NORTH CAROLINA (WTVD) -- Donovan Livingston is a proud Fayetteville, NC, native whose Harvard graduation speech on race and education, called "Lift Off," took off online receiving more than 11 million views and was even shared by Justin Timberlake and Hillary Clinton.
ABC11 asked Livingston about delivering the spoken-word speech, what his metaphors were meant to express, where he comes from and what he'd like to see from the education system.
Tell me a little bit about the speech. Was there a process to be chosen to speak at commencement?
"This year the Harvard Graduate School of Education put out a call for its graduates to submit pieces for this competition. The winner gets to present at convocation and they had a deadline of April 8 and I really, really, really was pushing my luck because I submitted my piece on April 8th with like a few minutes to spare, so I was so thankful I was able to get it in.
"But as I was waiting to hear back from the committee which was comprised of faculty, staff and students, as I was waiting to see whether or not I would be a finalist. I was editing, revising, practicing, really trying to hone the speech so I could be prepared in the event I was called back for auditions and thankfully I was."
"I was one of, I believe eight finalist, and I auditioned, I waited a couple days and then I got the word that I would be the convocation speaker, and I was really excited.
When I actually opened the email I took a couple of laps around my apartment I was so excited, but I was also extremely nervous in that moment too because I knew I wanted to represent my peers in the best way that I knew how on that day."
Why did you decide to do spoken word?
"Spoken word has been a huge part of my identity for quite some time. I was involved in a spoken word poetry group while I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I'm in a group that was called Ebony Reader's Onyx Theatre, a subgroup of the Black Student Movement, and really that was one of the few spaces I was in as an undergraduate student that really made me feel like I belonged at North Carolina.
"It was a space for healing, coping, just really reflecting and trying to make sense of the world around me and the best way that I know how to do those things is through poetry, and being in such a supportive, creative community through the course of my undergraduate experience really made a difference, made me feel like I belonged.
"So if I were to speak and address my peers on that stage there was no way I would get up there and not pay homage to my most authentic self."
What did you mean, and where are you coming from, when you said in your poem 'the only difference in a classroom and a plantation is time?'
"So those lines in particular really highlight racial inequalities in education and education attainment. I think it's such a powerful metaphor when you talk about a plantation, slavery and how today if you fast forward you really see a lot of students being shackled by some educational policies.
"Students are burdened with so many standardized test, even certain curriculum that really don't reflect the need to elevate students' voices and students' experiences, and so in my learning as an educator and as a graduate student, I really learned a lot about how important it is to make students feel like knowledge bearers when they're in the classroom space and really making them aware that the things that they know already, coming into the classroom, make them brilliant in their own right and a lot of times when you judge students based solely on these standardized test metrics and things like that, you don't really get at the true value of that person or who the student is. That's pretty much the explanation behind the plantation metaphor."
Tell me a little bit about your teaching approach and your thoughts on education. You made several metaphors about it like 'taking the time to connect the dots in a constellation' and 'how can you tell students that they're a shining star if you don't acknowledge the darkness around them.' Tell me a little bit about what that means, and what that means for you as an educator.
"I have been a college adviser for most of my professional career. I work with, primarily, first-generation, low-income, traditionally under-represented students in higher education, helping them and their families navigate not just the application process, but that transition from high school to college.
"And often times college is positioned as this very accessible, very attainable entity, and in many respects it is - college is more accessible now than ever but I really feel as if although it is more accessible, the outcomes when you talk about college completion and matriculation and things like that, there's still some inequality in terms of who is finishing, who is graduating on time, who is not transferring or changing their majors and things like that.
"I really wanted to use that space as an opportunity to talk about all the other factors that can influence a student's propensity to be successful in academic spaces. So when I talk about acknowledging students as stars without acknowledging the night that surrounds them, if we don't focus or give students a chance to really unpack what it is that's going on around them, then you do them a disservice because we hold them to a higher standard because we don't really see what goes on behind the scenes.
"As students, we come into classrooms basically with so many other factors that might influence or hinder our learning and until we address those as educators, it's going to be really hard for students to see themselves being successful in that type of space."
In this metaphor you say 'education is the key while you continue changing the locks,' what are you getting at when you mention 'changing the locks?'
"So when I talk about changing the locks I'm really getting at this idea that our society has become a meritocracy, where you go to school, what you major in, what you do after you've done all of this learning is really what matters more than anything else and we're living in a time where a high school degree isn't necessarily enough to maintain a living wage, and we're also living in a time where a bachelor's degree might not be enough to get you the sort of economic leverage that you would've got maybe twenty, forty years ago as a college graduate.
