Karen Brown Dunlap's Commencement Address
President, Poynter Institute
Congratulations to President Donald Eastman, Vice Pres. Chapin, the Trustees, faculty and staff of Eckerd College for producing this fine class of graduates.
Congratulations to family and friends, and associates of the graduates, and those trying to decide on your relationship with the graduate. You who have: put up with, put out (your money), stood by, threatened, and quieted yourselves while encouraging these graduates to reach this goal. You should be proud of your graduate today. And I commend you.
To the Class of 2006 - the best class ever. Whatever strategy you chose to get in, get through and graduate from this fine college seems to have worked. I commend you for a special achievement.
Is there a Stacy Fields in out there in this class? Stacy, would you stand? I just wanted you to know that I met your grandmother in the hotel lobby this morning. She was dressed and looking good before 6:30 and she's very proud of you.
I've learned a lot about all of you. I've learned that there are over 540 of you in this class including 190 PEL graduates (Program for Experienced Learners). You are from places near and far including Trinidad, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Korea, Bulgaria, and I hope someone is from my home state of Tennessee. You are rich in scholarly achievements including: 2 Fulbright scholars, Eckerd's first Truman Scholar, a Goldwater Scholar; 2 regional Rhodes Scholar Finalists and many more awardees, and a class full of achievers. Your plans include law school, teaching in Pinellas County schools, specializing in gerontology, and earning advanced degrees in social work, in fine arts and other fields.
I commend you all. You are just the people I want to talk with for a few minutes this morning. I've often found wisdom in African proverbs, particularly on occasions like this one, so I'll frame my brief comments around a proverb, but this one is unusual. It says: “When elephants fight the grass gets trampled.” (Swahili - the grass gets hurt) A proverb about the powerful and the powerless. My challenge to you this morning as you leave this campus is this: Bring your healing to the jungle.
I know you're thinking I just did everything I was supposed to do. I want to celebrate. The last thing I need is another assignment. Okay. You don't have to accept the challenge, but I wouldn't ask you if I didn't know you could do this. And I wouldn't call on you if society didn't need you. Let me suggest three steps in your trek through the jungle of life:
Remember your power. You should feel on top of the world this morning. Yet some of you might feel powerless. Maybe you're not sure of your next step. Maybe you have no job. Maybe you're hoping to play this day for all the gifts, love, kindness and tolerance, you can get. I wish you well. As a parent, I can tell you grace only lasts so long. For your sake I hope it lasts through the day. Maybe you're concerned about whether you'll make it in your chosen career. Have you chosen well? Do you have the right stuff for the next step? Just remember your power.
Remember this day. This commencement is full of tradition and ceremony. This commencement is a photo opp. Why else would we be here in costume? But this commencement also represents a milestone. One that you should remember in the days ahead.
Your academic regalia - attest to intellectual power - you've gained knowledge that no one can take away. Your standing with this class suggests sharpened critical thinking skills. You figured out how to get through registration, how to pass your classes, how to solve difficult problems - You are equipped to solve even greater problems. Your degree is a reminder of your tenacity - your ability to stick with something worthwhile and achieve a goal. That might be more important than the other qualities in the days ahead. You have passed the tests, and if you stay on this earth there will be more difficult tests ahead. When trials come, remember this day, remind yourself that you have overcome before, and you can do it again. Remember your power.
But your power is not about you. That brings me to my second step and takes me back to the proverb, “When elephants fight the grass gets trampled.” A proverb is a little story, and good stories stay focused. I'm a writer and I like to examine stories. This story has two sets of characters: the elephants and the grass. Maybe it's the reporter in me asking questions, but I can't help but wonder: Where was everybody else?
Where was the lion, the king of the jungle? Why wasn't it roaring to the elephants, telling them to stop throwing their weight around? Why didn't an elder elephant step forth and council peace? Where were all the smaller creatures that singly couldn't be heard? Why didn't they mass together and cry out that the powerful combatants were running the environment for all? Where were the others when the powerful engaged in battle and the powerless were trampled? I urge you to remember your role in shaping society. Remember your power. Use it in your role in shaping society.
We live in a world of a lot more I, My and ME than WE. We have I-Pods, My Space and I-Tunes and more. I enjoy my IPod; I like pod-casting and downloading I-Tunes. I understand virtual communities where people come together and engage online. Yet I'm concerned about real world, real time engagement, and I'm concerned that we spend time bettering the world, not just engaged in entertaining I.
Then there's that other social epidemic that comes into play. It's called CPA and has nothing to do with your taxes or finances. CPA stands for Continuous Partial Attention. I learned the name of this epidemic from a recent Newsweek article; but I became aware of the concept months ago, one morning when I was eating a bowl of cereal and reading a newspaper while driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge. I was suddenly convicted that that wasn't right. So I put the cereal and paper down, then I noticed that the guy next to me was driving across the bridge while reading his newspaper. (I managed not to mention this to my husband until this moment.)
There's a more common way of thinking about continuous partial attention. Those of us on the platform can tell that some of you are going through that eyes-up, eyes-down head-bobbing associated with text messaging. We could point you out... You are paying continuous partial attention.
Some things require undivided attention Relationships require full attention. Tough problems call for full concentration, and playing your role in shaping society requires your attention. You can't be effective without knowing the news. You've heard about declining television news audiences and newspaper circulation. We will be a very different society if news organizations fail, particular if newspapers falter. Newspapers provide most of the in-depth news, on the local, national and international levels. A democracy needs strong news organizations.
