(This is a copy of the speech I delivered at the Fontbonne University 2018 Commencement.)
Good Afternoon. Thank you President Pressimone, members of the Fontbonne University Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and administration, loving families and friends, and most of all members of the class of 2018!
What an honor it is to be here. Thank you so much for sharing your important day with me.
To be honest, I’ve never given a talk like this before. And I know I’m not a very traditional commencement speaker. I’m not famous. I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a universally renowned expert. I’m not at the top of my field or even my career. I’m not a St. Louis Native, nor am I a Fontbonne University graduate. But I have had the privilege of attending many meetings on campus over the last few years…which is why when I got a voicemail from Dr. Pressimone in February, the first thing I thought was: “Oh no! I’ve been caught…I knew I should have used those visitor parking passes!”
But Dr. Pressimone has assured me that the president of the University doesn’t call people about parking violations. Phew! And for the record, I DID use my visitor parking pass today.
No, he was calling to ask me to speak to you this afternoon.
And to be honest again, I didn’t say yes right away. I wasn’t sure that I had something useful to share with you. After all, this is your day. You have worked so hard to get here. You deserve a speaker who can share an important message.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I HAD to say yes. Because in the 6 years I’ve lived in St. Louis, I have learned something important, and I do want to share it with you today.
What I have learned is that everyday people, citizens, parents, and students can make a big difference.
I think intellectually, I always knew that. I think intellectually, you probably all know that, too. But my experience has made that idea real to me in ways I never expected when I first moved here.
My family moved to St. Louis because my husband was matched here for his residency after medical school. The program here had been his first choice, but not because of St. Louis – because of the quality of the program.
So we were excited when he matched to his first choice, but once the reality set in, so did anxiety and unsettled feelings. We knew St. Louis would be an affordable place to raise our family … but I owned a business in New York City, which I would now need to manage remotely. And we’d be very far away from friends and family, which is a terrifying prospect when you have a 20 month old and an 8 week old.
When you move somewhere for a medical residency, you don’t expect to stay there. I figured we were coming just to pass through … not to be part of something.
And I effectively knew nothing about St. Louis. I’d lived all my life up and down the East Coast. If you had asked me a year before we moved here what state St. Louis was in … I’m honestly not sure I could’ve come up with Missouri. That’s how East Coast-centric I was.
So we arrived in St. Louis, got settled in, and went about the business of making a life. We made friends, found favorite places to eat and play, and began to make use of the position of our new home base to explore other parts of the country. We made trips to Michigan and Nashville and Birmingham.
Because I am a bloom where I’m planted kind of gal, the new-ness and the learning and challenge were comfortable for me. But I was living and learning about St. Louis through a lens of non-ownership. St. Louis would be one place I lived - one stop in our family’s journey. I had decided I wouldn’t really belong here. Or seek to.
And then on August 9, 2014, all that changed.
For me, the death of Michael Brown, and the response by this community, caused me to completely reinterpret my role as a mother, as a citizen, and as a resident.
My own educational and professional background allowed me to see the events of Ferguson through a lens of systems, policies, and power. But I couldn’t help but also see this event as a mother. I couldn’t help but think of a child laying on the pavement for four hours out of the reach of his own mother.
And I couldn’t help but think: this would never happen to my family. This would never happen to me.
Like many in our region I spent the following months trying to make sense of the events in our city, both as a resident and a mother. And more than I ever had before, I found myself thinking and talking and reading about race: about what it meant to me, about what it meant to people in the region who don't look like me, and about what it meant to St. Louis.
I had twin realizations:
● What my children see and experience here will forever define their normal. It will be the baseline that they always compare other places to. It may be a stop in my larger life journey but St. Louis will always be their “I’m from” place.
● By extension, I also realized that what I see, show, say and most importantly DON’T say to them will also forever define their normal.
Even as I began to realize how much what I do and say impacts my kids, I became increasingly aware that I didn’t know what it was I should be doing and saying. They don’t cover how to talk about race with your children in parenting books - at least not the ones that I had read. So I began to research and the more I did, the more I understood how problematic NOT talking about race and racism with our kids is.
The more I read, the more it became clear that parents like me doing nothing was not simply avoiding the problem — it was part of the problem. I became determined to do something different than nothing.
