Cap & Gown Keynote Address: Peggy Lewis ’77

Called to Action:   Don’t just make a dollar; make a difference.

Good evening…President McGuire, honored guests, friends and family and graduates…what an honor to stand before you to give the Opening Convocation for the graduating class of 2009. Congratulations on having come this far…

President McGuire, Trinity is very different place from when you and I were students here…and I must say, the changes under your leadership have been extraordinary—Trinity is now a University…and has kept pace with the remarkable changes in academia, in technology, and in the student body–there were only six African Americans in my class when I came to  Trinity in 1973—and I am delighted to see how diverse the student body has become—the majority of you come from communities in D.C. and Maryland—but you also come from  20 states and from more than 20 different countries in central and south America, the Caribbean and Africa…I have read excerpts from your essays—which show your courage, tenacity and commitment to excellence…you have big dreams…and some of you have overcome great obstacles to get here—you’ve lost parents prematurely; you have had to take on more responsibility than someone your age should have to; you have lost family members and friends to gun violence, some of you have been told you wouldn’t make it this far; and my heart aches for those of you who were told you would never be successful, never amount to anything never get to college—to you I say, don’t look back—look ahead—it’s not how you start but how you finish.  You  have succeeded already because you made it this far—I don’t want you to stop—but acknowledge the successes along the way……and I love the gymnast who described how gymnastics teaches you how to fall – on your face, your side and your butt —but how it also teaches you to get back up! You will have to get back up a lot in life—and remember it’s not what happens to you, but how you handle what happens to you.  Trinity teaches you how to keep getting back up!

But you didn’t get here on your own…someone helped you, pushed you, encouraged you, preached to and prayed for you, worked two jobs to feed you, cared enough to punish you,… and here you sit…. as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said – “we didn’t reach these successes and achievements without somebody suffering and sacrificing for them!”

Don’t forget how you got here…but now what are you going to do? I have some suggestions and a challenge…don’t just make dollar, make a difference.

First, you should know that I am a blessed child…raised by parents who love the Lord, who taught me to love the Lord—who raised me right…who are proud African-Americans who taught me to know who I am and whose I am. I went to Trinity because my dad, who worked in the Federal Government, met a lot of Trinity interns and thought they were smart and confident and he thought it would be a good place for me.  He was right. And I always say everyone should have a supportive mom like my mom—who told me “Honey, you’d make a good anything…and I believed her and sometimes tried to do almost everything!” I am so proud to say that she is here today and continues to be my biggest cheerleader, my best friend.

It is important to know who you are—and to be proud of it…to celebrate your culture, your heritage, your ancestors—don’t try to be like somebody else—be yourself…and remember always that none of us makes it on our own—we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.  We are the answered prayers of those who struggled and sacrificed—not just our own parents but their great-great-great grandparents….for African Americans we are the dreams come true of enslaved people; who never dreamed a black man could come so close to being president…for Latinos, you are the dreams come true of hardworking migrant workers who wanted their children to go to college and make a better way; for Haitians who died fighting for a better life and dreamed of educated children who would not live in poverty; for factory workers who dreamed of children owning their own businesses…for teachers in segregated school systems who dreamed of their children being judged by their talents and not their color…know that you are the result of somebody’s dreams. And that comes with a responsibility to live fully in the here and now, to prepare for your future—to do your best, and to not be afraid to grow beyond the limitations of your own family and friends.  Choose your friends carefully—ones who inspire the best in you—and remember, people going nowhere want company—don’t let friends hold you back.  And feed your soul…take time to nourish your spirit—it will help you  all along the way.  Be bold…take risks.  Because if you allow Him, the Lord will use you and put you in places you cannot imagine…He will call you to action!  And take you places you never dreamed of going…I know because He has done amazing things in my life…

  • I have been to Africa 3 times in 3 years ….and I have to tell you—Africa took my breath away…I saw a continent which I describe in biblical terms—“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.” I saw elephants moving like quiet graceful buildings and a pride of lions…I saw the lingering impact of colonization and exploitation of the continent in the expansive poverty and continuing conflicts—but I also shook Nelson Mandela’s hand.  He is grace walking the planet.
  • I have worked for a President of the United States and a first lady… Hillary Rodham Clinton was a fabulous boss and yes, she would have made a great president…I have been on Air Force One…and traveled around the world with a cabinet secretary, Alexis M. Herman.
  • The Lord can call you to amazing places and connect you with amazing people…He led me to serve one of our nation’s greatest visionaries Marian Wright Edelman, who works tirelessly to end child poverty in this nation as president of the Children’s Defense Fund.
  • I have been blessed to give voice to the voiceless as a television reporter—to tell stories about those  living in poverty…about young people overcoming adversity …about mothers whose children had been shot and killed in drive-by shootings…he took me into the hospitals and slums of Haiti and to cover an earthquake in El Salvador…he protected me in the midst of hurricanes and riots…drug wars in Miami and military coups in Haiti – one of my favorite possessions is a plaque from a priest in Haiti, who came out of hiding during a time of violent political unrest, to give me an award for my stories about Haitians—he later died in the struggle for democracy.

Trinity was the beginning of my journey—it is a privilege to come back and share some of it with you.  Be nice to the person sitting next to you….you don’t know where they will end up…Trinity gave me one of my best and dearest friends…Maggie Williams who just recently managed Hillary Clinton’s campaign and was her chief of staff when she was first lady and an assistant to President Bill Clinton.  She is an amazing woman and I hope you get to meet her—we sat where you sit—having no clue where we’d end up or how amazing our adventures would be….Maggie is the reason I worked at the white house—we realized recently that we have helped each other in every major move of our lives—after college, when I got a job at WCBS in New York and had only days to get there—she packed up my apartment while I was in New York looking for a place to live… I helped her pack when she moved to Paris and then went to Paris and helped her unpack…be nice to the person sitting next to you—Trinity women are awesome—your President Pat McQuire was Maggie’s dorm R.A. – you never know where awesome Trinity women end up…Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas, Kathy Black, president of Hearst Magazines… And thousands of others… there is a trinity woman in every career or job you can think of.

Trinity is a blessing; is a network; and is a continuing resource; USE IT!

Trinity prepares us for the world—giving us confidence and a strong foundation – but it also prepares you to serve…don’t just make a dollar, make a difference…this is the beginning of your intellectual journey and I hope a commitment to life long learning…but the question is not what will you do? But who will you help?

You have an obligation to reach back – to help somebody else—not out of guilt or to feel good—but because people died so you could get this far…  None of us in this room made it on our own…we are each here because of somebody’s help—somebody’s sacrifice…we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.  Someone helped you get here…someone believed in you—but there are too many young people in this community and whatever community you come from who don’t think they can get here… who are you helping to believe in themselves? Who are you tutoring? When have you gone back to your old high school or junior high school and told some young person—“You can do it.” “I did it.” “So can you!”…too many of our young people have no one to talk to, no one to listen to their dreams.   I challenge you to help one young person get a dream and keep a dream alive—encourage them—listen to them—take them to a movie or an art gallery—give them a book—show them a future— They hear a lot of no’s—no you can’t or no you won’t be able to do that—I challenge YOU to be the one to tell them they can—and maybe even show them how…maybe offer a bit of financial help—use your dollars to make a difference.

Perhaps one of the lessons in this huge financial crisis on Wall Street is that pursuit of the all mighty dollar doesn’t guarantee financial security…It can be a short run that ends in a big fall. Money and the institutions that promote its attainment in excess are collapsing all around us—we’re now talking of billions in losses instead of millions—many of those cushey jobs with huge paychecks disappeared in a day… how do you make a difference in these critical times? You get involved in things greater than yourself…

As I tell my journalism students all the time—it’s not about you, it’s not about your face on t.v., but about the people whose stories you tell, it’s about giving voice to the voiceless…it’s about holding those in power accountable…it’s about raising questions—and in this election season there are some very important questions we should all be asking…like, why are we still in this war in Iraq? And when will it be over?  How come there are cuts in Pell Grants and not enough money for more college scholarships?  You have been given the privilege and honor of an education and that means you not only have to share what you have learned but you have to contribute to this democracy—you have to vote—and your vote has to be based on an informed decision—you have to know the issues at stake—you have to be well informed…or as I tell my students—you have to immerse yourself in news.  It is not just about your success! It’s about all of our successes…you have to participate in this political process….don’t tell me you don’t have time….because Fannie Lou Hammer took the time and risked her life down in Mississippi registering poor blacks to vote – don’t tell me you don’t feel like it—Cesar Chavez did back breaking work and fought for rights for migrant workers and boycotted his way to changed laws to protect them—don’t say you are too tired….when the Little Rock Nine were beaten and spat upon while fighting for the right to go to school…and don’t say you are afraid…when four black girls were killed while in Sunday school when their Church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed because people were fighting the progress of Civil Rights in this nation…the bombers didn’t win!  Those who assassinated Medgar Evers and Emitt Till didn’t win.  The workers voice was heard—the voters were registered……don’t you dare say you can’t vote because its raining …this election is too important!

These are extraordinary times—and you are on the front row to history—in less than 6 weeks this nation will elect either its first African American as president or its first woman as Vice President…and the deciding vote? YOUNG PEOPLE!  Your generation will determine who wins in November—your excitement and enthusiasm launched Barak Obama…your generation working on-line through FaceBOok and MySPace said he’s our candidate…Your generation chose not just to be observers you drove this election as participants…your generation is not just sitting on the sidelines and letting others choose for you—you have chosen to be active participants in this democracy and I applaud you—I applaud sophomore Sydney Cross who recently got elected National Secretary for the Black Caucus of the College Democrats of America. She is making a difference…and so can you….at the very least VOTE, but I hope you will do more—I hope you’ll register someone else to vote…in D.C. the deadline is October 6 – in Maryland  it’s October 14th…in Virginia it’s October 5 – Now you can’t say I didn’t know…I just told you…And Go to Rock the to find out about absentee ballots for your home state…

There are enormous issues at stake, not just the war in Iraq which has so far killed 4,173 Americans and injured as many as 53,000 many of whom have suffered massive brain injuries or have lost limbs…and then are unable to get adequate health care when they return. The next president will either get us out or prolong this war.

He will have to deal with a budget deficit counted in trillions of dollars…and he may have the chance to appoint not one but perhaps two Supreme Court Justices…he will decide whether we have a national health care policy for the more than 45 million people with no health care.  He will determine whether college will be affordable for all students who want to go or just those wealthy enough to afford it…the next president will deal with the issue of Immigration –  what to do about 15 million immigrants who the government says  are here illegally?  And let me just say something about that term illegal aliens folks are always throwing around…illegal aliens have always been a problem in America, ask any Native American! Don’t let me hear you saying illegal aliens–because if you know the history of America you might take the position that Mexicans are coming home—to a land they were forced out of when America incorporated Texas and California in its westward expansion.  And then there’s the need for an energy policy, and what to do about global warming —this election is too important for you to just be observers…first time voters like you will decide this election…you should be fired up!

It’s the same thing I tell my students…I  love teaching—because I learn so much from my students… the other day we were talking about the presidential campaign and they love  Barak Obama—and whether its talking about the conventions, the debates or the campaign coverage they are fired up! every hand is up—they each have something to say – but, when I asked how many were registered to vote or had taken the steps to vote via absentee ballots—there was a lot less buzz—far fewer hands—and I tell you as I told them….this election lies in your hands—young people will decide this election… but you have to get the absentee ballots if necessary—research the deadlines in your state so you can participate—if you don’t vote you have no right to complain about the way things are going—as they say those who don’t vote get what they deserve.

I hope you’ll watch the debates and then have your own debates…check on friends to make sure they register—organize carpools and maybe drive someone to the polls who can’t get there…volunteer for a campaign…at the very least be informed…know what’s at stake and know when you vote, you make the efforts and dreams of Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King, and Ceasar Chavez and all those other ancestors’ dreams worthwhile.  You are the ones they dreamed about—you may be the first in your family to go to college—but don’t you be the last!

I use this quote by Malcom X on my syllabus: “One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself.”

And may I recommend that you read the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave a splendid last lecture after learning he had terminal cancer…it is filled with wisdom about living life fully and the importance of overcoming obstacles…he says “brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

And another one I love:  “Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.”

Young people, bring something to the table…think for yourself…be prepared…be well informed…be interested…be nosy, and don’t just make a dollar, make a difference…