Almost as soon as the performance began, I found myself choking back tears — an unexpected surge of emotion provoked by the powerful images, sounds, faces, and words I was experiencing in a stuffy room at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

It was the annual show put on by the Sound of Port Richmond, a community theater program started in 2013 by Wagner College, Imagining America, and local residents. Only 12 days earlier, this troupe of 15 non-professional actors had started meeting to develop this performance. They did not (yet) have a script, but they did have a mission. “It’s about bringing forward those difficult things that we don’t talk about much,” said Diana G. Daniels, one of the performers and Sound of Port Richmond organizers. “But mostly we want it to be entertaining.”

“It’s about bringing forward those difficult things that we don’t talk about much,” said Diana G. Daniels.

From its inception, the Sound of Port Richmond has been dedicated to promoting conversation about challenging issues via artistic self-expression. In a year fraught with racial tension, set off by incidents such as the death of Eric Garner only half a mile from the ferry terminal, race and class were the obvious topics of conversation for the Sound of Port Richmond. So, on July 17, 2015, a year to the day after Garner’s death, this volunteer crew of white and black and Hispanic, young and old and middle-aged, offered their reflections upon racial dynamics and their hopes for a better day.

The show’s title, Every Time You See Me, borrowed the first words Garner said on the famous video capturing his final moments. “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” Garner complained to the police officers who confronted him. The show did not take a point of view on that specific incident, but reflected on the larger resonance of those simple words: the universal human desire to be seen — that is, to be understood, not stereotyped and dismissed.

After many stories and skits — in turns funny and heartbreaking, and always authentic — the show concluded with a powerful ensemble piece. Facing each other in pairs, they first repeated the phrases, “See me,” and “Every time.” Then suddenly, one person grabbed the other in a chokehold-like grasp. After a few long and painful seconds, however, they transformed this violent gesture into a gentle embrace. Together, the cast declared, “I can breathe.”

All of our commencement speakers this year also emphasized that all lives matter, and that appreciating each other allows people to “breathe” — to flourish and thrive. Wagner’s new Citizen Alum video series showcases the work of alumni who live this ideal — people like Nadia Lopez ’99, a school principal in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and many more. I hope you will read and watch these stories, and feel pride in how the Wagner family is helping our human family realize their full potential.

— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine