December Throwback #3: Q+A with Rochelle Ballantyne: "Representation is Important"

CLO is combing through its archives to bring readers blasts from the past this holiday season. Look for throwback articles throughout December.

December Throwback #3: The 2012 movie Brooklyn Castle put New York’s I.S. 318 on the chess map, but what gave the movie its heart were the stories of its young chess team. In 2018, Rochelle Ballantyne, one of the movie’s breakout stars, sat down for this interview with CLO to update readers on her life since Brooklyn Castle. For this throwback, Rochelle kindly brought us further up to date. “I will say the pandemic helped me get back into chess. Originally I started playing again because I was stuck indoors and bored. Then things started opening up and I was still consistently playing online and doing tactics daily. I played in my first tournament over the summer and didn’t do badly. To my surprise, I realized maybe I wasn’t washed [up]. I think I was afraid of getting back into chess. There’s a part of me that thought that my [chess] time had passed, and I should focus on school and my career. But I’ve discovered there’s larger part of me that wants to keep fighting. It felt really good to win. It felt even worse losing when I knew I should be good enough to win. The pandemic showed me how much I still care [about chess] and how much I still want to fight. But alas, my time is not fully my own. Still, I’m trying to be more intentional about setting aside time to play and study. So we shall see…”

Rochelle also was forthcoming about the rest of her life since 2018. She fulfilled the goals she set out in her 2018 interview, including receiving her master’s degree in education in 2020 from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and starting law school at NYU tuition-free, having been awarded the AnBryce scholarship. She says,“I’ve literally been in school almost all my life and I can’t wait to graduate. First year [of law school] was rough, and not just because I had to start while going through a pandemic and racial unrest. It was just kind of jarring for me. I always wanted to become a lawyer to become a change agent, and a lot of 1L [first year of law school] was learning that the law is this conservative space that cares more about upholding constitutional values made up by people in a different time rather than analyzing its impact on people today. The legal system is broken and we consciously choose not to fix it (which in hindsight might be a bit dramatic, but I was feeling lost at the time). Also, litigation is long and cumbersome and not always the best path for justice. One aspect of my 1L crisis was trying to figure out my place in it all and whether reality could match up with my ideals/desires for a better future. Now I’m a 2L and I’m finding my rhythm a bit better.”  

She mentions how she talked about the importance of education in her original interview, and how she now finds it “really cool” to be examining education from a legal perspective. And of course, it doesn’t stop there. “I’m co-director of this student-run organization called Suspension Representation Project. We represent students at suspension hearings. It’s very fulfilling, but heartbreaking, work. Fulfilling in the sense that a lot of parents don’t know they can contest suspensions and get potential lesser sentences, so it feels good to advocate where we can and outreach to those who might need assistance. Heartbreaking because it’s insane how messed up the education system is. We punish and criminalize kids for simply being kids. Students can get suspended from 10 days up to a year (and these are school days, not including weekends and holidays). Can you imagine how debilitating it is to exist in spaces where that is the norm? Then to top it all off, we remove children from environments meant to nurture them and then place them in alternative sites that more often than not don’t give them work (or give them work they’ve already learned), so when they return to their classes they’re behind.”

Throughout her update, Rochelle’s passion for helping children remains evident: “I still think kids deserve the world and I hope to continue working towards giving it to them in whatever way I can.”

Rochelle Ballantyne leapt into the chess community’s collective consciousness with the 2012 release of Brooklyn Castle, a documentary that chronicled the triumphs and struggles of the I.S. 318 chess team in New York. The interwoven personal stories of the team’s young chess stars infused the documentary with heart and grit; Rochelle took a particularly impressive turn as a rising Black female chess player grappling with the pressure of expectations—especially her own. By her senior year in high school, Rochelle had landed a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University, where she graduated in 2017. She has since moved on to an exciting new chapter of her life, which includes taking a gap year to work for San Francisco law firm Kobre and Kim before tackling her next goal of enrolling in law school. We caught up with her recently to ask about life since Brooklyn Castle.

