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This concept is very difficult for many to grasp who have grown up without struggle. For example, after I told a group of school administrators in a large metro area that they have to impart success within the context of their students’ environment, one participant suggested that I was promoting lower standards for black students. She assumed that a “standard” that is unique to the black community is, in essence, “lower.” To the contrary, the standard I was suggesting is much higher.
Western culture imposes a value on avoiding problem behaviors and disconnecting from undesirable circumstances. This is reflected in the rather guileless advice we give to teenagers to “stay away from the wrong crowd” -- a near-impossible objective for children in densely populated communities.
Few black students from tough environments will define success in terms of isolating themselves from their peers to prepare themselves for a distant agenda. A standard of success for most black youths would be to influence their peers rather than avoid them, and work to better their communities rather than disconnect. From this view, assessing their success through standardized tests is impossible.
The standards of success for many black students are learning with purpose, applying knowledge to the real world, creative problem solving and verbal acumen. Therefore, when a black student asks, “What does this have to do with me?” when confronted with a difficult subject in school, he or she genuinely needs an accurate response. Graduation speakers can help black students redefine their personal and cultural standards of success so that education can become less passive and abstract and more affirming and relevant.
-- Black graduates need to see us for who we really are
I recently had the honor of sharing a panel with Raymond Lucas, an executive at a youth-development nonprofit, and president of 100 Black Men of Maryland. I was humbled when he told the audience that my research had influenced him to revise his speeches to black students. He said that he abandoned the trite statistics and chose to focus on what had motivated him to beat the odds. This strategy helped him develop a deeper connection with his listeners.
I also use this strategy. Last February I delivered a keynote address entitled, “You Have the Right to Remain Educated” for the Wisconsin Association of Black Men at the University of Wisconsin. About 20 black male teenagers from Urban Prep Academies traveled from Chicago to participate in the program.
After my speech, a senior at Urban Prep enthusiastically embraced me and said, “I go to church every Sunday, and I’ve never felt like this. . . . You woke up something in me, and I’m ready to be heard!” I was humbled to receive such accolades from the teenager, and elated that my words had inspired him to tell his own story.
In many ways, we are selected to be graduation speakers for all the wrong reasons. Our material success gives people the illusion that our lives are, and always have been, perfect. To the contrary, most of us who have achieved success have endured many uncertain, disorderly and painful periods. However, as quantum scientists suggest, chaos is the natural order of life, from which all things perfect spring forth. From that perspective, the mission of a graduation speaker is not to impose order on imperfect lives but to clarify the very essence of success.
As Michelle Obama said, “Often, failure is the key to success.” I was designated a “slow learner” in the fourth grade. I graduated from a public high school in Baton Rouge, La., marred by drugs and violence. I consistently scored within the 20th percentile or less on every standardized test I took, including the ACT and the GRE. So I proclaim “happy graduation” to the Class of 2013, from a man who is successful not despite the blemishes of his past but because of them.
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Ivory Toldson is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.