“It was an honor to serve as the commencement speaker at McKinley Preparatory and South End Academy High Schools tonight. I know what it’s like to grow up under tough circumstances, so I couldn’t be more proud of these kids for all they’ve achieved. The future of our community is bright!” — DH
Read Darrin’s prepared remarks to the McKinley and South End graduating Class of 2018 below.
McKinley Preparatory & South End Academy High Schools Commencement Address
Congratulations to the Class of 2018. Thank you Headmaster Velecia Saunders and faculty members. Thank you Zalikah Hanna for thinking of me and my journey when considering who might speak with you all on today. And most of all, thank you to the family and friends that are here to support each and every one of you. Believe me, I know it can take a village!
It’s really an honor to be with you here today and share a few words as you get ready to embark on the next chapter in your journey through this thing we call life. As someone who faced my share of challenges in my high school years, I know how big of an accomplishment this is for you all. I hope you’re incredibly proud of this achievement.
As I prepared for today, I immediately recognized that I was being asked to serve as the commencement speaker for an event I didn’t even get to attend with my classmates. I wasn’t able to be in a room like this on graduation day because of choices I had made throughout my youth. So I thought about what I could say that would hold your attention and provide you with a little insight into to who I am and how I got here. Because I’m willing to bet that my experiences growing up weren’t all that different than many of yours. And yet here I stand today as a proud commencement speaker — and an even prouder parent in my own right. So don’t let anyone ever tell you what you can’t do or won’t be able to achieve.
So let me start off by saying that I know what it’s like to struggle and deal with pain. I’m sure everyone in this room can relate to that in one way or another. By a show of hands — and let’s keep ‘em up once they’re raised — how many of you have felt the struggle of trying to make ends meet and help support your family? How many of you have lost loved ones to community violence? How many of you are still dealing with the emotions and feelings that are tied to trauma? Last question: how many of you understand what it’s like to feel that pull of the streets?
I ask these questions to make sure I’m talking to the right crowd. Seriously though, that was a lot of hands in the air. So you can really see how we’re all in this together.
So, a little about me. I grew up in a difficult home environment. Youngest of 12 kids. Education opportunities were limited and we had even fewer resources available. I entered high school around 14 years old, right after reading the book Monster Kody: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member. Not sure if any of you have read it, but I felt that I had found the manuscript for the do’s and don’ts for the lifestyle I thought I needed to live in order to survive in the streets of Boston.
So I took that manual and did more than a few of the things it described. I sold drugs and participated in illegal activities in order to generate money. I had no problem carrying firearms in order to protect what was mine — because you know you can’t go to the police for problems in the streets. I had my share of relationship problems too, and I have to admit I understand the challenges that substance use can bring.
So that’s why I wasn’t able to graduate with my class. Three months before graduation I was arrested for possession with intent to distribute a Class D substance. I was banned from all senior class activities.
But, that’s not the reason that I was asked to speak here today. I think I was asked to speak because, in some ways, I’m a living example that you can transcend from your circumstances — no matter how bad they may seem. I’m proof that your worst trials, obstacles and tribulations do not have to be your defining moments.
You see my goal back in those days was just to make it 21. And I lived fast because I didn’t expect to live long. I’m sure plenty of you can relate. And nine months after my 21st birthday, all those activities I mentioned finally caught up with me and I was incarcerated. I served a year at South Bay House of Corrections. This September actually marks 14 years since my release.
It wasn’t until a City Councilor by the name of Chuck Turner answered my call that I was able to get myself back on the right path. My daughters were born while I was in prison so I was doing everything I could to be a productive member of society. But that’s not so easy to do while carrying the burden of a criminal record and being labeled an “ex offender”. It was tough, almost impossible, especially knowing there was always that “job” out there waiting for me. Because you know the streets are always hiring and the pay is solid. It’ll kill your soul and separate you from your loved ones… but it pays real well in the process. The reality is that employment opportunity usually requires taking what I call “penitentiary and cemetery” chances, where the occupational hazards are death and jail. Trust me, I know.
Chuck was working on CORI reform efforts. And based on my own experience trying to find and maintain gainful employment with a criminal record in my shadow, I knew I could be the face to the issue.
Chuck connected me to an organization by the name of STRIVE Boston where I met other men – also ex offenders — who modeled the success that I thought I could never achieve in my own life. Through STRIVE, I found hope for a better future and motivation for me to help myself and others to strive for more.
Chuck eventually offered me a job on his staff and I went in to serve as his Director of Constituent Services. It was my first big break — my first real chance to do some good on behalf of my community in a big way.
I am strong believer in the phrase to whom much is given, much should be expected. And I’ve taken the “second chance” I was given to become a local youth mentor and a resource for disadvantaged families across the state. I’ve served on the campaigns of national political figures and worked on workers’ rights issues that affect millions of people. And in the process, I’ve grown to become a nationally recognized community and political organizer. All that from a kid who used to hustle on the streets of Dorchester.
I understand what motivated me was seeing examples of the success I thought I could not achieve in my life because of the challenges I faced as a kid. I remember sitting in rooms like this thinking “Man, I don’t want to go through the obstacles that guy’s talking about in order to get to the right place.” But I said cake to learn that if they can do it so can I. And you don’t have to do it the hard way — we can all learn from the mistakes from those who came before us. We are not doomed to repeat them.
So that brings us to today — to this room, and to you. You’re already on the right path…way earlier than I was. You all are here now in this moment, and I want you to recognize that no one can take away this occasion and the work you put in to be here. I say that because I know what it took you to get here. I know how hard it was.
There are 1440 minutes in a day — that’s all we have to be productive, to contribute, to help ourselves and others succeed. So consider that: what will you do with that time?
Thank you again for allowing me to be here and Congratulations Class of 2018!!!