President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D. spoke at the commencement exercises for Amistad-Elm City High School, an Achievement First public charter school in New Haven, Conn., on June 23, 2011.
Parents and family members, teachers, staff, underclass students, supporters of the school, it is a great honor to be here. I’m pleased to again see Principal Jeff Sudmyer, alumni counselor Charice Barr, college counselor Emory Sykes, and Director of Operations Michael Lengle, a proud Franklin & Marshall alum. It is also great to see Achievement First CEO Dacia Toll and Network Director Amy Christie, who are always thinking of new ways of empowering their students with extraordinary opportunities in and beyond college.
The Amistad-Elm City community has done something historic in creating this terrific school from scratch. Graduates, you are so fortunate to be one of the school’s founding classes. You are part of an Achievement First community that is on the forefront of a national education reform movement all about creating high education standards, educational equality, and bright, empowered futures for all students, at all age levels, in all communities, all across America.
The faculty and staff that run Amistad-Elm City believe in each and every one of you so much. They know you are capable of reaching high standards of academic achievement, personal responsibility and integrity. Four years ago, they set with you and your families the big goal of seeing every single member of the class of 2011 accepted into a four-year institution, and I’m inspired that you hit the mark. This achievement sends a message all across Connecticut that’s also being heard on the campuses of some of America’s great liberal art colleges like Wesleyan, Colby College, and my institution, Franklin & Marshall.
The team at Amistad-Elm City has spent four years thinking holistically about your needs and working to meet them. They advocate for you every day. They take so much pride in you. They take so seriously their responsibility to educate you, they define themselves by this commitment, and they hold themselves accountable for advancing your learning in measurable terms.
We know that you are ready not simply to go to college, but to maximize the opportunities ahead of you. You’ve learned essential material in the core courses necessary for college success in everything from math to languages to science. You’ve learned how to learn, how to manage time, how to ask for help, how to draw on your passion, how to put your head down with tenacity to do the hard work of learning complex material.
And you’ve learned to give your trust to those who teach you, which is a crucial part of college success. You have so much trust in your teachers here that you let Mr. Khan DJ the prom. I heard Mr. Sudmyer was in the house that night, in disguise, doing the Dougie.
Seniors, and families, each of you is a co-creator of Amistad-Elm City public charter school. Each of you took a risk coming to a brand new charter school. Each of you signed a family Commitment to Excellence contract to uphold the values and standards of the school. Each of you shared your ideas and your hopes and dreams with the school. Each of you helped build the culture of the school, which includes service to others and the larger community, and each of you is now part of the Amistad foundation of excellence that will benefit other students and families.
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Let’s talk about the name—Amistad—that you will carry with you everywhere you go as co-creators of this school:
For those in the audience that don’t know the story: In 1839, The Amistad was a Spanish slave schooner that transported across the ocean to Cuba about 60 Africans who had been abducted and held in chains.
However, led by Joseph Cinque, the captives freed themselves and took over the boat. Because they didn’t know how to navigate the Amistad back to Africa, the crew was able to trick them and steer it up north along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The U.S. Navy stopped the boat off the coast of New York and had to decide what to do: To put the crew back in charge of the boat, to return them to the Queen of Spain, or to claim no jurisdiction and set the rebels free. Remember, this was two decades before the Civil War, and slavery was still legal in many states.
The case became one of the most important ones in American history, and the trial was held right here in New Haven. The federal Court here and then the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision that the captives could not legally be held or given to another owner, and so they were set free and went back to Africa as free men and women.
This story is about freedom. The Amistad 60 risked their lives for freedom. Their desperate action not only succeeded but also put the Supreme Court on record, establishing a precedent of support for them and inspiring others to fight for universal emancipation.
We often celebrate our country’s tradition as a birthplace of freedom. But make no mistake, for all the philosophical beauty of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights, the black freedom struggle has always been the change agent that brought American reality closer to American ideals. That process began when the first enslaved Africans fought back and continued through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era and, I would argue, today’s era of education reform. The system we created justified the enslavement of black Americans and was abolished only because of and after African-Americans stood up and said no, we resist this. Freedom is what matters. Before Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Amistad 60 lived that motto.
So, what does this mean today—the Amistad Example, this legacy of freedom that is a part of your history and identity and your school? And how does that legacy of freedom relate to the next stage of your education and your lives?
Three ways: I’m going to call it freedom for the one, the many, and the whole. And to express this idea, I’m going to quote three great Americans.
