What a tremendous honor to be invited to give the commencement address for my alma mater last night. Please enjoy my most hopeful speech given to my largest audience yet.
I would like to thank Assistant Dean Blair Kelley and the faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies for this opportunity to address the graduating class. I would also like to thank Dr. Rodney Waschka, who was my academic advisor, for inviting me here today.
Congratulations! You have accomplished a major milestone in your life. Today is a day to celebrate the culmination of all of your hard work over the last few years. Many of you may have a set plan for what lies ahead. But for others, my guess may be as good as yours. And that’s okay. Your parents may not agree with that. But over the last dozen years, since I sat in your seat with a MALS diploma in my lap, I learned something pretty magical:
What you seek is also seeking you.
Ideas are their own entities. Many of these ideas have already begun blooming within you. You have evidence of their existence. For many of you, that was a capstone project or a lengthy dissertation freshly bound by the printer. Or maybe a game you loved to play as a child. As I look out across this room, I imagine that there are thousands of ideas bouncing around like balloons above our heads celebrating what’s coming next.
And what’s next for those ideas may take a few years, or even decades, to arrive. Or maybe not - perhaps they are off and running, dragging you to a new job that will begin once you return from a much-needed vacation. Or maybe they are hanging out in the corner only to surprise you one morning in the shower before your first cup of coffee.
When I was in the MALS Program, I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of being an artist. I worked for the NC State Parks designing maps and newsletters. I couldn’t actually take studio art classes, because I had a full-time job. So I took classes at night. Dr. Waschka introduced me to a playful band of Avant Garde artists, who shaped how I thought about art and life. They believed in the theory of Chance. That art knows what it wants to be.
And that is how I approach creating art. I gather materials to work with as a way to wrestle with a question that I cannot answer on my own. I did this with a piece called Gray Matter, which I attribute to how I fell into the rabbit hole of coal ash advocacy in 2010. The art always provides me with information and understanding about the bigger picture.
In the midst of completing my degree, I fell in love with the movie Amelie, a story of a shy French waitress who did good in her community to change the lives of others. Her small acts of kindness had immeasurable effects. She returned a discovered box of childhood treasures to a middle-aged man. She helped a blind man cross the street, describing the sights along the way. She arranged a date between a lonely pair of strangers in her coffee shop. I wanted to be Amelie when I grew up. Creative Placemaking allows me to do just that: reacquaint the community with childhood joys, describe home through oral histories, and arrange opportunities for chance to take center stage in the room. These insignificant acts actually change the world.
I studied the lives of several artists. I looked at how their childhood play influenced their adult work. A few months ago, my friend introduced me to a funder. After a few formalities, my friend paused and said to the funder, “Get this, she studied “Art and Play.” And she was right. I did.
Art and Play is when we are in flow. In our creative moments, inspiration strikes. When the ideas that are looming out there in the world settle into us and change our lives. We are not open to birthing these seemingly unreal notions into the world when we are frantic, busy or overwhelmed. It is important to get out of our own heads in order to have that next big breakthrough.
I attribute much of my success to getting over my busyiness and embracing the fact that I have young kids. I don’t always, but I TRY to spend time creating art and playing with them. A few birthdays ago, I received an adult-sized scooter to just ride around the driveway with them. It is my best birthday gift ever. Just like those shower moments of Eureka, play presents you with the gift of great new ideas.
I was awarded a National Creative Placemaking Fund grant for The Lilies Project, which takes coal ash and turns it into art. ArtPlace America, my grant funder, asked a simple question - do you have an idea about how art can address an issue in the public sector? Because of MALS and my interdisciplinary training through CHASS, I had an answer to that question.
During our site visit, community members and I shared a grand idea - we wanted to take a burden on our community and turn it into a blessing. Along with our public art installation, we will rely heavily on the deep cultural roots of Stokes County to craft an innovative new approach to dealing with coal ash - a toxic waste buried in plain sight for my entire lifetime.
The funders were incredibly positive about our chances. When they left, I jumped up and down. I had finally found a way to marry all of my parts of myself into one project - which explores my love of local history, art, faith, and the environment through opportunities to play in the community.
Right around the time I was born, Duke Energy flooded a small community known as Little Egypt to create Belews Lake for the Belews Creek Power Station. This land was the home to Jester Hairston, the composer of the song “Amen,” which Sidney Poitier sings in the movie “The Lilies of the Field.” That’s actually Jester’s voice. Sidney is tone deaf. However, he was convincing enough to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first African-American to do so.
In the film, the community comes together to rebuild a chapel, overcoming cultural differences, language barriers and even a few character flaws. From this film, the name “The Lilies Project” was taken.
Walnut Cove, NC is a sleepy little town of almost 1500 residents. Not a lot has changed over the last few decades. But a great faith leaves the air pregnant with possibilities. We began organizing around coal ash in late 2012 and early 2013, a full year before the Dan River Spill. Simply sharing our stories has had a ripple effect across the country. Just this year, we have been featured in Women’s Day Magazine, The New Yorker, and on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Communities from all over the country are watching the lead of Belews Creek to see how coal ash is addressed in North Carolina.
Pushing a public utility to do any more than the very minimum requires a tremendous amount of faith. Our joy is our strength. And through creative approaches, creative placemaking, art and play, we can find a way. We have a God-sized problem. We are going to need a God-sized miracle. And that miracle is seeking us, as well.
So look around the room. The people sitting next to you - the smiling faces that you have passed on the way to class - will likely be the first people you reach out to when addressing the questions looming in your own community. Amongst us we have all of the components necessary to solve the world’s largest problems.
Today’s graduates include:
storytellers, who craft our powerful narratives into music, theater, film, and art
Digital media experts who gather amazing stories and rapidly share them with the world
Science, technology and society leaders who can shape the research unfolding in our universities and institutions by connecting our communities with scientists, whose careers are built on solving our greatest challenges
Women and gender studies leaders who help us guide the world in expanding our inclusiveness
experts in Africana Studies, who fully understand the comprehensive impacts African-American and low-income communities bear because of our over-reliance on fossil fuels
International studies leaders guiding us towards holistic solutions that will benefit all people around the world
And the self-design graduates, who see visible connections between those persistent ideas that are on the cusp of discovery.
So go home. Listen. Keep in contact with those around you today. Because of our education, we know how to frame the questions and seek the answers through our connections and resources. It is up to each of us to support all of our communities and elevate everyone’s voices to be heard so that the questions may be connected with their answers. Chances are, the results will surprise you.
Thank you for inviting me and, once again, congratulations to the Class of 2018!