Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, ‘84, who serves as a House delegate representing the Virgin Islands, says being asked to be our 2021 Commencement Speaker was a special moment.
“This place helped make me who I am,” she said while Zooming in from Washington, DC.
As a politician, an attorney, and a commentator, Congresswoman Plaskett has always fought relentlessly for positive change, often in the face of adversity. She says BFS helped her find her voice at a young age which helped plant the seed for a life defined by public service and historical achievements.
“It’s inclusive communities like Brooklyn Friends where you first are able to express yourself and learn how to speak constructively,” she said.
Born in Brooklyn and having blazed her own trail through an accomplished career that continues to evolve, the Congresswoman now looks to younger generations—like the ones who walk the halls at BFS—to pave the way forward for the country and the world. As a mother of five, she has an excellent view into the issues and challenges faced by young people today.
“I’m so excited about this generation. The life I live is so far beyond what my parents could have imagined, and I feel the same when I look at young people now,” she said.
An Education Inside and Outside the Classroom
When asked what memories first come to mind when it was her walking the halls at BFS before her family moved out of Brooklyn in Middle School, Congresswoman Plaskett’s first response had less to do with education and more to do with fashion. “This was the 1970s, so for one thing, the terrible clothing comes to mind,” she joked.
Aside from the attire, the Congresswoman recalled her appreciation for all BFS colleagues, from the teachers and administrators for their warmth and dedication to students, to the Elevator Operator Christopher___who sang opera as the students rode up and down to class. The moments outside of school also made a true impact.
“Brooklyn Friends School was all about experience. We would take great neighborhood walks, and I remember teachers taking us across the Brooklyn Bridge. We also went to the beach in Sheepshead Bay which were all incredibly fond memories,” she reflected.
The Congresswoman said each journey outside the classroom taught her something new.
“Looking back, I recognize it for what it was. Going through the neighborhood and really being engaged and utilizing the city as a means to an education was important. Something as small as going into a butcher shop helped us see how different people lived.”
Congresswoman Plaskett also shared that one year while she was in Lower School, the class became “obsessed with birds in the city.” Feeding off of the students’ curiosity, the teachers began teaching the class about the migration patterns of birds in Brooklyn which sparked an early understanding and passion for conservation which later took shape throughout her career.
Inside the classroom, the Congresswoman said that an early struggle with learning how to read was a difficult obstacle to overcome.
“I can recall not being very comfortable reading and avoiding it. Brooklyn Friends gave me a lot of extra help and supported me in gaining literacy fluency,” said the Congresswoman. “I spent so many hours in the School library that even today, braided rugs and bean bag chairs give me a cozy feeling.”
Taking Action on the World Stage
Congresswoman Plaskett recently made waves after being named as a House Impeachment Manager for the second impeachment of Donald Trump in response to the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Having been on the Hill at the time of the attack, during the trial over a month later she presented House Democrats’ argument that Trump played a leading role in both organizing and ordering the attack. Her impassioned arguments were lauded by many.
“The significance to me, personally, is feeling like the culmination of a lot of the work I’ve done over my life,” Congresswoman Plaskett told one news outlet after the video of her arguments grew largely in popularity. While this was a high-profile moment for the Congresswoman, it was just one example of many throughout an illustrious career where she stood proudly for what she felt was right. This includes spending time practicing law in the Bronx District Attorney’s office, among many positions before venturing into politics.
Currently representing the United States Virgin Islands’ at-large Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives, Congresswoman Plaskett serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means, for which she is the first Member from a U.S. territory and the fourth African American woman to serve in the committee’s storied history. Currently serving on the House Committee on Agriculture, Congresswoman Plaskett previously served as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research. She is also a member of the House Committee on Budget, is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, House Blockchain Caucus, and the New Democrat Coalition, to name a few.
A Call to Action for the Youth of Today
While Congresswoman Plaskett has fought many uphill climbs in both her personal and professional lives, she is quick to point out that every student and every generation face their own obstacles. For example, she recognizes the challenges that young people face today in defining themselves and finding their own voices.
“You’re not raised by your parents alone. You’re not raised by your school alone. There are so many influences on young people with social media that makes things so confusing. It’s hard to always know what’s important and what’s not important,” she said.
Tracking her own journey into activism, the Congresswoman remembers how the environmental public awareness campaign Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute, which spanned two decades between the mid-60s and mid-70s, inspired her and her fellow classmates to take action. She sees that same spark and drive in the youth of today and believes it is important to remind them of everything young people have achieved in the world throughout history. The Congresswoman pointed to the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square which aimed to end corruption of the Communist Party in China, as well as Apartheid protests in South Africa as prime examples of youth movements that enacted change in the world.
“In all these cases, there may be elders who provide guidance, but without the masses of young people, change doesn’t happen.”
The Congresswoman says that the common denominator of all these events is that progress never comes easy.
“Everybody talks about Brown vs. Board of Education which stopped segregation in schools, but there were many cases before that where those attorneys fought and were told no. They kept coming back,” said the Congresswoman. “Not growing wary is something to be aware of, as well as having an understanding that you may not get things on the first instance. It’s all about the sustainability of the fight,” she added.
Congresswoman Plaskett recognizes that at times, young people can feel despondent when it seems like they aren’t being heard, but she urges them to continue to stand for what matters most.
“Those who are trying to take power away from you are never going to give you permission. Your power is your voice. You are the ones who are going to drive change now, so I’m waiting for the young people to come together and organize around whatever social change they want to see,” said Congresswoman Plaskett.
As she prepared for her Commencement speech, the Congresswoman took time to reflect on how her experience at BFS helped inspire her for a remarkable life journey and work.
“We are shaped by these early years so much in ways we probably don’t know how to unpack until we are adults. These memories that I have of students being really thoughtful and concerned over the world are crucial.”