On Tuesday in Chicago, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a commencement address to the graduating seniors of Dr. Martin Luther King Preparatory High School. It's always a momentous occasion when a new class receives high school diplomas, but for this class and this school, graduation was also a sobering reminder of some of the serious problems some Chicago students face on a daily basis. This commencement was somber as well as celebratory for the class of 2015: This is the year that Hadiya Pendleton would have graduated, had she not been shot and killed on her way home from school in 2013.
Martin Luther King Prep is located in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, where 23 percent of families live below the poverty line, and had 75 violent crimes reported in May 2015. Knowing what the graduating seniors face each day, Mrs. Obama got personal in her speech and told students:
I was born and raised here on the South Side — in South Shore — and I am who I am today because of this community. I know the struggles many of you face: how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs; how you fight to concentrate on your homework when there's too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family's having a hard time making ends meet.
It's true that residents of Chicago's South Side face a shocking level of violence year after year, and young people are no exception. Already in 2015, 35 people under the age of 20 have been killed in Chicago, 100 percent of these victims were Black, nearly all of them were killed on the South Side. Praising the students for their strength and perseverance led Obama to encourage them to "dig deep and keep on fighting to fulfill [their] own dreams."
This is a challenging imperative for students and schools throughout the city, not only because of hardships related to widespread violence, but also due to intensely controversial education policies led by the city's mayor, Rahm Emmanuel. In 2013, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school board voted to close 49 schools, primarily on the city's South and West sides, the areas in Chicago that are most affected by poverty.
Students on Chicago's South Side are dealt a difficult hand, and yet many of them are able to persevere, and graduate from high school, in spite of the adversity they must face in order to get there. Obama's speech was so powerful in part because she rejects the notion that the narrative about Chicago students has to be a negative one that focuses on violence and political strife over education policies.
Instead, she left students and the rest of the country with the message that Chicago students "embody all of the courage and love, all of the hunger and hope that have always defined these communities — our communities." Well said, Mrs. Obama.