Not long ago, graduation speeches went something to the effect of, “With hard work, you’ll go far.”
We may be, as they say, on the cusp of change.
In Falls Church, Virginia Monday, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) board member Abrar Omeish gave Justice High School graduates a keynote speech they won’t likely forget.
Before the address, a student announced, “Now, recite the nation’s anthem.”
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under Allah, indivisible, and with liberty and justice for all.”
Following that, among guests of the panel, “the Honorable Abrar Omeish” was introduced.
Prior to taking the podium, she was noted as the “Virginia co-chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign” and a spokeswoman for “No Muslim Ban Ever.”
Then, a curious curveball:
“However, her journey has not always been easy. Two years ago, her civil rights were violated by the police due to her appearance. She was attacked and discriminated against. Being judged for our appearance is something many, if not all high schoolers have been through. Nevertheless, our speaker’s so fearless, especially recently when facing hatred for speaking truth to power about the Palestinian experience. She continues to overcome and be an example so that young leaders like us will do the same.”
As an orator, Abrar was fantastic.
In terms of content, she began with standard fare:
“Are you excited today? Are you proud of your accomplishments? … You’ve developed resiliency this year.”
“For just a second, I want you to think back at the hardest thing that you went through in the past four years,” she said. “Now I want you to think that you’re here because you overcame that thing. Even if you never imagined you could.”
Moving forward, it appeared she’s perhaps not a fan of rugged individualism.
Abrar went on to praise the class for its attention to racial groups. And to emphasize the school name — “Justice.”
“You are the Justice Class of 2021…you’re made for something different, something bigger. … Over the past four years, you all kicked off the first-ever Black History Month assembly to ensure that we confront our history and answer honestly about the ills of our past. So that we can correct their legacy today and for the future. You then celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and participated in the first lesson on Asian-American and Pacific Islander History Month.”
She hit on society’s inequity:
“You, class, set a model for the entire county by starting FCPS’s first equity club, now known as the Equity Team. Which, by the way, now is in every high school. Huge shout-out to [select faculty] for supporting and empowering students despite the pushback.”
It’s all about social justice:
“Your model…moved the superintendent of the 10th largest school division in the country to follow your lead… And you pushed to incorporate that in the school schedule, because you understand that social justice is only political for those who can afford to ignore it.”
As for diversity, it’s crucial — though she didn’t say what kind:
“You recognize that diversity is necessary at every level, especially in leadership and decision-making.”
Where success is concerned, it’s about the group:
“[Y]ou understand that we do not thrive until we all lift each other up, that our successes are not worth celebrating until we all come along. Until our most vulnerable are uplifted. Until every single one of us is able to cross that finish line.”
“You are the justice Class of 2021,” she repeatedly emphasized.
At one point, Abrar offered, “First, let us acknowledge the stolen land of the Manahoac people, on which we have lived… This stuff is a reminder to us of what happens when we delay justice.”
The speaker eventually hit upon, for my money, a couple critical needs of the world — humility and gratitude.
Though, she framed them as fuel for “empowerment”:
“Can you internalize a level of gratitude for your immense blessings and the humility to understand that luck — that luck of the draw in our world — has empowered you? Can you internalize a level of gratitude and humility that allows you to maintain focus in living up to your purpose?”
She went on to commission the kids as warriors for the social justice cause.
And she encouraged them to resist the temptation of worldly success.
Rather, Abrar advised a “higher standard.”
“The world will try to convince you that your worth is tied to how much you make, how much you produce. Desperation and a desire to live a better life than the one you had might pressure you to subscribe to causes you don’t even believe in. And to devote your lives to them. The pursuit of fame, power, or comfort might lead you in directions you never saw yourself following.”
She did, however, encourage individualism in this one regard: inner strength.
“Your validation is from within. Because you know who you are. You know your purpose. And this is how you do not waiver.”
That’s most certainly true — a strong person isn’t one who’s affirmed by others, but one who doesn’t look to others to be affirmed.
And today’s teens’ll need that strength — to hear Abrar tell it, the world’s a very messed up place:
“Our world is overwhelmed with need. We struggle with human greed…”
We also, she asserted, contend with the following:
- Climate crisis
- Growing wealth gaps
- Extreme poverty amidst luxury…right next door.
And also these:
- Extreme versions of individualism
- Extreme versions of capitalism
- White supremacy
Capitalism is, of course, a free-market economic system in which an individual may own his or her own business.
As for white supremacy, it seems a difficult dragon to slay. From what I’ve observed, the term is frequently used by people calling it out, yet largely never used by anyone endorsing it. Amid that paradigm, how can we annihilate it?
Perhaps the Class of 2021 will figure that out.
Back to Abrar “speaking truth to power,” she made the news in March by tweeting, “Hurts my heart to celebrate while Israel kills Palestinians & desecrates the Holy Land right now. Apartheid & colonization were wrong yesterday and will be today, here and there. May justice + truth prevail.”
That caused a great controversy, laced with a loud weighing-in from both sides.
[The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington], which canceled its decision to honor Omeish for her work championing equity among all faiths, also accused Omeish of making statements that “target and marginalize Jewish students and their families.”
Award or not, she was given the honor of speaking to America’s future.
Will they rise to the occasion to shun individual ambition for the sake of equity? That remains to be seen.
But I’d say there’s more than a good chance.
— In The Know (@InTheKnow) February 11, 2021
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