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Remarks by James Kelly ’09, Spring Convocation, May 6, 2015

Thank you, President Hill. It’s good to be home.

Good afternoon to the Class of 2015 and to the amazing faculty and staff of Vassar College.

Six years ago, I stood here on this stage and addressed the Class of 2009 as we prepared to enter into the world beyond. It was a day not unlike this one – my classmates were dressed in their caps and gowns; the professors had their academic regalia; pomp and circumstance hung in the air as the beauty of spring cascaded through the stained glass windows of this chapel. And yet I don’t know that anyone was ready for what I had up my sleeves that day.

You see, in the weeks leading up to that day, I had been secretly orchestrating a plot to show my Vassar family how much I loved them. As I finished my speech, I began to speak in lyric. Then a number of classmates stood up in the audience with instruments that had been hidden beneath the pews. Soft chords from the piano began, followed by the sweet melody of a few violins, and the brazen interjection from a trombone. Before long the choir had joined in, and the whole affair crescendoed when the pipe organ began to bellow out an immense hope for the days ahead. We were so very happy together.

Those were hard times – the economy was falling apart, and many of us were worried about what would come of our country in the years ahead. And yet on that day, we took a moment to celebrate all that was wonderful about our time together here at Vassar.

Nothing gold can stay though. Within days of leaving Vassar, I was served a healthy dose of reality about the world beyond its gates. Four days after graduation, I arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, to begin my journey as a Teach For America corps member. I thought I knew about poverty, inequality, and injustice. At Vassar I had taken numerous classes with Professors Harriford, Koechlin, Miringoff, and Muppidi. In my time outside of the classroom, I was busy working with non-profits in Poughkeepsie and organizing anti-poverty campaigns. Despite all the time I had spent on these issues though, I wasn’t ready for what I experienced in St. Louis. I want to share a little about the history of schooling in St. Louis so you can see a window into the world I experienced when I arrived.

In the dawn of public education in Saint Louis, the Missouri General Assembly outlawed the teaching of both slaves and freedmen. Shortly thereafter, the old Courthouse in St. Louis was home to the first two trials of the Dred Scott case. For those of you who may not be familiar with the case, Dred Scott had been a slave but was taken to what is now Minnesota, which was a free territory under the Missouri Compromise. Dred Scott sued for his freedom, but was denied in a decision by Chief Justice Roger Taney that stated that African Americans were not citizens, and as such no African American man, enslaved or free, had standing to bring the case before the court. The decision helped to propel our nation into the Civil War.

As a border state, Missouri had dual loyalties during the Civil War. The state established two separate governments, and supported both the Union and the Confederacy. While the period following the Civil War brought emancipation to all African Americans in the state of Missouri, it also commenced the period of apartheid education, a sad legacy that continues to this day.  In fact, the state constitution was rewritten in 1865 with the following provision: “Boards of education and the trustees and directors of schools… are hereby authorized and required to establish, within their respective jurisdictions, one or more separate schools for colored children.” This provision was not removed from the state constitution until 1976.

And although Saint Louis was quick to establish a desegregation plan for schools following Brown v. Board, its impact was barely felt: the plan left schools beholden to the de facto residential segregation, leaving the schools of St. Louis in a state of enduring inequality.

Today, the fractured municipal landscape of St. Louis reinforces the injustices of the past. Most students remain in racially isolated schools, separated by housing patterns that remain among the most segregated in the country. Efforts at improving the educational opportunities for students in Saint Louis have repeatedly failed as these efforts do little to address the broader social milieu, in a city with a weak social safety net, persistently high unemployment for African Americans, entrenched poverty, and local governments that see many citizens as revenue producers rather than individuals deserving of justice.

As a teacher in a chronically failing schools in St. Louis, I had to grapple with the lingering effects of apartheid education, and I learned firsthand how failed efforts to ameliorate historical inequities left thousands of children trapped in a cycle of injustice. To say I was humbled by the challenges in St. Louis would be an understatement. I was horrified that many of my amazing 7th and 8th graders would naturally matriculate into a high school that had a 29% graduation rate in 2009.

This experience shook me to my core. When I was growing up, I believed in the American Dream, and I believed in the myth that America was a place committed to equality and justice. What I have learned over the past decade though is that despite the bold proclamations of many of our leaders, the United States is a country that is fundamentally rooted in inequality and injustice, with periodic bouts of internal foment that give us some hope that progress is possible - that justice does not need to be an entirely elusive quality of our country.