The Brooklyn Castle Effect

First, let’s talk about Brooklyn Castle. Did it change your life? Do you have any thoughts or stories about the experience? There is something immensely powerful about bringing one’s story to life. It is even more powerful to have that story resonate with others. That is how Brooklyn Castle changed my life. One of my first jobs working at a law firm was because the partner at the firm heard my story and knew how passionate I was about the law. I didn’t think Brooklyn Castle would have the impact it did: it does more than just tell our stories; it tells the larger tale of how flawed our education system is and the dangerous effects of budget cuts on the public school system. A funny story regarding Brooklyn Castle is remembering all those times in junior high when I had to censor myself or remind my friends that I had a mic on so they wouldn’t say anything incriminating. Aside from being able to tell that message through my own story, I am incredibly humbled and honored to be able to inspire young people of color from inner city neighborhoods to show them the various ways chess can change their life. One of the best moments was playing in a tournament about two years ago and randomly bumping into Robin, who works with Chess Girls DC [ed. note: Robin Floyd-Ramson is the founder and director of Chess Girls DC]. She told me about her team and I was able to meet four little girls out of a 37 all-Black girls’ chess team!! I wish I could accurately explain how much that meant to me. Representation is so important. Chess is isolating enough, but to have people who look like you [who are] supporting you along the way is incredible.

Rochelle with the Chess Girls DC

You had a flurry of publicity during this period (I was reporting from the High School Nationals in 2010, and I remember how the documentary team constantly followed you around at the All-Girls Nationals, where you won the U-18 championship). How did you feel about so much attention? For a long time, I really didn’t understand why I was special, why my story resonated so deeply. I’m good at chess, not great. My story of being a Black girl from the ‘hood, the oldest of four, being raised by a single mom trying her damnedest to support us isn’t a unique story. It’s the combination of these things that made me an anomaly. Coming to this conclusion was weird, in part because I felt I was only special because I was a Black chess player—nobody would care about my achievements if I were white. It made me feel like the bar was set lower for me; because of my race, everything I accomplished was exacerbated. The effects of systemic racism, I suppose. However, I am way too hard on myself and so, to toot my own horn a bit, I have accomplished some incredible things and again, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to inspire others who have a similar background—or even those who don’t—because the overarching moral is hard work pays off. It was also weird because I always did what I had to do to make sure I got into college, to make sure I could help my mom with the bills, and to support my siblings. My struggles were/are real life; they’re more than a story. Chess is more than just a game to me.

Stanford and Beyond

You recently graduated from Stanford University (congratulations, by the way). Can you tell us about your college experience? Yes, I graduated from Stanford in June [2017] with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and a Bachelors of Arts with Honors in African and African-American Studies. I think for me the best way to describe college was that it was a kind of awakening. I learned so much about who I am, who I want to be, at Stanford. I was surrounded by incredibly talented people who challenged me every day (in both a good and bad way). I was able to dedicate my studies and eventually my honors thesis to how policies negatively impact communities of color, something I grow increasingly passionate about. On the other hand, I did way too much at Stanford. I led a bunch of clubs, worked at least two jobs every year, and neglected self-care. While at Stanford, you confronted a traumatic experience from the past that you’d repressed for many years. How did that affect your studies? My last years at Stanford became about dealing with my [diagnosed] mental illness. It was hard, incredibly debilitating, and it sucked. Yet I survived, I inevitably thrived, and I “found” myself at Stanford. I’ve come a long way and I’m incredibly proud of the woman I’ve become as a result of my four years on the farm. I am really glad to be done, though.

Photo Ryan Jae

What would you like to accomplish in the next five years? Unclear—definitely law school, get my master’s in education (thanks for showing me the light, Katie [Dellamaggiore, director of Brooklyn Castle]), and begin dismantling/reforming the criminal justice system—although that might take me longer than five years. I want to help people and help make the world a better place; it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Did you have the opportunity to play chess at Stanford? Chess definitely took a back seat while I navigated the dynamics of college life. I played in the world chess championships in Dubai my freshman year because of incredible donors who believed in me, and I was able to play in other tournaments intermittently and afford coaching because of the support of Soledad O’Brien, Brad Raymond, and their foundation, the Starfish Foundation [ed. note: since renamed the PowHERful Foundation]. Where is chess fitting into your life these days? Do you have plans to play anytime soon? And are you still hoping to become the first African-American female master? Those are good questions and still questions I’m trying to unpack. I would love to be the first, but I don’t know if I deserve it. I want to say chess is probably somewhere in there because I’m not a quitter and I’ll never fully stop playing but, yeah, unclear. Unless my mom is reading this, then chess is for sure a priority.

