Talking the talk: Justin Steele tells it like it is

His name is Justin Steele, a fourth year Engineering student who not only knows how to move toward the head of the class, but can also wake up the slackers dozing in the back row.

"F*** you, n***er!" his voice resonates in a packed auditorium of First years attending "Different Voices Common Threads," a new diversity program that's now part of the fall orientation schedule.

"I wanted to catch people's attention," says Steele, sitting poised yet relaxed in his immaculate Lawn room, a Malcolm X poster hanging above his bed.

"I know that diversity has become a buzz word, and it's really tough to change someone's perspective when they get to college. They pretty much have formed who they are, so to change that you really need the power of personal testimony," he says.

One night two years ago, while walking back from the library, Steele was confronted by a car full of kids who pulled up to the curb and yelled that racial slur.

"My gut reaction was to retaliate," he says, "but you can't combat hate with hate."

It was a lesson taught by Martin Luther King: "You punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong." This favorite quote of Steele's inspired him to write an essay which helped him be chosen to live on the Lawn.

The original pine doorsill and shutters of his room evoke renowned Lawn residents of the past such as Steele's role model, Wesley Harris. Although few people have heard of Steele, thanks to Steele, more will soon know about him.

Come graduation this May, when students march down the terraced grass, encouraged to remember the purple shadows of the Lawn, perhaps they will also remember a once blank page of University history: the African American perspective. It's a page that has been filled by Steele.

Steele and fellow student Ermias Abebe scoured Cavalier Daily archives to create a PowerPoint presentation entitled "The History of UVA from the African American Point of View," beginning with the University's opening in 1885.

Rick Turner, dean of the African American affairs office, calls Steele's presentation "a most memorable and lasting legacy."

Steele especially admires 1964 graduate Harris (a fellow Lawn resident) for being the first man, black or white, to complete the new Engineering honors program. Harris is currently a professor at MIT.

"I have a passion to teach history," Steele says, mentioning the famous Malcolm X quote, "Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research."

Steele believes that ignorance was the cause of last October's infamous Halloween incident when three students dressed in blackface. In response, Steele helped put together a flyer educating students about blackface and why it's offensive.

Justin Steele