That determination – as vague and insufficient as it was at the time, to simply do something other than nothing – changed the course of my life, and has now impacted the lives of thousands of families here in St. Louis.
I didn’t immediately see myself as part of the solution to our region’s challenges. I wasn’t trying to put on a superhero cape. I had no illusions that I alone could make any kind of difference outside of my home. All I wanted to do at first was to stop being a part of the problem.
That first meant learning to talk with my young children about race and racism
Then it meant learning how to talk about race and racism with those around me,
Then it meant thinking about the decisions I make about where I live, where I eat, and who I interact with -- and how those decisions reinforce the racial divides in our region.
Those of you who may have already encountered We Stories will know that this personal journey didn’t stay an individual one for long. Although I was prepared to journey alone, I haven’t had to. In my early days of wondering and exploration I met my co-founder, Laura Horwitz, and we began to share our family experiences with each other and then with friends and acquaintances. And over the last 2.5 years, nearly 700 other white families have joined us. And we are still growing.
So what is “We Stories” anyway? We are an organization that helps families have honest conversations about race, deepen their civic engagement, and organize to support racial justice efforts in our region. We start our relationship with families by introducing them to diverse children’s books because we have found these to be the best catalysts for creating rich and appropriate family-wide conversation about a range of topics from skin tone, to the meaning of race, to the history of discrimination.
Children’s books are an appealing and safe way to start this work. But they aren’t where it ends. Since launching we have been overwhelmed not only by the number of families who have joined us but also the momentum they have created -- in their homes, in their extended families, in their schools, workplaces, municipalities, and beyond. Laura and I feared that we would have to coax people along every step of the way. Instead, we find ourselves running to keep up.
This journey - my personal journey moving from silence to action, and We Stories’ journey, growing from 2 families to 700, has reshaped my understanding of the greatness that is possible when everyday citizens decide to act. It has also helped me to understand: WHEN action matters most, WHAT I can contribute, and HOW progress is made.
So, WHEN DOES action matter most?
I used to think that progress, and pursuit and achievement and accomplishment were punctuated by obvious pinnacle milestones. Promotions, selections, graduations, celebrations, and even crisis. Knowable moments that counted more.
What I’ve learned is that those moments celebrate achievement or accomplishment, and they reveal character. But the traits that enable us to celebrate those milestones — honesty, leadership, responsibility, courage — cannot be saved for special occasions. They must be practiced in private moments, in what we do and what we say, every day.
Honesty is about how we answer questions about race when they come up unexpectedly in the grocery store or when our kids, seemingly suddenly, ask why only brown kids ride the school bus.
Leadership is about bringing up racism in a conversation with friends, or in a candidate forum when it’s clearly relevant and obviously important, but none of the other white people in the room want to bring it up.
Responsibility is about resisting the urge to over-simplify our complex and still painful reality with knee-jerk platitudes such as “but things are better now.”
Courage is about recognizing all those teeny, tiny moments of opportunity that we each encounter and choosing to somehow meet them instead of saying “not today.”
WHAT can I contribute?
This leads me to another important lesson. In early 2016 I was part of an angsty multi-racial conversation on the heels of the release of the Ferguson Commission report. We were stuck in the “but what can we do?” place. A now-friend had a simple reply: Do anything but nothing.
Do anything … but nothing.
I used to think that addressing issues as big as racial inequity had to be done in massive, heroic steps — and that I wasn't in the position to take those steps. After all, I wasn’t in charge of anything big enough or important enough to have any real impact. At that point I still had a business in New York, a 4 year old, a 2 year old, and another new baby. As I’m sure most parents can attest - most days, I felt like I was hardly in a position of influence, even over my own kids.
But once I decided doing nothing wasn’t an option...being “busy” was no longer a valid excuse for inaction.
I admit, when I reflected on the enormity of the problem of racial inequity, I felt overwhelmed. And I still do. But when I considered my unique role in the mess...a path became clearer.
White parents like me make individual and institutional decisions every day that shape our region and reinforce social patterns. We are also actively raising - every day - the next generation of white adults. Research shows that racial bias begins to cement by age 7. And these early years in a person’s life are the ones where parental influence matters most.
