Kendall Stephens, a Black, transgender leader in the local trans community and one of PGN’s People of the Year in 2019, was selected as the student speaker for Community College of Philadelphia’s (CCP) 2020 commencement. Stephens is graduating from college with an associate’s degree in behavioral health and human services. She plans to continue her education by studying public health at Temple University on a full scholarship.
“From clubs and organizations, student programming and student leadership, [Kendall] has been extremely active in a variety of different ways,” said Richard Kopp, CCP’s assistant dean of students in the Academic and Student Success Division. “Not only [has she been] active and involved, but oftentimes [she] led the charge on many of the initiatives that she’s been involved with.”
Stephens has indeed been very active in the CCP community. She served as president of the newly revitalized LGBTQ+ club, which runs out of the MarcDavid LGBTQ Center. In that role, she helped plan CCP’s LGBTQ conference for 2019 and 2020 and worked to ensure the visibility of the LGBTQ community on campus.
From there, she became a member of CCP’s student leadership program LEADS and subsequently served as a Lion Leader Student Ambassador, where she helped organize student programs and represented the college at external, high-profile events. Stephens also regularly attended monthly student government town hall-style meetings with CCP’s president, where she advocated for all students, including members of the LGBTQ community.
“The fact that we have students who are rising to the top like Kendall, to be able to take that mantle and run with it and be supported and encouraged by the faculty and staff, is both encouraging and rewarding,” Kopp said.
As part of CCP’s initiative to celebrate this year’s commencement and honor its graduates, it is launching a commencement website which will house Stephens’ speech, among other info about virtual commencement celebrations that will take place via social media. When it is safe to do so, CCP staff plan to hold smaller, in-person gatherings on campus, Kopp said.
“I want my commencement speech to be a love letter to the great reverence of our CCP graduates who’ve experienced extraordinary hardships and persevered despite them,” Stephens said.
“We are setting the gold standard of what it means to be inclusive, accepting and understanding of all people, especially those who are both marginalized and are suffering from multiple marginalizations,” Stephens said. “[CCP] takes a special interest in students like myself –– I’m trans, I live below the poverty line, I’m Black –– all these things that count against me in life and really kind of set me back from the starting line. What CCP has done [is say] ‘All of you are going to start at the starting line because you all matter. We want to bring equitable education opportunities to all of you.’”
Stephens told PGN that she is the first openly trans student to be selected as CCP’s commencement speaker. “We put our visibility on the line because we care about those who are coming behind [and] suffering through their identities,” she said. “Someone has to be the one to be brave and say, ‘Damn it, take me as I am and that’s how it’s going to be.’”
Not only has Stephens been an active citizen at CCP, but she has also been a longtime activist and advocate for the trans community in Philadelphia. She co-facilitates the weekly trans support group TransWay with Elizabeth Coffey Williams, and under normal circumstances, runs a support group at Morris Home, a recovery program for trans and nonbinary folks.
“While others had many admirable qualities and pieces that they contributed to the campus, [Kendall’s] involvement at large has been so beneficial to the college but also the extended city and surrounding community,” Kopp said. “It definitely tipped the scale for her to become our commencement speaker.”
But Stephens’ road to success was far from smooth. After coming out to her family after high school, she was kicked out of her house and forced to resort to living in shelters and on the street.
“My nomination for commencement speaker really is a culmination of the breakups, breakdowns and breakthroughs that I’ve experienced in my life,” she said. “I’ve been through so much. My story of the homelessness and complete rejection, getting tossed out by my family and at one point living on the streets –– you go from that where you feel like less than nothing, to now you’re a commencement speaker teaching tens of thousands of students about how you got to where you are.”
Going forward, Stephens told PGN that she wants to continue advocating for all marginalized groups of people, including LGBTQ communities, and help children who are in the welfare system.
“I want to help people who are disenfranchised get the equitable opportunities that everyone else gets who are in the majority,” she said. “I believe that the best way to validate them is to change public policy. If I can influence the law in a way that can help a voiceless population, then to me that’s where I feel like I belong.”