Gender and Race Constructs

This is Black History Month, and when I first contacted you, you wanted to make sure that the larger issues of race were adequately addressed—for example, what barriers are preventing more people of color from becoming involved in chess. Can you talk about some of the challenges you face/faced as 1) a female player, 2) an African-American player, and 3) as both? I think one of the most frustrating (frustrating might be the wrong word) things I realized as an African-American female chess player was the feeling that I didn’t belong. I was always the odd person out. Always asked whether or not I was lost. Chess is supposed to be a battle of intellect and my intellect always seemed to be diminished or erased because I am Black and because I am a woman. Luckily, when I started playing chess I was too young to really process race and gender as a construct. I knew I was different but I didn’t care because I wanted to win. And that drive continues to carry me. What advice do you have for young people, especially those who are minorities either by race and/or income, who are struggling to combine chess and academics? Uhhh…I’m really not good at giving chess-related advice. My mom is very strict, so I could only play chess if my grades were good. You gotta want it—that’s the only way this works. When I was ten I wasn’t thinking, “Chess is going to take me places.” I was thinking, “I love this game and if doing well in school means I get to play, then I’ll do it.” I think the better question for minorities and low income people is how to combine chess and family responsibilities; i.e., playing chess vs. getting a job. For that I would say I love chess because it is an escape—a form of therapy almost. I love to win and I love competing, but I love chess the most because for a moment it’s just me in my head focused on beating my opponent. Nothing else matters. It was my way of briefly getting away from my responsibilities at home; otherwise, it would’ve been too much. But also, there are ways to do both—I’ve done both—but again, you have to have the drive, you have to be motivated. Chess isn’t easy, carrying that pressure of helping support your family isn’t easy, but it’s doable if you care enough about both. Basically: make chess adapt to you and your needs, whether that be to have fun or as an escape or both.

Mentors, Friends, and Supporters

Who are your mentors and how did they influence you? Who inspires you? Who are your chess heroes? I highly doubt I have any chess heroes. I’m more interested in chess applications and so those folks get grouped into the first question of mentors/inspirers(?)— is that a word? For sure Maurice Ashley, because he’s the first Black grandmaster and he inspires me to continue with my goals. Unbeknownst to him, he has actually convinced me to not quit chess altogether when I wasn’t progressing. Mrs. Elizabeth Spiegel/Vicary, Mr. John Galvin, Mr. Ian West for continuously pushing, supporting me, and believing in me. My grandma, who probably had no idea the competitive monster she was creating when she first introduced me to the game. I cannot thank my coaches enough for their commitment to me and my goals. Soledad O’Brien for not only her financial support but her emotional support as well. She goes above and beyond for all her mentees and I’m truly grateful for all that she does and will continue to do to further support low-income women. Sarah Pitari and Danielle Hayman, whom I met in high school at Chess-in-the-Schools and whom I credit to getting me into Stanford with a full ride. They saw that I was more than a chess player—I was a kid with way too much pressure on her shoulders. They changed my life and I owe them everything. Well…not everything, because the last person who inspires me is Momma B, who I really owe everything to because she gave me life—thanks, mom. Almost everything I do, I do to help take some of the pressure off her shoulder. It is the least I could do; I am her first born and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Final Questions

Did you watch Queen of Katwe? What did you think about it? Of course I watched Queen of Katwe. The similarities between our lives is scary; I could relate to a majority of the scenes in the movie. Additionally, the movie really made me appreciate my mom more who, like Phiona’s mom, works hard to make sure we have a roof over our head and food to eat. Even though my mom couldn’t come with me to tournaments, she made me call her before every round of any one of my big tournaments and prayed for me. Like Phiona’s mom, my mom, too, initially had a hard time trusting any of my coaches; my mom is truly a force to be reckoned with and does not play when it comes to her kids.

Phiona Mutesi now attends college at Northwest University. Photo Al Lawrence from 2017 Pan-Ams

I guess by extension Phiona’s mom inspires me as well—I don’t know you, but if you’re anything like my mom, and it appears you are, I want to be half the woman you (and my mom) are. Where’s the best place to keep up with you and your activities? From word of mouth or a major news network. I really get uncomfortable when random people friend request me or follow me on Instagram. Any last words? Stay woke—however that works for you. And happy Black History Month, everyone.