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Packer's 109th Founder's Day Speaker, Francisco Tezen ’93, Encourages Students, Alumni to Take Action

Founder’s Day was established to recognize our school's founder, Harriet L. Packer. Her philanthropy helped save The Brooklyn Family Academy and established The Packer Collegiate Institute that we know today.

Each year, we invite a Packer graduate to talk to current students and our alumni. It's an opportunity to illustrate the life-changing experience of a Packer education and how it has impacted the lives of our alumni and ultimately the world around us. On Tuesday, October 27, we were honored to have Francisco Tezen ’93 as our 109th Founder’s Day Speaker.

Francisco Tezén ’93 has dedicated his professional life to serving his community. As an Upper School student, he and several classmates founded Brothers and Sisters (known as BĀS), Packer’s affinity group for Black students. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and Latin American studies from Wesleyan University, he built a career in higher education and in the nonprofit sector. He is currently president and CEO of A Better Chance, a national nonprofit that helps young people of color access transformational educational experiences and prepare for leadership positions. Since 2017, Francisco has been a member of Packer’s Alumni Board, where he serves on the Fundraising Committee. On October 27, 2020, Francisco gave the keynote address at Packer’s 109th Founder’s Day Chapel, which was held virtually. Read highlights from his Founder’s Day speech below or jump to his full remarks at the end of the story.

As he spoke, Francisco highlighted the important role Packer had in his upbringing:

“...it is clear to me that my time at Packer is when the values of social justice and equity began to take root in a different way, because Packer presented the space to cultivate and put these values into action, with intention and purpose — sense of purpose and mission that has guided me throughout my career in public service. “

He also spoke about key faculty members who provided experiences and knowledge that helped define him as a person.

“ My first class in art history with Ken Rush transported me to Italy during the Renaissance.... This was the first time I visited major arts and cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stephan Koplowitz and Kathleen Hill introduced me to the language of modern dance.... I even had the opportunity to perform at Packer as well as at Dance Theater Workshop and Carnegie Hall. I took my first class in African history and participated in co-curricular activities outside the classroom that helped advance my studies of the African diaspora. In history classes, Kathy Emery helped me hone my ability for close reading before I even had a name for reading with purpose and with an analytical eye. Linda Gold helped me to go on Odyssey with Homer, to never be silent with my pain in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, and instead write stories, poems, and plays that spoke the truth as I knew it.”

Francisco’s parting words were a challenge to our students and the broader Packer community.

“While these are challenging times, there is opportunity in the challenges. You have the opportunity to take action — to use your voice and/or to amplify the voices of communities that too often go unheard, bring urgency to the quest for solutions and progress. You may find it becomes a lifelong pursuit of service and justice, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King reverberating in your ears, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

As we celebrate the founding of Packer, we hope that all of our community can dedicate itself to living up to our mission to:

Think Deeply
Speak Confidently
Act with Purpose and Heart

 


109th Founder’s Day Chapel Speech: Francisco Tezén ’93

Packer was the place where I began to independently identify the values I wanted to live by. It is where I developed a stronger sense of my identity and a deeper understanding of who I was in the world. For the first time, I was a member of a community that predominantly didn’t look like me and did not share many of the experiences I had up to that point. 

In so many ways, Packer was a moment of awakening for me. The seeds were planted well before I walked through the doors on Joralemon Street. However, it is clear to me that my time at Packer is when the values of social justice and equity began to take root in a different way, because Packer presented the space to cultivate and put these values into action, with a sense of purpose and mission that has guided me throughout my career in public service. 

I grew up in a Black and Latinx family that instilled in me the importance of education. For a family of limited means, my parents frequently talked about the power of education to be a great equalizer — a means of realizing their perception of the American Dream. Because of them, I’ve had a passion for learning. Through Oliver Scholars, I learned about and earned a scholarship to Packer, an experience that my family would otherwise have never been able to afford. 

Beyond the incredible education that I received at Packer, my life was changed because suddenly the world was much bigger to me.

  • I established friendships with people who traveled to parts of the world that until then were only as real as the earmarked pages of my encyclopedia. 
  • I discovered parts of my city that I never knew before and fell in love with art and museums. 
  • Stephan Koplowitz and Kathleen Hill introduced me to the language of modern dance. 
  • I took my first class in African history and participated in co-curricular activities outside the classroom that helped advance my studies of the African diaspora.
  • In history classes, Kathy Emery helped me hone my ability for close reading before I even had a name for reading with purpose and with an analytical eye. 
  • Linda Gold helped me to go on Odyssey with Homer, to “never be silent with my pain,” in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, and instead write stories, poems, and plays that spoke the truth as I knew it.

