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In speech that went viral, Harvard student with WNY ties urges peers to 'lift off'

It's called “Lift Off,” a 5½-minute speech that wowed the crowd at Donovan Livingston's Harvard graduate-school commencement last week and has since skyrocketed far beyond Harvard Yard, reaching 10.9 million viewers so far on the Internet.

And, of course, the impassioned speech with its high-powered metaphors has a Western New York connection.

Livingston delivered the “spoken-word poetry” message at his graduation from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The speech strongly suggested the need for our nation's educational system to become the great equalizer it has failed to be, especially for young black students.

The 29-year-old student later credited his wife, Lauren West-Livingston, a 2008 Sweet Home High School graduate, for helping him with the speech, which relied largely on outer-space metaphors. And she seemed to sense the message's possible impact.

“Lauren definitely thought it was going to be much larger than the Harvard community,” he said Tuesday by phone from their home in Winston-Salem, N.C. “She said it had the potential to be something big. It's cool to see how it's taken off.”

Although never subtle, his stylishly crafted speech strongly suggested the challenges facing young black students, without ever referring directly to blacks or African-Americans. Instead, he often used “I” or “we” to refer to black students.

Livingston began his speech with an 1848 quote from educator Horace Mann: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.”

Livingston quickly added: “At the time of his remarks, I couldn't read, I couldn't write. Any attempt to do, punishable by death.”

“For generations, we have known of knowledge's infinite power,” he told the crowd. “Yet somehow, we've never questioned the keeper of the keys, the guardians of information.”

Livingston wasn't shy about the failures of our educational system through the generations.

“For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time. How many times must we be made to feel like quotas, like tokens in coined phrases? – 'Diversity. Inclusion.' ”

And this: “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. Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.”

The Livingstons live in North Carolina, where Lauren is in medical school at Wake Forest, while her husband begins a Ph.D program in educational leadership at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In the phone interview, he explained how he delivered the message so smoothly, without any appearance of a Teleprompter or notes.

For years, he's written “spoken-word poetry,” which he described as a form of storytelling that's boundless in structure and form. He writes his message, then develops a relationship with the material, so he can internalize it, rather than memorize it.

But he was quick to add that he was a lot more nervous than he looked.

“I'm really glad there was a podium, because my legs were shaking.”

And he credited those who helped make him the man he is today.

“I represent more than myself,” he said over the phone. “I represent my family, my wife, my community and the kids I teach. All of my energy is derived from them, from the people who fed me, clothed me and encouraged me when I didn't believe in myself, especially Lauren.”

Livingston laced his speech with plenty of outer-space references, including comets, the stars, the Big Dipper and rocketships.

His favorite metaphor may have been the reference at the end of his speech to having been a “black hole,” in the classroom, absorbing everything without allowing any light to escape.

“But those days are done. I belong among the stars. And so do you. And so do they. Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come. No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.

“Lift off.”

As Livingston explained over the phone, “I don't want students, no matter where they come from or what they look like, to feel like black holes in the classroom. As educators, we want their light to shine through.”