When Karl Valere was growing up on Long Island, he remembers hearing a lot of anti-Haitian sentiment expressed on TV and across the world. His parents, who were born and raised in Haiti, would say to him: “We’re not what they say we are. We’re more than that. We have dignity. We respect ourselves and this country, and we love living in this country. That’s who we are. That’s why we’re here.”
Despite his parents’ encouragement, when he was about 7 years old, Karl admits that when someone would ask him about his background, he sometimes responded by saying he was Cuban. “I actually sort of bent under the pressure of the stigma that was associated with Haitians,” Karl says. “For me, that was a survival tactic.”
Today, Karl is not only proud of his Haitian heritage, but the 26-year-old young man has committed himself to fighting for Haitian and other Caribbean communities in New York. Karl graduated from Public Allies New York’s AmeriCorps program in 2014, during which time he worked in Brooklyn for a tenants’ rights organization, and was chosen by his Ally peers to deliver the class’s valedictorian speech. After Public Allies, Karl went on to found The Elmont Excelsior, Inc., a multifaceted civic-engagement initiative in Elmont, Long Island, and he’s also pursuing his Master’s degree in Urban Affairs at Queens College.
For Karl, there’s no doubt about what his purpose in life is now. “My focus is on creating far-reaching, generational impact that improves people’s lives,” he says. “If it’s work that’s just sort of tinkering on the margins, then you’re not going to find me there.”
Below, read the entire inspiring transcript of Karl’s valedictorian speech that he delivered to the Public Allies New York Class of 2014, in which he describes the personal transformation he experienced as an AmeriCorps Ally.
Speech by Karl Valere to the Public Allies New York Class of 2014:
I’ve never given a speech before. In fact, the closest I ever got to something like this was back in the 6th grade, when I caught a bug and decided to run for class president. So bear with me it’s been a while. And I’d like to thank the graduation committee for selecting me to do this, but this just means I did a terrible job of hiding myself these past 10 months.
Back in school I didn’t always have the best grades and I wasn’t the most talkative either; an advantage both my running mates in the 6th grade election had over me. But it was okay because all you needed was two votes—two nominations from your classmates to run for class president.
While I wasn’t a straight-A student or the most outgoing, I could connect with people naturally and at a very basic level. Surely I could convince at least two people that I was cool.
One of the many cool things about the Public Allies program is that it allows you to be who you are naturally.
At my placement, I’ve had the opportunity to serve the people of Flatbush in Brooklyn who live in rent-regulated apartments. I had no prior experience. Still, I quickly found that many different parts of the work truly resonated with me, and spoke inspiringly to my life’s commitments. I was able to help folks win repairs, connect them to non-profit services, and inform tenants of their legal rights both in English and in my parents’ language of Haitian-Creole. For me, this was special.
During his time with Flatbush Tenant Coalition and Public Allies New York in 2014, Karl (standing with vest and tie) moderated a press conference where Brooklyn tenant leaders filed a discrimination lawsuit against their landlord. Also present were tenant leader Thomas Williams (center), Brooklyn Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna (2nd from left, with scarf), and Council Member Mathieu Eugene (3rd from left).
Now no one told me this, but when you go into housing you see it all – holes in walls, leaky ceilings, mold, mildew, you name it. Buildings neglected and fallen into disrepair. But as most of you Allies know, the challenges only made the successes that much sweeter.
I got to watch folks take back their homes, and be a part of something exciting that improved their lives and that connected them to a deeper sense of community in their neighborhoods. And again, I didn’t just watch, I got to be a part of that as well. The partnership between myself and our tenant leaders was such that they confided in me as a human resource, an advocate and an Ally in their struggle. It felt good to be helpful, to be needed.
The future is now.
This experience has awakened in me a confidence I can’t say that I always had.
Somehow back in 6th grade I managed to win the support of a few people who said they were willing to vote for me. It was nice to hear. But it didn’t matter. I had dropped out of the race early on simply because I decided they had asked too much of me. A personal essay, campaign posters, a petition for signatures. I didn’t really want to be at the forefront, and now they were giving me more homework? For me that was all the more incentive to gracefully bow out.
Hidden inside this adolescent experience was and in some ways still is a valuable lesson for me. There’s many different ways to be a leader. Humility does not suggest invisibility. You see, my instinct was to make myself small. Play it down. To tell myself all that I couldn’t do before I gave it a decent try. Even if I had support of my friends and family behind me. Now I know better.
Now is the future. And the future is now because – well, think back to a year ago when we were all candidate-hopefuls taking a chance on this Public Allies thing we’d heard about. Some of us fresh out of school, others on the heels of a bold move; all of us unsure, not knowing what to expect but taking a bold leap of faith on this nationally recognized, widely-renowned organization.
For some of us it wasn’t the program we doubted, it was ourselves. Did we have what it takes? Were we really cut out for ten months of service in New York City? Could we all work together? (The TSP certainly answered that last question!)
The future is now because think how quickly our first retreat came & went. It was early in the year and many of us were still adjusting, still learning – so naturally there were tensions.
But by the time midyear retreat came around I think it’s safe to say our defenses were down. I’m sure all of us remember that exercise we did at midyear retreat—now I won’t mention it by name, but the one that had everybody busted up like we just got done watching “The Notebook” with Oprah while cutting up some onions? Yeah, that one. What I learned from that exercise is we don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for the good that we do. How we show up in other people’s lives and the positive impact we have on others. The fact is it is undeniable. We are who we are. We’re do-gooders. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. But the beautiful thing about service is you don’t have to be.
After Public Allies, Karl, far left, founded The Elmont Excelsior in Long Island. One of its projects was to bring awareness to a young Elmont man’s unique birthday experience, which consisted of gathering his friends to distribute food and clothes to homeless residents in New York City. The story went viral online and was covered by local media.
As someone once said, ‘[Service] is about being confident in your fullness and humble in your emptiness as well.’
Now, if I may, let me tell you what this program did not do. Public Allies did not make me a new person; instead it freed me to be the kind of person I always knew I could be. For my family, for my community and for myself. Public Allies did not transform me into a leader, but time and again it exposed me to opportunities to lead. Public Allies did not teach me how to be on time. I have to help myself out with that. But what it did show me was the value of my presence in the community, and how missed my contributions were when I was not around.
Public Allies isn’t just a program, it’s a culture. It’s a lifestyle. This idea that everyone leads is the cornerstone of transformative change in our communities. Integrity, asset focus, diversity/inclusion, continuous learning and collaboration – these aren’t just core values, to me they’re cardinal directions to guide us through the journey of life.
You might even say Public Allies is like a basketball team. We’ve had intense practices, we’ve been well-coached, now it’s time to get into the game. Those muscles we’ve been building and flexing for the past 10 months – it’s time to go out there and put them to the test, give the world what we’ve got, and be confident that our best is good enough.
They say the two most important days in your life are the day that you’re born, and the day you realize why you were born. Back in elementary school I obviously needed more time to figure it out. But as I stand before you here today it has become perfectly clear – I was born to serve. I was born to love. I was born to lead. We all were. Let us not shrink and allow anybody even our own selves to make us feel small. Get big. Dream big. Do good. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.
Go do good.
-Karl A. Valere