDOM.” For May Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Baslee reminded the community to “NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE.” From general announcements and big community occasions to shoutouts of self-care and self-love, Dr. Baslee communicates his passion for empowerment through the marquee signs and in many other different ways. He is the go-to for hosting assemblies, sound and audio support, initiating student-led activities, and other positive culture-building programs. When he first began teaching, he also took up the job of coaching track. And he juggled school responsibilities while completing two masters in addition to an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership at Pepperdine University.
Though he had achieved many new milestones, Dr. Baslee’s lifestyle wasn’t healthy. It hadn’t always been like that, though. Staying active and healthy had been a priority before, but the demands of the profession and the residual impacts of fighting for systemic change had affected him. He recalls walking around the grounds carrying his big two-liter bottles of soda and bag of chips. The sugar rush may have gotten him through the busyness of his teaching schedule, but his body was not able to keep up. In 2019, his doctor informed him he would have to go on medication. His lifestyle had caught up with him. He knew he had to do something to make a change. He turned to healthy options over prescriptions. The soda became water, and the chips became veggies. He started walking the track and going to the gym. Though he was no longer coaching the track team, the new momentum inspired him to return to the field.
The day I interviewed Dr. Baslee, he brought his track shoes with spikes and wore a blue shirt that read “Culture for Service and Service For Humanity.” This phrase is the motto for his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, where he has been a part of this brotherhood for nearly 25 years. Along with all the other leadership roles he has at school, he is also the fraternity’s Regional Director for Social Action. The fraternity provides a series of modules on wellness and seeks to educate the brotherhood on various threats like obesity and other health issues. The program has raised nearly $20,000 on prostate cancer awareness. Baslee wore the shirt to let his brothers know that he was fighting this battle in real life. “This is what we have to do as middle-aged men to encourage them,” he said, “and shed light on how deadly some of their habits are.”
Many of us begin our journey to a healthier lifestyle for different reasons: we get inspired on the IG, get nudged by a partner, or experience a health “wake up” call. With the many adverse effects of chemically processed foods, living in food deserts (areas with limited access to nutritious food), and the culture of addiction to unhealthy diets, it is a challenge for anyone to live a truly healthy lifestyle. For Dr. Baslee, an interconnected commitment to himself and his community is what keeps him motivated. And it was his health scare that reignited his passion for staying active.
I can see Dr. Baslee place hurdles onto a well-run track, describing in detail the nature of the game. He sets the track as he sets up so many events and celebrations for the students on campus. He runs the race, digging his feet into the ground and lifting his knees up to glide his body over each hurdle. I imagine him running the same race for his students, his community, and most importantly, himself. Running takes aggression and power. Jumping each obstacle takes persistence and self-belief. The calling to community activism requires commitment and sacrifice yet should not be at the cost of our self-care. The story of Dr. Mike Baslee is a deep narrative, one of legacy and commitment. Dr. Baslee is a champion for many reasons. Not only is he an educator and community activist, but at 54 years old, he still owns a pair of track shoes and can run the hurdles. “This isn’t just for me,” he says, “but others.”
Writer: Jacqulyn Whang
Featured in the 9th issue of UNDO Magazine