Full text: Johnnetta Betsch Cole delivers address at Commencement 2017
Sister President Janet Morgan Riggs, members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues of the faculty and staff, students, alumni, friends and supporters of this outstanding liberal arts college: Good Afternoon!
And a very special good afternoon to the women and men of the hour: the spectacular class of 2017; and to your parents, family members and friends.
I want to recognize my husband, James Staton; my dear friend with whom I worked at the Smithsonian, Barbara Tuceling; and two additional friends, Joan and Peter Dixon. Peter Arrott Dixon is the chairman of the Lincoln Birthday National Commemorative Committee.
It is a great honor and joy for me to be with you here in historic Gettysburg, the place where President Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that was ten sentences long and contained 200 words that were delivered in two minutes. And yet, it was a speech that lifted up the bold and extraordinary proposition in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. Of course today we proclaim that all men and women are created equal.
Dear graduates, we are here to celebrate you, for you have stayed the course, you have managed to make do when don’t wanted to prevail. And dear graduates, it is also a day to acknowledge and thank your parents and families. They have been there for you, believing in you when you weren’t quite sure you believed in yourself. And for many of you, they have been your human ATMs.
At your commencement, what is my message to you, the mighty class of 2017? It comes to you in the form of my response to this question: Will you be the leader our world needs? Here are six characteristics I think you must have to be the leaders our communities, our nation and our world so desperately need.
First, to be the leaders we need you to be, it is clearly a plus if you have a good liberal arts education. And how fortunate you are to have one from Gettysburg College. But you must also continue to learn! The highly technological, information rich and diverse world that you will live in requires that you continue to do what you have been doing here at Gettysburg College. That is, to acquire knowledge; to think critically; to hear multiple voices on a given subject; to pose bodacious questions; and to be open to changing your position in response to new information or an awareness of information you did not command.
As you continue to learn, you can do so in a formal way by being a student in an educational institution. Or, you can continue to learn on your own by reading broadly, being highly observant and thinking critically. By whatever means you continue to learn, it can be costly in terms of money and certainly in terms of your time. But as an ole saying puts it: If you think education is expensive, think about the cost of ignorance.
Secondly, if you are to be the kind of leader our world needs you to be, you must have a passion to serve. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement; it is about doing what is in the best interest of others.
Indeed, everyone should be of service. As the old folks who grew me up would put it: Doing for others is just the rent you’ve got to pay for your room on earth.
What distinguishes a leader is that he or she pays more rent than other folks do!
Cesar Chavez, the legendary leader of Chicano farm workers, once said this: The end of all knowledge should be service to others.
Thirdly, our world needs you to be the kind of leader who sets high expectations for him or herself— and then works hard to meet those expectations. Setting a low bar for what you want to accomplish, and then easily jumping over it may make you feel good. But it will not allow you to accomplish very much.
On this question of setting high expectations, I want to tell you about one of my sheroes, Zora Neale Hurston. Remember, for every hero in the world, there is at least one shero. Indeed as a Native American saying puts it: We women hold up half the sky!
Zora Neale Hurston was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance who was also an anthropologist. Zora Neale Hurston said her mother urged her and her siblings to jump for the sun when she said: My children, you may not get up there, but at least you will get off the ground.
The fourth characteristic of a leader we need you to possess is that you are able to work collaboratively with others. Of course competition has its place in certain endeavors. But even in sports, where one team is competing against another, it is the team that works well together that wins.
An African proverb that captures the importance of a leader working collaboratively says this: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
While collaborating is always the best way to get something done, the harder the task, the more one needs to work with others. This African proverb captures that point: When spider webs unite, they can even tie up a lion.
You will not be surprised by what I will identify as the fifth characteristic that a leader of your generation must possess. As a former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, I must call upon you to make the arts an important part of your lives, and to make the arts accessible to everyone.
Yes, our nation and our world need the advantages that can result from what is called STEM— science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But we need to put an A in STEM and that spells STEAM: science, technology, ART and mathematics.
Music, dance, theater and the visual arts have the power to not only help us to understand ourselves, but to understand others. As Warren Robbins, the founder of the National Museum of African Art put it: Art can encourage cross-cultural communication.
I also challenge you future leaders to work to bring greater diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion into the world of the arts. For the arts should belong to everyone!
The sixth, final and in my view the most important attribute you need to possess if you are to be the kind of leader our world needs is this. You must stand up and speak out for what is right and what is just.
Dear graduates, how well you know that there is so much in our world that is not right and not just. Indeed, in our country and around the world, there is a resurgence in open displays of bigotry and discrimination. There are countless expressions of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, classism, ablism and ageism.
We are living in a time when the kind of open expressions of homophobia that we thought had been put to rest have resurfaced. And think about how widespread Islamophobia has become as it fuels words and actions against immigrants.
So what kind of leader does our world need to respond to these expressions of inequality and injustice? Our world needs leaders who will do what the great African American lesbian writer Audre Lorde called for. That is, to break the silence about our differences.
Today, more than ever, our world needs leaders who will stand up and speak out about the beauty and the power of diversity. As a Chinese saying puts it: One flower never makes a spring.
Listen to the words of Helen Keller, another of my sheros who was deaf, blind, and a great social activist. She said: The highest result of education is tolerance. Of course, we need leaders who move beyond tolerance to respecting and celebrating human diversity.
Each of us must do what we can to make our world better, more peaceful and more just. There is an African proverb that explains why everyone can help in this struggle. The saying is this: If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.
So dear graduates go on and be the leaders our world needs you to be.
My warmest congratulations to each of you in this mighty class of 2017!