A Cape Verdean-American first-generation college graduate, Dianne Langford James inspires present and future generations to break cycles that hold them back from achieving their dreams.
By Deborah Alvarez O’Neil
Photos by Matt Wright ’10
Dianne Langford James ’03 stepped onto the stage at Worcester State University before an audience of more than 100 high school students visiting campus during Black History Month, and offered up a bright and cheerful, “Good morning, everyone!”
The teens mumbled a half-hearted greeting. Dianne wasn’t having it: “We’re going to do that one more time. Maybe two. Good morning, everyone!”
This time, the kids Good Morning-ed with gusto. “That’s what I am talking about!” Dianne said beaming. “I’m so glad to be here. Before I get started, I want to thank God for allowing me to be here, to be anywhere.”
For the next 45 minutes, Dianne delivered real talk, inspiration, and wisdom that had her young audience rapt, laughing, cheering, and waving their hands with questions. She spoke of the challenges, obstacles, and miracles that led her to college in her 40s and set her on the path to finding her passion. “What is your why?” she asked them. “My why is to change my family trajectory so they can live a better life than I have and I can leave a legacy to them.”
She called for a moment of silence to acknowledge Tyre Nichols, one of the many Black people who have fallen victim to senseless killing. Then, she saluted the pioneering Black women who came before her—Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. She heaped praise on everyone involved in the day’s events—President Barry Maloney, Office of Multicultural Affairs Director Laxmi Bissoondial, Worcester State staff, and most importantly, the students themselves.
“Teenagers, I am so happy you are here…. I’m a firm believer that people don’t really care about how much you know, until they know how much you care. We care about you. I care about you.”
Faith and family
The Langford and James family at the Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church in Worcester. Back row standing, from left: Dianne’s grandchildren JuVan Langford, Makai Ashton-Langford, Cashius Langford, Nazsirr Langford, and Dashante Mitchell. Middle row, from left: Grandchildren DuVone Mitchell Jr., DeMarr Langford Jr., Dianne and her husband Elijah James, and Dianne’s sister Gail McCarthy and daughter Sonjia Langford. Front row: Dianne’s daughter-in-law and son, Sacha Langford and Demarr Langford Sr.
At the top of the mountain that Dianne has climbed are an array of triumphs, each with its own story of resilience, strength, and hope. Remaining clean and sober for more than 31 years. Going to Worcester State University at age 46 to become the first college graduate in her family. Raising three children and three grandchildren. Seeing those three grandchildren all graduate from college. Running two national organizations, BravHERy and Cycle Breakers LLC. Leading the establishment of a national social-emotional leadership program for teenagers on the East Coast, The Torch Foundation. Working with Worcester County law enforcement to implement violence prevention and intervention programming for youth. Co-founding Worcester’s Yes We Care Teen Academy with Rev. Clyde D. Talley. Publishing her memoir, Breaking Cycles and Building Your Legacy, Finding Redemption on the Road to Recovery, in January 2023 at age 71.
All of it, says Dianne, is by God’s grace. Raised Catholic, Dianne and her family are now active members at the historic Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church in Worcester. “I’m a believer, and my belief is in Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe, just believe that I believe,” she says with a smile. In her memoir, she writes of many heart-rending moments when God carried her through, including the devastating deaths of two of her sisters, Eunice and Frances, both at age 35, a decade apart. “There is no other belief stronger than my knowing God has a plan for me,” she writes. “I saw so many people die, including my two sisters, and I was still standing. How? I still could not tell you. Nothing but a modern day miracle and the grace of God.”
Her baby sister Frances was in college when she passed away. In her grief, Dianne declared she would finish what Frances had started and for the purpose of changing the trajectory of her family life. “She was going to college, so I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go to college for her and us.’”
Dianne was raising three of her grandchildren on her own at the time and hadn’t been in an educational setting in decades. “My mom and dad didn’t graduate from high school,” she said. “We didn’t have any books in the house that I knew of. I knew nothing about college.”
She came to Worcester State and was informed the enrollment deadline had just passed. “I talked to the academic advisor and told him, ‘My sister has just passed away and I need to do something because if I don’t get into school, I don’t know what is going to happen.’”
A few days later she got the call that she was in and could start classes in business and communications. “I jumped right in with both feet,” Dianne recalls. “It meant that I was literally going to change my family’s trajectory, get a better job, and show my grandchildren that was the road to go. Education is imperative, it’s a lifestyle. Just the experience of going to college changes you for the better. The world becomes so much bigger. I needed to lead by example.”
The year she graduated, 2003, brought another blessing, marriage to her husband Elijah James. Together, they have a blended family with six children, 21 grandchildren, and five great- grandchildren. Her memoir is filled with adoring reflections of them: “They are all amazing, unique and a blessing to the world. I pray for them daily and all of their children’s children to come.”
