Jonetta Rose Barras ’96 Prepared Commencement Address
May 18, 2008
Thank you so much Lori Shpunt. You have a special place in my heart and history. Your guidance helped ensure that I received my undergraduate degree. As much as you are a unique and inspiring professor, Trinity is equally extraordinary.
No other place embraces its students the way Trinity does. No other institution effectively responds to the diverse educational needs of the Washington metropolitan region.
When I walked the halls here, I felt I was among friends and family. I was nurtured and empowered.
I’m sure those of you graduating today have your own stories to tell about this great university – its faculty, administrators like Ann Pauley, and its wonderful president, Patricia McGuire.
Local political leaders seeking to enhance public education in the region wouldn’t go wrong if they used Trinity as their model. In fact, they would be guaranteed success.
I’m a big cheerleader for Trinity as I am sure many of you are. And, I am a big fan of this class of 2008. Congratulations! Being here with you to celebrate this very important occasion is a huge honor.
When I received the invitation, I wondered what I’d say that you haven’t already heard. Others who have come before me have been larger personalities with significant accomplishments.
Initially, I thought I might speak with you about entering the global market with all of its blessings and curses.
But many of you already have established careers; your degree is the icing. Others of you know exactly the path you want to travel.
Besides, people who know me – really know me – know that I am the worst person from whom to accept career advice. My path has been jagged and bumpy.
In my 20s and 30s, I zealously sabotaged relationships – personal and professional. For example, I once worked in a campaign to reelect Marion Barry as mayor. I was an assistant press secretary. One day, I told my supervisor I’d be back; I was going to lunch.
I left and never went back. Between bites of my falafel sandwich, I made a decision that baffled everyone. It seemed quite logical to me.
Another time, I was hired full-time by the League of Women Voters as editor of its legislative bulletin. I left after being on the job for only a month, accepting a temporary appointment as coordinator for the Larry Neal Writers Conference with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
In all honesty, those early years in my life were teeming with anger, low self-esteem and distrust of far too many people – issues connected to a childhood marked by father absence. For many years, I was confused and misdirected. I may have made the right choices but often for the wrong reasons.
I stand before you today transformed – although some of my decisions continue to baffle people.
Truth be told, my success is not so much a result of my own machinations as the patchwork of earthly angels.
They helped me restore my dignity, polish my humanity and taught me the magic of unconditional love. More important, they helped open the door for me to see me. They taught me about the soul.
I could talk with you about financial investments in times of recession. I could speak about turning against war in this never-ending season of violence. I could talk with you about the benefits and dangers of corporate America.
But wars eventually end. Investments decline and improve in somewhat predictable cycles. And we now understand that corporate America is not invincible.
So, permit to speak with you about the thing that is most constant in our lives. The thing that is as needful as air. Permit me to speak about the soul.
Specifically, I want to talk about protecting and developing your personal humanity; nurturing your own and others’ dignity; and creating an intimate society in an era of superficial communications.
These, I believe, are critical to nurturing and nourishing the soul. And without soul, everything else loses its meaning in life.
Dr. Wayne Dyer says: to nourish the soul means to participate in the very mechanics of creation – to become a co-creator of your life and the world as you want it to be.”
I confess that I didn’t discover the existence and power of the soul until late in life. I didn’t hear its voice whispering in my ear because I was too busy worrying about the impressions and evaluations of the world – evaluations that generally focused on how much money I had in the bank; the kinds of clothing I wore; the kind of home I had and the furnishings in that home.
But interaction with my earthly angels and the desire to deeply know myself brought me incrementally to the soul.
Years ago, while at Trinity, I learned something about dignity.
Sister Helen James John, my philosophy professor, had just returned after a stroke. Her speech had been affected and she walked with a cane.
During our breaks, I began to volunteer to get her a snack. It was too much, I thought, for her to make her way to the basement where the machines were located. She allowed me the pleasure.
Frequently, I refused to accept her money to pay for her items. One day, after I had volunteered and, once again, refused her money, she said, “Ms. Barras, you must allow me my dignity.”
I thought about what she meant – what she was truly communicating to me. I hadn’t realized how her physical condition might have affected her sense of independence. Paying for her snack was a small thing, but it helped her retain her dignity.
I took the money from her that day and the valuable lesson she taught me.
Over the past few months, during a battle with the management of WAMU radio, I have been reminded of the importance of dignity.
Let me briefly tell you the story: years ago, I was hired to serve as political analyst for the station – coming in shortly after the departure of a male commentator who held the post full-time for a decade.
I thought I brought to the job gravitas and extensive knowledge of the city. Still, management fought my efforts to get paid full-time as the previous person had been.
At the very least, I thought I should receive compensation more representative of the work I was doing, my senior level professional status in the industry, and what I brought to the show – lively discussion, a certain pizzazz, increased ratings, and money.
Two weeks ago, things came to a head. I learned that there was a deliberate attempt to renege on a payment agreement for extra work I had performed during the presidential primary in this region. This problem arrived as I was reaching a settlement about a new salary and job description. The settlement was a compromise. Nevertheless, I had decided to accept it – until the dispute over the reneging on a payment agreement.
Suffice to say, things got ugly. I was offended and hurt by the entire battle. I realized, however, that if I didn’t stand up for myself, no one would.
