This post is adapted from a speech I delivered to students at the University of Delaware Political Science and International Relations Convocation in May 2015.
I’m the last of my mother’s 5 kids, she had me at 40 years old, and she named me Atnreakn Siahyonkron Babatunde Alleyne. Atnreakn is an ancient Egyptian name derived from Akhenaten—the first pharaoh to institute monotheism. Siahyonkron was taken from my godfather Siahyonkron Nyanseor– a political activist, journalist, and leader in the Liberian diaspora. My mother was rather deep.
It’s even more interesting when you find out that my three oldest siblings’ (each around 20 years older than I am) names are Angie, Terrie, and Tony. I jest but, for my mother, there was something empowering about studying Egyptology, exploring the richness of African culture, and seeking truth at a time where many tried to assert the inferiority of people of African-descent. My mother would not accept that.
So when you grow up with such a mother and with civil rights movement leaders likely Stokley Carmichael visiting your home, there’s something a bit normal about pushing back against the status quo.
It takes a strong will to depart from the status quo and when I graduated from middle school my mother showed how strong willed she really was. She finally decided to act upon her desires to send me to school in Africa and shipped me to a boarding school in Ghana at the ripe age of 13. Somehow the fact that I had never left the country before didn’t change her mind. Nor did my grandmother and my older siblings’ anger dampen her resolve. In December 1998, like it or not, I was on a 13-hour flight from John F Kennedy Airport in NY to Kotoka International Airport in Ghana with a large bag of Skittles to comfort me. My mother felt it was the right decision and stuck with it.
Although my high school in Ghana was a school that prepared African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and even some not so greats—like dictator Robert Mugabe—it was no pampered experience. Freshmen woke up at 4:45am during the week, I had to learn to wash clothes by hand, scrub floors, and cut grass with a cutlass. One semester students had to uproot a tree at the school farm for every failing grade on their report card. That was my last semester with a failing grade…. EVER. It was a challenging experience –culturally and academically– but I returned to home to the U.S. three years later after completing high school victoriously. I survived the military-style boarding house, excelled academically, grew as a leader, and returned with a love for learning that sustained me through many years of post-secondary education.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my father’s impact on me. My father died of cancer when I was 6 but one of the phrases he always said has stuck with me. With his cool Trinidadian accent, he would say: “All who can’t hear must feel.”
This phrase might sound familiar to any folks with Caribbean roots. But what did it really mean? At times it meant a spanking was on the horizon. At other times it was a final opportunity to demonstrate I could be guided by reason and intellect instead of my distaste for the feeling of a hand on my rear end. Ultimately, it was an aphorism with a message applicable to all ages: If you don’t listen you will suffer consequences.
As a society, we see kids’ ability to move from feeling to thinking/reflecting/calculating the implications of their actions as a sign of maturity and growth. We don’t want them to act upon their impulses or emotions. My father’s phrase spared me many a mishap but what if his adage is actually incomplete? What if the inverse is actually true: all who can’t feel, must hear? What if we spend so much time training our kids or ourselves to follow instructions, to calculate consequences, and fear repercussions that we lose the ability to feel?
This has played out numerous times in my personal and professional life. For example, the success of TeenSHARP – a college prep organization I co-founded with my wife in 2009- has been very much an act of “feeling”—a deep sense of what Dr. King called the “fierce urgency of now”– and “not hearing” –the reasons why certain things couldn’t be done, the folks who told us the timing wasn’t right, and the concerns about all the things that could go wrong.
Case in point: After attending a networking event for college prep professionals in Philadelphia in the fall of 2010, I responded to an announcement seeking academic/college prep organizations to set up tables promoting their services at an event in Philadelphia. The organizers were expecting 100+ parents and we were excited to attend to share our program with these families. Until we received the following email message from a high-ranking official in Philadelphia:
“Your program looks really interesting, but the fair is just for Philadelphia middle and high school students and parents. Since your programs are in New Jersey, I don’t think it would be beneficial for you to participate.”
I quickly responded to this email informing this person that although our program is based in Camden, NJ (closer for some Philadelphia students than many parts of Philadelphia) it is open to any families in the surrounding areas that are interested. I also informed this person that we had a participant from the Philadelphia public school system during the previous program year. Surely this was a strong and logical case for allowing parents the simple courtesy of learning about our program. Not exactly:
“I think it would not be a great use of your time to participate. We have a hard time getting parents to come out to meetings, etc. so I am not sure that they would be willing to come across the bridge for a program for their kids. Most are working parents with little extra time. I hope you understand, and appreciate your consideration.”
This was not the response we expected and we were seriously upset by this. But we weren’t upset for reasons you might expect. We knew this was not the last promotional event we would be able to attend and our ego wasn’t bruised because of a faulty sense of our own importance. We were upset because this was yet another example of privileged people in positions of authority projecting their ideas of what can’t be done on working parents.
TeenSHARP-NJ/PA has now been in existence for 7 years and over the last few years, 50% of our students have come from Philadelphia. We even had some students come from Delaware every Saturday for TeenSHARP at Rutgers-Camden until we launched TeenSHARP’s second region at the University of Delaware last year. This broad participation in TeenSHARP, in spite of what I “heard,” is a reminder of the impact of inspiration and the need to fan the flames of feeling.
Our students have come to our Rutgers-Camden and Universtiy of Delaware sites from as far as the Poconos, Jackson, NJ, to Smyrna, Delaware. The naysayers were clearly wrong.
At a very young age, we are taught to color within the lines. Our schools teach us to walk in single file and they teach us to arrive at truth through the scientific method. Like factories they use bells to teach us order and appropriate timing. We learn what social scientists call –the logic of appropriateness or the logic of consequences: how to follow socially accepted behaviors or to be rational decision makers.
But we need to challenge students to hone the skill of feeling and believing. We need to inculcate in students an ability to recognize and respond to inspiration. The type of leadership needed in the real world is one that is purpose-driven, passionate, and defiant. We should want our students to feel something when they see the injustices taking place and be prompted to act. There’s no shortage of leaders who are unwilling to sacrifice and are solely worried about personal gain. There’s a need for the type of leaders who are deaf to doubters. Leaders who feel, who care, who love, and who serve contagiously.
The late, great Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Perhaps this talk made you think. But I sure hope it made you feel.