Cainan Townsend’s great-aunts and great-grandfather took their case for justice to the halls of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., 60 years ago.

Townsend himself has dreams of one day walking the streets of our nation’s capital—with equality on his mind—as U.S. secretary of education.

His relatives, who were part of the group of plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, typify the Townsend family birthright: agents of change in their communities.

Townsend, a senior liberal studies major and leadership studies minor from Farmville, is uncomfortable when asked if he considers himself a citizen leader, but that’s exactly what he is. He is a member of the Call Me MISTER program and Mortar Board, president of Phi Mu Delta fraternity, former president of Greater Role-models Opening Windows to Higher Education (GROWTHE) and a Moton Museum volunteer. He has tutored local K-12 students at Race Street Baptist Church.

"I’ve tried to be a citizen leader both in town and on campus. I’ve tried to advocate for both," said Townsend. "I consider bridging the gap between the town and the university the most important experience of my college career."

Legacy of community service

  • Call Me MISTER: Townsend said that getting involved in the program, which he joined as a sophomore in high school, got his "mind set on Longwood." The program recruits high-school and college students, many of whom are African-American, to train as elementary school teachers.
  • GROWTHE: He helped restart GROWTHE his freshman year and was its president for two years. He served previously on the Interfraternity Council for a year. He was a desk aide during spring 2014 and is an intern for the Office of Residential and Commuter Life for the 2014-15 academic year.
  • Moton Museum: Townsend has worked, on and off, as a volunteer at the museum for about a year and a half. As part of a leadership course he took in summer 2014, he became involved in the Moss Society, which comprises Longwood and Hampden-Sydney College students and seeks to bridge the gap between the colleges and the community. Two of Townsend’s great-aunts, Mildred and Arlene Townsend, and his great-grandfather, John Townsend, were plaintiffs in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated schools, which evolved from five lawsuits, one of which originated in Prince Edward County. "I didn’t know about my family members’ being plaintiffs until I was working at the museum one day and saw their names on a plaque," he said. "Seventy-five percent of theBrown v. Board of Education plaintiffs were from Prince Edward County."

"Something clicked" at Longwood

Townsend played soccer and ran track and cross-country in high school but didn’t participate in other extracurricular activities. That changed his freshman year at Longwood. "In college, something instantly clicked," he said. "I realized, ‘Hey, I can do stuff.’ I’ve blossomed. It’s been awesome."

Townsend was the first Call Me MISTER student that Dr. Maurice Carter came into contact with when he came here four years ago to direct the program.

Cainan is bright, articulate, community oriented, not afraid to jump into the middle of things and has a sense of being a servant, which is what the program is all about. The program has brought out the roaring lion in him. ... He has the stuff that Mr. Obama is made of. He’s just got that stuff—something great will happen with this young man.
-Maurice Carter, Call Me MISTER

After graduating from Longwood in May 2015, Townsend wants to either study public policy at graduate school, possibly the University of Virginia or William & Mary, or take a year off and do an internship or fellowship. "I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment," he said.

Long-range career plans

Townsend had planned to become a kindergarten teacher and eventually a school superintendent. Now he wants a career as an education policy reformer. "My dream job is U.S. secretary of education. That’s my ultimate dream," he said. "I still love teaching, still love kids, but I can’t make the big changes I want to in that setting. We need people fighting the fight on Capitol Hill, which is where I want to be. I still plan to teach, after my career in education policy is over. I might open a private school. I don’t want anyone to be denied the right to a quality education."

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