It's been the speech heard 'round the world. Donovan Livingston got the opportunity to speak at his graduation from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Livingston recited a spoken word piece, entitled "Lift Off," as his graduation speech of choice. His now alma mater has called it one of "the most powerful, heartfelt student speeches you'll ever hear." After being posted on the school's official Facebook page, it has since received nearly 10 million views and 215k shares on the social media site alone

Since the speech was posted online last week, Livingston has received co-signs from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Justin Timberlake. People all over social media have even marked Donovan as the next president of the United States. He isn't new to being an internet sensation, though. He and his wife Lauren's hip-hop-themed wedding went viral last year

As a fellow Tar Heel, I had the pleasure of knowing Donovan and working with him before the fame. Despite being super busy, he took the time to catch-up with me to talk about his speech and its aftermath

Donovan Livingston
Photo: YouTube
Livingston entered a competition to speak at convocation and was selected as a finalist

"Spoken word poetry has been my lifeline for a long time," he says, "For me, it is truly a mechanism for reflection, healing and highlighting the complexities of life."
He says that as an undergraduate student, he lacked confidence while in class and interacting with faculty, but on the stage he felt most human and authentic

With "Lift Off," he sought to challenge the notion that education is "the great equalizer," addressing our collective histories in schools. Livingston said he didn't even finish writing the poem until the speech submission deadline, spending lots of time editing, revising and practicing. "Ultimately, I felt good about it, because it is an embodiment of all that I've learned from working with students in the past and studying alongside my colleagues at HGSE. " Being a UNC, Columbia and Harvard alum, Livingston said he has been made aware of his blackness at each instance, saying, "While the universities I've attended, like most universities, have storied histories with race and race relations, the best part about attending these institutions has been the relationships I've been able to develop with people from all walks of life." At each setting, Livingston has carved out communities for himself that he says have been supporting, uplifting and transcendent

"I am unapologetic about who I am, because I have surrounded myself with a network predicated on compassion, purpose, progress and self-care. I have been blessed to be able to share academic spaces with so many brilliant, gifted people who continue to inspire me," he says. Livingston is encouraged when he sees traditionally marginalized communities advocating fervently for what they believe in, such as the activism at Mizzou, Reclaim Harvard Law, and UNC's Black Student Movement and Real Silent Sam Coalition

Donovan Livingston
Photo: Donovan Livingston / Facebook
Although Donovan says he absolutely didn't anticipate his poem going viral, his wife, Lauren, would say otherwise. "She lifts me up when I start to second guess myself. When I was skeptical about submitting and performing this specific poem for this audience, her voice was the calming reassurance I needed to move forward." Even if the poem didn't go viral, he says he still would have been pleased to have addressed his peers in a genuine way. "Being able to represent this class of HGSE graduates was a truly humbling experience. While going viral was never the goal, hopefully, we can use this stage to discuss inequalities in education," he says

All in all, he hopes that his speech will resonate with teachers, students and advocates for education reform, as there are considerable gaps in the education system

"The origins of these gaps are rooted in a complex, controversial, uncomfortable history that's not easy to talk about. Race/ethnicity, poverty, privilege, citizenship and gender can play a significant role in the opportunities afforded to students — they also shape teacher's perceptions of those students, whether or not we care to admit it."
Livingston wants "Lift Off" to inspire future educators to see the value in students' stories, and in turn encourage students to dare to be themselves in institutions where they weren't meant to thrive

Donovan is returning to North Carolina to continue his education and to be with his wife, who is in her second year of medical school at Wake Forest University. He will pursue his Ph.D. in Education Leadership and Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

We know that this is only the beginning of great things to come from Donovan

Donovan Livingston
Photo: Giphy

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