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Karama Neal '93

Thank you all, so very much. It is such a pleasure to be here among you all on this lovely campus. I first want to congratulate the Swarthmore College Class of 2023. You all have truly earned your place here today. Starting college during a pandemic cannot have been easy and you all saw it through, and have done so in fine form. That’s due to you and in part to President Valerie Smith, the College board, faculty and staff, and to your family and friends, many of whom may be here today celebrating with you. My thanks to you all for continuing Swarthmore’s proud traditions and commitments through challenging and perhaps unprecedented times. Kudos to you all.

I am grateful to the College also for inviting me here today. I am honored and humbled and even now still a bit stunned. Thank you to the nominating committee and to the larger College community for your kind generous recognition of my ongoing work. 

Perhaps some of you graduates are like me, with a Swarthmore experience that was at times a bit bumpy. Perhaps college was new, not just to you but to your family, leaving many things unexpected or unexplained. Perhaps you traveled from a physically or culturally distant place and had to adjust not only to the College but also to the culture. Perhaps you longed at times for home or for family or for familiarity or for the future after college. For some of you, coming to Swarthmore was a bold decision; graduating, a result of many bold decisions. You all adapted and created a community here, elements of which can sustain you for years to come.  I hope you’ll cherish the memories, the experiences, the lessons, the friendships you’ll take from this place. At least for me, doing so makes the bumps look smoother in the rearview mirror, especially with the context of time. So I cherish my decision to attend Swarthmore. 

For some, maybe many, of you, your presence here today, your success, comes from your ability to hold fast to those things that matter most to you, while still going boldly into new experiences and opportunities.  As you may have found, there can be a certain magic that happens when one embraces the tension between being rooted in that which sustains you while also embracing new or uncommon opportunities. That ability to balance two sometimes competing objectives will continue to serve you well. So I offer two examples of others who have also successfully sought that balance.

I was a biology major and though I’ve changed career paths since, science remains close to my heart. In her research, biochemist Beronda Montgomery explores how photosynthetic organisms, plants and bacteria, adapt to changes to light in their environment. In her writing, she roots her love of botany to her experience growing up “in a house full of plants that were tended under the careful, observant eye of a mother with an incredible green thumb.” Dr. Montgomery seems to hold fast to the “delightful days”  spent with plants in their environments and uses those experiences as a foundation from which to grow her career as an academic scientist. She also boldly connects her biochemical research with her work in mentorship, creating a movement called Lessons from Plants in which plant biochemistry informs insights on how we all can thrive as people, both individually and collectively.  Both of her bodies of work — biochemistry and mentoring — are inherently valuable, and they are made more compelling by the way Beronda Montgomery joins them. Interesting ideas lie at improbable intersections.

Given my current focus on rural development, I’ve become intrigued and inspired by the history of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Founded in 1934 during the Great Depression in tiny Tyronza, Ark., the Southern Tenant Farmers Union aimed to help sharecroppers and tenant farmers get better financial and living arrangements from landowners. Importantly, they had multiracial leadership at a time when that was particularly uncommon. Similarly, women worked at all levels of the organization, and many used their union organizing experience to inform later work in civil rights. These were bold leadership decisions, especially for the time, decisions that were not based on what was commonplace but were rooted in what is right. Their work was also grounded in the rural agricultural Southern U.S. experience that the members all shared. Holding fast to those connections provided a foundation to support such bold inclusive leadership decisions.

I am inspired by examples like these.  My Swarthmore experience, in addition to preparing me for work as a Drosophila (fruit fly) geneticist, helped me recognize, value, and hold fast to my identity as a U.S. Southerner, particularly a Southern Black woman. That has been at the core of much of my work since, work that values place while promoting equity. It is that centering of place, in my case, rural Arkansas, that helps me hold fast to the promise of my family’s land, property purchased by my formerly enslaved great-great-grandfather. Griffin Henry Belk. The ownership structure for that land, called heirs property, is more common than often realized in rural and urban communities of all types. Its complexity creates significant challenges for families who want to use their land as an asset for current or future generations. So while I am not an attorney or a legislator, I started a statewide grassroots organization that successfully advocated for a change to probate law in my home state to help families make the most of their shared property. Arkansas was the fifth state in to pass the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which is now law in 21 states, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For me, it felt bold to work in this space — public policy and advocacy — for which I had not been formally trained. But it helped to be grounded in the family, place, and possibilities that mattered most.

Your presence here today — as graduates, as parents, family, and friends, as faculty, administration, and staff — is a testament to the magic that results from being willing to choose new paths while staying grounded in the things that matter most to you. Cultivate that magic. See where it will take you. 

My favorite author, the late Octavia Butler, has a line from an unfinished novel to have been titled "Parable of the Trickster."  In it she wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” New suns shine on the improbable intersection of popular paths. New suns shine on possibility.  New suns shine on YOU! So hold fast to that which sustains you and go boldly toward your new sun! I look forward to seeing where this life will take you! Thank you again so very much and congratulations!