You won't find the information that you need by just tuning in to news briefs, listening to sound bites, reading only headlines, selecting only RSS feeds that interest you, listening to your favorite political party, public figures or talk radio personality. You need a well-rounded picture of what's going on. I urge you to read the news, engage in the civic life of your community, vote. Devote energy to solving society's problems. Remember your role in shaping society.
That brings me to the last step. “When elephants fight, the grass in trampled.” Remember those who are being trampled.
High school students in Tampa Bay are graduating during this period. Some of them matriculated while living in cars. Young children all over Tampa Bay will never experience a graduation like yours because they parted ways with the educational system by the third grade. They might not drop out until high school, but they fell behind in elementary school, maybe kindergarten. Maybe there was no one at home to help, and too many others at school for them to get the attention they need. They might not understand life's race, but they know they are slipping farther and farther behind. You can see it in their eyes. But to see it you have to get close. They need your healing. So do so many others.
When I speak of healing, I'm not just talking about the poor. Many with wealth are crushed by weights of sorrow, a death, a failure, a setback. They need your healing. Many in the middle class are giving up on retirement and vacations. They work hard, obey the law, but they're being crushed. They need your healing. As a society we deal with stress: commutes are longer, we get less sleep; we're sharper with each other. We need a calm touch, good planning, creative answers. We need you.
On the surface of society we like to think everything is alright. Then a storm comes and the water rises and our grandparents are left to drown. We can point fingers, but neglect is all around us, at every level. We are a better society than that. We need you.
“When elephants fight, the grass is trampled.” The elephants can be powerful individuals, usually governments or other organizations, but also ideologies in conflict; even life's harsh realities verses our hopes and dreams. The jungle is society. This community, this nation, the world. The grass is all of us. Some of us are well-positioned and sheltered from the pain of society's conflicts. Some of us are resilient, and we bounce back even when crushed. Others of us bear a greater weight of societal conflicts. We are trampled, nearly buried.
The healing that you can bring is your talents and your calling. What can you do to help: maybe a song, or an invention that cures millions; maybe your patience in teaching; or creative leadership in politics, transportation, education, housing, the environment. Whatever you have, use it for society's good. Your healing is not always about throwing money at problem, although sometimes funds are needed. It's not always about rushing in with your solution to problems, because often those with the problem have a solution. They just need someone to listen; someone to open a door; someone to care enough to work with them. Most of all, your healing comes from a willingness to look beyond yourself, particular to those who don't act like you, don't look like you, don't share your beliefs.
I've described some of the heart-rending problems in society. Back in the day Marvin Gaye looked at the problems of war, drug use, the break-down of families, and sang a song that said "Makes Me Wanna Holler." Recently my daughter introduced me to a similar sentiment in a song by Anthony Hamilton that says, "Ain't Nobody Worrying."
I don't want to end without pointing out some who are worrying, and those who have taken steps to make a difference. Look no further than the name of your school. Jack and Ruth Eckerd contributed to this school, and they also established Eckerd Youth Alternatives. It is a program that provides shelter and chance to turn around for children who have experienced the worst in life. EYA gives them a new start.
Look no further than the name of my school. Nelson Poynter, as publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, sought a means to keep his newspaper independent and locally owned. He created a school, now known as the Poynter Institute to improve journalism and allow his newspaper to practice quality journalism.
Look no further than former Times columnist, Peggy Peterman. While Eckerd and Poynter were wealthy men, Peggy Peterman came from modest roots in Alabama and made a big impact in this community and with journalists around the nation. She simply raised her voice consistently to point out the history and traditions, the joys and the challenges of black people in St. Petersburg. She touched young people and mentored them. She had a small voice, but she made it heard. And so can you. Bring healing to the jungle.
Before this day ends, I ask you to write down the names of those who have touched you, maybe relatives or friends. I also ask you to note faculty and staff of Eckerd who helped bring you through maybe with just a kind word or a gesture of encouragement. Look at the list. Think of the healing they've brought to your life. I also ask you to examine your beliefs. I've talked from a belief system that includes certain teachings through the ages. It includes: laws brought forth by Moses showing respect and responsibility; s’ Love your neighbor’ from Jesus of Nazareth; the nonviolent fight to change a society by Gandhi; concepts of human rights and a civil government as structured by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution; the willingness to ‘Fight for the freedom of others’ of a Sojourner Truth; the compassion of Mother Theresa; the dream of Justice and Equal Opportunity of Martin Luther King. You might not agree with these teachings. I encourage you to explore your beliefs.
The strongest force in my life has been my faith in God. What do you believe? Choose what you will, but choose. Choose wisely, choose soon. Otherwise you'll find yourself lost in the jungle, even trampled.
Finally, as you leave this beautiful place, you will encounter other creatures, even in this great state. In Florida, you'll encounter Gators from the mid-state, Bulls from the near east and more and more Gators coming out of the mid-state. You'll encounter rattlers hissing from the north state and that other fierce creature from Tallahassee that tends to paint itself garnet and gold.
Fear not, you are well equipped for great success. May you achieve the goals that you've set and much more. May you earn more money than you ever imagined and pay your alumni dues to Eckerd. May you find your greater fulfillment in reaching out in service to others, in bringing healing to the jungle. Best wishes and peace.