Meaning that the way I talked about race, and the choices I made about where and how we spent our time as a family mattered to at least the three little humans and future citizens in front of me. So my friend Aliah was right...I was in a position to do something.
Of course this alone will not solve for racial inequity in our region, because no one, alone, can solve for racial inequity in our region. But in taking the steps that I am uniquely capable of taking, I have become a part of a larger movement of people working together toward a solution. And you can too.
HOW is progress made?
Now, I should tell you about another important lesson I learned the hard way. We knew that there was no perfect time to act, and so we needed to act in that moment. And we understood that we didn’t need to contribute with giant steps, but that we could contribute in our own unique way, in small but persistent steps.
But what I’ve learned is that even when you decide to act, and act now, that doesn’t erase the doubt. Looking back now, you might think that what we’ve built was obvious, that the steps forward were clear, or maybe even that our success was pre-determined.
But the steps were not clear. The way forward wasn’t obvious. Our success was most definitely not pre-determined. Yet we acted anyway.
Because progress doesn’t come from certainty. It almost always comes from the opposite — from uncertainty. Progress comes when we are willing to learn and wonder out loud. It comes when we are able to admit that we don’t know. When we are humble enough to ask for help. When we are bold enough to take risks and make mistakes.
In fact, at this point, that’s how I know I’m making progress — not when it feels certain, but when it feels uncertain. Not when it feels easy, but when I feel a little uneasy. And the more I’ve embraced a practice of uncertainty, the more comfortable I’ve become with discomfort. It doesn’t get easy, talking about difficult issues like race and inequality. But it does get easier.
Every parent who joins our community does so with a leap of faith. They come with questions and uncertainty. Talking about race and racism isn’t often something they did in their childhood homes and it’s not often something they do now as adults. BUT...they want to do something different. They want to do something other than nothing.
And in less grandiose terms, they want to know what to say to their children when their children ask them about race — because they will, and they do. They want to know what to do when someone says something on the playground. I know from our experiences that we help to answer those questions but we also raise a whole lot more. And part of my job is to help our families not only be OK with that, but to actually embrace the continual uncertainty as evidence of progress.
Last year one of our participants shared this with us:
“I’ve learned that I have more learning to do. I thought this program would help me talk to my child about race. I didn't think about how much was lacking from my own knowledge to have that conversation. The work I am doing is changing me for the better more than anything I have done in my adult life. What a privilege to have never needed to show up before … now I am grateful for the opportunity to change that starting today.”
As I mentioned before, when we moved to St. Louis six years ago, I came as a non-owner. Someone passing through. Someone here ... in the meantime.
The events of Ferguson and the leaders that raised their voices as a result changed that for me, forever. St. Louis may not be our family’s final destination, because such is the life of a medical family. But no matter where I end up, I will always feel like I own a part of St. Louis. And I know that St. Louis forever owns a part of me.
All that was possible because, even though I was scared, even though I was uncertain, even though I didn’t know if I would be all alone, I decided to do anything but nothing.
And once you decide to do anything but nothing – now – it changes your perception of “in the meantime.”
I know when I was in college, I figured, my time didn’t count as much. It was a “in the meantime” before I reached “the real world.” Maybe that’s what you thought about your time at college, too.
But in the meantime can be a trap.
It’s too easy to feel stuck in an assembly line of firsts: first job, first apartment, starter home. Especially when our eyes are on the horizon of desired opportunity. And even after those firsts are accomplished, it’s still too easy to stand back and look for the “real grown ups.”
That’s how you get stuck in the meantime.
Because here’s my truth you actually become who you are in the meantime. It’s not the big decisions you make at the key milestones that shape your life, it’s the little ones you make, one day, one hour, one moment at a time.
Which is great news for us all. Because the meantime is now. It requires no credentials. It requires no grand plan. It asks for nothing more than our everyday selves. And it is always waiting for us to show up and make the most of it.
So on this very important day I leave you with these questions:
What could be gained if you let yourself focus on the little moments instead of the big?
What is the cost of doing nothing about the issues you care most deeply about?
What becomes possible to accomplish if you begin to share your uncertainty – what you don’t know – instead of what you do?
And most importantly, as you look ahead to your bright futures, who are you going to become in the meantime?
Congratulations to you all. Thank you.