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Anna Deavere Smith


You know, the more this morning moves on, the more intimidated I am by all of you, by the fellow doctors behind me, by my friend, President Smith, and I'm humbled. I really am, and I would make a list, but I am reminded of what Golda Meir said: "Don't be humbled, you're not that great." But thank you so much, President Smith, the Board of [Managers], and once again, Val, my good friend. You have been so generous as to extend your hospitality to me and to welcome me into environments that are beautiful, sometimes more thoughtful and richer than I'm used to. This means so much to me. Thank You.

You never know where you will find wisdom. I found some fantastic wisdom while doing research at the Maryland Correctional Institute.

And now I’m in college [here at the Maryland Correctional Institution] and I see where I’ve missed out on a lot. A lotta information, a lot of important information that… would’ve helped me make better decisions. As far as, the - uhhm… my baby’s father? The people that I chose to, to actually be with, uhhm, and planned to spend my life with? I kinda gravitated to my environment versus reaching out past the environment, and I started believing that that was it and that was all. Uhhm. And the only thing that was required of me was for me. And that was basically … to feed my self. And the baby that I was carrying in it.

Everything was me, it was never like - the next door neighbor could be going through the same thing. If I was educated in, to that degree, then I would’ve made better decisions. Uhhm... I guess I can say that I just wasn’t connecting to everything, because I wasn’t given enough information to know that we all are connected somehow. To every living breathing thing. And I didn’t get that.

But this experience has showed me how connected I really am to the person next door, down the street or whatever.

Uhhm, how important it is to come together and… I’ve learned how the government work. Like, I didn’t – I never understood that, what was the governor for, or what, you know, was the mayor for. I don’t get it, I don’t understand, I understand that they are important people, but, to what degree of importance, what are they there for? And I never really got that in my history classes. So, to get that, now, as a grown woman, is like, whoa.

Finding out what this world is really all about, how it revolves, what’s expected of you as a citizen? Basically to work together? In a unit? To pave the way for those who are coming behind us. Uhhm, to make better living arrangements for everybody as a whole? Because of, I mean at the end of the day, it’s about living. And it’s about living properly. And it’s about educating others and, uh, rearing your children properly. So that they can be productive and… and not be barbaric, basically!

Denise Dodson dropped out of high school when she was in 11th grade because she was pregnant. Douglas High, which is in my town, Baltimore, Maryland. She never really worked consistently. The work she had was as a maid in the Days Inn, and she told me she worked off and on, off and on. By the time she went to prison she had five children, all under the age of 11. She had her sixth child while she was in jail awaiting sentencing.

Her boyfriend shot and killed a guy who tried to rape her. She got the same charge as he did —first degree murder. She's been in prison for 25 years. She made parole. She's waiting for the governor to approve it, but most governors do not approve the release of lifers.

Ms. Dodson may seem worlds apart from you and your experience. And just looking at all of you out here, precious as you can be, and after teaching for about 45 years, I can see how well all of you have been taken care of. Somebody probably loved you from the time you were two and told you just how important you were to them in the world. And I can tell by the intimacy in this amphitheater, that your professors, your friends, the people in the dining hall, the groundskeepers, the Board, my friend Val Smith, have taken you very seriously and have loved you and have brought you close to everything they find is valuable.

I see the health and the resilience in each one of your faces. I rarely get a chance see it like this, so concentrated. Rarely do I see so many healthy, curious, alive people. You are worlds away from Denise. However, listen to what she said: "I didn't know how connected I really am to the person next door, down the street, or whatever."

Looking at the mission statements of Swarthmore, being with you here today, hearing what the alums who have also just received honorary degrees have said, I know that you are aware of your connectedness and of your responsibilities as citizens.

Let's listen to Denise as, again, our responsibility "... to pave the way for those coming behind us. To make better living arrangements for everybody as a whole."

That’s our charge. And I suspect it’s difficult for us, even though we are quote unquote “free.” But just how connected are we? How hard do we work to reach out to be connected to that person next door, down the street, across the world, or whatever?

Denise now trains dogs while she is incarcerated. Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, to go and help people who are disabled. She just finished training a labradoodle,15 months old, and that dog is on its way. For her, training the dogs is her way of expressing love beyond the prison walls to those who really need care and love. As she puts it, she has a chance to express that love through the dogs that she trains.

There are no walls between you and the rest of the world unless you make those walls. You are free to carry your love yourself.

It's especially moving for me to be here today because your president, Val Smith, had faith in me when others did not, and she opened two doors for me that changed my life. And without her having done that, without her generosity, I wouldn't be here today. 

Be generous. Reach out. Reach beyond. Pull others with you. Pave the way whenever you can.

Godspeed. Agape. Be strong. Be new. Be you. Change stuff.

Watch: Anna Deavere Smith