When Fayetteville native Donovan Livingston took the stage Wednesday to deliver a spoken word poem at a convocation of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, his main concern was inspiring future educators.
As an estimated 2,200 people listened, Livingston spoke passionately about the hurdles that black people must overcome in today’s education system.
What he didn’t imagine was that within hours, a video of his speech would go viral. By Friday, it had received more than five million online views, and additional viewers were discovering it every minute.
“How does it feel to go virus?” asked his father, Harold Livingston, slightly confusing the Internet term.
Though Donovan Livingston is proud – and a bit overwhelmed – by the response, he said it is not the online views, likes and retweets that he’s really concerned about. It’s the meaning behind the words that matters most, he said.
“I had no idea the poem would be so well received, but I’m certainly grateful for all the positive attention that it’s been getting, whether it’s from Hillary Clinton or friends that I’ve grown up with my entire life,” Livingston said. “It means the same to me that I was able to touch and inspire some folks for five minutes.”
As he looked back on his experiences in high school and as an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, Livingston recalled what it was like to sometimes feel left behind. Making sure teachers reach out to such students is important to him, he said.
A former English teacher told him not to recite a poem for his high school graduation speech, Livingston remembered. A college professor at UNC once told him he didn’t belong at the school. And being a black male at the predominantly white institutions of UNC, Columbia University and Harvard added to his feeling like an outsider, he said.
But Livingston’s poem showed how trials only made him stronger.
“Education is no equalizer –
“Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
“So wake up – wake up! Lift your voices
“Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.”
“I wanted people to understand both the legacy of inequalities in education and how we often laud education as this thing that is the great equalizer in our society, and it’s really not,” Livingston said. “In many ways, some education systems work to reinforce inequalities in the country. Highlighting that was really important to me.”
Michael Rodman, Harvard’s assistant dean for communications and marketing, said 29 people entered a competition to deliver the speech at Wednesday’s convocation. After the list was narrowed to eight, it became apparent that Livingston’s planned talk was on a level unlike any other.
“His speech was clearly different,” Rodman said. “It was a combination of the urgency of his message and the timing of his message.”
At the end of his poem, Livingston reminded educators it is their duty to help students reach their potential.
“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
“For generations to come.
“So, no, no, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.
A proud husband to wife Lauren and a grateful son of Sheila and Harold, Livingston was driving back to North Carolina on Friday. He next plans to pursue a doctorate in education leadership at UNC Greensboro.
He said he realizes that his words were not only for other educators but for himself, too. And he’s motivated more than ever to guide the next generation of educators and students.
“Love guides all my actions,” Livingston said. “It always has and it always will.”
Bryan Anderson: 919-829-8934, @bryanranderson