Keynote Address: Philonda Johnson ’05

Good evening President McGuire, Trinity faculty and staff, families, loved ones, colleagues and most importantly the graduating class of 2010. Thank you, President McGuire for this incredible invitation to speak at this year’s Cap and Gown Convocation. As a Class of 2005 Trinity Woman myself, it is both an honor and a privilege to be here to share words of encouragement and wisdom with this year’s senior class.

I remember sitting in your same seats almost five years ago excited, nervous and enthusiastic about what the future held in store for me.

In preparation for this day, I reflected on my journey from Trinity woman to now the founding principal of KIPP DC: Discover Academy. During this reflection, the powerful words of Marianne Williamson came to my mind. In her book A Return to Love, she wrote,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our LIGHT not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

In 2004, when I first heard these inspiring words as a graduating senior, they became my personal motto. Now, these words serve as the root of my school’s motto, “Discover your LIGHT…Change the World!” I say these same words to you on this celebratory day to inspire and push you to pursue your dreams and aspirations from this day forward as if it was the air you needed to survive.  The real work, your work, begins after today.

I charge you to use this upcoming year to truly evaluate and determine what your passion and purpose in life is.

Prior to my senior year here at Trinity, I was convinced that I would pursue a law degree directly out of school. But as a senior, I had the amazing opportunity to teach Kindergarten students in Ward 7 right here in DC. It was then that I had the realization that my true purpose was to become an educator.

Following graduation, I joined Teach for America in Houston, TX where I taught Pre-Kindergarten. When I first started teaching, I was horrible, as many first year teachers are. But, failure was not an option. The exciting thing was that my real work had begun. What was now required of me was to roll up my sleeves, surround myself with purpose-driven people and study the art and science of teaching.

The time had come for me to put all the things that I learned from my coursework and from my professors and peers while matriculating here at Trinity into practical application. I value my Trinity experience so tremendously because professors and staff here modeled and expected my peers and I to pursue life with an audacity of hope. And this is what will be expected of you once you make the transition from Trinity student to graduate.

Over the next four years, my objective was to perfect my craft and become the best early childhood educator possible so as to adequately prepare my very young learners for college in the future.

In 2007, when the opportunity to open KIPP DC’s second early childhood school arose I was both excited and frightened by this opportunity. The excitement was due to the fact that I would be able to touch the lives of hundreds of families and children in a community that was rich in history but in need of revitalization. The anxiety was due to the challenge that was before me that I initially believed was too lofty for me to handle and face. It was at this time, when I questioned my own talent, skills and abilities, that I used Williamson’s words to help me evaluate the root of my fear.

After some soul searching, I realized that the issue was me. I struggled with the fact that as a 23 year old formerly homeless woman from New York City that I had what it took to build and lead an exemplary school.  I had to believe that I had, as Williamson would argue, the LIGHT or power present inside of me to be successful and to lead a successful school. While my parents, friends and closest mentors saw this light. It was critical and important that I saw it, believed it and didn’t apologize for it. And when I began to truly recognize the uniqueness and skill set that I possessed, I was able to approach the responsibility of opening Discover Academy with an unrelenting boldness and a renewed sense of enthusiasm.

Every day, as I walk throughout my school that serves 100 beautiful Pre-Kindergarten students in ward 8, I am grateful for the challenge and stand ready for the next one. And this is the key: dreaming big, facing hurdles straight on, achieving that aspiration and dreaming even bigger the next time. One of my biggest hopes with opening my school was to inspire people to pursue careers in urban early childhood education.

Like Williamson said in her quote, courageously pursuing your dream allows other people the freedom and encouragement to pursue their own. This summer, I hired a Trinity woman in this room, Maria Mendez, who worked as a part of my founding staff. From her experience at Discover, she has become even more passionate about her dream of working with very young learners. I hope that Discover Academy will serve as place that continues to ignite in people a commitment to serve.

Class of 2010, your time is now. The real work begins after today. As you go through this year, remember Williamson’s words. Know that fear and anxiety will surface and that it is your responsibility and obligation to evaluate those feelings, to dig your heels into the ground, and to stand and deliver.

I charge you to seize every opportunity before you, despite the perceived odds against you, with audacity. Take your dream and translate it to action. Not ten years from now. Not five years from now. But, today.

Lastly, never forget or lose sight of your talents or the LIGHT that is present inside of you that can positively impact our world. Thank you, congratulations and have a wonderful and purpose-driven year!