¡Viva Class of 2013! Progressive Pupil celebrates the achievements of graduates who are fighting for racial equality and human rights. Their diplomas and tassels symbolize the aspirations of many young people to learn and improve — aspirations that too few are able to fulfill. After the understandable euphoria of commencement settles into the reality of work life (or the reality of searching for work), I hope this cohort continues their commitment to making this dream possible for others.
At my own school’s commencement ceremony this year, I was reminded of the true value of an education. I watched with my fellow professors as each student grinned with anticipation of hearing their name, proudly shook the Dean’s hand and triumphantly posed with their degrees for a personal crowd of supporters who cheered and demanded poses for a camera. Afterward, my colleagues and I met our students’ parents, partners, aunts and cousins and for the first time connected faces to the life experiences students brought to our classrooms.
A few students generously confided in my colleagues and me that our classes helped them think about themselves and their relationship to the world differently. As time passes, their memories of these years may dim to a single impression of a reading or a film, a professor’s off the cuff remark or a conversation with a classmate. But every graduate will keep an ability to relate what they know from the struggles that surround them to what there is in the world and what can be.
The capacity to think critically about our present circumstances and to envision change is essential to social justice activism. It is not uncommon for impactful organizers—for example, Nelson Mandela and Alice Walker—to develop these cognitive skills at school. If we want a better world, we have to value this transference of mind power to future allies and organizers even when employers, conservatives or the job market does not. This attitude may not lead to a job promotion, but the sincere gratitude and enthusiasm of my students and their families did boost my optimism about social change.
A formal education is only the beginning for the class of 2013. In the nonprofit sector we will be welcoming freshly minted activists and advocates this summer and fall. Their energy and zeal may first feel out-of-place in environments that are chronically under-resourced and over-stressed. However, they are showing up because they want to keep translating the ideas about social justice they learned in school into action.
As teachers in the workplace, it is our responsibility to show these newcomers that they are part of a powerful tradition of resistance that stretches long before us and will continue long after they retire. Embracing youthful innovations and taking time to help correct mistakes that inevitably result from inexperience are worthwhile. Both their questions and criticisms merit discussion and deliberation. It may also be helpful to teach them to dial 9 for an outside line and how to use a fax machine.
Our leadership needs their vigor. Their commencement requires our generosity. The better world that is possible demands all of our mind power.
Yours in solidarity,
Robin J. Hayes, PhD