“I could let other people think that they could do this now,” James Kale, LSOE ’16, said of running for UGBC president.
When James Kale, LSOE ’16, was 5 years old, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up—the mayor of New York. He told his mother that he wanted to work on education reform. At the time, she laughed and said she felt glad that he aspired to do that, but he might change his mind later on.
Fifteen years later, Kale still aspires to affect education reform. Once he went to high school, however, he started realizing that the mayor does not actually hold that much power so far as education goes. Now, he is considering the idea of striving to one day become governor of the state.
This past year, Kale and his running mate, Jose Altomari, A&S ’16, made up one of the three teams who ran for the presidency and executive vice presidency of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC). Unlike the other teams, Kale and Altomari were not previously involved in UGBC.
Kale was part of a high-profile die-in demonstration in the recently renovated St. Mary’s Hall late last semester, a display in protest of police violence in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N. Y. This protest and several other efforts in social justice from Kale might have brought him to the forefront of student life in the fall, but these initiatives were not the impetus for his decision to run. Rather, running for the student government’s top office was something he had been considering since freshman year. He felt that there were many things that could be advocated for on campus, but were not being advocated for by the right people. Just like when he was 5, he wanted to lead reform movements—he thought he could be the advocate for students whose voices are not heard.
“My whole thing coming here was to get social capital, so I’m involved in so many things where I get to meet different students, get to hear the different concerns, get to hear what they’re unhappy about, why they’re unhappy with UGBC, why they’re unhappy with BC in general,” he said.
Although Kale and Altomari did not win the UGBC election, he marks the campaign experience as his greatest accomplishment since arriving on campus. It was a humbling and rewarding experience, he said, especially when people he did not know came up to him and said that he had inspired them to get involved in UGBC.
“I could let other people think that they could do this now,” he said.
Kale’s passion for educational activism began when he was growing up in the Bronx, in what he described to be the worst district in New York in terms of living (“They always streamline everyone to the prison there,” Kale said) and in education. As a child, he could tell things in his neighborhood were not right, but he lacked the vocabulary to identify exactly what was wrong with the inequality he saw. Living near the Bronx District Attorney’s Court, he felt being mayor—the legal head of the city—would be the best way to fix the poverty he saw.
In high school, Kale—later to graduate valedictorian—was the president of the student government at the Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice. The school, he said, was originally meant to educate middle and high schools about law and social studies. The focus has now shifted, but he did have at least one law class each year. As a fifth grader, he chose to go to this school because he was interested, even then, in going into the legal profession.
Even at a young age, Kale was not complacent with the status quo. When something needed to be taken care of, he would be at the forefront, talking to the principal and assistant deans of the high school, said Jacquelyn Andalcio, LSOE ’17, who went to the same school.
“He was very proactive rather than reactive,” she said. “He really listened to the feedback from the other students, so it wasn’t just what ‘I think’ but rather what ‘we think.’”
Transitioning from that school—a small public school with only a handful of white students—to BC was a significant adjustment. Coming to BC as a first-generation college student was the first time he really had classes with white students and made white friends, he said. About 78 students from his high school class of 83 graduated, and of those, just a few left the state to go to college. Kale pays for his own tuition, and has worked different on-campus and off-campus jobs, including at a mentoring non-profit in Boston and at the counseling, development, and educational psychology department in the Lynch School of Education.
“That’s a whole different level of responsibility, and it has to shape your experiences, especially when you’re at a college like this where there are lots of symbols of privilege, where a lot of students may not have to worry about these issues,” said Shawn McGuffey, an associate professor of sociology who has served as a mentor for Kale.
Prior to moving to the University, Kale spent seven weeks before his freshman year living on campus for the Options Through Education (OTE) transitional program hosted by the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center. This experience, he said, gave him a social network of other professors and students. Since Kale has come to BC, he has become even more driven in his goals of reform, Andalcio said—being here has allowed him to see how much power his voice has.
“I remember James had to give a speech during OTE and he was so nervous that his leg couldn’t stop shaking, and every five seconds he would take a sip of his water and tell me that he needed to go to the bathroom,” Giancarlo Sanchez, Kale’s roommate since OTE and A&S ’16, said in an email. “I always joke with him about that moment. But now it’s like he’s stating speeches everywhere he goes.”
In the Bronx, color and race were not a big deal, Kale said. Here, the conversations about race and socioeconomic factors are completely different from what he was used to. Kale was approached to become a member of FACES Council, a group that facilitates discussion forums about race and ethnicity, but he declined. He feels that initiatives like FACES are unsuccessful because they target people already interested in matters of race and diversity.
“A lot of things that need to be discussed need to be discussed in a classroom and FACES can’t do that unless invited,” he said. “If you’re a student who doesn’t care about anti-racism, who doesn’t care about learning about privileges … you’re not going to go to those conversations.”
Instead, Kale is involved in the Black Student Forum (BSF), which he noted is unique for the use of the term “forum” rather than “union” in its title. This encourages conversation, he said.
This past year, he was the co-director of the political social activism section of BSF. In this position, he was able to organize different events on campus, such as the demonstration rejected by the University which led to December’s unregistered die-in.
Kale has developed skills through his academics and leadership in activism that will serve him well in the future, especially in the fields of law and education, McGuffey said, noting that his leadership during the die-in was particularly impressive.
“He clearly wants to work with those people who the law may not be quite blind to, those who need more legal help for a variety of reasons,” he said. McGuffey also said Kale would be wonderful in the classroom.
The action happening on campus this past year, such as the die-in and other protests, puts into process what students learn about social justice, Kale said. He believes they are an opportunity to put passions into practice.
“With action comes awareness,” he said. “I feel like a lot of things on campus—many of us are aware of—some people just don’t want to address it. Some people don’t want to turn their eye to it.”
Featured Image by Daniella Fasciano / Heights Editor