NECSN's Connecticut Advocacy Manager Jose Alfaro spoke at Common Ground High School's graduation last week. You can read his remarks below, and congratulations to the Class of 2015!
Good day, Buenos Dias, Bom Dia, Bonjour, Merhaba!
I’d like to greet Common Ground High School’s leadership, board members, teachers, parents, and most importantly, you, the graduating class of 2015!!!
I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge those who can’t be with us today, but continue to live in our hearts and minds. Let us take a moment of silence to honor those who have come before us and those that we have lost.
As I started to write this speech, I thought about my high school experience and the graduation that I didn’t have. Those of you who know a little bit about my story know that I didn’t graduate high school. Instead, I earned my GED. So when I think back to a time when I was much more handsome, and about your age, I think about how much further you are in your journeys then I was in mine. I think about how you were able to finish something that you have started, and how no matter what, you kept going when you were tired, frustrated, or even checked out.
At your age, I was working full time as a waiter and fighting my way through New York City. I didn’t have any aspirations to save the world – I didn’t want to be a hero. I wanted to be a gangster. I wanted to live and die in my neighborhood because that was my definition of “realness” and it was the only plan that I had. Fortunately, there were a lot of people invested in my future, and they pushed me to strive for more. Without my support system, I wouldn’t have made it to, or through, college.
Primarily, it was the hard work of my parents that kept my younger brother and I engaged in education. They made the life I’m currently living a possibility. I didn’t realize how much of an impact they had on me until many years later, but interestingly enough, I find myself thanking my them for continuing to fight for us even when they were tired, over worked, underpaid, and most definitely underappreciated. As I look around this room, I see the faces of proud parents, many of whom I know, who sacrificed to help you graduate today.
They truly deserve our thanks, so let’s take a moment now to acknowledge all the parents and guardians in the room for all of their hard work and dedication. Give them a big round of applause, this is their victory as well!
Common Ground is amazing, isn’t it!? From the moment I first stepped foot on this campus, I knew that it was a very special place! This is a true community – everyone here is accepting of others, and people from all walks of life have a voice.
Seriously, at first, I was lost for words. A school where learning meets social justice, meets sustainable development, dead in the middle of the hood!? Who would have thought a “farm school” would exist, let alone thrive, smack dab in the center of New Haven, Connecticut?
Anyone like me, from an urban neighborhood can understand thinking “Where in the world am I, and how did this place even get here?” That’s actually why Common Ground is so important to this community; it offers a unique perspective to people who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. It offers an environment where young people can develop their own identities, all the while providing a high quality education unlike any other in our State. Common Ground is truly a very special place. Treasure it.
Make sure you come back and visit, because you will make your teachers’ day.
In the meantime, as you venture off into the world and you start your journey to self-discovery, know that you’ll be met with many challenges. Overcoming everything that’s ahead of you won’t always be easy, but as long as you stay true to yourself, you have the potential to move mountains. Dare to be vulnerable and strong enough to expose yourself to the world; Spread your arms open and proclaim: “This is who I am!” For many of us, specifically the oppressed: women, the LGBT community, the disabled, people of color, religious minorities, and plus sized people, that’s easier said than done. Not because we are unable to be unique or individuals, but because society has historically taught us to stay quiet and keep our heads down. We are taught to be our groups and not ourselves. We constantly hear “Oh, you’re not black enough, you’re not Latino enough, that’s not ladylike” or “But you’re not really gay” from people who want to invalidate our experiences or sometimes, and even more hurtful; from people in our own communities.
I want to tell you, you shouldn’t give anyone the power to define you. You should define yourself! You can’t wash away the color of your skin, you can’t wake up and like people of to the opposite sex if you aren’t attracted to them, you can’t believe in a God that you don’t have a connection with, you can’t be someone that you are genuinely not. The inner self in you won’t let you rest until you are exactly who you are meant to be. Listen to that voice, follow that person, and be who you are supposed to be, because it is only when you find the strength to be yourself, that you find the strength to challenge the world, and if you’re lucky; leave a lasting impact.
Many people romanticize changing the world, starting a movement, and being a great liberator of the masses. The reality is that you will not change the world. You will not start a movement, and you will not liberate a mass group of people because you cannot do anything by yourself. True change, and any sustainable movement that makes it happen, comes with the understanding that power comes from a collective group of people who are dedicated to their cause. Whatever role you want to play in shaping our future, so long as you stay true to who you are, and work to empower authentic voices, you will succeed.
As you take your summer break, get ready for college, work, or travel, take the time to kick it at home, eat as much pizza as you want (if y’all don’t know, I love pizza), and sleep in all day long. But also take the time to reflect.
Reflect on who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what issues you care about; because who you are want to be, is really about accepting who you are. That means accepting all of the good and the bad things, and the things that you can’t control. It is accepting that you are not perfect, and neither were your parents. The trick to accepting yourself is learning to let go and empathize with other people. It is when you empathize with others that you are able to start to create change.
What you are passionate about really comes from the deepest part of yourself. Think back to your childhood and what made you happy. Did you love to dance, sing, perform, or did you like to build things; solve problems? Did you like creating things: drawing, writing, painting, or did you lose yourself in books and let your imagination take hold of your world?
We are often taught to think about adulthood as who we want to be, as if our jobs make us who we are: Doctors, Scientists, Plumbers, Advocates, Teachers... However we never think of the problems within the fields that we choose to be in. Jaime Casp, Education Evangelist for Google said “Don’t ask your children what they want to do when they grow up, as them what problems they want to solve!” Because when we start thinking about the problems that we want to solve, we start to think of the things that we need to do in order to solve them.
So I leave you with these last words. Become your most authentic self. Accept all of the good and bad that came with your life, it will give you the strength to be vulnerable enough to accept yourself and others. Be passionate about things. Research what you love and find a way to make it a part of your day-to-day life. Ask yourself what problems you want to fix in the world, and make solving them a part of your life too. When you know who you are, when you’re passionate about something, and when you care to fix problems, your studies, your work, and your life will be better because you’re doing what you love to do.
Congratulations, Common Ground High School Class of 2015! Today you are honored, you are celebrated, and you are now one step closer to your dreams!
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