The book also features letters by her grandchildren. In a letter to his Nana, JuVan Langford, the eldest of 21, describes how the grandmother who raised him is the most significant person in his life. “I have so much respect for her because she has made so many sacrifices in her life in order to be able to provide for me and my two young sisters,” wrote Langford, now a Miami-based Abstract Expressionist artist and founder of the multinational men’s health NGO The MENtour. “She exemplified determination and vision by enrolling us in one of the top schools in my area, even though her financial situation did not allow it. She instilled morals in me by keeping me deeply rooted in the church ever since I was a child…. On a daily basis I thank God for putting my grandmother in my life.”
In Dianne’s telling, her life has been transformed again and again by “Angels,” people who have removed obstacles, opened doors, and supported her aspirations, like the Worcester State academic counselor who stretched a college enrollment deadline. JuVan is one of those Angels. In 2014, he encouraged her to take part in an adult leadership transformational training, Mastery in Transformational Training (MITT), based in California. “I’m like, ‘Didn’t I just raise you, young man?’”
Still, she was intrigued by his description and knew that if the program came with his endorsement, it had to be something special. “The person who enrolls you is assigned the title of Angel,” Dianne writes. “Turns out this was to be a divine appointment in my life.”
The program offered her a safe space for self-inquiry and revelations. “I was discovering where I needed to focus my energy and what it meant to actually participate in my own rescue,” she writes. “I was learning the meaning of intention and living a life that is based on results, not reasons.”
Invigorated, Dianne envisioned bringing the program’s social-emotional learning tools to teenagers—particularly inner city kids and their families who cannot afford training programs. The founder of the program pointed her to The Torch Foundation, a dormant non-profit that had been set up to do just what Dianne imagined: open the doors of opportunity for all teenagers at no cost.
With a green light to revive the program, Dianne rebuilt The Torch Foundation with a team and became the organization’s global executive director. She’s currently the east coast executive director and more than 3,000 teenagers globally have taken part and graduated from the Torch training. “When teens win,” she says, “the families win, our communities win, and ultimately our nation and world wins.”
“She is a force to be reckoned with, and that has made it take hold on the east coast,” says her longtime friend and Torch Foundation master trainer Mary Jo Foster. “She is magnetic…. She shows up with these teens ready to see them, embrace them, respect them and says, ‘Be amazing, and I’m not going to settle for anything less.’”
Today, the program works closely with Worcester State University. Workshops were hosted on campus from 2015 up until the pandemic—and at least a dozen Worcester State students have been interns supporting the teen training.
Alumna Maia Shalev ’20, MS ’21 got involved with Torch in spring 2021 and created a Torch internship program for Worcester State students. She also participated as a teen coach when the program moved online during the pandemic. “It was definitely a great opportunity not only for students but for coaches as well,” Shalev said. “You are going through the training at the same time…. For me it was nice to step back. I’ve always had a bit of fear of failure and that’s what the program is trying to help you with: as long as you are putting your best foot forward, that is most important. I’m the kind of person who always says yes to everything, and it puts undue stress on me. It helped me set up boundaries as well.”
Sharing her story
Dianne decided to put pen to paper and share her story, first for her beloved grandchildren and then for all the rest of us. The many who have been impacted by the disease of addiction. All the other first-generation students who might think college is out of reach. Anyone who dreams of a better life for their family. Her memoir begins with a young Dianne listening to her grandfather describe his 1921 journey from the West African island of Cape Verde at age 21. As his ship approached the Gloucester, Mass., shore, he saw what he assumed was sugar. When they landed he bent down to touch the sugar only to find it was cold and wet. “That’s when the captain said, ‘It’s snow, not sugar!’”
Dianne decided she wanted to carry on his legacy “and be another game changer in our family.” Over the span of her life, she found a four-part framework for breaking cycles and building legacy that can transform lives as it did hers: Cycle, Challenges, Choices, and Call to Action. It begins with identifying the cycle of circumstances that gets to be changed—maybe addiction, lack of education, family dynamics, financial bondage—then identifying the price you and others have paid as a result of the cycle, listing the challenges and making wise and informed choices to interrupt those cycles, and finally writing out a plan with deadlines for the call to action.
“First of all, I believe we are all recovering from something,” Dianne said. “There are going to be challenges—people, places, and things. Celebrate the perceived failures, because they are just perceived. They are actually lessons…. It took 20 years for me to do these things. And when I first took responsibility, all of these benefits happened. Cycles were broken. My intention is to give hope and a how-to formula to break cycles and build legacies. If it happened to me, it can and will happen to others.
“So now my deepest reflection is, ‘How do we do this with the world?’”
Back in Worcester State’s May Street Auditorium with her enthused audience of teenagers gathered for National African American Read-In and ALANA Preview Day, she asked the youth about their lives. Who has been affected by addiction? Hands went up. She led the young people through a deep breathing and visualization exercise. She encouraged them to see the life they want for themselves.
“I stand here telling you all things are possible,” she told them. “I don’t say this to impress you. I say it to impress upon you—know this: no matter what is happening in your life right now, you can be the change agent in your family. You can be the one who changes the trajectory of your family.
“So, let’s talk about you.”
Top image: Dianne Langford James at her church, Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church in Worcester