Last year we connected DreamTeacher Chelsea York of KIPP STAR Middle School in Harlem, New York with DreamSpeaker Maurice “Moe” Owens, who grew up in the Bronx and went on to serve as the Special Assistant to President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. After hosting a phenomenal flashchat with Mrs. York’s students, he accepted their invitation to speak at the school’s eighth grade graduation ceremony.
This year DreamWakers repeated history! This past fall, we virtually connected Mrs. York’s class with Shavar Jeffries, a civil rights attorney and the President of Democrats for Education Reform. Mr. Jeffries has a personal commitment to ensuring that a child’s zip code does not define their destiny. His commitment to improving education stems directly from his personal experience. Shavar was raised by his grandmother in the South Ward of Newark, New Jersey. After receiving scholarships to Seton Hall Preparatory School, Duke, and Columbia Law School, he moved back to Newark with the firm belief that his path to success — through high-quality education — should not be the exception for students in Newark, but rather the rule. He made such an impression on the students that Mrs. York reached out to DreamWakers to see if Mr. Jeffries might be willing to be the school’s commencement speaker for the class of 2018 and he agreed! On June 14, Mr. Jeffries traveled to Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem to share his inspiration with students and their families in person.
Mr. Jefferies opened his remarks by sharing with students some of the obstacles he overcame when he was their age. “It’s hard for me to think that it was 30 year ago, in 1988, when I was in your very same shoes. And at that point I had been through a lot with my family. I had lost my mom to violence, she was in a domestic violence situation. My step father was very abusive and sadly she rode to work one day and he was waiting for her and she did not make it out. We had all types of restraining orders, we had to be on the run for awhile, and it was horrible because this was two years prior to my graduation from 8th grade. My father who had been around earlier in my life, after I lost my mom, he left, which I was very confused about. My grandmother took me in to raise me and my little sister. My grandfather was around as well and they put in me in the Boys & Girls Club. At the Boys & Girls Club I had people who loved me and cared for me and who told me all the time no matter what had happened, that if you work hard in school and you do the best that you can do, you can put one foot in front of the other and move forward.”
He wanted to pass those lessons on to the graduating class, and remind everyone in the audience that “you are amazing, you are brilliant, and to never forget that.” He closed with an inspiring story about Superman, a character he followed in comic books as a child. “You know how, when he was around certain people, he had to cover himself up. He had to put the glasses on and take away all other signs of himself, because sometimes how super he was, was too much for other people to handle. So he had to deny himself so he could be more acceptable to other people around him. In one of the versions of the comic book he had spent so much time as Clark Kent, that would you believe he had forgotten he was Superman? He had spent so much time pretending that he was not as great as he was, wearing normal clothes, putting on glasses, that he actually forgot how amazing that he was. So I always wish, you will always know, always have the greatness that is inside of you. And never deny yourself or the world of that greatness.”
Mr. Jefferies’ touching words about overcoming adversity, dreaming big, and believing in yourself resonated with everyone audience. His commencement address added a sense of encouragement and inspiration to the celebration, and helped commemorate the exciting day as the students embarked on a new chapter in their lives.