"Really telling students that college is the ultimate goal is not enough. As someone whose entire career in education is predicated on getting students into and through college, I firmly believe that getting into college is not enough. We need to create spaces for students to have meaningful experiences in education, and by meaningful experiences I mean really highlighting the things about them that make them feel like a whole person.
"I really don't feel like I would've felt like a whole person at Carolina had it not been for my Ebony Readers Onyx Theatre community or my Black Student Movement community, which really those were spaces where I could really unpack the true measure of who I was.
"And schools are one of these institutions that we has humans all pass through and I really see school as a place where we can learn the most about ourselves and how to make this country a great place."
Is that also what you were getting at when you said that 'education is no equalizer rather the sleep that proceeds the American Dream?'
I also want to know a little bit about you because you alluded to yourself as well. I want to know more about where you come from. You said "I've been a black hole in the classroom for far too long." What did you mean by that and tell me a little bit about yourself?
"So black holes absorb everything that comes in contact with them, a lot of people view black holes as empty spaces, empty entities and really as something that is detrimental to anything that it comes near and in many ways that imagery of me as a black man, or a black person, us as black people being black holes in academic spaces ... I was really trying to get at the idea that although I've been in these very prestigious places or even just schools growing up, I really felt there were a lot of times where I was silencing myself and not allowing the light that I had within me to shine through and so I felt like a black hole.
"I might have gotten good grades or yes, I might understand the things that the teacher is talking about or things like that. I might be present in an academic space but I'm not really there because I'm not allowing myself to shine brightly like I knew I could.
"So really likening myself to a black hole was really important to me because there have been a number of times in my academic journey where I didn't feel like I belonged, even when I was at Carolina.
"In my sophomore year I had a professor tell me I didn't belong in college and things like that really stuck with me and haven't really fully made sense to me in my mind, but as I've gone through my journey as a student and as an educator, I know that I have something powerful to share with the world and all of my students do.
"And so I kind of used that last part of the poem as a way to encourage teachers and students to be more adept at bringing the light out of their students so they don't feel as if they're just absorbing, really absorbing information, but actually becoming their best self."
I think a lot of people would think upon hearing about your encounter with this person 'oh my goodness, the audacity of this professor' but then other people would think 'oh my goodness, the audacity of this professor and how could that be?' So what would you want to tell those people?
"I would say it's in no way a reflection of who you are as a person. How we think about ourselves matters more than what people tell us, and it was very much a situation where I had a poor grade in that particular class. I was learning the ins and outs of how to navigate college, you know, and office hours were a foreign thing to me, and really even asking for help was foreign to me as well because up until that point, schooling had been a breeze for me so, it's really difficult learning how to ask for help and normalizing those behaviors.
"And in no way am I letting that professor off the hook, in saying that it's OK to tell students of color they don't belong in college, or things like that, but what I am trying to say is one person's opinion does not dictate who you are as an individual, as a student and as a professional.
"So it did not hinder me from being successful. I think it only fueled my drive, but again it goes back to me having those supportive communities whether it was poetry, whether it was Black Student Movement, whether it was my fraternity, you know there were other spaces that validated my presence in college and it was that, that got me through those really difficult times."
Your speech that's going viral is a Harvard speech, but you went to Carolina for undergrad, tell me a little bit about your North Carolina ties. Are you from North Carolina? Why UNC? What are your North Carolina ties?
"I'm North Carolina born and raised. I'm a country boy. Fayetteville, NC is my hometown. I just really love where I'm from and Carolina. I remember the day I got my acceptance letter from Carolina, it was January 31, 2005, and Carolina just felt right for me.
"I grew up wanting to go to another school, whose colors are blue but shall remain nameless, and when I visited I wasn't as drawn to the campus as I thought I would be. I didn't feel excited to be there. When I visited Carolina it was a completely different experience. I felt like there were people there like me, people who had similar personalities, similar backgrounds who really cared about the experience you would have, not just in the classroom but outside of it as well.
"As college graduates, you could probably attest to a lot of the learning that takes place in your college years takes place outside the classroom, so Carolina felt like a place where I could grow as not just a student, but as a person, so that for me made Carolina rise above all the rest.
