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Nina Johnson

Nina Johnson speaking at Last Collection

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Good evening graduates! Good evening family and friends and loved ones of graduates. I honor you all. I honor you all. You have done a tremendous thing, a tremendous thing. I hope you can make time to sit with what you have accomplished because it is no small feat. Enjoy your triumph, enjoy this moment in which you set out to do a thing and you did it. Bear with me, I have a request. Turn to the person next to you, look them in the eye and tell them “you did it”. Turn to the person on the other side of you and tell them “you did it”. Now give yourselves a hand. Celebrate yourself.

You did it–through a pandemic, through wars of occupation across the world and in this country, through state sponsored violence and deprivation, through white supremacy, racial hierarchy, patriarchy, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, islamophobia, terror of all kinds. You survived all this to arrive at this point. And for that we honor you and celebrate you. And all of your loved ones, your ancestors and forebears. Even and especially those who have transitioned recently from this realm to the next. We honor you. We are grateful for all they poured into you and passed down to you, that you might live, that you might arrive at this moment. We are grateful.

Shout out to all of you, but especially to Amir, Angie, August, Chase, Chrisbet, Dakota, Ella, Evan, Evelyn, Gwen, Jaimie, Kenny, Kiara, Lucy, Mikayla, Murtaza, Neary, Shiko, Tolu. I’m here tonight because of you all. You know I’m always on my way back to the city by 4:23, but I’m here, at night, because of you. And we really haven’t had much time together. During your first year, I was on leave, in your second year, COVID happened, and then we were on zoom trying our best to connect, and now here we are. In that short time, you’ve made such an impact on me. You have affirmed my belief that the world is in good hands. You’ve affirmed my belief that another world is possible. You’ve affirmed my belief that we will win, we must win. I am so honored to celebrate with you tonight. And to share the lessons I’ve learned with and from you during your time here. 

I have to be honest with you all, I’m struggling. This world has me weary. I’m tired. I’m grieving. My heart is broken but somehow glad, and my spirit is yet rejoicing. When I look at you all, I remember all the beauty, all the love, all the joy. And that is the key. That is how we live. That is how we persist. I think of my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents and how they survived slavery, Jim Crow Mississippi, the great migration, Indiana, Upstate New York, how they persisted. We of like precious faith, who care deeply about how so many of us are made vulnerable by systems and structures that seek to destroy, extract, and exploit, we who put action to our care, who purpose our lives to address the harm we have experienced, the harms we observe, the harms we commit, the harms we hope to prevent, we must persist. We must do good and live well. And how do we live well? Given all that we are faced with? What are the keys to a good life? 

There are 25 people on this campus who came together to tell us–they are the members of my seminar Manufactured Scarcity: The Housing Crisis in US Cities and The People’s Fight for a Home. 

The first key to a good life: Mind your business. Mind your business. By this, I don’t mean create an LLC and start hawking your wares or branding yourself. I don’t mean navel gazing and narcissism. I do mean, discipline your thoughts and focus on yourself. Begin to let go of telling other people what they should do or have, what they deserve or don’t. Let go of trying to judge, punish and control other people. Let go of competing with other people. Let go of comparing yourself to other people. Let go of the pursuit of higher and higher status and more and more resources. Let go of trying to be better, smarter, faster. You don’t know what other people have, not really. You don’t know what they endured to get it or get there. You don’t know what it costs them. Let go of comparison and competition. Let go of trying to check people you don’t know. Let go of trying to check people you do know. Let go of the shoulds- should be, should do, should have. Focus on what moves you and begin to engage it. Focus on what wounds you, what ails you and begin to heal it. Focus on what fulfills you and pursue it. Focus on what challenges you and work on it. Focus on what intrigues you and try it. Focus on what brings you pleasure and relish it, luxuriate in it, enjoy it. If you’re focusing on you, you won’t have the time or energy to mind other people’s business. And on that magical, mystical, majestical day when you’re invited in, your only response will be, “How can I support you?”.

What minding your business allows you to do is the next key: Get into/Be in/Stay in right relationship with yourself and others. Live in integrity. Learning to listen to ourselves, honor ourselves, forgive, heal and love ourselves is critical. It not only allows us to live better, more aligned, more fulfilled lives, it is also key to our relationship with others. Our beloved adrienne maree brown lifts up the importance of learning to be deeply vulnerable, available, accountable and in communication with others. This requires deep listening and a willingness to share honestly. In this way we can better care for each other and be cared for in return. This kind of mutuality and reciprocity is what will carry us through this moment and I think, in the end, save us all.

