BAR HARBOR — Kassandra Robledo, a member of the Mount Desert Island High School Class of 2021, used her welcoming address at Sunday’s graduation ceremony to call for greater diversity and equality in education.
She said that, at one point, “I realized that our school has given us one of the greatest things in education ever…the space and tools which enable us to ask questions.
“So, I stand here…utilizing this platform to finally question a lack of change, a lack of representation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students in our school’s curriculum.
“Education can lead to equality, but there is a long history of unequal opportunity,” Robledo said.
She said the first time she saw someone who looked like her in a schoolbook or a slide presentation was in her junior year.
“I flipped through the page and nearly missed it,” she said. “How many more times will we miss ourselves in the pages? How many more times will we be tokened, depicted in pictures as ‘inclusion?’ Are we just filling your quota?”
Robledo will be attending Cornell University in the fall.
“I refuse to believe that I deserve my acceptance to the college I will be going to,” she said. “I checked the box stating that I have Native American ancestry. I checked the box saying I’m Hispanic.
“My whole life there has been an emphasis on checking those boxes. Was I accepted because I checked a box? When they say you’re ‘unique,’ do they mean not white?
“Is it OK to feel guilty. Is it normal to worry that I stole someone’s spot? Did I steal a white person’s spot?
“This isn’t self-doubt,” Robledo said. “This is systemic guilt, guilt that is not my own, guilt that has been ingrained, inflicted, institutionalized into me.
“Stop ignoring, pretending institutionalized racism doesn’t exist…” she told the graduation ceremony audience. “Stop limiting yourselves because something is uncomfortable. Privilege is comfort. It is uncomfortable to tell your friends, family and school that there is a problem.
“We need to break the silence, embrace the discomfort.”
Robledo concluded her remarks by saying, “At this high school, we were all gifted with the privilege to learn, given an education that nurtures its students, providing space for exploration. So, explore. Be vulnerable. Ask questions. There are no limitations.”
Robledo was a founding member of the school system’s Anti-Racism Task Force. Principal Matt Haney said that in January she was named a runner-up in the New York Times Personal Narrative Contest, which had more than 9,000 entrants.
“Over the past year and a half, we have witnessed an incredible leap forward in student advocacy and leadership,” Haney said. “The class of 2021 helped illuminate the racial and gender inequity that continues to pervade our society.
“Student leaders have continually kept the truth that we are in an existential climate crisis front and center and have taken measures to ensure that they leave a legacy of impactful and lasting changes,” Haney said.
“So many of the young people sitting in front of me today have had the courage to dream, the commitment to lead and the tenacity to strive for the realization of this dream.”
Graduating senior Eliza Ramos was chosen by the faculty to be one of the student speakers at graduation.
“Today is to celebrate, with no regrets, what got you here,” she told her classmates. “The people who shared wisdom, whether you wanted it or not. The people who gave you rides back and forth, whether they wanted to or not. The people who gave you books you loved and didn’t love. The people who taught you how to talk, but also reminded you when you shouldn’t. The people who gave you their trust and help with no ulterior motives except that they wanted to see you thrive.
“Be grateful for the people and places and for yourself,” Ramos said. “For your perseverance, your character, your strength. Celebrate yourself.”
Sam Mitchell was the student speaker at graduation chosen by the senior class. He said he had always been a swimmer and played baseball and football. Then, in his sophomore year, he joined the dive team.
“I allowed myself to be put out of my comfort zone, and I learned so many valuable lessons, the biggest being that no matter how many times you smack your face, you always have to get up and try again,” Mitchell said.
“This year…we were kept out of the schools and isolated at home, forced to take online classes and live with the daily fear and stress of COVID. Repeatedly it felt like we were smacked in the face. It has been such a mark on our generation, on our high school, years, but it doesn’t define us. We are stronger than that.”
The student speakers, who were among 138 seniors who received diplomas Sunday, acknowledged the support of their teachers and their families. Haney did, as well.
“I would like to sincerely thank the families of our students, particularly of those who are graduating today,” he said. “You have raised amazing young citizens, and that did not happen by accident. Thank you for all the love, the patience and the time you have given to them. Thank you also for trusting us to guide them through their high school years.”