Students: Your Impact On the Fight for Civil Rights Must Be Right Now

Yesterday, I ended my 24th year working with the youth of our city and my 23rd year working directly in schools. I currently have the honor and privilege of serving as a principal in my own neighborhood-the same community that I currently live and grew up in.

Our school community, the Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus, a turnaround school serving 7th-12th graders just celebrated our 6th graduating class. It was once the 2nd most violent school in Philadelphia, and likely Pennsylvania. In a neighborhood where folks had long given up on our youth, we continue to serve the same kids, the same community. The adults, however, are different.

Those who say ‘It can’t be done!’ are usually interrupted by others doing it.

This year marked our 10th anniversary as a community charter school-a turnaround model that proves doubters of the potential of Black youth foolish and misguided. We have learned and grown a lot. And, we are just getting started. As James Baldwin said,  “Those who say ‘It can’t be done!’ are usually interrupted by others doing it.” Our youth and community will continue to interrupt those adults, including our city’s educators, who have arrested visions of what inner city Black youth of Philadelphia can accomplish.

My opening remarks to our Class of 2016, a farewell, as well as, a reminder to myself and to them, is below.

Good morning. Habari Gani. As-Salaamu Alaykum. Welcome to our 6th graduating class. To begin, I would like us to have a moment of silence for the parents of our students who have passed away (the death rate of parents in our school community is 3x the national average).

Thank you.

Class of 2016, congratulations! I am excited to know that the world is about to receive some of the best leaders, thinkers, scholars, and activists that our city has to offer. You have made an impact on your community in so many different ways. You have countless community service hours locally, including the time you spent mentoring dozens of younger students within MCSC.

Representatives from the Class of 2016 have even gone to Haiti and Malawi to provide leadership and service on an international scale. You have been problem-solvers and deep thinkers. You work collaboratively with your peers and you advocate for yourselves and for your communities. You excel academically, as well as, in athletics, the arts, and in life. As a class, you strive for excellence, without making excuses. Our ancestors would be proud of you and they would want you to push yourselves further.

We also know that behind every one of these students who believes in herself or himself is a caring adult that believed first. So, parents, guardians, teachers, and mentors, thank you!

The Masai people of Kenya have a greeting-one that would behoove us to ask each other in Philadelphia: “Kasserian Ingera.” It means, “And, how are the children?” It is a litmus test for how a school community, or society as a whole, is doing on behalf of students. The response would be telling as far as how we are faring as a community to address the needs of our youth. As you are transitioning, know that we will always be judged with how you are doing and we are poised to support the next leg of your race. Schools are known by their students. And, conversely, students are associated with their communities. We are and will remain a community and embedded in each other’s success.

As you continue on your path, strive to remain socially conscious, politically active, and community oriented. Continue to look for opportunities to lead and serve those who need you. Show the world what a true Shoemaker Puma Scholar is all about. Show the world the resilience that runs through your blood and the genius and innovation that you inherited and will build on. And, know with surety that the Shoemaker Campus community will always here for you.

When I was younger, I fervently wished I was a part of my parents’ Black Panther Party. I thought I could have been more effective in fighting for social justice during the 60s and 70s, instead of the 90s. But, then I realized my role in this fight was right now. Yours is too. I recently read a quote, and I am paraphrasing, if you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the Civil Rights Movement, and what role you would play, know with 100% certainty that you are in it right now.

You have seen the effects of white supremacy. You are expected to make contributions to society to eradicate it. You have seen hopelessness. Be a light for others. You have seen negativity. Be the change you wish to see in others.

As you enter your next chapter, it is paramount that you continue to educate yourself about the world, about your community, and about yourself. This fight cannot be done effectively without education. The revolutionary Assata Shakur said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” So, don’t expect white supremacy to provide you with the tools to eradicate it.

Education, Community Organizing, Determination, Self-Discipline, and Faith are some of the tools you will need. You already started working on these…your role and mission is to continue to work on yourselves and to lift others as you climb. This is the expectation regardless of your chosen field and regardless of where you reside. You are always responsible for the well-being of your community. And, constantly ask yourself and your community, Kasserian Ingera?

Strive for Excellence. Make No Excuses.

Shoe Crew, we love you!

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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