Tonya Lewis Lee '88, Keynote Speaker

Sarah Lawrence class of 2020, it took a lot to get you here. I know…I was once in your shoes. But I also know your achievements as graduates come from the hard work of so many who have come before you and who helped you along the way.

As living human beings we are a part of a continuum of our ancestors who lived and survived to push us along and those that will come after we are long gone. We had parents, teachers, friends who nurtured us along the way…and we have had doubters who told us what we could not do as well. The big gestures and the small, the good and the bad from others helped to propel us here.  And yet, you alone kept going, didn’t give up when it got hard, have stayed on track to reach your goal of college graduate. Congratulations! Enjoy your day, enjoy this moment.  You have earned it.  Because tomorrow, it begins again. You have already set a new goal. You are already moving towards it. My hope for you and for us all is that as you continue setting and achieving goals the overriding objective is to create a better world for us so that 30 years from now one of you will be delivering the Sarah Lawrence commencement address to that class in person in a world where our leadership is truly working in the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all humanity…including the poor, black and brown, immigrant, LGBTQ, and female. And the only way we will get there is through what you do from this day forward. We all have a stake and we all have a role to play in moving this ideal forward. We need all hands on deck. And the beauty is your precious Sarah Lawrence education has given you the tools you need. What is the most important tool that Sarah Lawrence has added to your tool box? The ability to be a critical thinker! There has been much talk about the need for higher education and especially the need for a liberal arts education with its high cost. Unfortunately, being able to think thoughtfully, being able to question what is before you to determine its validity, to be able to debate ideas without being afraid of being wrong has become such a privilege that at the supposed highest levels of government and commerce people just go along to get along to get that pay check. Class of 2020 don’t go for the okie doke!  Don’t sell out humanity for the pay check. Use your hard earned critical thinking skills especially when it gets hard. As we have seen, especially during this dreaded pandemic that has kept you from the joys of bacchanalia followed by graduation with your colleagues, when you are empowered but only go along to get along we end with disaster. I understand the fear to go up against authority, its scary and it is dangerous…but as the governor of Texas recently said there are more important things than living…though I think he and I have different ideas about what that means. Keeping the planet safe and habitable for all of its citizens is worth the fear, is worth the danger. But who am I talking to? You are Sarah Lawrence graduates, I know you are ready... We are an interconnected species…our children and grandchildren will benefit or be damaged by the actions we each take today just as we benefit or lose from the virtues or the sins of our ancestors.

When I graduated I had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish. At its core, I wanted to help make the world better. Experiences in my life as young black girl in mostly white environments unused to people like me made it clear that change needed to keep happening and the voices of those who made a difference like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X showed me that each individual, if they put their mind to it, could make those changes. Upon graduation, I left the warm, nurturing, and at times tough northeast campus of Sarah Lawrence and headed south to Virginia for law school, full of optimism, hope, and the belief that the world was ready for me to step up. I was quickly reminded that Sarah Lawrence was a privilege, that not everyone cared what I thought, and that the change I wanted to bring made some people uncomfortable because they liked it just the way it is. I was reminded that I was just another high yellow N-word as the note that was left on my car outside of my apartment let me know. But I put on my armor, kept working, clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Human Rights Watch…fighting to help political prisoners in Somalia to be free. And yet, as I began thinking about graduating from law school, prompted by my father who was afraid that if I became a civil rights lawyer I would be broke for the rest of my life, I went to work for a corporate law firm in Washington, DC. I lasted two years…it wasn’t the work doing corporate commercial contracts that I disliked…in fact it was fun to work on the agreements that brought the first television programming to airplanes…But I remember being in the law library of my firm one day working on one of the contracts thinking to myself…why am I helping other people make their dreams come true getting the golden crumbs when I could be making my own dreams come true. All of my close friends were artists, I loved to write, but never believed writing much less being a published author was for me…that was for other people…special artists…And then I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and discovered something about myself…I was a shadow artist. I wanted to be creative and so surrounded myself with creative people, even going so far as to marry an artist. And as such found a way to becoming the creative that I was supposed to be. That process was not easy…I remember one day early in our marriage being in Paris in a beautiful five-star hotel overlooking the Place de la Concorde, standing in the middle of the room with tears streaming down my face telling my new husband about how unhappy I was…I was no longer working at my law firm, was the mother of a newborn feeling like I was sitting on the sides of life instead of being in the mix, telling him I was meant to be a player not a bench warmer…he stared at me confused, unsure what to say as I bawled until I just stormed out of the room. You see, despite the fact that I knew I no longer wanted to practice law, my identity was wrapped up in having accomplished passing the bar and being an important lawyer. Now when people asked what did I do for a living, the honest answer was that I was a full time mother, which in that moment felt so unimportant. What I know now is that my husband could not help me, though I appreciate him being there to listen; raising my children is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life and is certainly not bench warming, and that that moment was really the beginning steps towards my newfound life…giving up doing what I thought was expected to make my parents happy…getting that check…and embracing doing me. Soon after that trip I began writing just for me every day in an attempt to hone my craft. It would take me three years before I felt competent to share my work with anyone.  And now, I am lucky because I have been able to marry my desire to contribute to social justice and be creative. And my children have been at the heart of my work.