And getting into right relationship with yourself and others will allow you to find your people. In this life, you have to find your people. People of like precious faith, people who want to build a better world, people who are healing, people who want to love and be loved, people who care, people who are flawed, people who are accountable, people who are honest, people of integrity, people who laugh, people who dance, people who choose joy, people who are radical truth tellers, people with expansive, limitless imaginations, people of passion and purpose. People who will hold you accountable to your vision, your ethics, your beliefs, people who support your evolution, people who will hold you down and lift you up. People who will always help you return to yourself when you veer off. People who will put their hand in yours and walk through this life with you, celebrating you, challenging you, cherishing you. Find your people. 

Your people will help you get in alignment, be aligned and stay aligned–not with the world, its demands and expectations, its fallacies and foolishness, but with yourself. Your people will remind you of who you are, how you want to show up in the world, how you want your life to feel, and give you the space to learn, grow and realign. This is critical when institutions and the people in them try to tell lies about who you are and what you are worth. This is necessary for all the times you’re offered opportunities to accumulate resources in ways that are inconsistent with your values. You will have to make compromises to live in this world, but you never want to mess with your non-negotiables. Your people will know what those are because you tell them. And they’ll help you with the hard decisions. And they will support you through the losses. And they will celebrate the triumphs. And you’ll sleep well at night when you’re living your values. And you’ll feel the peace that comes with aligning your actions with your values. And the deep joy that comes with it, even and especially when it’s hard and it costs. 

And that alignment will let you know and understand what your work is. Your work involves the things you feel called to do, moved to do, the things that won’t let you go, the things you were meant to do. And if you don’t know what those things are yet, that’s okay. Keep trying things until you do. Enjoy the process. Stay available, listen to that nagging sharpness that tells you this isn’t it, listen to that still small voice that tells you, ah this is it. And then, say yes. And then shine! Shine! Shine! I have a dear friend who is an MD/PhD. She is a doctor that studies infectious diseases, particularly those in her home country of Haiti. She is brilliant and funny and sharp and fun. I was always in awe of her focus and drive, balanced by her capacity for unbridled joy. She was just somehow always getting things done and having fun at the same time. And not just getting things done, but deeply purposeful. I thought I knew and loved her. And I did, but only to a certain level. And then I saw her dance. And her spirit just leapt out. She was flying up there on that stage. And her spirit was revealed in a way that nothing else could. And I saw her, really saw her. And knew her. And the fullness of her beauty took my breath. We all have that level of gifting. We just have to embrace it, step into it. Step into it. For many of us, our work may be different from our job. Know the difference. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that my job and my work have some level of overlap. Teaching you all is a joy. I am committed to ending the carceral state and its roots in racial capitalism and white supremacy. I am committed to eradicating the conditions that create violence. I am committed to our liberation. I use all of my time, talent and resources for what I care about most, my people, my folks. It’s hard and heartbreaking. It’s joyful and filled with and fueled by love. It’s freeing. And I insist on being free. I wouldn’t be able to live any other way. Find what that is for you. Jobs come and go. Wear them loosely. Wear institutions loosely. Your work is the constant. Find it. Do it. Make sure you’re always doing your work. 

So, mind your business. Get, be and stay in right relationship with yourself and others. Find your people. Get, be, and stay in alignment and integrity. Do your work. Know the difference between your work and your job. Go to bed at night. Get rest. Take naps. And finally, the last key I’ll share from your wonderful classmates is to choose joy. Someone said, astutely, this week, “In the midst of continued injustice, we have to cling to our joy. It is our strength.” Our joy is our strength. You are expansive and limitless. You are so many things. Live into that. Love that. As Zora Neale Hurston tells us, sharpen your oyster knife. Live! Put your toes in the sand. Be barefoot in the grass. Feel the sun on your face. Float in the waters. Laugh from your belly. Sing loud and off key. Play. Seek pleasure. Enjoy it. Be sensual. James Baldwin says, to be sensual is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself and to be present in everything that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. Be present. Don’t let anything or anybody steal your joy. Choose it. Every. Day. We fight, and this is what we fight for. 

There is hope. Our beloved Mariame Kaba tells us that hope is a discipline. That means that we keep doing our work even when we feel unmoored and unmotivated and the losses feel too great to carry on. We are alive. We are breathing. We are hope. You are my hope. I see you and I am in awe. You are choosing to look at the world, see it as it is, tell the truth about it, and then act. You choose to live and love. That is amazing, especially in a time when so many refuse to see, refuse to tell the truth, and fight for the truth to be erased and lies to replace it. You seek out the truth and tell it. Keep living, keep loving. And as our prophet James Baldwin told us, “They are stuck with their history. We are creating ours”. We are creating ours. We are creating ours. 

Thank you.

Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College