Dr. Steve Perry, a strident advocate for education revolution and founder and principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., came to Georgia Southern Wednesday to challenge the audience in the keynote address of the university’s 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.
Filled almost to capacity with students, faculty and community members, the crowd inside the Performing Arts Center listened intently to Perry’s passionate and stirring words of challenge.
After joking that there must be a lot of students that needed extra credit, Perry launched into his speech:
“If you ain’t doing something, you ain’t doing nothing. You can’t hashtag your way through a movement. I’ve seen the ‘bout to’ generation for too long.
“We have an obligation, black, white or other to challenge ourselves. We have an obligation to do more than what was done before.
“In order to make a change, you have to make a change inside you. Decide what you want to fight for.”
As for Perry, he said he fights for educational access. He said he is committed to fighting for equal and competitive opportunities for children who otherwise would not have a voice. His mission is simple, he said: high-quality education with college-bound opportunities for children in poverty.
Perry said his commitment to excellence started as the founder of what U.S. News and World Report cited as one of the top schools in the country: Capital Preparatory Magnet School. Capital Prep has sent 100 percent of its predominantly low-income, minority, first generation high school graduates to four-year colleges every year since its first class graduated in 2006.
Perry said, “The reason why we started schools, children are led to believe growing up in poverty somehow makes them less capable. That’s not the case. Everything that has life has the capacity to learn.
“It’s all too easy for us to look around at our circumstances, regardless of our color, and say, ‘this is the way it supposed to be.’
“You are what you set out to do. You are defined by what you do, not what you say.
“I saw black, Latino and poor white kids not being treated as they should. We decided we were going to start a school. I figured I could do that.
“You see, all I had was the presumption that every one of you has the capacity to do something great. Regardless of where you come from, rich or poor, black or white, suburbs or dirt roads.”
Perry spoke specifically to students in the audience when he said, “Opportunity is nothing without work. It’s not enough to have good grades. You gotta fight for something. You make a life or you make a living. When we make a life, we pay our debt. When we make a living, we pay our bills.
“We need to decide that we will never send a child again to a failed school. Students should not come to college campuses and feel like they are stupid. Each one of you has talents. And you need to do more than just show up and make good grades. “
Perry reminded the audience that “life ain’t fair. It ain’t never gonna be fair,” but if you’re not working hard to change the circumstances that hinder you, then you’re “doing nothing.”
Dr. Perry emphasized emphatically his belief that each person has an obligation to the community as a whole, “not just the ones that look just like you” and said that no matter what each person decides to become, the obligation remains to improve the lives of other people.
Perry was born into third-generation poverty on his mother’s 16th birthday and to a father who dropped out of school before tenth grade and was incarcerated by the time Perry was a senior. He said it was the best experience in the world to watch the light “come back on” in some of his students, oftentimes high schoolers who read on a fourth grade level, to see that pride return and to find out they can go to college.
Also, Perry extolled every student at his school to pour into the lives of others, to encourage just such a young man. He pleaded, “Know what it feels like to see a person changed with one phrase, ‘You can do it; I love you.’”
The passionate educator knows that story all too well. When asked who encouraged him as a youngster, he first answered lots of people, but then specifically and fondly spoke of his fourth grade teacher, Mr. Kensel.
“I’d been retained in third grade twice. Mr. Kensel found me and said, ‘You’re gonna be smart one day.’”
In a span of what seemed like only minutes, Perry came to the end of his challenging speech.
“There’s something special, powerful in each and every one of you. You’re here to make a difference. To make an impact.”
Perry said it pains him to know that beautiful people are shattered through no fault of their own, just because they are born into the wrong neighborhood.
“Look beyond what separates you. You are here together, tonight. Take in the oneness that you are experiencing now. What life without strife feels like, what hope feels like. I want you to extend that to others.
“I want you to know what it feels like to extend hope. To inspire. But most importantly what it feels like to do something.”
Dr. Perry’s visit commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the annual celebration on campus sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and the university’s Multicultural Student Center.