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TRINITY Magazine 2006 | Sheila C. Johnson Challenges the Class of 2006

Commencement Speaker Sheila C. Johnson Challenges the Class of 2006 to be Bold, Creative and Courageous

Look Inside Your Heart

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson gave the 103rd Trinity Commencement address in May and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws for her “lifetime of achievement, for her large generosity in improving educational opportunities … and for providing a remarkable role model for women.” Nearly 400 degrees were awarded at this year’s Commencement,
attended by more than 4,000 guests.

Johnson is president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics WNBA team. As founder and chief executive officer of Salamander Hospitality, she created the gourmet Market Salamander and is developing a luxurious spa and resort in Middleburg, Virginia.

Johnson has a lifelong commitment to enhancing the lives of children. As a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, her proudest achievement was the development of an award-winning weekly program, Teen Summit. As an advocate for the protection of children, Johnson has spoken around the world on behalf of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

An accomplished violinist, Johnson is a leader and philanthropist in the arts and in education. She is chair of Parsons The New School for Design, and serves on numerous boards, including the Christopher Reeve Foundation, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, United States Equestrian Federation and the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. As a former teacher and mother of two children, I cannot tell you what an honor it is to stand up before you and to share with you some of what I’ve learned in life.
Nor will I ever be able to express in words just how close to my heart each and every one of you is, and how excited I am by the fact I am bearing witness to such potential greatness being unleashed upon the world. I’d like to thank President Pat McGuire for inviting me here today. Pat, your dedication to providing women this extraordinary education is truly inspiring. Thank you for giving them the tools that they need to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Let me start by saying I’ve traveled far to be with you today. I’ve
traveled very, very far. And, believe me, I’m not just talking about the mileage – I’m talking about the distance. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was in your shoes. It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting in a cap
and gown, my degree clenched tight in my fist, dying to know what the future held for me.

As a young girl from Chicago I dreamed of so many things growing up. There was so much I wanted to do with my life, so many talents to nurture, so many avenues to explore. And because I worked hard, had mentors who taught me by example, and was blessed by both God and fate, so many of my dreams ultimately came true.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I didn’t come this far to just talk about me and what I’ve done in my life. I came here to talk about you, and what you might do with yours. I’m here to share with you my thoughts about the world we live in today – and something you might do to make it a better place.

Throughout history, women have always been great spiritual leaders and moral touchstones; these women were willing to fight and even die for civil rights and who served as moral touchstones – and not just for us, but for women of all races, colors and creeds.

Think about the names…

Harriet Tubman… Rosa Parks…Dorothy Height…Mary McCloud…Eleanor Roosevelt…Bella Abzug…and with us still Ann Richards. In their time, these women may or may not have had wealth and fame – but what they all had in abundance was passion. What defined them was their sense of purpose and their moral exactitude, and what they shared as individuals was a vision for a world in which men and women were judged, as Dr. King told us, “not by
the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

They also had something else.

They had courage.

They had guts.

And they were willing to risk everything they had for what they believed in.

My generation has placed an indelible stamp on popular culture through sports, business, law, medicine and the performing arts. We’ve achieved political and buying power that decades ago would have been impossible to even fathom, much less attain.

The torch was passed on to us and now we are passing it to you.

There is tremendous talent and intelligence in your generation. So much so that I cannot even imagine the accomplishments and marks you will make in this world. As you begin your journey I implore you to summon up the courage and the will to continue and expand upon the vision of past generations and accept the responsibilities of becoming a leader.

I want you to look inside your heart. I want you to open your mind. Then I want you to embrace what you find there. Because I promise what you will find is a staggering, almost limitless potential for greatness.

It is there inside you, ready to be cultivated. Whatever greatness you may achieve in your life – and whatever greatness this world may someday realize from your having been here – is at this very moment taking root inside you. Great leaders are those individuals who have developed an innovative vision of the future. I challenge you to take all of the knowledge that you have learned at Trinity and the greatness within you to develop a new vision for this world.

In his book The World is Flat, Tom Friedman suggests that a new global market will produce an explosion of inventions and innovations that will benefit us all. He writes, “You can succeed in this new global market, but it will take the right imagination and the right motivation.”

Indeed, to succeed and to lead in this new creative age you must be flexible and motivated to open yourselves up to possibility. You must challenge established ideas, including your own. You must be catalysts and bring about new ideas – many of which will be untested – that enhance or improve a situation. You must be diligent in testing your ideas against the gravity of the situation. Indeed, innovation and leadership is about putting creativity into motion.

You’ve been given the tools and developed the skills at this institution to succeed in your field of choice. It is now time to start thinking about how to enable that knowledge in order to implement positive changes in this world.

