Faculty, staff, friends, families, those present from the greater local community and – of course – Class of 2017. Congratulations! You did it!
I’m happy and honored to share this time with you.
Your curriculum, as I’ve been told, orientates you to engage with real-world projects. I wonder if any of your projects were focused on relational issues between many of our urban communities and law enforcement? I expect you’ve been buffeted during your time here by the news of police shootings of black men and black men shootings of police.
In 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists in the air as the US national anthem was played (representing black power and unity in black America). In your time, we have Black Lives Matter and demonstrators raising two hands and chanting, “don’t shoot.”
Also during your time here we’ve become aware of the greatest human migration in the history of humankind, with over 60 million displaced people throughout the world. While our country is considered a nation comprised of immigrants, we have a checkered history of welcoming. The question today though is, “How are we doing – on our watch – with this welcoming?”
My advice – as your commencement speaker I’m expected to offer advice – is to remain hopeful and courageous as you offer your gifts to these difficult issues. Neither your age nor your prospects prevent you from acting from your personal moral ground.
When I was exactly your age – with just a little understanding of why black people were demonstrating or why so many justice system actions were violently responding, I enrolled in an Historically Black College. For most of my first year I took classes of course but I was there to learn from black people who could help me to understand what black people were asking for and demanding. I say I was there to learn, but I was used to speaking up. I was confident in my critical thinking skills. I was articulate and could be a persuasive communicator. Even as a minority – the only white person in my dormitory – I was confident and empowered.
I debated, argued and conversed in a way that held up my understanding of the big topics. The way I listened, though, prevented this learning. One evening, as usual, much was going on in the dorm hallway including a loud conversation that I was involved in. A young man stepped towards me, and looking directly at me, told me that he had witnessed his uncle being lynched.
Anything I say at this point is going to seem inauthentic unless I get in the moment, now, with you. I felt the pain for this young man for the horrific way his uncle died. I felt the pain he must feel at every retelling of this experience. I believe I learned then that I needed to quiet my voice. I needed to learn to listen and listen deeply even knowing that I would never understand another’s reality.
As you embark on your next journey you will be expected to be informed and articulate and to speak out. As you do so, remember that your mental constructs must never supersede your ability to quiet your mind and listen with understanding, if not acceptance.
Because of many of your influences, including your family and community here at Olney, you’ve gained a deepening clarity about who you are. This knowledge must be translated throughout your life into acts that reflect you. How you act in the world will not truly reflect YOU, unless you gain clarity of your own moral grounding, and how this grounding informs how you act. Your knowledge of a subject, your ability to solve problems, even your skills as a communicator is not enough.
You’ve seen how people managed themselves in this last presidential election. My advice, as you embark on your next chapter, is think about how you want to act when you encounter a difficult situation, or an interaction with another that is spiraling into something negative or destructive.
posted by Dan Simon