In just over two months, a high school commencement speaker will be able to look a group of 18-year-old Newarkers in the eyes and tell them to do well in college, to consider bringing their talents back home and contributing to critical initiatives and, heck, perhaps run for local office while they’re young.
The words won’t come from judge, a seasoned corporate executive, or another figure who is quite a bit of distance from them in age and experience, but from a young Newarker who sat where they did a mere five years ago, and will be able to speak with the credibility of experience when he asks them to build their talents and skills, and not “wait until they’re older” to invest them back into their communities.
In June, Rashawn Davis, the activist, organizer, and former candidate for local political office, will deliver the commencement speech to graduating University High School students.
In 2014, Davis made history when he became the youngest person ever certified on a Newark municipal ballot ahead of his run for Newark’s West Ward city council seat. He was just 21 years old. Davis didn’t ultimately win, but the seriousness of his candidacy raised his profile, and the experience gave him firsthand insight into the pugilistic electoral process in Newark.
After the election, he doubled down on his organizing by selecting and working on needle-moving initiatives. Perhaps most prominently, he joined the ACLU, where he was a key figure in advocating and organizing for the creation of a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and other police reforms, even before police reform flared up as headline-making national issue.
Newark’s CCRB has been hailed as one of the strongest in the country. When the board was created, Mayor Ras Baraka named Davis one of its nine appointees.
Davis also breathed new life into the Essex County Young Democrats, a county-wide organization where he now serves as president and can work across municipalities on youth-oriented issues, and directly influence youth participation in the civic and political processes.
Davis has noted in the past that while youth bear the brunt of a number of critical problems in Newark, including unemployment and crime victimization, they’re almost completely shut out of the governing process in Newark. It’s a chasm he’s said he is committed to closing, by participating himself and by inspiring his peers to do the same.
The commencement speech will give him a captive audience whose decisions over the next few years will shape the extent and tenor of their participation in Newark if and when they return to the city after college. According to a statement about the speech, University High School Principal Regina Sharpe is excited for Davis to deliver his message to her graduates.
“There is nothing better than our very own successful Georgetown graduate paying it forward as a political figure and role model for current University High School students,” she said.