First, freedom for the one…
Gwendolyn Brooks is a poet who was born in Kansas to the granddaughter of a woman who escaped slavery. She would become one of the greatest poets in American history and was selected as our Poet Laureate in 1985.
Ms. Brooks wrote a poem called “Life for my Child is Simple.” This poem is about a toddler who takes joy in tipping over an icebox pan or snatching down curtains or generally causing havoc in the house. I love the last four lines:
Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible.
But never has he been afraid to reach.
His lesions are legion.
But reaching is his rule.
Each of you is that child. Freely reaching. Freely defining your life and the choices you make in it.
College will be a place where you feel and live fully your ability to make free choices. As college opens before you, keep in mind the message Mr. Sudmyer just gave you in his great speech: “There will be challenges in college, but with those challenges comes the incredible opportunity to express yourselves freely.”
Remember that college is your experience, no one else’s. Take a look at your past and decide whether you wish to remain the same person that you are today. Or, are you ready to freely choose new paths and thus redefine yourself during the course of your college careers?
Second, freedom for the many....
Frederick Douglass was a fugitive slave in the 1830s who saw learning as his ticket to freedom as a boy and taught himself to read while enslaved. He became one of the great leaders of the Civil War—editing The North Star, publishing his autobiography, advocating for African-Americans to be able to fight in the War, and eventually becoming America’s first African-American ambassador. He has a famous line with which he would end most of his essays and speeches:
Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.
That has been the tradition of the African-American community, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, Latino empowerment, the disability movement and every other movement or community that has sought, or continues to seek, equality. Working together, resisting together, sitting in together, marching together and studying together...doing things together in the name of a just cause. As you prepare to begin your college journeys, I hope you will use the resources available to you to learn still more deeply your own beautiful cultural traditions—and also of the new cultural traditions that you’ll be exposed to in college and as a 21st century American making your future in the economic and social mainstream of our country.
Third, freedom for the whole...
Here I’d like to quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Sunday sermon that he delivered in Washington, D.C., in March of 1968, before he was assassinated. He said:
We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
And that is how Amistad has been structured, too. Think about freshman year. First you needed someone to help you. Then you realized they needed you, that you had to engage with the teachers, that you had to do the work, that you had to set an example, and that you could do it. The school needed you to work hard—your fellow students needed you to do that, for them—and you did. Through your work, you built a “network of mutuality” within your school that will translate and apply to the world as a whole.
I know, sometimes it doesn’t seem like the larger world beyond this school really believes in that “inescapable network of mutuality….”
Not when we read about schools so poor that they stunt smart kids’ academic growth. Or when we hear about families struggling to put food on the table, or older people having to choose between buying prescription drugs or food. Or when we see celebrities serving their images and politicians pointing fingers.
Where are we to look for this network of mutuality?
My answer is everyday people—especially those who believe we can become more together than when we are apart.
Everyday people like Rosa Parks, who one day decided not to sit in the back of the bus, launching a movement for civil rights.
Everyday people like Cesar Chavez, who said that people should not be paid pennies to pick someone else’s grapes, launching a farm worker’s movement.
Everyday people like The Amistad’s Joseph Cinque, who said that his people shouldn’t have been chained to the bottom of a boat, launching a rebellion and a Supreme Court case that ruled in their favor. These people are great examples, and there are even more examples right around you, within your own communities, and now including you.
And what do great leaders like these create that makes real change?
They inspire new people to accept in their hearts that this network of mutuality is real, and that it is as inescapable as our shared humanity.
And once awareness grows, you have whites and blacks fighting together to end slavery. Or you have young and old marching for civil rights or building Medicare and Social Security to protect the elderly. Or you have people in power creating fair labor standards, or providing help for LGBT students, or standing up in support of the Dream Act.
The network of mutuality is an idea—one of the most powerful ideas that we have. Once we un-learn the mindset of individuality, or of being part of a small group that must protect our interests against everyone else’s, and instead see ourselves as part of that larger network, life gets better for the whole, for the many, and for the one.
And college is about that, too. You can weave in your new schools new networks of mutuality, even if it may not seem that way. Yes, you’ll confront obstacles along the way. There will be people who won’t understand or seem to care about where you come from. Consider your job to be the teacher they never had. Conversely, you will experience some things completely foreign to you. Your job then is to be the open-minded and curious student of lessons you have yet to learn.
You have to make the commitment to get involved and be active and make the college experience your own. We know you can do that. We expect that of you. And we need you to do that. You are part of a great Amistad tradition of education and freedom. Your job is to share it, to be an example for others.
You’re not leaving Amistad. You’re taking it with you.
Thank you for listening.