Soumya Shailendra Addresses the Class of 2021
Student Speaker Soumya Rachel Shailendra '21 addressed the Class of 2021 at Bennington College's 86th Commencement.
Good evening to our faculty members, parents, trustees, staff, the class of 2021, and all those who are joining us today from their homes.
I am truly humbled to have this opportunity to reflect on our time at Bennington in your company. It is, perhaps, obvious that we are witnessing this day much differently that we had envisioned it for ourselves four years ago.While we have eagerly waited for this day, we have equally dreaded being thrust into the “real world” in a period of uncertainty and upheaval.
But even in these unusual times, I have been a witness to the strength and resilience of our community. The past four years have been dynamic, tumultuous, and full of surprises. Nevertheless, we have endured and we are sitting here today to celebrate the culmination of our journeys.
So, instead of trying to summarize an experience that has been diverse and meaningful to each one of us, I will attempt to speak about the essence of our time at Bennington — the significance of freedom.
Freedom is at the core of our Bennington education. It is a quest that fuels our creativity as writers, artists, dancers, and thinkers. And it is a virtue we need to constantly fight for in this world.
I think we can all recall times in the past four years when we have felt distinctly free at Bennington: at midnight breakfasts where we danced on tabletops; the long walks to North Bennington and Jennings; when we hopped from house to house after a Friday night party; or, when we spent hours in the architecture or dance studio perfecting the edges of a model or a dance phrase.
From the illustrative plan essays we conceive to the strangest characters we play on stage, our freedom at Bennington does not only reflect who we are, but also who we can become in each other’s company.
I had taken these memories for granted for most of my time at Bennington. Like most of you, I have also entertained the idea of leaving this place. Fortunately, I couldn’t go farther than Middlebury, Vermont. But sometime last fall, when I was studying remotely from India, these memories returned to me as my only keepsake of a place that I had unknowingly begun to refer to as home.
If we look past the nostalgia, we have to also acknowledge that the past four years have been some of the most challenging political years to be a student in the United States. Each time I heard of a change in VISA status or border regulations during COVID, it became harder to believe that the freedom that I had expected to attain in college was truly available to me. And it would be ignorant of me to claim that all of us are free at all times on this campus.
There are low-income and working class students amongst us who work multiple jobs to support themselves. There are international students who tolerate unfair border bans that have kept them away from their families for years. There are Black and Brown students who are constantly navigating the racial politics of this campus and this country. There are those who cannot afford medical insurance or a leave of absence when their body needs rest. These social inequalities inhibit members of our community from participating and enjoying their college experience.
What exactly then is the value of freedom when all of us here don’t experience it in the same way? Are we free at all, if we aren’t free together?
Since the beginning of my educational journey, I have been schooled to believe in a linear progress narrative that has taught me that with each milestone I attain, comes greater freedom to choose the next one. Eventually, this would give me equal rights and resources to be the most powerful or the richest person in the world. The greatest learning that I have done at my time in Bennington is to unlearn this narrative of progress because the primary assumption upholding this claim is the independence of the self.
According to this narrative, college is just another educational achievement that can be stacked on the resume with other internships and part-time jobs. As my favorite poet, Vikramaditya Sahai, once said, “Progress is the story of entering a dream someone else thought for us...It means subscribing to values, norms, and institutions of someone else’s choosing because the society in which we live often tells us that we can be free alone.”
It is this society that produces surplus out of the free labour in prisons. It is this society that tells us that some forms of technologized, intellectual labour is far superior to the caregiving practices of our mothers and grandmothers. It is this society that relies on charity organizations and philanthropists to conceal the corruptive practices of multi-million dollar corporations. It is this society that imagines empires on indigeneous lands and militarizes against the poor.
Our resistance to these conditions of unfreedom, however, cannot arise from the arbitrary exercise of our desires. To be free is to gather together, to share, and to belong. The value of freedom is very often realized in struggle. We can only be free if we fight for the freedom of others. And we cannot claim to be free, if we remain complicit and silent in the face of injustice, even if it is removed or distant from us.
Freedom is the opposite of loneliness. It does not belong to one person, and it cannot be held in isolation. The Africana Studies historian, Robin Kelley, views freedom as an act of imagination. “Freedom and love,” he says, “ may be the most revolutionary ideas available to us, and yet as intellectuals we have failed miserably to grapple with their political and analytical importance.”
To be free means to give space to the contradictions each one of us embody. It means inviting the stranger, the immigrant, the disabled, the person of colour who demands an open house and an obsolete border. It requires us to collectively deliberate outside our liberal bubbles, and engage with those who think differently than us. It demands the tenacity to work towards the future without discarding the past.
What then is the work of freedom?