This week, after refusing to resolve the issue in what I considered a professional manner, I was called to a meeting with key senior officials – oddly the two men were at the heart of my long battle with the station. In what added insult to the injury, they gave me the choice of resigning or being fired.
I chose to be fired. That may seem strange, I know. But if I had resigned, I would have been a conspirator, condoning in some way their unprofessional behavior and their assault on my dignity.
Being fired meant I had not acquiesced. It meant I had not participated in others perpetrating a wrong against me. It was my lone act to protect my dignity.
Dignity is a precious – sometimes fragile – thing. But we feed the soul when we respect others’ dignity – and our own.
Humanity, though less delicate, appears in these times to be endangered.
How often have you looked away from a poor or homeless person? Most times these individuals have not reached that condition through any fault of their own.
Think not that your humanity or that of others can be purchased. That you can simply throw money after it, and all will be fine.
Restoring, retaining, or creating the environment for humanity to thrive requires personal active engagement – elbow grease or sweat equity, if you will. Sometimes it requires looking past the stereotypes, through prejudices for that filament connecting you with another. It is there, if you but examine, really examine, the essence of another.
As a child, I remember my mother coming home one afternoon with a homeless, smelly man in tow. I had seen him many times near the grocery store in our New Orleans neighborhood. Whenever I passed him going to purchase those two for a nickel Red Hot fireballs I loved, my friends and I held our noses and laughed.
Now, my mother was bringing this person into our home. She had gone crazy, I concluded. We were working class. We certainly had little, I thought, to share.
My mother allowed Mr. Louis to take a bath in our tub. She sought from my aunt a pair of my uncle’s old pants and a shirt. And then she fed Mr. Louis a meal from one of the plates from which I had eaten. Finally, she sent him on his way.
Mr. Louis came back to our home many days after that. Eventually, however, he was gone from the neighborhood corner. Later, I learned he had found a job, rented an apartment and had begun a family.
Sometimes life deals even the best people hard times and we have to look beyond that moment to see their hearts and their souls.
When we saw the pictures of Iraqis being torture at Abu Ghraib, the majority of Americans became alarmed. Our humanity compelled us to protest and speak out privately and publicly. We didn’t see people who some wanted us to believe were our enemies, we saw human beings.
There are instances of torture all around us: people not having enough food; workers being paid less than a living wage; families being squeezed in apartment buildings not fit for humans.
Our voices must not be silent when we witness these kinds of assaults on humanity – even if we do not suffer personally from the blows. We must not be idle. We must work to restore and retain humanity.
Equally important, I think, is the return of intimacy.
Dr. Dean Ornish, author of Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health, tells us: “Love and intimacy are the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well; what causes sadness and what brings happiness; what makes us suffer and what leads to healing.”
I hope I don’t offend you when I say our society has become void of intimacy. Technological gadgets of recent decades seem to have separated us from each other and our surroundings. When we meet too often it is during 60 second sound bites or text messages.
There are other almost imperceptible signs of intimacy’s absence: a smile unreturned; a morning or evening greeting caught inside someone’s throat, afraid to escape believing it will be ridiculed; a kindness to a stranger left unextended.
The results of intimacy’s absence is that we have become in large measure a narcissistic society; our families and communities are fragmented; there is a deepening gap between haves and the have nots; and there is unending violence committed by individuals, groups and governments
We are too busy to notice what has happened. We’re out chasing our own rainbows. We have broken ties that once gave us real security – emotional security, love.
But make no mistake, the absence of intimacy creates hostile environments where terrorists – foreign and domestic – are born and where agony mushrooms into intractable pathologies.
We need to return to intimacy that can be found in our families; in our communities over back fences and in front yards; and ultimately in the world we create from warm, unconditional love and intimate living.
Intimacy can’t be rushed, put on the clock and made to reveal itself at three in the afternoon. It requires time and attention. It requires depth and openness. It requires knowing ourselves and a willingness to permit others to know us.
Please don’t think of me as a purveyor of nostalgia. Old shoes and worn lace are not what I am advocating. I do not wish to return with full abandon to the good old yesteryear.
This is not a campaign for reruns of Ozzie and Harriett. Besides, I think only a few of you might even remember that television show. And for me, an African American, some of those days weren’t so good.
This is a call to live a soul-full life. I am not talking about playing Smokey Robinson on your iPods or eating half-smokes from Ben’s chili bowl or donning a will.i.am pose.
As you leave here, you will find yourself in situations and around people where you will be asked, almost required, to compromise your principles. Please, do not.
When those in the marketplace challenge, and they will, your desire to protect others’ dignity, make clear the boundaries you will not cross. And then, don’t cross them.
You will be asked to abandon your humanity. Please, do not.
Your soul is a unique and priceless thing. When you have sold it, it is a difficult proposition to regain it.
Vow to say good morning with a smile to strangers you pass on the street. Promise to write one letter a week – by hand – to a friend.
If you honor another’s dignity, seek to preserve humanity, restore and maintain intimacy in your life and your community, you will realize what I have: no matter the amount of money in your bank account, no matter your abode, no matter your sartorial weaknesses, your life will be enriched, and a special kind of wealth will be yours.
Class of 2008, share yourself and strengthen your soul as you enjoy the rest of your wonderful adventure we call life.
Download the audio version of the speech.