In St. Louis, I was inspired by the story of John Berry Meachum. Meachum was born a slave and purchased his freedom, eventually becoming a Baptist pastor. In the 1840s, Meachum exhibited courageous civil disobedience by secretly maintaining a school for young African American men in the basement of his church. Unfortunately, his secret was exposed, and he was threatened with jail time and a hefty fine. Meachum was not deterred though – he converted a steamboat into a mobile classroom and took the young men onto the Mississippi River, which was federal territory not bound by Missouri’s racist laws.  

For me, Meachum has been my own personal reminder that we are capable of progress, and that sometimes our pursuit of progress means that we must stretch the boundaries of the possible. Teaching in the same city as Meachum, I was often told plainly by folks that I encountered that they were surprised that I spent my time working with “those kids.” The unsolicited thoughts from strangers reiterated a broader local narrative that no one expected much promise to come out of schools like Gateway Middle.

Sadly, my students knew the narrative too. During my final year as a teacher, I asked my students to tell me what folks said about Gateway. Nearly every response I heard from my students was some variation of “it’s a bad school.” Researchers like Claude Steele and Carol Dweck have demonstrated that expectations have a profound impact on how we process and perceive our own self-efficacy. Schools like Gateway espouse what Martin Haberman calls the “pedagogy of poverty,” in which our perpetually low expectations for students are communicated through everything from the rigor of the assignments given in class to the way in which we ask questions or allow students to express themselves. I saw this play out every day in my school, and if I’m honest with myself, I was vulnerable to it as well.

But on that first day of school, I was in a special setting. I knew all of the students in my eighth grade algebra class from the year before – they had either been in my class or become familiar with me through the daily interactions that a teacher has with students in hallways, lunchrooms, and the like. I told my students that despite what was said about our school, we were going to do something radical. We were going to be the best algebra classroom in the St. Louis metropolitan region. I asked them to commit to defining excellence; we were not going to look to the school a few miles away in the wealthiest zip code in the entire state to see what excellence looked like. Instead, we would go out and set the bar – we would define excellence so that when others in the city wanted to know what excellence looked like, they would point to Gateway Middle School. They were excited, and so was I.

Over the next nine months, we put in the work. I held tutoring sessions before school, after school, and on Saturdays, and my students encouraged each other to be present for these extra sessions. And each day, I reminded myself that my students were capable of excellence, even though many in our city thought that was impossible. Well, when the test finally came, we were all a little nervous. I reminded my students that they were going to be great. On the morning of the test, I gave each of them a note about how much they had grown that year, and closed each one with two simple words: “define excellence.”

Nationally, just 8% of eighth grade students attain the high score of “advanced” on end-of-year assessments in math, and that number shrinks to just 2% for African American students. A few weeks after the test, I received a notification that test scores were available. I was sitting at home and rushed to login to see the results. As I began to read each student’s results page by page, I began to cry. Every single student passed the test and 79% of them scored advanced – ten times the national average. And, true to the commitment my students made to each, they outscored every single school in the St. Louis metropolitan area. They showed that even in a city full of so much injustice, progress is possible.

We are living in exceptionally hard times. When I watched last August as the city I love became a tinderbox exposed to flame, I felt lost. I felt wayward throughout the fall, and when it was announced in November that Darren Wilson was not indicted despite serving as the judge, jury, and executioner for Mike Brown, who went to school just five miles away from where I lived in St. Louis, I was in despair.

We are reminded each day that our society is fundamentally unjust. A few weeks ago in Tulsa, Eric Harris cried out that he couldn’t breathe after being shot by a police officer. The officer told him, “Fuck your breath.” These are the times we are living in – times when people in this country are pushing us deeper into the abyss, and doing it with what feels like an unspoken consent from the systems that we pretend bring justice. 2015.

I’m here today to share with you that while I don’t know where we go from here, I think it begins by each of us doing our part. While our country and our campus have shown themselves capable of deep injustice in the past year, many of you have been organizing and have been pushing for thoughtful reforms, here at Vassar and beyond the gates. Your work gives us hope for the future. Without your work, justice would never be possible. Your work is not the easy choice, but it is the necessary choice, and because you fight for justice, we can have hope for progress. While progress can feel impossible in times like these, it is made possible by the courageous work of people who are committed to a better world. Use your voice to challenge injustice, inequality, and white supremacy. You will find resistance, and you will likely find more resistance than you found here at Vassar. But know that without your work, justice will never have its day.

Professor Cornel West has spoken about our quest for justice, saying,

“Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation…We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family…and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public…deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice.”

Each of you has a part to play to make justice our regular practice – as non-profit leaders, researchers, filmmakers, teachers, and maybe even a couple lawyers. Now is the time to do your part. Go out there and fight for the things you are passionate about, stretch the limits of the possible, and be audacious in your love for your fellow man as we begin to build a better future.

It is now my honor to present to you your class banner.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, May 11, 2015