As you begin to work out your strategy for making a mark and a difference in this world, always remember those family members, friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches who have been a positive force for your spirit. remember those people who are critical to your makeup and the qualities within each of them that you admire. As you go through life strive to share those positive attributes that have impacted your life and share them with others. As you leave this institution and begin to find your way in the world I implore you to continue to surround yourself with people who are diligent, wise, moral and motivated.

As a preacher once said in my spiritual counseling: A successful life does not mean lavish material wealth. It means richness in relationships, freedom from paralyzing anxiety, opportunity to learn and grow intellectually and the comfort of knowing that God is with us always.

By listening to my heart I have been prompted to serve. I have learned in my life that when I give of myself and when I know I am helping others to reach their fullest potential my heart is strengthened and my soul is enriched. I know that when we look outside ourselves and address the needs of others something truly magical happens within our hearts.

As Claire Guarnini writes in her book the Greater Good, “Generosity is entrepreneurial, individualistic, creative, visionary and idea generating.” As each of you takes your own path to greatness I ask you to never underestimate the power of service in your life and the world.

Throughout my life I’ve learned that by making tough choices, taking risks and directing my own destiny, I realize I can accomplish my dreams.

As women leaders we must continually gather the courage to risk failure and pain in the hopes of attaining success and joy. We must really live our lives to the fullest and find our passion. Passion is a resource deep within ourselves that allows us to achieve whatever we set our minds to. As we persevere, we must promise ourselves that we will never lose sight of our passion, our vision and who we are as women and leaders.

As women we must take time to reflect upon and develop clear plans to achieve our goals. each of us must take responsibility for our own careers as we move forward. regardless of what career you choose, set solid goals that you want to pursue, develop a clear plan of action to achieve those goals
and don’t procrastinate.

We must never assume it will be an easy road and be ready to accept defeats without giving up or losing our vision and caring about people. Excite and inspire others with your passion and boldness. Be a champion for what you believe is right and don’t lose sight of who you really are.

As women we must support women. We must continue to create opportunities for women to gather together and discuss the important issues facing them both domestically and globally. As a generation of dynamic women it is your duty to become a generation of women professional mentors. You must be mentors and sisters to each other and develop networks and systems of support locally, nationally and internationally. When we work together as women, we can produce new energies, insights, opportunities and resources for our communities.

We must support women in politics. If you think that supporting women politicians does not affect your career you are wrong. The issues that we face as women have no better representation than an elected woman in office. As women we bring a different viewpoint, different attitudes and different skills to the legislative debate. We must support women in politics who share our beliefs and ensure that our issues are represented and addressed and can change the face of legislation.

Our mothers and sisters worked hard for us to be where we are today. And we must do all that we can to ensure that their legacy continues. Too many of us tend to lead a very limited life – afraid to face challenges, growth – and are unable to move forward, paralyzed by fear of the unknown. We must face challenges and challenge others who suppress us emotionally and physically. Don’t take anything at face value and never assume anything.

We must continue to work together, to create ways to develop a young woman’s sense of worth. We must support a girl’s hopes for the future, offer girls examples of strong leaders that counter cultural stereotypes and provide young women with opportunities to explore and exercise their
talents.

I believe that women entrepreneurship and innovation are not only opportunities for personal financial growth but can be vehicles to bring about positive change in our communities, to eliminate poverty.

And as graduates you will be looked upon as leaders in your communities. Now it is up to you to provide positive images to many young women to help them to see themselves as competent, entitled and important members of their communities. You must work to bring images to school programs and media that are equal representations of all races, cultures, classes and abilities.

You must support education initiatives that help young women to pursue their dreams. If we want women leaders – social, moral and civic touchstones – we will have to guide them through the challenges of the world we live in. We are going to have to cultivate them in the classroom and that is going to take a lot of financial and sweat equity to make that happen.

As a consumer society we are continually told that bigger and better things will bring fulfillment to our lives. However, when it is all said and done it is people’s possessions that possess them. There is an old gospel song that goes, they got what they wanted – but they lost what they had. You know, there are many wealthy people in this country and this world. Many use their wealth and privilege over character, merit and talent.

Success should have enough depth and dimension to include honesty, generosity and good character. In pursuit of success, however you define it, your connection to your own heart cannot be taken for granted. It must be believed in, it must be nurtured, and constantly consulted each time the story of your life involves a tough problem to tackle or a painful choice to make because in this life; you cannot ask for a better guide.

I just want to close with a quote I read by the theologian David Whyte. Listen carefully: “Life is no passing memory of what has been nor is it the remaining pages of a great book waiting to be read. It is the opening of eyes long closed. It is the vision of far-off things, seen for the silence they hold. It is the heart after years of secret conversing speaking out loud in the clear air. Let me explain, all eyes shut leads to isolation – deep sense of alienation and powerlessness. All the new possibilities begin when we truly see.”

I challenge you to be bold. I challenge you to inspire. I challenge you to embrace your sisters and become the leaders of the next generation.

Thank you and may your biggest dreams come true.

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