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Dr. Johnnetta Cole 

Courage, It's What Really Matters 

Good Evening!

And what a very special evening it is as we gather to celebrate the accomplishments of the 2014 class of Bennington College.

When Sister President Silver asked that I join you this evening to serve as the speaker at her very first commencement here at Bennington, I felt mighty special, and jumped at the opportunity.

Being here, right here, at this moment is a way that I can express my admiration AND support of your Sister President. What a talented, gifted and remarkable person you are Mariko Silver. But it certainly does not surprise me that you are all of that…. and as the young’uns would say…and a bag of chips!

I only know of your late father, Tony Silver, an acclaimed documentary director. But I know, respect and enjoy a sisterly friendship with your mother, Joan Shigekawwa, who is currently serving as the Acting Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. And so, when we marvel at who you are, Sister President, and the impressive journey you have been on, we can declare with certainty that apple don’t fall far from the tree!

Dear graduates, tonight as we celebrate you, let us also celebrate and thank your parents and family members--- the folks who have believed in you even during those times when you were not sure you believed in yourself; the folks who have been your human ATM’s.

Tonight, we must acknowledge and thank your faculty, the women and men who have been in partnership with you in the challenging yet deeply rewarding process of teaching and learning.

And the Bennington Staff? Of course they too must be recognized and thanked, for it is they who carry out the range of responsibilities that create the kind of environment in which you as students could soar to the height of your possibilities.

As you know, most of my professional career has been in the academy where I have had the privilege and the joy of serving as a professor, administrator and twice as a college president. And so, I do know a great deal about the mission, the values and the culture of many colleges and universities. I can honestly say that all that I have read about Bennington College, all that I have heard about Bennington College, all that I sense about your college in the short time that I have been on your campus suggests that this is a special place.

Having served as the president of the only two historically Black colleges for women in America, I feel a close kinship with Bennington because your college began as a women’s college when the first class of eighty-seven women arrived on campus in 1932.

While Bennington became fully co-educational in 1969, I hope the principles upon which a women’s college rests remain etched into the daily life on your campus. I mean a belief in the fundamental equality of women and men that is captured in a Native American saying: “Women hold up half the sky.”

I trust I am correct in assuming that today, at Bennington, women do not stand behind men. For as I would often say to students at Spelman College and Bennett College for Women, the problem with a woman standing behind a man is she can’t see where she is going!

The focus on the arts in the curriculum and indeed the very life of the college is another way in which Bennington is a truly special place. Indeed, as Sister President Mariko has put it: “In its brief history---and I would add her-story---Bennington College has had an enormous impact on the intellectual and cultural life of America. In the 1930’s, dancers flocked to Bennington to chart the course of modern dance. Visual artists gathered here in the 1950’s and 60’s to redefine the visual arts canon. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the College was a mecca for writers eager to push the edges of literature.”

I firmly believe that some engagement with the arts is absolutely necessary if one is to not only make a good living, but also live a good life. 18th century Prussian writer Avigdor Pawsner once said: “If you are looking for Hell, then ask an artist where it is. If you can’t find an artist, then you are already in Hell.”  

I am trained in cultural anthropology, a discipline that draws on knowledge gained from fieldwork in efforts to understand the people and cultures of the world. And so it will not surprise you to hear that I applaud the fact that each academic year, Bennington students participate in a seven-week, off-campus winter term called Field Work. In my view, this is one of the reasons your college is such a special place, for you as students are required to put yourselves in circumstances that are not the ones you have grown up in or currently live in. And thus, as we anthropologists would put it, you learn a great deal about other people AND about yourself.

As we anthropologists are fond of saying: It is scarcely the fish that discovers water.

Now, dear graduates, what is the message that I want to give to you at your commencement--- the beginning of the next leg of your life’s journey. It is a basic message, a message that revolves around a single word. And that word is “courage.”

One of my sheroes, Dr. Maya Angelou, has said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.”

My charge to you, dear graduates is you must find and then exercise courage in four very specific ways. First, I urge you to exercise courage as you continue to grow up and to follow your dreams. As E.E. Cummings once said:

“I takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In the process of choosing your first life’s work--- and your generation is prone to change your careers 4-5 times in your lifetime--- In the process of choosing your first life’s work rather than following your passion it is often easier to become who your parents want you to be; or to choose a profession based on the amount of income it will bring you. Please don’t!

How well I remember the day when I had to muster the courage to say to my grandfather that I would not do as he wanted me to do--- that is to come into the family insurance business. And when I said to him that I was going to be an anthropologist, and cited Margaret Mead as a model of the profession I would follow, he laughed at me and said: “Baby girl, how in the world are you going to make a living doing something like that?”

As soon as I could break away from my grandfather, I sought comfort from my mother, as I shared with her that Papa had laughed at my ambition and asked me how in the world I thought I would make a living doing an anthropologist did. I will never forget the counsel my mother gave me. She said, your grandfather is right: you must give thought to how you are going to make a living. And this is especially so because you are a woman and must never be dependent on a man for your material well being. But, she went on to say, if anthropology is your passion, then you must follow it; if your dream is to become an anthropologist, then you must make that dream come true.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, and the first woman to serve as the president of any African country has said this: If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. And so, I am urging you to design and then to work toward the fulfillment of dreams that truly scare you.