However, within the quiet but affable kid that I was in high school, there were strands of dissatisfaction that were being spun in my heart and mind until they clung to one another and balled up into what can only be described as rage. My parents, up until this point, had long drilled into my head the need to keep your head down, work hard, stand out, but try not to be noticed too much. It took a long time, but over time I learned that my parents’ words were not so much an exercise in humility as a lesson on survival. 

My mother shared her passion for reading with me and among her favorite authors was James Baldwin. It was a revelation to read his idea that to be Black in this country and to be conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. I first read these words during my time at Packer. I was beginning to engage in ideas and perspectives that were too big to be contained in the small confines of the building. My classmates and I took our debates outside of Packer’s four walls, in the Garden in between pick-up basketball games, to the diners on Montague Street, on train rides home talking excitedly about our emerging views of the world as we thought it should be.

Even then I was aware that my experience at Packer was not like everyone else — at times the bigotry of low expectations in the classroom, other times, the presumption that the invisible hand in my scholastic achievements and most notably during the year of college acceptances was surely affirmative action. However, the rage I speak to and that I think Baldwin was attesting to went beyond those personal flashpoints.

I spoke to my cousins, kids I grew up with in the neighborhood. There was a profound difference in what they were experiencing in the classroom and my experience at Packer. Walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights struck a stark comparison to the beginning and ending of my day in the Chelsea-Elliott Houses in Manhattan. It was an experience that I shared with several of my classmates, who found their way to Packer, often through college prep programs or through the sheer will of their parents. 

There came a point in my sophomore year where we started to lose students like me who had a similar path to Packer. The reasons ranged from academic to disciplinary reasons and many of us came to the realization that a key driver was a lack of support. One of the most important lessons that I learned at Packer and that informs my work today is that opening the door to opportunity is not the end but only the start. Perhaps the harder part is how do we support and help people thrive once the door to new possibilities has been opened. My classmates and I founded Brothers and Sisters (BĀS) out of need to create a sense of support, a safe space to wrestle with the issues that were unique to students of color, and to build community with the explicit purpose of galvanizing opportunities to realize change. 

Packer gave me the opportunity to test Baldwin’s premise that nothing can be changed until it is faced and it has been a theme throughout my career. Right out of college, I went back to my home community, right back to the Chelsea-Elliott houses and worked for the local settlement house, an organization that provided services for low-income families. 

About that time, my mother — inspired by my educational journey — went to school at night while holding down full-time jobs, to earn her bachelor’s, master’s and ultimately a doctorate degree in occupational therapy. Seeing her educational journey as an adult student inspired me to spend several years of my career in higher education, first at Columbia Business School and later The New School. I raised money for research centers and educational initiatives, but the aspects of the work that resonated with me the most was raising money for and implementing partnerships that helped increase access to these institutions by those in underrepresented communities. Over time, I encountered so many students and people in my work who were pursuing some incredible educational opportunities, but it didn’t magically wave away all the different challenges they might be facing making ends meet. It reminded me of Audre Lorde’s words that we have never lived single-issue lives. So I went back into human services and spent several years at the Food Bank for New York City helping to drive funding and visibility for the city’s major hunger relief organization. Some of my proudest moments at the Food Bank included welcoming Packer student volunteers and seeing the ways in which the school was seeking to engage with the community and provide immersive learning about the issues of hunger and poverty. 

In February 2020 of this year I had the opportunity to bring my story full circle as I took on the role of president and CEO of A Better Chance, an organization that helps  young people of color access transformational educational opportunities at leading independent and public schools. Undoubtedly, my personal experience at Packer is among the pivotal reasons why I am so passionate about A Better Chance. I get the opportunity to work with Packer, which is a member school of the organization. I am deeply honored to build on the legacy of A Better Chance, which has been making transformations like the one I experienced possible for nearly 60 years — a bigger world filled with possibility, adventure, and the chance for the young people we serve to become the very best versions of themselves.

And that is the opportunity you have before you — to take the time at Packer to discover and pursue the things you are passionate about, to find the opportunities to apply your voice and your talents to make a meaningful change. I hope your time at Packer is among the first chapters in a journey committed to service in whatever form you choose. You may find it becomes a lifelong pursuit of service and justice, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King reverberating in your ears, “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve…. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

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