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LA County Board of Education’s Alex M. Johnson: Answering the call for the greater good — a challenge to the Class of 2018

Alex M. Johnson | June 18, 2018

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Graduation season has almost concluded, and students and teachers are anxiously readying to begin summer break. Undoubtedly, many of us have spent the past few weeks taking part in the pomp and circumstance and pageantry that accompany the milestone of matriculation in a student’s educational career.

Whether it’s the culmination ceremony of a child going from kindergarten to first grade or a high school student walking across the stage as the first in their family to graduate and go off to college, the ethos of celebration is an affirmation of the transformational and fundamental power of education.

And for many, it is a manifestation of the sacrifices, hopes, and dreams of countless individuals that have walked the path beforehand — most of whom will never know the names of the Class of 2018 and whose paths will never intersect but are uplifted by the belief that the class of 2018 will be better and do better than the generation that came before.

Graduation, particularly when a student is transitioning from high school, is a time to collectively challenge ourselves, to look beyond the celebratory moment — beyond the here and now, and reflect on the manner in which the education that has been obtained will be used going forward.

Twenty years ago, I graduated from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), an LAUSD magnet school. As I have been reflecting on that personal milestone, I am reminded that my class graduated during a time of relative domestic and international tranquility. At that time, it seemed that despite the challenges facing our communities we were pushing to reach the mountaintop and build a beloved community.

The perspective I held 20 years ago feels strikingly quixotic and paradoxical today. Perhaps that’s why at this moment the words of James Baldwin resonate. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s no secret that the Class of 2018 finds itself in the midst of a critical intersection in our nation’s complicated history. Racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, and nationalism — misplaced fear and ignorance of the “other” — have enveloped swaths of this country and collided on the national and international stage.

Some have made feeble and cowardly attempts to build walls and undermine bridges of humanity. Rising rates of poverty, homelessness, and wealth gaps, mass incarceration of people of color, educational facilities that look and feel like prisons, rampant health disparities, and the prevalence of gun violence that plagues communities continue to prevent everyone from living the fullness of their lives.

And the words contained in the Declaration of Independence — “that all men [and women] are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, that of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — too often ring hollow and are dependent on your ZIP Code, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, native language, or the amount of wealth you possess.

Indeed, these are sobering times accompanied by immense challenges that must be faced. And so, Class of 2018, what will you do tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and next year to confront the challenges and build a better community?

I am hopeful — not simply because of what you have done, the fact that you are graduating, but because I know what you will do! Tomorrow already looks better and brighter because of your energy, passion, dedication, decency, and respect for the humanity in everyone you encounter, your relentless fight for justice, the intelligence you possess, and the creativity and ingenuity you wield.

Nelson Mandela described education “as the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It’s been used to uplift humanity to push for solutions to some of our most complex societal challenges, to put a man on the moon, to create new technology and innovation, to stretch our thinking and counter societal norms. 

Class of 2018, as you go forth into the world, I urge you to leverage your education, the intersection of talent and opportunity, to answer the call for the greater good. So here are just a few pieces of advice:

  • Don’t just be a compassionate spectator; act! One individual’s actions can sow the seeds of change.
  • Facing change requires that we are not simply satisfied with satisfactory or comfortable with conformity; the history of this country is filled with individuals whose intolerance for injustice spurred persistent acts of righteous resistance.   
  • Be unyielding in your hopes and unrelenting in your dreams. Do not be restrained by what you think is impossible or dismayed when what you believed to be possible does not happen at the time and in the manner you wanted it to happen.
  • Embrace radical love and radical empathy for those around you!
  • Finally, be controversial agitators that complicate the status quo and are nonconforming authentic agents of change.

Class of 2018, you represent the hopes and dreams of your ancestors. Each of you is endowed with a special purpose — ready to lead and soar to new heights that will empower the next generation. And I stand firm in my unshaken belief that in whatever you do, the best is yet to come.

Congratulations, Class of 2018!

Alex M. Johnson is president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post, Los Angeles Daily News, and Sacramento Bee. Additional work can be found at

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