When my daughter was about three years old we were watching the show Rugrats and she said…she’s rather fair in complexion…the people in the show are grey and then she looked at her own skin and said I’m gray. I was stunned. I don’t know if white children go through this existential understanding of their skin color, but my son, also around the age of three, came home from pre-school one day and said, “Mommy, some people get tan from the sun, but I’m already tan," and I said, "yes, you are brown…" and I remember watching my three year old touch his face and say I’m brown. Unsure of what it meant to him, I waited a day for a time when were playing and said, "look at these brown legs. What do you think? Do you like the color of your legs?" And he said, "I love them." I said, "me too," and breathed a sigh of relief. He was comfortable in his skin. Being brown was okay by him.

So I initially wrote Please Baby Please for them…with the idea that there just were not enough children’s picture books that showed children of color…but that book is for all children, because depicting people of color featured in books or on screen in scenes from their regular, real daily lives is good for everybody. For those that don’t interact with people different from them for whatever reason, the media can be an important part of knowing our neighbors and realizing while there may be cultural or ritualistic differences, at our core all human being ultimately want the same things for themselves and their families. I have gone on to write more children’s books, to produce documentaries, television shows, and films. I’ve even founded a women’s health and wellness brand, Movita, that sells organic vitamin supplements, but at its core is about inspiring, encouraging, and supporting women to live their best lives…because what all the data show is that healthy women make healthy babies, make healthy families and healthy communities.

And so, as you set out into the world as a Sarah Lawrence graduate to find your place and your purpose, the thing I want to leave you with today is the charge to take care of yourselves. Class of 2020 you know full well how the tides of life can swing wildly one way or the other—coming to college with a Barack Obama presidency full of hope and positive change, leaving with a president who cannot show empathy for thousands of dying people and shows more concern for the dollar over life, you know what it's like to hunker down in a pandemic, figuring out how to get home, to help your fellow classmates, how to quickly adjust to a new normal and deal. Given that life can throw anything your way and that in order to even be able to hear what it is you are supposed to be doing, you need to be as clear and healthy as possible. Audre Lorde said it best: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and political warfare."

So I ask you to take care of your physical body. When I graduated we had to fulfill a phys ed requirement…I hope you still do. Of course you had a beautiful gym facility to use..we had hydro-fitness in the bottom of Bates. And I hated working out. To pass the requirement, I ended up joining a gym in Yonkers. I went, but it wouldn’t be until my third year in law school that the idea of working out as a part of an overall lifestyle really began to stick. My sister said to me, "you are 24, you should start excercising now so that when you are 40 you are not trying to figure it out." That was some of the best advice I have ever received. By all statistics I should be on medication for all sorts of issues, but I know that because of my lifestyle I am not. Movement matters. What you eat matters.

Take care of your mental well-being. Keep negative energy away, work on positive thinking even as things don’t go your way. We don’t always know why something doesn’t work out…sometimes its to push you in another direction, keep you from harm, teach you a lesson…it is often when the universe denies your wish that you receive your greatest gift. Even in the darkness we can find light.

Keep learning…education does not stop at school…be curious, be open…now the real self work begins…

Even when our leaders exhibit abhorrent, negative, hateful, petty behavior we must block, repel, and keep forging forward…so keep forging forward knowing that you are truly a part of something bigger…that you are connected to each other…to me…YOU know that if someone sneezes in China that you can catch a cold in New York…so what you do matters to all of us. Being a person who cares about the collective good of all humanity is not being a sucker, it is the height of all humanity, and caring for yourself is caring for us all.

When I was where you are South Africa still had apartheid; I still felt I had to take partners at my law firm staring at my chest or my male associates making inappropriate comments; the casting couch quid pro quo was till very much in effect; gay people could not get married; and the thought of a Black American president was a joke in a comedy sketch. But we have come a long way baby...and we still have a long way to go. The time moves quickly but we remain busy. As Winston Churchill said, "Be kind, but be fierce. Take up the mantle of change for this is your time."

I am grateful you spent your time here at Sarah Lawrence and look forward to every individual contribution you each make, whether publicly known or quietly felt in simple action. Go forth. Be strong. Do good!

Remarks as prepared for delivery