New College of Florida Commencement Speech
Delivered by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, May 17, 2019
Good evening! What a beautiful gathering this is it is – and what a pleasure it is for me to be here with all of you. To President O’Shea, to the faculty, staff and administrators, the trustees and distinguished guests, parents and friends, but most especially to this graduating class of 2019, I thank you for the honor of allowing me to share this evening with you. And I congratulate you on this achievement!!
Today is May 17, 2019 – a day of personal significance for all of you. May 17th be a date that always stands out in your memory. May 17th is a date that will always stands out in mine, and its not just because I am here with you. I’m sure some of you know that today, May 17th, marks the 65th anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that we know as Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine of school segregation. To some of you that decision must seem like such ancient history. But I’d like to tell you something that was not mentioned in my introduction. I want to tell you that I was born in 1954 – and I was born in Florida. Tallahassee, Florida, in fact.
There is something very personally meaningful to be standing here at New College of Florida, the Honors College of the State University System of Florida on May 17th, and I want to tell you why.
I was born in September of 1954, just four months after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine of school segregation. When I was born, my father was teaching in the art department at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Both he and my mother were 1949 graduates of Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., and my father earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Iowa in 1951.
Fast-forward to 1954, he was an art professor at Florida A&M, and wanted to earn his doctorate in art education at nearby Florida State University (also in Tallahassee) but in 1954, FSU was for “whites only.” Even though by that time state-sanctioned segregation had been outlawed, the State of Florida was slow to comply. The State of Florida had to provide access to graduate education, but the way they did it was to pay my father’s transportation to another school out of the state.
They paid his train fare to Pennsylvania, and in 1957 he earned his degree at Penn State University. In 1958, my parents decided they’d had enough of Florida’s segregated educational system, and they moved their family to Massachusetts. My father became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the community where I grew up. So here, I stand, 65 years after the Brown decision, as the commencement speaker at one of the premier public institutions in Florida AND an institution that has such a proud history of being an intentionally open and inclusive one from its very beginnings. My parents are no longer living, but I know they would take a great deal of satisfaction and pride in this moment, and so do I.
I wanted to begin my remarks this evening, by telling you that story about my father and the state of Florida, not only because today is May 17th, but also because it is evidence of the possibility of positive social change. I have three points to make this evening – and that is the first one: Change is possible.
I think it is important for me to remind all of you that change is possible, because we live in a time when many people feel discouraged. The job market is the best it has been in many years, and of course that is good news for all of you graduates, but in other ways, it feels like progress is being lost. Though segregation is no longer legally required, K-12 schools across the nation are more segregated today than they were 30-40 years ago. And that is not the only example of what appears to be backward motion in our society. In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote about such a time as this: He said, The line of progress is never straight…The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds every period of progress is taking place. In 2019 many people feel like we are in another period of “push back” against our most recent period of progress.
So what does this mean for you, the graduating class of 2019? It means that if you want to move forward again, YOU will have to be part of the change. YOU will have to claim your place as leaders.
We all have the capacity for leadership, whether we know it or not. We all influence others through our example. You never know who is watching you, paying attention to the example you provide, but I guarantee that you all have a sphere of influence – family, friends, teammates, coworkers – use your sphere of influence to advocate for the change you want to see. The more you do that, the larger your sphere of influence will grow. So don’t be afraid to BE BOLD in your vision for change. The founders of New College of Florida were BOLD in 1959 to say they were creating a college that would be welcoming to everyone. That was not a popular idea but here you all are, the fruits of that vision.
At Spelman College, where I served as president for 13 years, we often recite the story of the founding of the College, another example of bold vision. Two white women from Massachusetts, aided by a black pastor in Atlanta, through the force of their determination, started that school in 1881, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. Their vision of a great school for black women certainly was not a popular idea in 1881, and it certainly wasn’t easy. They frequently struggled to keep the school going.
At one dire moment, Harriet Giles, one of the founders, sold her piano, one of her most prized possessions. The day of the sale she wrote in her journal about selling her piano, with these simple words, “difficult but necessary.” She knew the sacrifice, though painful, would result in something very important. Whenever I was having a tough day at the College, I remembered that story and realized that my challenges were small compared to the ones our founders faced. Remembering their struggle – and ultimate success – helped keep me moving forward.
