Commencement Address 2012
Enuma Menkiti ’97
June 7, 2012
Social (and personal) awareness which impels to (effective) action
Good morning faculty, staff, families, and the Class of 2012! It is a privilege to be here with you today and I am humbled and honored by the opportunity to speak at a beloved institution that has shaped such a significant part of my life.
You sit before me about to embark on the next stage of your education and your life. You plan to go off to college and study an array of topics. Some of you may harbor dreams of performing at Carnegie Hall, starting your own lucrative business, or writing a best-selling novel. No doubt many of you have considered the more traditional career paths of Medicine, Law, or Teaching. Despite your differing dreams and plans, I imagine that everyone ultimately wants the same thing—to be remembered and for our lives to have meaning.
How we go about finding that meaning and enacting our significance on the world is the real challenge. If we want to take action and we want our actions to be most effective, I would wager that we must first become personally as well as socially aware. We can choose to live in the world we know or learn about the one that we don’t. We can offer general efforts of community service, or we can engage in a journey of self discovery and societal exploration to find where we fit and how we can best make a difference. As you venture away from home, you will begin to see the vastly different realities that exist for so many groups of people, and that confronting the injustice in this fact is a place to start.
New York is a city of contrasts, and anyone who has visited for more than a few days knows that the local subway system is one place where you will encounter more diversity than anywhere else in America. It is not an infrequent experience during rush hour to be sandwiched between two very opposite strangers. One particular morning sticks out in my mind. To my right sat a woman with an iPad in her lap. Her hair was glossy and healthy, her skin clear. She smelled slightly of perfume and was smiling to herself as she typed her weekend plans into her electronic calendar. Immediately to my left was another young woman, shaky from drugs, rocking back and forth and talking to herself or a voice in her head that only she could hear. Her sneakers were filthy and worn to the quick with sockless toes pushing through. Her jacket was thin and ripped, and her nails caked with grime. She smelled of urine and hopelessness. I’m sure her mind was focused on where she might procure her next meal as opposed any weekend e-planning.
This story is about the choice we have to be aware of what is going on around us, to take in what we see, and to process it for meaning. Sadly, the daily choice of many of us New Yorkers is to put on our headphones and tune out the discomfort. I want to challenge you to keep your eyes and ears open as you discover your path.
One area where it would have been impossible for me to tune out the stark contrasts has been in my work within various school systems. I have had the unique opportunity to be a part of five very different school environments—from homeschooling, to prestigious Newton Country Day and Williams College, to a large failing urban public school, to a high performing charter school, and finally to a network of independent, urban, Catholic schools. As a homeschooler, I was more sheltered than most. In fact, Mr. Reine’s ninth grade Religion class was one of the first formal classes I ever participated in. It would have been easy coming from that background, to justify my limited world view or to live a life closed off from some of the harsher realities of the world. But I was way too curious—I dove right in.
My Teach for America placement site, Lincoln High School, was in a struggling section of Jersey City, and the most exciting part of the day was the Bomb Drills. One winter morning we had a freshman accidentally shoot his friend in the locker room. Only 43% of my students would ever graduate.
This was education? This was somebody’s school? Bother me it did, but I had to acknowledge that these were someone’s classrooms just as the bright sunny spaces lined with artwork and books were our classrooms here at Newton. Someone called these classes just as I used to call Mr. Berman’s dynamic presentations on Modern European History. It wasn’t a quality education like my mother’s early morning trips to participate in the reenactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord. But it was the reality of 1,900 young people’s education. And it was now my school too. If I was going to be an effective community member, I would have to own Lincoln High School’s reality, and become aware and knowledgeable of my role within it.
Rev. John Foley, the founder of the Cristo Rey Network of Schools, was someone who had a talent for finding his role in the situations around him. He saw the need for a private, college-prep, Catholic education for immigrant families in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, but he had no funds and the Archdiocese was already closing many schools. He came up with an idea that worked on many levels—low income students could earn their tuition through working at corporate internships with local companies! It was an idea that went on to change so many lives. Its effectiveness came from being a real world solution based on observation and understanding. Finding a solution requires getting messy with the problem. How can we improve our world if we truly aren’t aware of or active in it? We all have a choice to dive in or not. To open our eyes to everything or to close our ears to the call. Service in its ideal incarnation happens when one’s innermost skills and attributes are actualized and put to use.
By happenstance and by choice I moved from teaching to social work to college guidance administration. With each new work environment and personal experience I learn something new about myself and our society and have been able to keep asking myself—“where do I best fit?” “what is the best way that I can make meaning in my life?”
Don’t let college be an insular experience of lattes in the library and Toga parties on weekends. Venture into town. Study abroad. Join a local project around you. Be aware of your environment, understand it, and seek to find your own “point of impact.” Allow your growing knowledge and experience with the world to inform your role as a productive human being. Where and what is the issue you can act upon? Who are the people you can act with or for? How can your actions and choices affect your community or the world?
All educations are not the same. Yours, ours was a blessing. Not just in the academic knowledge we received here at Newton Country Day, but in the love, care, and attention under which our characters and individuality have been allowed to flourish.
You know exactly how the Five Sacred Heart Goals are worded and what order they come in. The beautiful thing about the Goals is that you will end up living them. Whether explicitly intended or not, you will find that the life you choose to live gives the Goals their meaning. Something wonderful happens here in this place whether you realize it now or 15 years later. A Newton Country Day education begins the process I have been talking about: the struggle for awareness of one’s society and one’s self. That full exploration of who you are and what you have to offer, and the search to find your relevance and the action you should take on the world.
I look forward to hearing about the various paths you will take in your communities and personal lives. Congratulations on this important day! My sincere, best wishes go with you.