I recently gave the commencement address for a high school graduation. The students came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Many ended up in the school because it offered them an alternative to a traditional classroom setting that had not served them well in the past.
It was my first public commencement speech, and I had labored over the remarks. I read This is Water about five times to prepare and watched a video of Robert De Niro opening his recent remarks at the Tisch graduation at NYU with a forceful expletive, jolting the audience to attention and doubled over with laughter.
Overall, I was satisfied with the content, delivery, and pacing of my remarks. There was a slight bump when it came to my lame attempt at humor, but nothing too major. Before I left the stage, I was particularly proud of the second part, which exhorted the graduates to go out into the world and build community in such a way that it served the greater good.
To illustrate my point, I talked about Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who works with gang members. He runs what is now the largest gang rehabilitation program in the country, called Homeboy Industries. Their slogan is, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Not only do they employ former gang members in places like bakeries, a t-shirt factory, and a cafe, but they place members from opposing gangs at the same job site, which forces them to work together.
Fr. Greg, in talking about the pain, brokenness, and trauma he experiences in his work, says, “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.'” My remarks went on to ask the 239 graduates, and the five or six hundred others there, to really think about what that means.
I explained that, while I don’t work with gang members, I do work with youth that are often marginalized and at risk of being forgotten. For a variety of reasons, sometimes because of their language or their legal status, they are ignored and pushed into the shadows.
My speech continued with a short anecdote about how I recently met with the teens in our Youth Voices program to discuss what they had learned about themselves and each other over the course of the program this year.
One student, Pablo, described how he had a difficult time with one of the other students in the group, a girl named Kendra. In the academic classroom, they butted heads often and he did what he could to stay far away from her. However, after school, in Youth Voices, Pablo often had to partner with Kendra on tasks like gardening, painting, and helping younger kids with their homework.
According to Pablo, the time he spent working alongside Kendra helped him understand what she cares about. It gave him a new way to see her and the other teens in the program. Pablo concluded our evaluation discussion by saying, “I have learned not to judge others.”
The commencement address ended with me asking the students to take what they had learned about building community through their unique high school experience and carry that forward. “Most of all,” I concluded, “I encourage you to remember that we belong to each other.”
Special music came next, a few awards, and then the diplomas began to be handed out. A school administrator came up to whisk me off the platform so I could make my train back to Philly. As he guided me through the corridors of the massive state building, he said, “I listened to your speech, and I liked it, but I am still left wondering, how?” He persisted, “How do you live this out? How does remembering that we belong to each other actually change our communities?”
The hallway was teeming with graduates lined up to get their pictures taken by a professional photographer. I was getting jostled on all sides, but found myself frozen in place. “Ummmm, well, we have to look out for one another, we have to prioritize the other person’s interests above our own,” I stammered. The man smiled politely and then opened the door onto a sidewalk filled with puddles. I stepped out into the cool summer rain and dashed for the train.
His words unnerved me so much that I distractedly left my wet umbrella and some elegant high heeled shoes on the train platform after I paused long enough to change shoes before boarding. I had two hours of swiftly passing Pennsylvania countryside to try to rephrase my response and even rewrite the entire commencement address in my head. Nothing seemed to fit.
However, when I got home that night, I dug out a sheet of paper scrawled with notes from my conversation with Pablo, Kendra, and all the other teens in our Youth Voices program at the end of the academic year. There, in the vocalizations of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, was what that man was looking for, not just the “so what?”, but also the “how.”
Here are five ways that the young teens in South Philadelphia suggest that we can build a community that serves the common good:
First, “Be respectful and be open minded.” According to Maria, this is not only the mark of a good leader, but it is what helps people learn from one another. You might disagree with someone, but you need to listen patiently without pre-judging them. You need to be open to having your mind changed when they make a strong case. This could be as simple as changing the radio station to the music they prefer or coming around to a different political position because you have seen firsthand how a particular policy disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable.
Kendra asserts, “People are generally good,” and you should “Give them the benefit of the doubt.” Jesuits call this the Ignatian plus sign or the presupposition. This is a second step to building a welcoming, inclusive community. Apparently it wasn’t only Pablo that had difficulties with certain personalities. But, working alongside each other over the course of nine months, the teens realized that each one of them had redeeming qualities and a certain humanness that you might also call dignity. We all have it. The virtue is in living like we know the other person has it too. Instead of rushing to act like someone has it in for us, we should try to hold off and believe the best.
The third observation or charge is to “Create safe spaces.” Every single teen, during the course of our dialogue, mentioned the word safe. They meant it in terms of being physically safe, emotionally protected, and comfortable to be themselves without threat of criticism or bullying. The teens talked about the consistency of our Thursday afternoons together. Despite big transitions at home and some painful life experiences throughout the course of the year, the program space would be there waiting for them. We all want safe spaces; we all want to feel that we belong.
And out of that security, the teens experienced something we can all use more of: confidence. Maria said that, as a result of being in Youth Voices,
I have learned to believe in what I say, I don’t back down anymore. There is a mixture of being encouraged to speak and getting to practice in front of people that care about you. It is a big thing to know people believe in you.
For Maria, who went through tremendous personal challenges at home this year, there was a sense of growing into a leadership role and getting ready to take that newfound sense of self into high school.
Hakim, who said, “I really don’t like people,” still found the Youth Voices program to be a valuable activity because he learned how to make friends and “connect with people from different places.” This is the fourth directive: Discover unity. In a multilingual, multicultural, ever-changing urban environment pressed on all sides by redevelopment pressure, it can be hard to find common ground, but these teens know that your ethnic, racial, cultural, economic, religious, and educational identity are only one part of being human. We all still long to connect on what makes us the same, perhaps even more so when diversity is at its most rich.
Finally, the fifth step for developing strong community is to work together, side by side. The focus of the Youth Voices program is to bring undocumented youth together with documented peers in order to build allies who can raise their collective voices to speak on issues that are important to them. One of the ways that group has bonded is through our urban garden. Another was in painting a mural in our Learning Lab classroom at the center. Tackling a common project to achieve a specific goal helps get us outside of our own heads and into a space where we can focus on the collective.
The youth repeatedly mentioned that they gained respect for one another by seeing someone try a new activity, such as planting seeds or lugging huge loads of soil into the raised beds. Others came to appreciate that some of their peers are better at speaking to visiting college groups while others are better at planning what should be said.
So there you have it: five clear directives for building community. Who knew that all those Thursday afternoons that started with Capri Sun and stale pretzels would yield so much wisdom?
The names of the youth have been changed to preserve anonymity in the program evaluation.