I was honored to be invited to be the speaker at Validus Preparatory Academy’s 2014 Commencement.
When I got the invite in May I asked if I could visit Validus in order to craft my speech and they immediately welcomed me into their community.
I learned so much from these young scholar-activists on my visit. I can’t thank them enough.
Commencement was a beautiful evening that only affirmed the ideas I humbly braided with the spirits of Maya Angelou, Jean Anyon, June Jordan, and my recently deceased father, Luis Mayorga.
Good evening Validus family/familia
Thank you Principal Ocampo, Validus faculty, Validus students, and specifically the Class of 2014
A’ight class of 2014, this is a talk with you, rather than me talking at you.
I’m sure there are some of you out there that are like, “yo, now my family can get off my back!”
And I bet there are parents out there, that be like, “ahh, my work is done here. my kids all grown and they can do their thing….phew….”
Sorry folks the work kinda keeps going, so don’t just start kickin’ back…well maybe a little.
We are talking about going to college, or going to work, or not quite yet knowing where you are going, and a lot of folks who ain’t leaving home yet…
A show of hands, how many of you are feeling excited about today and what the future holds?
How about those of you who are happy but perhaps a little nervous about the future?
How many of you are ridiculously nervous, and just want to crawl in to you bed and say,“that’s a wrap?”
But quiet all that noise for a minute, and take in the moment…
Taking in the moment means letting the moment teach you something…
And as you are taking in this moment let me make a few fleeting comments…
Some of you may remember what I say tonight, but what I want you to remember most are the feelings of excitement, uncertainty and opportunity that are circulating through your bodies, your spirits, your hearts tonight.
So take in the moment…
Wait, who? Me?
I was really humbled to have been given the opportunity to speak tonight, but my first question was “wait, what? who, me?”
I figured, well they couldn’t get one of the Obamas or Sonia Sotomayor, or Kevin Hart, so of course I was clearly next in line.
My next questions were, what is a Validus? And what makes up a member of the Validus community?
Being the educator-scholar-activist that I am, my first thought was well I gotta do some research, so I asked if I could come visit, and the senior committee and Jamie Munkatchy were gracious enough to have me over, take me around, speak with students, take in some acting from Ms. Foster’s class, participate in chow circle and have some ridiculously good grilled cheese sandwiches.
As I was standing in the chow circle, listening to all of you, I came to understand why a person like me, a child of working class immigrants, a spouse, a parent, an educator, a scholar and a person committed to contributing to a more just world, would be invited to speak with you.
That day, and seeing you all here tonight, I realized that my role is to be that of a mirror onto Validus and I am honored to serve in that role.
We live in an often cynical, oppressive and scary world…
Severe economic crises,
on going wars,
disturbing conditions for the undocumented,
stop and frisk,
what happened to Travyon Martin…
Adults, the world we have set up our youth to inherit is troubled and uncertain, there are many challenges that we are leaving for them to meet.
Don’t get me wrong, we are still here, and we must continue to hold ourselves accountable to the state of the world, but as an educator, I passionately believe that these young people before us, you all, are the leaders, the visionaries, the people that we must hand the reigns over to, as we work alongside you.
In these challenging times, the purposes and approaches to education remain a constant question, a place of constant contention; it’s become a battleground.
What should schools be doing in order to support youth as you make your way in these challenging times?
In education we talk a lot about accountability, testing, achievement, about being college and career ready, but I wonder if that is enough, for these challenging and uncertain times?
Four year high school graduation rates in New York City are just above 61% this year which is an improvement, but it also means there are 39% of students still working hard to complete high schools or being pushed out for a whole host of individual and social reasons.
And of the 61% who do graduate there are questions about the learning conditions youth have experienced and the kinds of opportunities that have been afforded to you.
So I ask again, is it enough for these challenging and uncertain times?
Have we done right by you all?
On the whole, my answer is NO. I don’t think we have done enough.
All too often schools have been places where injustice continues to happen. These injustices are the reason that I get up everyday and work with others in demanding and envisioning a more just school system, a more just world for all of us.
We all should demand more, but often times in the work that I do I’m asked well if not this, what else? What else is possible? This is an important question, but I believe that scattered out in the world are the alternatives. We should all be envisioning alternatives, or what my teacher, the late Dr. Jean Anyon, described as radical possibilities, in school, in society, in life.
After having the chance to speak with some of you during my visit to Validus it was clear that a number of you are feeling some of the uncertainty and the challenges that await you, and I am sure many of your loved ones are also feeling that.
Many of you are very aware of the injustices that exist both in school and in the world.
But I want to suggest to you that while things are never perfect, the ideas, stories, and world views, you all shared with me during my visit showed me that the Validus community is a living, breathing example of an alternative, a radical, possibility.
It was clear to me that you have all developed strengths that will not only help you succeed in the various paths you will take as you navigate these uncertain times, but that you all are already having a positive impact on the direction of the larger world.
As your mirror, I want to highlight three of these characteristics that most impressed me, and have made having the opportunity to speak with all of you such a joy.