Theirs was a bold vision, as was the vision that led to the creation of the New College of Florida 60 years ago. You would not be here without those visionaries, people who had that bold vision of an inclusive education and kept it alive, even in the face of opposition. So my question to you is this: What will be your bold vision? How will you use your education to improve the lives of others?
I have a small paperweight that I keep on my desk in my office. It says, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I think that is a powerful question, one we should all ask ourselves – particularly at a moment like this, at a moment of transition. “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Would you go to that graduate program to pursue your dream of an advanced degree? Would you apply for that job that seems beyond your grasp? Would you start your own business? Would you travel to some new and unknown place to chart a new path for your life? As you cross this threshold into the world of college graduates, don’t let FEAR hold you back. I have a pastor friend who says FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.
Let me repeat that, “F-E-A-R – False Evidence Appearing Real.” Well, if you have any FEAR, replace that FEAR with HOPE. And what does HOPE stand for – well, I say it stands for “Having Optimism Produces Effort.” H-O-P-E, “Having Optimism Produces Effort.” And effective effort, my friends, produces results.
Yes, we live in challenging times – and yet even in a storm there is opportunity for those with vision and determination. This is a time for creativity and bold thinking, innovation and imagination. This is the time for bold vision, for as a wise prophet once said, “without vision, the people will perish!”
Point No. 2: BE BOLD! It is time to cast out FEAR and replace it with HOPE. As I look out at all of you, I see the embodiment of hope. All of you have been changed by your education in some way, and now you are prepared to go out and change your communities. Whether you are going on to graduate school, headed for the world of work, or some combination thereof, whether you plan to be a future educator, artist, scientist, health care provider, legislator, engineer, corporate executive, social worker, entrepreneur, or parent, you already have the tools you need to be agents of change in your communities. And that is a very hopeful thought.
But as I’m sure many of you know from your own efforts, being an agent of change is not easy. When you try, there are often people who will discourage you – who will say, “Oh you’re just being politically correct” or “some things will never change.”
Sometimes the discouragement comes from the people we love the most. A very poignant example of this was provided to me by one of my students several years ago.
During one of the college breaks, he had lengthy discussions with his father about the social injustices he was learning about. To his dismay, his father told him that his commitments to social change were just a “phase.” When he was back at school, the student said to me, “I don’t want this to just be a phase. But how will it not be?”
I thought a lot about this story when I thought about addressing you. Here you all are, you have done important work, and soon will be moving on to new opportunities where you can do even more. But as you move on, you move away from the hopeful structure that a school like New College provides. As you move into new, perhaps more cynical environments, how will you maintain the hopefulness you need to keep pushing forward?
I would like to suggest that you need to maintain a discipline of hope. I use the word “discipline” intentionally. Like regular exercise is a discipline, so is the maintenance of hope. The more you do it, the easier it gets – but like establishing a regular pattern of exercise, it requires a certain amount of willpower. So in closing, I would like to leave you with my own list of “best strategies” for maintaining this discipline of hope. The list is short – but powerful!
1) Avoid burnout. It is hard to be hopeful when you’re exhausted. Maintain the appropriate balance between withdrawals and deposits. Social change work is hard. It has its rewards but it also has its costs. When you make withdrawals of emotional, spiritual or physical energy, it has to be balanced by deposits. Each of us has our own way of making deposits – for me it is spending time alone listening to some favorite music or reading a good book without being interrupted by the phone or anything else, or maybe taking a long walk with a friend. If you make a lot of withdrawals, you must make deposits.
2) Create a support group. Find others who have similar values and commitments to share your struggles with. New College of Florida has provided that for you and the friendships you have made here can serve that purpose, though perhaps at a distance if you are moving to different places. But wherever you are, you can find one or two people (and that is all you need – it does not have to be a big group) who share your vision.
3) Spend time with those who are more hopeful than you. I am a person of faith, and I read a lot of books on spirituality. Once I read one that recommended that if you wanted to grow in your faith, you should spend time with people who had more faith than you did. And I found that to be very useful advice. Time spent with people who have experienced many trials and tribulations and yet have been anchored by their own prayer life have taught me a lot. Hope and faith are close cousins. So if you want more hope, spend time with people who have some.
A man I deeply admire, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative says: Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.
Point #3: Stay Hopeful!
Change is possible. Be bold. Practice the discipline of HOPE.
In closing, I want you to know that being here with all of you today has been part of MY practice of HOPE. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Congratulations to all of you!