Michael McKee has said, “It may take courage to embrace possibilities of your own potential, but once you have flown past the summit of your fears, nothing will seem impossible.”

Secondly, I urge you, dear graduates, to have the courage to change the path you are on, to let go of the familiar, yes, to take risks.

Steve Jobs once said this: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

There is little in life that is easier than doing the same ole thing in the same ole way. It’s called playing it safe; it’s like a boat that stays in a harbor. How safe it is when a boat avoids going out into the roughness of the seas, into waters that may be rough and even dangerous. But the problem with a boat remaining in a safe harbor is that it is not going anywhere.

It was five years ago that I had to find the courage to venture into a profession that drew me out of my comfort zone, out of what I knew, had been successful at and into a world that required me to admit that I did not know it all, even fact, a world where I often did not know what those who would report to me knew far better than I.

After spending most of my professional life in the world of colleges and universities, I dared to enter the world of museums. Believe me that took more courage than I thought I had. Even though I am an anthropologist, and not an art historian, and even though I had never worked as a curator, I accepted the challenge of serving as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. I made that courageous leap and I am so very glad that I did.

In the third act of my life--- and I do hope the curtain will not come down anytime soon--- I took a leap of faith. I will tell you what that kind of faith is? It’s like standing on the top of a mountain and deciding you will jump, having faith that when you do so, either the earth will come up and meet your feet, or you will sprout wings.

Over the past five years, it has been incredibly rewarding for me to work in a museum that collects, conserves, exhibits and educates about the traditional and contemporary visual arts of Africa…. The continent that is the very cradle of humanity, the place from which we all descended.

And because I found the courage to change the path I was on, to risk leaving the safety of what I knew and yes, what I was known for, each and every day I encounter the excitement of discovery, the joy of learning.

Thirdly, dear graduates, I ask that you always have the courage to speak up and speak out about what is not right, what is not decent and fair and just.

Perhaps you know the words of Martin Niemoller, a prominent Protestant pastor who became an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is often fear that keeps us silent when we hear or witness an injustice. But as another of my sheroes, Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “ We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot do.

One of the commitments I have made to myself is that I will not remain silent in the face of bigotry and any and all systems of inequality. To honor that commitment, it sometimes takes more courage than I think I have, but somehow, I find the amount I need to speak up and speak out about racism, sexism, and heterosexism. I muster the courage to call anyone who expresses in my presence any form of anti-Semitism, and any form of Islamaphobia. I challenge bigotry and discrimination based on age, on nationality, and on a person’s disability.

Of course bigotry and discrimination are not the only injustices that you and I must always have the courage to challenge. As Dr. Martin Luther King said in an open letter written on April 16, 1963 from the Birmingham Jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And hear these words of the great drum major for justice: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And these words that cry out for us to have the courage to speak up and speak out: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Fourth and finally, dear graduates, I ask of you the courage to be of service to others. When I was growing up in the days of legalized segregation in Jacksonville, Florida, my parents and folks in that community who “grew me” would say in countless ways--- and more importantly, they would demonstrate in their behavior their deep belief that doing for others is the rent you must pay for your room on earth.

Once you say with courage and conviction that you will continuously pay this rent, there is no shortage of ways in which you can be of service to others. Sometimes, of course, it is in simple acts of kindness to someone in need. But service can also take the form of aligning ones self with an organization or agency that is dedicated to daring to work in the interest of assisting people to change their lives--- for the better.

United Way is the organization that I continue to work in that has the chutzpah, the courage to envision a world where all individuals and families achieve their human potential through education, financial stability and healthy lives.

For years I had worked in local United Ways, and then the day came when I was asked to serve as the chair of the board of United Way of America. It really did take courage for me to step into that top leadership role as the first African American to ever chair the United Way board. I remember seeking and finding courage to do what I had to do by reading about and recalling the lives of champions for positive social change.

I was encouraged by the words of Caesar Chavez, the exemplary Chicano leader who once said: “Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others--- for their sakes and for our own.”

I thought about the life and work of the great African American educator, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune who constantly said to the women she worked with that it is fine to climb to the top, but you must lift others as you climb.

And throughout my term as the chair of the board of United Way of America, I would find both courage and comfort in the words of the great humanitarian, Elie Wiesel: “Our lives do not belong to us alone. Our lives also belong to those who need us the most.”

It is time now for me to move toward closure on this commencement address. I want to do so by telling my version of a well-known story.

A young girl was walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. Indeed there were starfish on the beach as far as the eye could see.

As she came to each starfish, the young girl would bend down, pick up the starfish and throw it back into the ocean.

An old man who was walking along the beach noticed the young girl and as he approached her he said: “Good Morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young girl looked up, and replied: “Good Morning Sir, I am throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the ocean by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die unless I throw them back into the ocean.”

The old man replied: “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. You can’t save all of these starfish. Can’t you see that what you are doing won’t make a difference?

The young girl bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it as far as she could into the ocean. And then she turned to the old man and said: “It made a difference to that one.”

Now that little girl had courage.

She dreamed of saving starfish and courageously acted in the interest of that dream.

When the old man challenged what she was doing, she spoke up and said quite boldly: But it mattered to this one.

The young girl had the courage to do what she could to change an unfortunate situation.

And yes, she courageously acted in order to be of service to as many starfish as she could.

Courage: it’s what really matters!

Congratulations dear Bennington class of 2014! I wish you courage and Godspeed.