Institutional News

Darren Walker Addresses the Class of 2021

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker addressed the Class of 2021 at Bennington College's 86th Commencement. 

Image of man at podium play video
Close Video

Commencement 2021—Commencement Speaker Darren Walker

I am reminded that if you want to be inspired just listen to the young people like you and so many graduates today.

Now, to my friend President Laura Walker--Thank you for hosting me. Friends, family, beloved community joining us on the livestream: Welcome. And finally, most importantly, to the Class of 2021: Congratulations!

I’m honored to be here. And I want to share a word about why I’m here, and why it means so
much to me. Today is my first time visiting Bennington. I’m reveling in the majesty of the mountains and the meadows you’ve called home for most of the past four (or more) years. But the truth is, I loved Bennington long before today. In fact—and I’m dating myself here—I’ve loved it as long as most of you have been alive. I love Bennington because, for 26 years, I loved a man named David. David arrived at Bennington in 1980. He entered the MFA program with a love of the arts—and he left, in 1983, with a calling.

This community embraced him, pushed him, affirmed him—as a queer man, as a thinker, as an
artist. In other words, Bennington changed David’s life. And David changed mine. He introduced me to painters, performers, and warriors for justice—many of them Bennington grads. He filled my life with the light and laughter –the kind that many of you have shared in your days together. So, I owe something real, and meaningful, and enduring to the Bennington community.

And I am so grateful for the invitation to be with you today, celebrating you and your

I also should say, for me, today is bittersweet. When I first received the Bennington commencement invitation, I pictured David by my side: Strolling across Commons Lawn. Admiring your brilliance at VAPA. Applauding you as you receive your diplomas. He would have relished it all. But two years ago in January, David passed away suddenly. I mention this not to bring anyone down, but because I imagine I am not the only one feeling both gratitude and grief today.

I imagine many of you are celebrating your accomplishments, while also struggling with the fact that this is not the commencement you envisioned, or the senior year you expected. And that’s okay.

We all have faced losses—in our lives, and especially in the last year. Losses, big and small. The plans we made, and the plans we changed. You might have pictured a cheering crowd—or an extended family hugging you close. A senior year on campus—and all the memories that go along with it. Hours in the library. Days in the studio. A final performance.

You might have imagined someone in the audience, or by your side—who is not here today. And so, graduates: I see you—both your joy and your sadness—the gift of this moment, and its grief. And we honor both.

And there’s one more feeling on which I’m reflecting today… it’s hope. You see, I have come to believe the single greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness.

That’s because hopelessness hardens our hearts, and limits our capacity for empathy, for generosity, for justice. When we feel hopeless, it’s hard to imagine what comes next: that there may be light at the end of the tunnel, or possibility ahead. Hopelessness makes it easy to hold back, even when the world invites you in.

We see forms of hopelessness all around the world. Hopelessness (and selfishness) can lead nations to hoard their vaccine supply, leaving millions across the globe vulnerable and dying. Some justify it, saying, “we must prepare for the next wave.”

Hopelessness leaves world leaders resigned in the face of climate crisis, even as fires, floods, and droughts abound. And they rationalize it, lamenting, “what could we do to stop it anyway?” Hopelessness might convince people to ignore racist police violence and voter suppression—to succumb or even numb ourselves to its inevitability, especially when these policies threaten people who may (or may not) look like us.

And yet, despite all our losses and challenges, I have hope. Looking into your faces—and I see hope. And we all have such high hopes for you.

So, Class of 2021:
For this very last in-person lecture…
…let’s reflect on how to find hope in an time when there’s too much hopelessness.

The Power of the Arts

For me, the first places I look for hope is in the arts. As a little boy, I lived with my mother and sister in a shotgun house—in rural, Liberty County, Texas.

My grandmother worked as a maid for wealthy Houston families. And every now and then, I would go along with her and help clean or work in the yard.

One family for whom my grandmother worked was a major arts patron in Houston. And when I was over, I noticed stacks of programs and magazines from the Alley Theater and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts—materials they planned to throw away.

And so, quietly, I would wrap a few in a brown paper bag and take them home with me. I remember, vividly, feeling transfixed by the magic of those pages. Flipping through those magazines and programs unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it.