First, critical adaptability
Many of you mentioned that Validus was not like any other school you had been to. You mentioned that it was not structured, or strict like your old schools. Some of you mentioned how much of a challenge that was for you when you first arrived here.
What I want to suggest to you is that your Validus education did not lack structure so much as it was a different kind of structure.
A democratic kind of structure.
Democratic life is noisy/messy, it’s not easy, but it is an opportunity for you to make decisions, to take chances, to grow with support from your teachers, your crews, your classmates and your families.
Growing up in a mostly Latino, Asian, immigrant and working class community in Southern California, I excelled at the game of traditional school, I could do just enough to get that A, and score well on a test, but when I got to college, I hit a major wall. I was out there on my own, forced to think and write for myself, to speak for myself, to defend myself, I stru-u-ggled. I couldn’t adapt quickly enough to a changing environment.
Conversely, I listen to you all, and I am just blown away by your capacity to adapt while staying true to your goals and your worldviews. I saw it in your art, in the way you speak about your experiences, in your relationships with one another.
Things are going to be hard, but you have the capacity to adapt and change, to not only survive the various obstacles you will face in life, but to transform situations so that you and others can thrive.
The second characteristic is openness to new ideas and new experiences
This goes hand in hand with adaptability, you all got out there going on trips, service-learning work, you got out there, you engaged the world
And your were also open to presenting your work in portfolio presentations, working in crews, writing plays, acting, conducting science investigations.
When I was a teacher I taught in one neighborhood where there were kids that had never left their borough, or hesitated to try new things,
But here there is openness to new experiences, and new people. Some of you spoke about doing activities where you found yourself being the only person of Color, or being the only person from working class families, but you didn’t shut down because of the situation. You seemed to push yourself, to get out there and try. Maybe that wasn’t you at the very beginning like Cierra mentioned to me when I came to visit, but over time your capacities to participate, to challenge and be challenged, to be comfortable in your own skin but willing to be out of your comfort zone, this is a distinguishing characteristic.
I often say that activist work, scholarly work, community work, requires both a thick skin but an open hand and an open heart. Taking criticism and failing are parts of life that are not easy to deal with, but being open allows you to wade thru, take risks, and find ways to again exercise your individual and collective creativity, to use these struggles as opportunities to grow, and to excel.
Third, having a commitment to community, family, and the balanced life
The day I came to Validus began in a peculiar way for me, as I got off the D and was walking toward Crotona park I got the notification that poet Maya Angelou had passed away, Maya Angelou was a teacher to the world, so the world seemed a little bit emptier for me.
But I go back to my chow circle experience, here I am standing with folks that don’t have to accept me, don’t have to be open to me being in this space and yet I was welcomed, people extended their hands to me.
My heart was full…
It reminded me of one of Maya Angelou’s many quotes where she notes: “the love of the family, the love of one person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.”
The chow circle, the efforts each of you as individuals and as groups of people have demonstrated to me the healing power of community, of family, of familia.
But community is also not only about healing, it’s about about taking action, about exercising our voice, demanding equity, imagining another world.
Again I saw this through your art, and your service in the Bronx and beyond. I also saw it in the ways people spoke to one another, and spoke about your crews and Validus.
I don’t want to idealize Validus, but I believe that the messiness and difficulty of democratic life, is a path to freedom for all of us. Democratic life demands of us in a way that is very different from the highly individualized aspects of our society. We can individually aspire and create, but we must also be mindful of those around us, and be mindful of the way society has influenced our lives. As your classmate Paul reminded me during my visit “a man cannot make a Forrest,” and as such we must look to one another for support, purpose and inspiration.
In my research I looked up the word Validus (I had forgotten to ask while I was visiting) and I found that it means strong, mighty, powerful.
By engaging in the community, building it, critiquing it you are speaking back to injustice and you are living out the spirit of democracy and community.
Working in community makes the individual and the community stronger, mightier, and ever more powerful.
This is the radical possibility in action. You are the radical possibility. By carrying with you an understanding of community you are carrying with you that radical possibility…
This is truly a beautiful thing.
Moreover, democratic life teaches us to also find balance in our lives. Find balance between your academics, your families, your friends, and your community work. Finding balance will help you not only have an impact on society but also help you experience the joy of being with others of contributing to making the world a more joyous place.
We are the ones we are waiting for
Finally, in becoming collectively more powerful, remember that there is no need to wait for others to take on injustice.
My message is simple:
In a world that is filled with complexity, injustice and uncertainty, the solutions to these problems are in us and in our collective work. In other words, there is no need to wait because as poet June Jordan reminds us, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” (June Jordan Poem below)
To end, I wanted to ask you to stand if you can and get close, like a chow circle, look at one another, and let say this together.
We are strong, we are mighty, and we are powerful,
We are community,
we are beautiful imperfection,
we cherish ourselves,
we cherish each other,
We are the ones we have been waiting for
Now go forth Class of 2014,
Cherish the beautiful struggle together
Today and always in love, peace, and justice
Poem for South African Women
Commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who, August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against the “dompass” in the capital of apartheid. Presented at The United Nations, August 9, 1978
Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world
The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire
And the babies cease alarm as mothers
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea
we are the ones we have been waiting for