May 20, 2002
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
GUINIER TO SMITH GRADUATES:
"REMEMBER TO LEAD, NOT JUST SUCCEED"
Civil Rights Activist and
Harvard Law Professor
Reflects on "The Nerve of Failure"
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. At commencement
ceremonies on Sunday, May 19, pioneering law professor and civil
rights champion Lani Guinier told Smith College students that
the most important thing a liberal arts education could impart
"is a chance to learn from your failures not just your successes."
Guinier is the author of a number of books, including "Lift
Every Voice," an analysis of the civil rights movement through
the lens of her 1993 nomination by President Clinton, later withdrawn,
to be the first black woman to serve as assistant attorney general
for civil rights. She drew on her personal experiences to illustrate
the importance of "the nerve of failure."
"When I was dis-appointed in 1993, I learned who I was,
I learned what I stood for, I learned what was most meaningful
to me, and I learned that however much I was suffering from the
public humiliation I experienced, there were many more people
in this country who suffered much more every day."
Acknowledging that it might "seem peculiar to be talking
to a group of graduates about failure on a triumphant day in
which you have a lot to celebrate," Guinier noted that the
credentials of accomplishment, such as a college diploma, confer
the responsibility "to be a lifelong learner, not just a
lifelong earner." She predicted that those "who are
willing to learn from their peers who are different than they
are those who experience the strongest intellectual outcomes
as well as the most important democratic outcomes."
Elaborating on a theme of her latest book, "The Miner's
Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy,"
Guinier told the graduates that, like canaries used to test for
poisonous gases in mines, the experiences of underrepresented,
"alienated or marginalized" groups, such as women,
people of color, gays and lesbians and the disabled, are often
early warnings for toxic developments in our society as a whole.
"Too often we locate those problems that surround the canary
as if they are the problems of the canary. We pathologize the
canary and then we say, 'Ah, the solution is to fix the canary'
But I would argue that the solution is to learn from the canary.
To heed the lesson of the canary and to fix the atmosphere in
the mines that is affecting not only the canary, but all of us."
Sharing the stage with Guinier were six distinguished women who
received honorary degrees. They were Anita F. Hill, professor
of social policy, law and women's studies at Heller Graduate
School, Brandeis University; Anne Martindell, Ada Comstock Scholar,
member of the Smith Class of 2002 and former United States Ambassador
to New Zealand and Western Samoa; Cynthia Moss, director of the
Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, Africa, and a member
of the Smith Class of 1962; Katha Pollitt, columnist and commentator
on popular culture and politics; Sima Wali, a native of Afghanistan,
champion of inclusion of women in the country's current cabinet
and president and CEO of Refugee Women in Development, Inc.;
and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic
Guinier received an honorary degree from Smith in 1999.
At the college's 124th commencement ceremony, 752 undergraduates
and 65 graduate students received degrees.
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's best
liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state
and 50 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's
college in the United States.
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