My Remarks at Regis High School's Diversity Day 4/30/15

Good morning Regis High School. As Mr. Garcia mentioned my name is Akim St.Omer. It is my deep honor to be with you on this special morning. I am a graduate of the best Jesuit college in America, Boston College, a place where the ideals of Jesuit education helped fundamentally shape the person that I am today. As a result, it always feels like I am coming back home when I enter a Jesuit institution. With that, I thank you all for welcoming me into your home this morning.

Before I begin, I want to extend sincere thanks to two members of the Regis staff. Mr. Garcia, thank you for having me here this morning. When we began exchanging emails back in January and I recommended American Promise to you, I never expected that just a few short months later I'd be here discussing issues around this movie to the entire school. Your work and continued focus on equality, especially in education, will no doubt leave its mark on the world in general, and Regis in particular. I am confident that this work will make this school even better than it already is.

Secondly to Ms. Rodriguez. I have had the honor of knowing you since 2002. We entered Boston College as idealistic, unapologetic New York teenagers and Yankee fans, which can be hard in a city dominated by Red Sox nation. Like all college freshman we came in expecting to change the world. I would like to believe that we left a legacy behind when we graduated. I watched you take on leadership roles to improve the lives of under represented members of the Boston College community. Your selfless personality has impressed me over the years. But your friendship and belief in me are what I cherish to this day. Thank you for connecting me to Mr. Garcia and know that you will always have a brother in me. And Regis know that you have an amazing person in Ms. Rodriguez.

When I think of the movie American Promise, a movie that I highly recommend everyone watch in its entirety, there are many aspects of the movie that intrigue me. The movie is about the impact of socioeconomics and race at a predominantly white institution. But the movie at its core is also about relationships and how people of different backgrounds navigate them in a fair and equal way. The question that I asked myself after watching the movie was “What is the American Promise? Can we say, that as a country, we have fulfilled that promise and if not what is the role of schools to make that promise a reality.”

I was born and still live in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. The area that it is now is not the area that it was in the 80’s and 90’s. I often tell people that growing up I couldn’t get my white friends to visit me at my house because their parents thought that it was too dangerous. I don't fault them for this belief. Stereotypes of black neighborhoods are rampant. The infamous Crown Heights riots had occurred but only a few years prior. But even though my neighborhood had its rough moments there was love and a sense of community that made for a beautiful experience. Now almost twenty years later those same friends are my new neighbors. Time sure has changed.

The first ten years of my life I stayed at my paternal grandparents house on the weekends. During the week I attended public school and lived with my mother and grandmother in a housing project. The difference was like night and day. Beginning when I was 11 I moved into my grandparents house and was awarded a scholarship to attend Little Red Elizabeth Irwin, a progressive private school in Greenwich Village. Every morning I would wake up in my working class neighborhood and take the train to a school that was directly across the street from multi million dollar brownstones and a school where some of the most influential and talented New Yorkers sent their children. It was during this time that I began examining the concept of privilege, class, race, sexual orientation and overall equality. By the time I graduated high school I was irrevocably changed by my experiences and knew that I wanted to dedicate a portion of my life to addressing issues of diversity while also challenging institutions to do the same.

When I arrived at Boston College there was a lot that needed addressing. Students of color accounted for less than 20% of the student body. The campus climate was also not a welcoming place for members of the LGBT community. As someone who spent his high school years as an ally to that community I felt a need to be supportive of their goal of achieving equality. The way I have always looked at things has been like this. I as a black person, very recently received equal rights under the law. Even with those rights there are clear moments when it feels like those rights can be trampled on and taken away. Who am I to believe that others shouldn’t have the same rights that I do.

Many of the ways I fought against injustice were private and many were public but it was my hope that they would make a difference. Today Boston College boasts a 32% student of color population and is a place that is becoming much more welcoming of LGBT people mirroring the trend around the nation. There is still a lot of work to be done to make Boston College the place that I know it can be. And I take no credit in any of the goals that have been accomplished. I’m just glad that I was part of the struggle for change.

If we look at the history of America, the concept of an American Promise is one that is literally as old as the country itself. Our forefathers came with nothing more than an idea and a hope for a better life. Over the course of the history of America this hope and idea became the American Dream, the story that is told throughout the world and one that every immigrant population that makes its way to the shores of America believes in. It is the story of Horatio Alger. It is the belief that with hard work and determination anyone can accomplish anything. It is the words in The Declaration of Independence that:
“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is the quote made famous by Emma Lazarus etched in eternity on the Statue of Liberty:  
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of our teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
I submit to you today that while the poetic language and idealistic view is great, the American Promise that we believe in is a myth.

If we dig deeper into the history of America and study various marginalized groups it becomes very clear that the American Dream is more of an ideal than a reality. At every point in American history there was a group that was viewed as less than equal. Whether it was the slaves brought across the water in the transatlantic slave trade, the Japanese held in internment camps, Irish people confronted with Irish need not apply signs when looking for work, and now Latino people who are able to pick our fruit, cook our food but are denied the right to become legal citizens. At every twist and turn in this beautiful struggle of creating a more perfect union inequality was present. Inequality is as American as Apple pie and police brutality.

