The Prep’s Brother Robert J. Sullivan, C.F.X. Lecture Series brings back alumnus, sparks weighty conversations
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely ’95 were strangers in the summer of 2014 when they began having deep conversations about humility, grace, courage, and Americans’ responsibility to identify how they as individuals can impact their communities in ways that help construct a more just society. Nearly a decade later, they are perpetuating that conversation, using their award-winning book, “All American Boys,” as a catalyst, and the pair brought that discussion to the Prep this week.
Kiely, who is white, and Reynolds, who is Black, met when their publisher, Simon and Schuster, grouped the two first-time authors on a book tour together. That summer, while they traveled the country, the two men were inundated with media coverage about issues of race and violence on display in America, and the eventual co-authors started talking through the issues. Compelled by a mutual sense of a duty to respond, they wrote a story of two high school boys—one Black and one white—who get tangled up in a police brutality incident.
Throughout the creative process, the men’s friendship grew as Reynolds wrote the part of the Black teen and Kiely, the white teen. The project earned critical acclaim, becoming a Coretta Scott King Author Honor book in 2016 and receiving the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature in 2018.
The St. John’s Prep community embraced the book as its 2018 summer read, and revisited it as part of the School’s summer reading series in 2022. The authors’ campus visit and presentation this week focused on how Reynolds’ and Kiely’s own relationship trajectory can be a model for setting the tone for honest and difficult conversations about race in America. The two explored the power of storytelling and how it can be harnessed into actionable outcomes in our day-to-day lives.
“In their joint lecture, Jason and Brendan focused on the necessity of engaging the conversation, regardless of how it makes you feel,” said Christopher Bauer, director of the Prep’s Center for Peace and Justice. “We hope that this served as an invitation for our community to engage more deeply in the work of antiracism and think critically about our role in building a world more rooted in justice.”
Feeling Something is a Start
On stage at the Prep, the men, who wrote the book in tandem, exchanged viewpoints and offered insights as part of a dialogue with one another. Reynolds, the 2020–2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, honed in on themes of empathy and the power of language to shift cultural attitudes and mores.
“If I tell you a story about things that have happened to me and harm that has come to me, they’re mine—they belong to me,” said Reynolds, a native of Washington, D.C. who grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland. “So, you can hear it and it can make you feel something, but it doesn’t mean that you actually know. That’s okay. My goal is: Do you feel anything? If you can feel something, then that means that your empathy, the most human part of you, is still functioning, which means there’s a possibility you might listen a little more and think about your own relationship to the thing that I've said. Even if it doesn't actually affect you in a physical way, it’s still what we’re dealing with around us.
“I’ve never been a kid in foster care,” he continued. “I do not know what it is to be given up for adoption. But my heart goes out to them. It should, right? I should feel something. Does that mean I can pretend to know what they’ve been through? No. But does that mean I’m open to listening to what they’ve been through? Yes. And what’s happened so far [in discussions about racial inequity in America] is that people aren’t [often] willing to just listen. So do I think books [like ours] do all the work? Of course not. Do I think languages move culture? Yes. Do I think that we should be cognizant of language if we want culture to continue to shift? Yes. Do I think we should make new definitions so that we can change culture? Yes. Is it enough? No, of course not. But is it a start? And I’ll take a start.”
Kiely, a former educator, who earned his bachelor’s from Miami University (Ohio) and an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York, dove into systemic racism and our individual responsibility to see it and combat it.
“When we sat down to write All American Boys, we were watching all these news stories, one after another, of high-profile cases in which folks from around the United States were grappling with racism as it affects their lives in the actions of law enforcement,” he said. “But we could have written a book in the same fashion about racism and social injustice with regard to any institution in America. We could talk about how racism affects education. We could talk about how racism affects healthcare. We could talk about how racism affects food justice and housing and the financial industry.
“I had a chance to speak with a few students before this assembly, and we were talking about how the narrative in the book isn’t just stories—this isn't just a novel—this is a reflection of a reality that we have a responsibility to participate in,” he added. “We did not cause these problems, but they exist, and we must address them and speak about them honestly and not be afraid to. That was our hope was for the book. For it to be in a school like this one where you all have the opportunity to have this conversation honestly, hopefully that means you have the opportunity to take what we’re talking about seriously and try to do something about it.”
As part of the Br. Sullivan C.F.X. lecture series, featured guests spend time with St. John’s students in various contexts throughout the day. For Reynolds and Kiely, this was spent offering students insights that could help further their understanding of some of the issues and inequities pertaining to racism, poverty, and education in the U.S.
“We’re committed to helping our students and our community at large learn to see the world as bigger and more connected than what they’ve known before,” says St. John’s Headmaster Ed Hardiman, Ph.D., P’19 ’21 ’26. “This lecture series is about bringing the world to St. John’s and St. John’s to the world. In welcoming great minds and broad influencers to campus, our Center for Mission and Research is part of what makes the Prep experience so unique, providing our students with real-world understanding and contact with people tackling some of the biggest challenges our world faces today.”
Kiely began the day with an open and informal conversation with a dozen student leaders about the concept of “allyship.” Later, at Mahoney Wellness Center, both authors presented to the Prep community at an all-school assembly. At the end of the school day, faculty and staff were invited to join the authors for coffee and a roundtable discussion—moderated by English teachers Rob O’Chander and Monica Roy—about their writing, their work, and their partnership. Preceding the pair’s evening lecture at Kennealy Commons inside the Brother Keefe, C.F.X. Academic Center, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff joined Reynolds and Kiely for a reception.
The Brother Robert J. Sullivan, C.F.X. Lecture Series brings innovators and leaders to St. John’s to explore how an ethics-based education can shape decision-making in the real world. The authors join an impressive group of accomplished professionals and dignitaries to appear as part of St. John’s lecture series, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power (now the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development), and world-renowned environmentalist, author, and journalist Bill McKibben, and MIT Aeronautics & Astronautics department professor Danielle Wood, a veteran of the NASA Space Flight Center.
Other recent guest lecturers on campus have included NCAA All-American and U.S. Olympic Team wrestler Joe Heskett, Vice Admiral Richard Brown ’81 (Ret), former commander of all U.S. Naval Surface Forces, ALS advocate Nancy Frates and former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien ’88, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama. For more information, visit stjohnsprep.org/sullivan.
Founded on the Xaverian values of compassion, humility, simplicity, trust and zeal, St. John’s educates students from 90 communities to be, do, and stand for good in the world.