And I know I’m not alone.

How many times have you stood before a painting and felt yourself moved in its presence? How many times have you read a classmate’s poetry or prose, and found yourself entranced? How many times has a song brought you to tears? A play coaxed you to laughter? A film nestled into your heart, your lungs, your gut? How many times have the arts—in their creation, or experience—moved you, opened you, asked you to see the world more clearly, and imagine what could be?

That’s why the arts—and artists like so many of you—are so important. And why a life in the arts, and informed by the arts, is not a frivolous luxury or selfish pursuit—but a necessity.

Because the arts allow us to dream of, and empower us to create, futures that do not yet exist. And they cultivate within us the empathy, the understanding of human experience—our shared
dignity and potential—that is the seed of hope.

The Pursuit of Justice
If one place we can find hope is in the arts, then another is in movements for justice. Across the world, we’ve witnessed the largest civil rights movement in history—a movement that stands against violence and repression to say, “Black Lives Matter.” We’ve seen millions of girls and women and nonbinary people share stories of survival, and many millions more respond with: #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos.

We are living through a renaissance of solidarity led by Black women, and girls, and Indigenous people around the globe. By survivors speaking up for disability justice. By transwomen pushing for food and water security. By all of us, aware that our lives intersect in countless ways.

These movements are hope in action.

I know many of you have raised your voices in pain and protest over the past year. And I am sure you have seen, in your intersectional work and interdisciplinary studies, the way art illuminates, and elevates, and emboldens our calls for justice—and vice-versa.

The Practice of Both
For me, this relationship is essential.

Both art and justice require collaboration and creativity. They ask us to reexamine our assumptions and familiar narratives. They challenge us to acknowledge who is centered—and who is forced to the margins.

Art and justice need our discipline, patience, and daily practice. They both demand honesty with ourselves, openness to others, and hope for what can be. So, the pursuits of art and justice are intertwined. Both require intention, and energy, and hard work. They may not be perfect synonyms or substitutes. But they exist in mutuality—we need both in order to thrive—and to heal.

I see that mutuality in Amy Sherald’s beautiful, regal portrait of Breonna Taylor, who was killed
by Louisville police officers in her own home. Sherald casts Ms. Taylor in a flowing teal gown with a hand on her hip—brave, bold, loving, loved.

Rather than see this painting sold off to a private donor, Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation donated it to both the Speed Museum in Louisville and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

We believe in the power of Amy Sherald’s art not because we want Breonna Taylor to be seen as an icon or a symbol but because we want the world to understand the humanity that has been stolen by her murder.

Rather, we believe in this painting because it has the power to heal. It has the potential to comfort a grieving and enraged city—and a grieving nation grappling with this nation’s history of racism.

And while art cannot replace accountability, it can encourage it. It can enrich it. It can drive us closer to the reckoning our communities so deeply need and deserve.

After all, that is why we find hope in justice, and art, and all the spaces in between.

Not because we pursue them in isolation or preserve them for the few; but because we share them with everyone.

So, Class of 2021: No matter what you do, no matter the art or justice you choose to pursue—I
ask you to hope.

I ask, knowing hope is always difficult. That at moments like these, it is radical.

Because when the future feels unknown, unsure, uncertain—it’s easy to languish.

But I want to be clear: There is a difference between being uncertain and being unprepared.

We are all uncertain. No one knows what the future holds, or what will be different about the world a year from now, or a decade from now.

But know that you are prepared.

If your future is a blank canvas, Bennington has prepared you to fill it—and see the world in its fullest form.

Bennington taught you, as it taught my David, to relish in your craft. To be relentless and unwavering in your commitment to both art and justice. To be resilient as the world shifts under our feet. To find hope and spread it to others.

Graduates, in the words of the abolitionist activist and organizer, Mariame Kaba, “Hope is a discipline.”
It is a choice—yours to make and always in reach. I see it at your fingertips, in your eyes, on
your horizons.

In our life together, I was so lucky that David shared his hope—the hope he garnered in this place, from this community—with me. He left me enough to last a lifetime.

I urge you to choose hope as he did, to cherish it as we did, to practice this discipline—however you can.

Thank you for this tremendous honor.