A Conversation with Donovan Livingston

Donovan Livingston

Former student council and National Honor Society member, Master of Education graduate from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and current doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Advise: When did you first know you wanted to participate in student council and National Honor Society? What did you hope to gain from the experience? 

From an early age, my parents instilled in me the value of leadership. As first-generation college students and products of the civil rights era, they were exposed to a unique kind of leadership in the face of overt oppression and discrimination—the kind of leadership that inspires hope and sustains a movement. With that in mind, I can recall a moment in preschool when I was disciplined by my teachers for refusing to eat lunch. Instead, I was convinced by a friend that dining on leaves during recess would be a better idea—I mean, it made sense. Leaves are like a vegetable, right? Anyway, I was in “time out” when my dad arrived to pick me up. To say he was livid would be an understatement! Long story short, he and my mom sat me down that night and explained the concept of leadership—how leaders are guided by a morality rooted in justice, fairness, and equality. Moreover, that day they insisted that true leaders don’t let others convince them to break the rules. Since that moment, I have always taken an interest in student governance and representing my peers’ collective voice. While some would say it was my parents’ wrath that evoked my interest in leadership, I saw my participation in student council as a means for increasing minority student representation in the decision making within the schools I attended. Naturally, that inclination inspired my performance in the classroom—heightening my interest and eventual induction into the National Honor Society.

Advise: Did you join student council in middle school or high school? Were you a member of NJHS as well as NHS? 

Funny you should ask! I joined student council as early as fifth grade. I was the student body president of Lloyd E. Auman Elementary School and later at 71st Classical Middle School [in Fayetteville, NC]. Although that only amounted to leading the pledge of allegiance at assemblies and an anchor spot on our weekly schoolwide news broadcast, those moments laid the foundation for understanding what it meant to be vocal on behalf of my peers. I was later inducted into the National Honor Society during my junior year of high school.

Advise: You currently hold a BA in history, two master’s degrees in education, and are working on your doctorate in philosophy. At what point did you realize a strong education is essential for success?

From birth, my parents have encouraged me to regard education as the foundation of a life best lived. My mom often jokes that one of my first words was “college.” Although I do not recall my first words, my parents existed as examples of how education attainment can improve one’s quality of life. As educators themselves—my father, a principal, and my mother, a speech-pathologist—they were mentors to the students they served. There were moments I would accompany my parents to the mall or grocery store, and former students of theirs—and I’m talking full-on grown-ups—would express their sincere gratitude and appreciation for the work my parents did on their behalf, both in and outside of the classroom. Although I did not always want to be an educator (in another life I dreamed of being an architect), I saw the field as an opportunity for me to serve others. Since 2009, I have worked in various college-access roles, helping first-generation, low-income, and traditionally underrepresented students in higher education navigate the transition from high school to college. To me, in many ways, the work I do is an act of social justice, as I regard the pursuit and completion of higher education as a mechanism for leveraging personal growth, as well as social and economic advancement.

Advise: You have a new book on the way. Could you share a bit about that? 

In my 2016 convocation address, I performed a spoken word poem titled “Lift Off.” The poem was met with great enthusiasm from educators, students, and social media outlets worldwide. In so doing, I collaborated with Penguin Random House Publishing Group to create a new adaptation of the speech in the form of a book; it will be released on April 4, just in time for my graduation! Edel Rodriguez, renowned artist whose works have been featured in The New York Times, TIME Magazine, The New Yorker, and the cover of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, was commissioned to illustrate Lift Off. His work provides a stunning visual complement to lyrics throughout the poem. Preorders for Lift Off are available here: http://tinyurl.com/livingstonliftoff.

Advise: What would you say to a student who is considering joining student council or the Honor Societies?

I would encourage that student to think about what it means to represent all people. More specifically, I would challenge the student to listen actively to the concerns of his or her community and provide opportunities for those voices that are often unheard. These organizations provide a space for students to express themselves. Expression, of course, exists in many forms. Be it an art exhibit, poetry slam, protest, teach-in, or town hall meeting, potential members of student council and NHS must take the reins in critically analyzing the needs, issues, and concerns directly affecting their surrounding community. With that in mind, I would encourage those interested in joining student council or the Honor Societies to develop and promote programming that gives students a space to address the systemic problems that influence what happens in school (e.g., poverty, redlining and/or gentrification, creating and sustaining positive relationships with law enforcement, etc.). Although the task may seem mighty, the skills one acquires from leading such endeavors conditions them for democracy and future acts of civic engagement.

Advise: Did the service work you did with student council and NHS ignite an interest in helping others? How so? 

Participating in student organizations such as student council and NHS taught me how to effectively organize service opportunities for myself and others. I always understood that service was important; however, identifying a community need and planning an event addressing that need is another thing altogether. Working with others to plan Adopt-a-Highway, Habitat for Humanity, and peer mentoring opportunities was essential to my understanding of both why and how service is done.

Advise: Please share your fondest memory from your time in student council and NHS.

Although I recently began to experiment with, write, and perform rap and spoken word poetry, at the time I was still very much attached to visual art. As an avid sketcher—and budding architect, of course—I submitted a design for the NHS T-shirt competition. I labored over that drawing for several nights between reading assignments, meetings, practices, and a part-time job. I was sure to incorporate our Buccaneer logo, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned atop a tattered flag. The phrases “N.H.S.” and “Jack Britt High School National Honor Society” wrapped themselves around a blue and green planet earth. Our school colors, purple and gold, boldly adorned each letter. Having lost the Senior Class of 2005 shirt design competition earlier in the year, I was determined to create a winning image! I remember the designs on display in the cafeteria. The artists’ names remained anonymous to dissuade bias. Once the votes were tallied, it was revealed that my design was the winner! While it was special to see a creation of mine as a T-shirt worn by my peers, what that moment truly symbolized was how adept I’d become in the art of bringing people together. As I matured, it became clear that what I truly learned from these experiences was a unique skill in connecting people, creating a collective sense of community. We were not a random assemblage of students with good grades and a knack for bartering false promises for votes. No. We were a body of individuals committed to the task of reflecting the needs of others. Thank you, Delarese Townsend—my NHS adviser—who saw fit to hold us accountable for doing all we could to ensure the success of ourselves and others.