For several years, Daven Rajesh, a Mission Hill resident and student at Northeastern University, could be found out on the river or on the basketball court. But last month, he and his good friend Wes Gordon laced up their running shoes and ran 26.2 miles through Manhattan by themselves to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
With issues of racial justice and police brutality at the forefront of conversation in America, Rajesh decided to use his own experiences with racial injustice to incite change and spark conversation among people in his life. Rajesh is one of many students speaking out against incidents of racial justice at schools across America, as many of these incidences have gone unaddressed over the years, despite being detrimental to many students of color.
Rajesh, who is both Indian and white, attended Kent School, a boarding school in Kent, Connecticut, where he was on both the varsity rowing and basketball teams—something he said “not a lot of people do.” He said that one sport or the other was typically chosen, as the “backgrounds of the two teams were completely different,” he said.
He described some of his experiences on his GoFundMe page, where he raised money for the marathon.
“I remember looking at the pictures on the walls of the gym,” he wrote. “They documented every crew team in the last forty some years. All I saw was white faces. Kent’s history of rowing is magnificent, but it also stands as a memoir to privilege, the two institutions are undeniably linked. Favoritism existed, racism existed, and even something as small as my coaches and teammates’ tendency to call me “Dave” instead of my real name, Daven, reflected a hidden desire to uphold the white standard of the program.”
He said that some of his teammates were racist. “I stood in opposition to them as they would play Johnny Rebel, a white supremacist singer, in the locker room after practices,” he wrote. “The lyrics of those songs enraged me, and yet, I felt I had no power in changing it. I was the clear minority of that group and did not feel supported enough by my superiors or teammates to.”
He also said that in the cafeteria, the divide between the basketball team and the rowing team “could have spanned the Grand Canyon. Never in my time at Kent did I sit at a cafeteria table with teammates from both teams.” He said people chalked up the divide to the simple desire for “team tables,” but he felt it went deeper than that and being a part of both teams helped him “get a much better understanding of what it meant to be a student of color at Kent,” he wrote.
Rajesh said that while he still remains friends with people from both teams and was able to foster many meaningful relationships at Kent School, he didn’t always feel he could fully be himself at all times.
“My dad introduced a whole other realm; a way of life that gave me the experience of seeing both [races] at a young age,” he said.
He said that being mixed race has put him in a “very unique position” to be able to see the world through more than one lens, but it also made him feel like he couldn’t be “boxed into [the question of] ’is this a white kid or is this a person of color?’”
He said that while at Kent, “when I was around certain people, I was forced to act differently. All the sides wouldn’t be embraced.”
Rajesh wrote on his GoFundMe page that “I have struggled in knowing how to best tackle these issues,” but he believes that sharing his story and running a marathon to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as well as having conversations with his family, friends, and coaches at Kent School was a good place to start.
He said that recent events made him want to speak up about racial injustices he’s faced in the past.
“I feel like I’ve been in neutral for a lot of these different issues,” Rajesh said. “Things happening recently have put me in gear.”
He said he started prepping for the marathon at the beginning of the virus shutdown, and “fell in love with that feeling.” He knew he wanted to use running as a starting point for making change, “because America runs from its past and from racial justice,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page.
Rajesh said his buddy, Wes Gordon, comes from a Jewish family and is “able to empathize in some ways when it comes to these types of issues.”
Gordon is on the crew team at Dartmouth College, which had set up a fundraiser or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“Wes and I were pretty competitive in high school,” Rajesh said. “He noticed I’d been running a bunch.”
The original plan was for Rajesh to run 23 miles on his 23rd birthday, which is June 28. He decided the “higher cause” of raising money for the NAACP was more important, so they ran the race on June 27.
Gordon, who lives in New York, asked Rajesh to come to Manhattan and run with him.
Rajesh started the GoFundMe on June 20. “When I first started it, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. He set a goal of $500 and advertised it on his Instagram page.
“People started donating,” he said, including Kent School, which he said also had a conversation with him about his experiences during his time there. He said this was a “tangible” way for the school to show its support for students of color.
Arshay Cooper, a prominent figure in the rowing community, also helped to promote the fundraiser.
By the time the day of the race came, more than $5,000 was raised. “I was happy to see that happen,” Rajesh said. “I was more inspired by seeing the range of people that came out and donated—so many different classmates, people who I knew on a whim, people who I knew closely, people from Northeastern, family, friends, and a while bunch of random people who I haven’t met before.”
When Rajesh and Gordon ran the marathon, they started in the meat packing industry, ran straight up and cut over to 5th Avenue. They had a route planned but it was adjusted little bit as they went, and Rajesh documented the run on his Instagram story. They stopped at bodegas along the way to get Gatorade, and realized that it “wasn’t about the time in the end of it”—though they did complete the marathon in about four hours, he said.
He said that after finishing, “Wes and I talked about how we were nervous going to bed the night before, unsure if we had bit off more than we could chew. I think that knowing we were doing it for the right cause helped us move forward.”
He said that being mixed race has “positioned me on the intersection of a lot of these issues,” adding that he has benefitted from white privilege as well as other types of privilege, “yet at the same time, that privilege has been conditional.”
Rajesh said that growing up in very white circles while having two races present at home allowed him to see things differently.
“All my life I have sort of fit into both groups, but not enough to necessarily gain identity status in one or the other,” he said. “America as a collective unit runs from its true history and the reason that I ran this marathon was to draw attention to the true history of the US as well as bring attention to racial justice.”
Rajesh cites KURL, a group of about a dozen male students at Kent who got together every couple of weeks to provide a space for people of color to be themselves, as a formative experience for him and one of his favorite memories at the school.
“We came together because the community didn’t give us a chance to express ourselves fully in the whole community,” he said. “We had to do it behind closed doors.”
Rajesh said he hopes that by raising the money for the NAACP and lighting a fire under the people in his life (and beyond) to start a conversation around these issues, that real change can be made.
His career goals are to get involved in consulting work from a third party perspective. He described it as working with a company that has “some type of jam in its system.” From a psychology perspective, he hopes to reposition people to help their performance within the company.
“Those who endure injustice often know very clearly what has been done to them,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page. “However, in order to be heard, they need the support of a superior, someone who stands in status greater than both the oppressed and the oppressor. We need the coaches, teachers and principals to hear us and to support us. I firmly believe that through tactful use of power, we may be able to start moving towards what is right and just.”