Speech made by Julie Tess Johnson '97 (Class of 1868 Prize Winner) at Bowdoin's 192nd Commencement
May 24, 1997
Story posted May 24, 1997
"Only Strong Individuals Can Build a Strong Community"
President Edwards, Commissioner Albanese, Members of the College, and Guests.
Commencement is one of the few times when the entire Bowdoin community has the opportunity to assemble. Today, we need to celebrate much more than the achievements of the Class of 1997. We need to recognize a transformation that has begun in the Bowdoin community.
This semester, Bowdoin held its first "town meeting." Over 200 people attended this all- school forum. While an all-school meeting does not seem radical for many of you, the meeting was a rare moment in my four years here at Bowdoin. We expressed our fears, our frustrations, and our hopes, but, most importantly, we listened. We heard that we are not alone as we strive to meet high expectations and to live balanced lives.
The meeting was the result of a student-organized demonstration protesting the silence that had enveloped Bowdoin's campus. Over the last few years, there has been silence within the Bowdoin community despite incidents of rape, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. The day after the demonstration, the Residential Life Commission released its report describing Bowdoin as "a fragmented community." Hate crimes, harassment and violence have occurred without redress in this community. For example, records at Bowdoin reveal no reported rapes, yet many of us know that the reports do not reflect the reality. The individuals victimized by these incidents have had few spaces to discuss their experiences and were part of a community unreceptive to taking action. The silence protected the assailant and isolated the victim. As a result, individuals often escaped responsibility for their actions.
The silence affected more than just the individuals. Few channels existed for community members to voice their needs for affordable child-care, for a diverse social life, for academic tutoring,... their need for a supportive community.
When the Residential Life Commission began to survey the campus, individuals were eager to be heard. After having listened to a small group of students, a member of the Commission asked, "Has Bowdoin become a Darwinian Society?- a place where only the fittest survive." The silent response seemed to confirm the statement's truth.
During this time, I was working on my honors thesis on Brazil in the 1970s under a military regime. Through my research, I learned how structures of power work. In Brazil, a culture of fear had paralyzed citizens and protected the regime. One of the principle characteristics of this culture of fear was the perception by community members that change was not possible - and so why assert one's voice.
With fear of retribution and little change, Bowdoin administrators, faculty, staff, and students complained to one another, left if they were not "fit" enough to survive, or conformed to the silence, but few challenged the silence itself. Regardless of who you are, when silence replaces voices, we all become invisible. In Adrienne Rich's essay "Invisibility in Academe," she writes:
[I]nvisibility is a dangerous and painful condition... When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium... It takes some strength of soul and not just individual strength, but collective understanding- to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard... (199-200)Rich urges us to stand together because, "Invisibility," she warns, "is not just a matter of being told to keep your private life private; it's the attempt to fragment you, to prevent you from integrating love and work and feelings and ideas, with the empowerment that that can bring" (199-200).
Here at Bowdoin this past semester, we broke the silence and identified the fear that had immobilized us and restricted us from standing up for what we believe. It began as a few voices. But as the fire spread, courageous faculty and staff stood up and joined students at the microphone. Although students' voices were often the loudest, behind those voices, certain administrators, faculty, and staff supported us. They encouraged us to pursue change and to take responsibility for directing our lives. At the Celebration of more than 25 years of Women at Bowdoin, Dean Bradley spoke and advised us to seize our education rather than expect someone else to hand it to us. In a recent lecture at Bowdoin, a former Civil Rights Movement leader and professor, Julian Bond, reinforced this message that students need to seize the torch of leadership with both hands.
The events of this past semester have taught us that when we compromise our voices, we compromise our lives. If we want to live as fully as we can, we must not only define our principles, but we must act on them. That means supporting one another as we define our principles and regain our voices. When we identify those people, both here at Bowdoin and beyond, who know the danger of silence and who believe change is possible, we will be able to use our collective energy to strengthen ourselves in our individual lives.
As graduates, we must not forget the importance of being active agents in our personal lives, in our communities, and in our continuing relationship with Bowdoin. Whether we are Peace Corps teachers in Africa or investment bankers in New York, our responsibility to ourselves and to those around us is the same. It is our civic responsibility. My English teacher in high school used to tell his students, "Question, Seek, and Lay Claim to authority. Do that, and you will be served well by others. Fail to do that and you will lose the ability to author your own lives."
His advice challenges us to be doers, not complainers. In order to become the leaders that we all have the potential to be, we must first learn to speak up for ourselves. Rather than succumb to circumstances that others might believe unchangeable, we must question these fixtures and, thus, gain the opportunity to chose how we want to live.
This past month, Bowdoin held its second town meeting. The timid, shaking voices from the first meeting returned and now contributed to a dialogue. Students and administrators reflected together on issues that we confront here at Bowdoin. One student expressed the difficulty for some international students to earn the required summer earnings that Bowdoin expects from other students on financial aid. Dean Steele immediately responded thanking the student for bringing the issue to his attention and promised to look into the matter.
We learned that when we do speak up, change is possible. When we take responsibility for our environment and ourselves, we can control our own lives. When we question authority in the name of our principles and are ready to stand up for one another, we will build a strong community - because only when we are strong individually can we be strong together.
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