Now I would be negligent if I didn’t take a few minutes to share my opinions on what we are seeing going on around the country. Let me begin by stating that I do not support riots. I do not support riots when large groups do It after winning or losing sporting events and I don't support them in this instance. But just because I don't support them does not mean I can't understand why they occur.  

What we are seeing in Baltimore, South Carolina, Ferguson, Staten Island and other cities is directly related to the inequalities that exist. Poor people often feel helpless. They have access to a lower quality of education as a result of public school funds being tied into property value. They don’t have adequate after school and athletic programs as a result of cuts to school budgets and a focus on standardized testing. They don’t have access to good paying jobs because they have poor education and many of the jobs have left the community. So what does that create? It creates the need for illegal activities to make money thus causing police to heavily patrol those neighborhoods. And often when police commit acts of violence on the citizens that they are sworn to protect, they are rarely ever punished. Understand that everything is connected.

Regis High School I am tired of having to march for another person of color killed by law enforcement. I attended my first protest as a 12 year old protesting the brutal assault of Abner Louima by the hands of the NYPD. I am tired of having to continue attending rallies and protests to this day. But what makes me even more tired is that other people aren't as tired as I am.

What we are seeing by young people who are performing acts of civil disobedience is a public cry for help. Some may say that it is lawless rioting. I say that if it wasn’t for the fact that people have taken to being disobedient there would be no attention paid to those who feel hopeless. Countless times non violent forms of protest get no coverage. It is often only when things get a bit out of hand does the national media pay any attention.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “rioting is the language of the unheard.” I urge you all to take a stand and become the voices that are heard. Many of you may not look like Freddy Gray or Tamir Rice, but you all know someone that does. So when you see reports of rioting and the faces look black and brown think of that person that you know and the circumstances that would lead people to act out in such a public way. All lives matter regardless of race. Everyone’s lives are important. The more we stand up when people are victims of police misconduct regardless of who they are then the better we will be as a nation. The more we begin to address the underlying causes then we will hopefully see these incidences decrease.

When I look at American Promise there is one thing that disturbs me. Idris and Seaun are good guys. Genuinely good guys. They both received great educations from fantastic schools. They are artistic and athletic and in touch with their emotional sides. They have no criminal records and come from loving families. Regardless of these facts there will always be a sizable portion of this country that will see them as black first. And they won't see good aspects of blackness. They will choose to see the negative stereotypes. I can assure you that I myself have done most things right in my life and know for a fact that if I walk the streets of this very city I won't be able catch a cab, old women will clutch their bags, I will be asked in a department store if I can help someone find an item and unfortunately cops will look at me with a gaze that is more accusatory than protective.
Now let me be very clear. I love America. Nothing gives me goosebumps like a stirring rendition of the National Anthem or makes my eyes water more than when I see the return of a fallen soldier to the mournful sound of bagpipes. I cried when Barack Obama won the presidency and believe in the ideal of what it stands for. With all that being said I believe in being constructively critical. Constructive criticism is fundamental in making things better. But constructive criticism should always be done from a place of love.

There were many times along my college journey when I was fighting issues of inequality when people would say to me "if you don't like it here why don't you just leave." It's a common refrain. I submit to you that the reason people fight for equality is not because they hate where they are but it's because they love it so much. Every movement that has occurred in America has been done out of a genuine love and a belief in the American Promise.  It is said that justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public. Regis I urge you to speak a holy justice in the true tradition of Jesuit education.

I have laid out a pretty strong critique of America. Now what is the role of a school and you students and staff to address these issues. Students you are the ones that make the school what it is. You are the lifeblood. The power that you have to own your educational experience is beyond your wildest imagination. Use that power for good. Stand up in the face of inequality whether it occurs in your neighborhood or in the very halls and classrooms of Regis High School. Stand up for equality when its convenient and comfortable to do so. But truly stand up for it when its uncomfortable. King also said that “in the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but we will remember the silence of our friends." Don’t be silent.

Attending a religious school can be difficult and what I'm about to say may not be popular. But do not let religious beliefs be justification for allowing intolerance and prejudice to occur. In history religion has been used as justification for slavery, segregation, misogyny and more currently in justifying inequality for the LGBT community. Do not let that happen. Remember that everyone serves a mighty God. And the God that we all serve never makes mistakes. Live your life in his image and his honor and let the judging be done by Him when it’s our time to go home.

Faculty and staff, your job is so vital in the struggle for equality. Every single day you have the power to shape and mold the next generation of men. And you have the unique power to do it in the form of a strong Jesuit tradition. Take that role seriously. Be to these young men what you want them to be in the world. When issues of inequality occur in your presence ask yourself what would you expect your students to do in the same situation. And act on it. Push your students to be better today than they were yesterday. And while you push them, also push yourselves. Have that be your daily goal. It will undoubtedly create better students, a better school and importantly a better you.

In closing I often think of the words of the great Jesuit theologian St. Ignatius of Loyola. He would tell his Jesuits as they were embarking on missions to "go set the world aflame." Regis High School as we sit here today the world needs you to set it aflame. Aflame with the undying light of equality and justice. I urge you as you walk out of here today to do just that. This beautiful, imperfect country needs you. Let that be your American Promise. To live by the ideals that St. Ignatius set for us all. In doing that it is my sincere belief that you will push us to a more perfect union, one that serves to be a country where its citizens can live with liberty and justice for all.


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