"But Carolina , North Carolina has always been a huge part of where I am, who I am. I lived in New York City for a while. My first master's degree was actually from Columbia University and so this was my first time living outside of North Carolina, and I didn't realize how much I appreciated my home until I spent a significant amount of time in other places, whether it was New York, or Boston, or any place else. There's no place like home at the end of the day."
Briefly, so I have all my facts correct, can you tell me when you graduated from each school and the degree that you received?
"I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in history. I graduated from Columbia University Teachers College with a master's of art in higher and post-secondary education, and I graduated from Harvard most recently, 2016 with a master's in education in learning and teaching."
What are your plans?
"So in the fall I will be attending the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. I'll be a Ph.D. candidate in the education and leadership and cultural foundations program. I'm really excited about that, and I'm really excited about Greensboro specifically because the first school I worked in as a college adviser, I worked in Greensboro.
"I worked at James B. Dudley High School and Ben L. Smith High School in the 2009-2010 school year so shout out to both of those places for kind of getting me excited about this work and it's really a full circle story. I'm really coming home almost seven years later and it's awesome to serve the community my first start into the field."
Tell me a little bit about the reactions that you've been getting to the commencement speech. Hillary Clinton has caught on to this?
"Yeah, it's been wild. Hillary Clinton definitely caught me by surprise, Justin Timberlake, my fraternity brother - I'm a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity incorporated - the formal international president of our fraternity called me. It's just been an insane week. Just the people reaching out and showing their outpour of support.
"But I think the things that are most meaningful to me are when people reach out to me either on my artist page or on my Twitter and share either their poetry with me or parts of their personal story and really talk about what particular lines of the poem resonate with them and it's interesting because no two lines are the same, like everybody has a different portion of the poem that stuck with them.
"And it makes me happy to know that there were people that really were listening and listening to the extent that they found something in the piece that made them feel human, that made them connect. So I'm just grateful to be able to talk about education, and disparities in education, and really open up that dialog so we can make meaningful change in our classrooms moving forward."
I know you expanded on your dreams as an educator throughout the spoken word piece but if you had to boil it down to get your message out there, what would you want people to know about your dreams? What are the things you really want to see realized in education in your lifetime?
"I want to see education opportunities and outcomes become more equitable across race, ethnic, gender, class lines it's really important that people don't rely heavily on this bootstrap mentality that you know if you just work hard that's going to be the only thing that makes a difference, that makes you come from point A to point B.
"I really think it takes a certain level of compassion to understands the nuances of someone's journey, their story - how in education where grow up, where you live, your ZIP code, can almost dictate or predict exactly where you'll end up - and I really want to work hard to deny policy, deny curriculums, to train educators to really create systems in classrooms, or opportunities in classrooms, or teaching strategies in classrooms so that those factors that already work against you whether it's where you grow up, what you look like or where you live - I really want to create a system that doesn't allow that to influence or to dictate where you end up at as a student.
"I think hard work should be the thing that makes all the difference but because we live in a place where housing and things like that influence where you end up in this world, in education I think I want to be better at making teachers more prepared to enter these spaces and be able to help students be their best selves en route to making their dreams come true."
If there is a high school freshmen or sophomore kid who's seen the video and is really feeling motivated, and is holding this dear to their heart, what message would you give to them and what would you want them to know?
"It's interesting, so when I was in the barber shop on Saturday, I was walking out, and Saturday the speech was out there but I don't know if many people had seen it just yet, and there was a 17-year-old kid who was about to graduate from high school sometime in June and he recognizes me from the video. He asked was that me and I was like 'yeah,' and we were talking and he told me he was a senior and about to graduate and you know we just had a mini conversation about what his next steps look like and I really feel like we have to encourage one another along this way.
"I think what we want to do, what our dreams are, are only part of what makes us who we are as humans, and I think really validating students and young people through their journeys, through whatever it is they might want to do is going to be really important in making them feel good and confident about themselves.
"And so in every situation where I'm meeting young people I want to make them feel confident about their dreams, about their journey. I don't want the fact that I went to Harvard, or Columbia, or UNC to speak for me. I want the fact that I care about people and care about features to be the thing that makes all the difference.
"A student doesn't have to go to Harvard to be successful. You can be successful right where you grow up, in your hometown, in your home state, at a community college, at a four-year school - it doesn't matter. I really feel like as long as we as educators are validating students' ideas and student's purpose, we're doing our job. And so in that brief five minute conversation I want to make sure I validated that particular young man, and I'll continue to do that throughout my journey in this work."