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2022 Keynote Address


Beverly Daniel Tatum, Education Leader and Author

Smith College Commencement Address – May 15, 2022

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

Good morning, everyone! What a wonderful gathering this is — and what a pleasure it is for me to be here with all of you, and my fellow honorees. I am tremendously honored to share the stage with all of them. To President McCartney, to the faculty, staff and administrators, the trustees and distinguished guests, parents, family and friends, but most especially to this graduating class of 2022, I thank you for the honor of allowing me to share this special occasion with you. And I congratulate you all on this achievement! Let’s give you a round of applause.

When President McCartney asked me to be the commencement speaker, I had no idea there would be so much to talk about! Clearly your graduation represents an inflection point in your lives—a personal turning point. And, it is coinciding with a global inflection point which we cannot ignore. We have come through two long years of a global pandemic, which is not over yet; we see the escalation of global conflict as wars rage; we recognize the backlash against racial progress and the rise of white nationalist movements at home and abroad; we feel the impact of climate change; and we are confronted today by the growing threats to democracy, and the erosion of women’s rights. In short, the world, as we have known it, seems to be unraveling.

So when I was asked to be the commencement speaker, it was on the one hand easy to say “yes” to the request—who wouldn’t want the opportunity to speak to this fabulous audience of Smith graduates? But it was also daunting to think about how I might offer what I think is needed—and that is a word of encouragement.

So let’s be clear, my goal today is to be encouraging in 15 minutes or less. I have some practice at it. In fact, I will tell you that I have become an expert in what I am going to call “self-encouragement.” It has been necessary.

As you heard in my introduction, I've been teaching and writing about racism a long time—since 1980 to be exact—that’s 42 years. If you spend your time reading and writing about social justice issues, you can get discouraged. Every period of progress seems to be followed by pushback against that progress. In fact, in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, published in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about just that. At that moment of history, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War and the push for economic justice, he wrote, “The line of progress is never straight....The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds every period of progress is taking place...”

There is no question that we are living through such a period of “counterrevolution” today—a retrenchment of women’s rights, voting rights, human rights! Yet when we feel the pushback, we must remember it comes in response to change. If there had been no change—no advancement in women’s rights—there would be no pushback against that advancement. If there had been no change in voter participation (the surge in participation of young people and people of color in U.S. elections in 2008 and again in 2012), the rush to block access to the ballot that began in earnest in 2013 and has accelerated after the election of 2020 would not be occurring. If there had been no expansion of civil rights in the LGBTQIA community, there would be no pushback against that change. If there had been no expansion of anti-racist social justice education in the schools, there would be no pushback against it today. As painful as the pushback feels, it is in itself a reaction to social progress—and reminds us that change is possible. It has happened before and, even in the face of setbacks, change can happen again. To quote the social justice icon Professor Angela Davis, “the key is persistence.”

Change is possible. It’s not the result of “one and done” action but requires persistent, continuous effort, especially to sustain it.

So what does this mean for you? It is still the case that you have something that most people in the world do not—that is a college education. According to 2019 Census data, in the United States just one in three adults has a college degree. An education like the one you have received at Smith, an education that has prepared you to think critically about important social issues, is still the privilege of the few. To whom much has been given, much is, and should be, required. Martin Luther King once said, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,” and I have often thought our collective responsibility was to help it bend faster. If you think that it seems to be bending in the wrong direction, then you will have to use your education, your skills, your capacity for leadership to help it bend toward justice again. It won’t happen without you.

And let’s be clear: you all have that capacity for leadership. Now is the time to claim it. Smith has prepared you for this moment. You don’t have to be the CEO, or the president of the organization, to influence others. We all have a sphere of influence—family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, teammates. You never know who is watching you, paying attention to the example you provide, listening to the questions you ask, the analysis you bring. Identify your sphere of influence and use it unceasingly to advocate for the change you want to see. Change is possible!

Yes, we live in challenging times—and at times like these, I have learned to look to historical examples as a source of encouragement. I call those examples “resistance narratives.” Whether that’s reading about the women who fought against fascism in Italy, or the Nazis in France, or Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching campaign here in the U.S., I find courage in learning their stories. Here’s one that speaks to me today:

In 1958, in the face of bombings, beatings and virulent racial oppression perpetuated in the service of maintaining the Jim Crow social order, Dr. King wrote these optimistic words,

In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities.*

Even in a storm there is an opportunity for those with vision and determination. This is a time for creativity and bold thinking, innovation, imagination and action.

One of my former students gave me a small paperweight that I keep on my desk. 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. What would you do if you knew you could not fail? Each of you will have your own answer to that question. What I want to tell you is this: don’t let fear hold you back.

I have a pastor friend who says fear—F-E-A-R—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, eventually produces results. As Angela Davis reminds us, the key is persistence.

It is time to cast out fear and replace it with hope.

My best self-encouragement advice is this: develop the 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 takes practice. Here are just a few tips, three, for maintaining this discipline of hope. It is a short list, but a powerful one.

Number one: 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 or maybe taking a long walk with a friend. However you do it, remember: if you make a lot of withdrawals, you better make a lot of deposits. That’s good financial advice.

Number two: Create a support group. Find those who share your values and commitments to share your struggles with. The friendships you have made here at Smith can serve that purpose, even if it’s over Zoom. Wherever your next steps take you, you can find one or two people (and that's all you really need to start) who share your vision and can offer encouragement when you start to grow tired. Companions on the journey make all the difference.

Number three is perhaps the most important: Spend time with those who are more hopeful than you. I am a person of faith, and I have 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. Hope and faith are close cousins. So if you want more hope, spend time with people who have some.

A hopeful man I deeply admire, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the best-selling book Just Mercy, says: “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.” If you want to be an agent of change, you must stay hopeful!

Years from now, you may look back on this day, and you may not remember the name of the person who spoke at your commencement. I don’t remember who spoke at mine. But I hope you will remember these three things:

Change IS possible. The key is persistence. Maintain a discipline of hope!

Your collective leadership, harnessed with the energy that comes from hope, will bend the arc of justice once again.

I want to end my remarks with the words of a woman of your generation, poet Amanda Gorman. The poem she read at President Biden’s 2020 inauguration is titled “The Hill We Climb,” and it ends with these powerful lines:

When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light,
If only we're brave enough to see it,
If only we're brave enough to be it.**

Let’s all be brave enough, hopeful enough, to be the light for each other in this time, and in the days and years ahead.

Class of 2022, YOU are the embodiment of hope for me. Thank you, and congratulations!

* Martin Luther King, Jr. , “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 40. (Used in accordance with 17 U.S. Code § 107 (Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use)

**Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country (New York: Viking, 2021), 29.