This question may be abstract, or even grandiose. But, I think it empowers us to realize the radical potential of critique in furthering politics and bringing out tangible change. Critique, firstly, is an act of care and then a medium of resistance. It emerges from an acknowledgement of our collective vulnerability, and pushes us to never leave power unquestioned. Anthropologist, David Graeber, refers to this as seeking a “liberation in the imaginary”, as it requires difficult and stubborn opposition to those who benefit from the existing arrangements of power.
The moments in Bennington that have reframed my idea of freedom are also moments of profound vulnerability and loss. I was reminded of the tremendous grace and generosity that exists in this community when we lost Mira, or when we saw the barn burn down, or when we had to vacate our campus for each other’s health and safety. We entrusted our care to each other, and in that process formed beautiful friendships that will nurture us for a lifetime. It was in moments like these that Bennington seemed especially difficult, but never lonely.
Last winter, I happened to walk across the college campus of a renowned university in New Delhi. Although India was resurfacing to life after the first lockdown, the university streets were desolate. Police had barricaded gates; classrooms were empty; stray dogs slept in the corridors. Outside the university gates, young students — most of whom did not have access to internet and electricity— were protesting for days to demand access to their archives and books to continue their research. Watching their sit-ins reminded me of the importance of universities and institutions of higher learning in preserving ideas of freedom and democracy in the world.
I certainly hope that we can fulfill that role in our communities after we graduate from Bennington. As Ella Baker once said, and I repeat: “ We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
If we look closely at our time at Bennington, we’ll also realize that there are several others we need to thank for supporting our freedoms: the cleaning staff in Buildings and Grounds who ensure that our houses are glowing, the dining hall team who nourish us each day, our excellent team of librarians who procure reading materials at the last minute, Campus Safety who rescue us at the oddest hours, the Abenaki and Mohican nations on whose land we stand today, and our professors who mold our learnings with their insight. Our success today is a testament to their devotion, and with the changes wrought by COVID, they too have helped us in keeping this community safe during a global pandemic. We are truly indebted to you.
On a personal note, I want to thank my grandmothers — two fierce women who have paved the way for where I am today. I also want to thank my parents, who are watching this from India. Mumma, Dadda, and Sourabh, thank you for trusting me with your unconditional love and faith across continents.
So, where do we go from here?
Instead of answering that question for you, I would like to share the story of feminist activist and comrade, Natasha Narwal. Like you and me, Natasha, is a student. She is currently pursuing her doctorate studies in History. Since her early days in college, Natasha was moved to practice the feminist theories that she had encountered in the classroom. She became a founding member of Pinjra Tod, an autonomous womens’ collective that protested against discriminatory practices against women in college residences.
In May, 2020, Natasha was falsely charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) after a communal pogrom broke out in North East Delhi. As bail petitions for her release have been repeatedly rejected, Natasha has now spent over one year in prison. During her time in Tihar Jail as an undertrial, Natasha collaborated with other inmates to start a feminist reading group. She also tutors their children. As COVID raged inside the prison, she also filed a petition to start an immediate vaccination drive. She is simultaneously continuing work on her dissertation with minimum access to the internet.
Natasha’s efforts were supported by her father, Mahavir Narwal, who would often say that it was not her, but us — the people who refused to dissent against injustice — who were unfree. Earlier last month, her father succumbed to COVID-19. Natasha was supposed to have a bail hearing on Monday, the 10th of May. That Monday came too late; her father had already passed away.
Natasha’s efforts may seem ordinary and unique to her situation. But time and again, I have turned to her to learn that we can practice freedom and resistance in the most unfree conditions. For me, Natasha embodies the political, social, and moral responsibilities of being a citizen of the world, and in this time of grief I share her story with you all to remind us that our struggle against injustice is only meaningful if we stand for and with others
“The world we want is Us,” writes Alice Walker. It is, and it will be if we continue to choose love over fear, hope over despair, resistance over silence, care over isolation, and people over profit.
So, it doesn’t matter where we go from Bennington, it just matters that we get there without leaving anyone behind. The sooner we understand that our individual liberation is tied to the liberation of all, the sooner we can create another world.
As we leave Bennington and bid goodbye to a place that has housed us for the past four years, I sincerely ask you all to commit to opening your homes to strangers. Let us fight for Black liberation. Let us fight for open borders, public education, and healthcare. Let us fight for indigeneous sovereignty. Let us fight for our planet. Let us reject the logic of capitalist exploitation.
Dear class of 2021. We did it. We have crossed the finish line together. As we begin this new phase in our lives, I want to leave you with the wisdom of Toni Morrison: “When you get these jobs that you have so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, then you need to free somebody else. If you have power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Congratulations class of 2021, I hope that our time at Bennington has left us with a desire for a free world.