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Louis Massiah

I am moved. This honorary degree means a lot, but I'm moved by you and I'm moved by you. This is very important.

Thank you, Presidents Sakomura and Goldberg. And I'm also honored to be honored with Lulu Miller today. First and foremost, congratulations to the Swarthmore College Class of 2024. And congratulations to the families of the graduates as you witness the fruits of your love and support. Congratulations to the faculty, staff, and administrators of Swarthmore for your hard work in crafting this exceptional education.

This is a day to remember. This is a time to remember. Remember that one of the stated reasons why we are here at the Mann Music Center in West Philadelphia is that the leaders of this institution made the decision to go forward with graduation at this locale out of a tradition of nonviolence and refusal to allow violence to become an institutional response to moral nonviolent protest.

In receiving the invitation to accept an honorary degree in an email from President Smith, my first reaction was being very grateful that my work had been noticed by whoever is in the august committee that decides such things. Then in reading the letter closely, just a little bit of terror creeped in, and that I saw that I was to give a talk at the Commencement. Wanting to say something to you, the Class of 2024, that would be useful — useful in this time and useful going forward — I thought that I might share a few ideas that have been useful to me and ideas that I have seen manifest in my interactions with Swarthmore students as an occasional teacher here and my interactions with Swarthmore faculty and graduates who have become friends and collaborators.

Be responsible for your eyes. As a way of background, I grew up in North Philadelphia about four miles due east from where we are in this patch of Lenapehocking, and maybe 12 miles from the Swarthmore campus, probably about the same longitude, but a very different time zone.

My father was an engineer and contractor. My mother was a language teacher, later a social worker, but as importantly, a feminist. I grew up during a previous period of war, but also a time for a world that seemed to be emerging from colonization and racial hierarchies and a time of optimism about technological solutions. I was interested in how we understand and share knowledge about this world and the craft of cinema, and particular documentary filmmaking seemed like a good way to do that.

The first time I left the North American continent was when I was 21. It was on a visit to rural Haiti, the country where my mother was born, and it was very much like a light went off. It made me understand how extraordinarily wealthy human beings are if we are in touch with our own and each other's histories, our culture, our stories, if we can relate to each other with love and see the humanity in others.

This ability to see each other, and I don't mean sight in its restrictive, ableist sense, is a transformative power. Create those situations for yourself to really see everyone in the room, and those outside of the room. One of the wonderful aspects of documentary filmmaking is that it gives you permission to talk with strangers. That's a gift. Trust your eyes and your ears. I am reminded of the work of Dr. Katherine Morgan, a long-time faculty member of Swarthmore, who developed a whole new approach to folklore, really ethnography, by helping us to value the words and stories of family and community, the images and sounds that we often don't see or listen to because of the preponderance of media that is not our own.

Be prepared for the long-distance journey. So much of life is problem-solving. Oftentimes as artists, as technologists, as social scientists, as scholars, as activists, we are focused on a specific time-limited project, the scratch for a specific itch. But often the need, the catalyst, is in fact not unique but related to something ongoing. A need that will probably occur again, and most importantly, a challenge faced by others.

My own work at Scribe Video Center began out of a very specific need. How can the documentary as a form be used as a tool for community groups in Philadelphia to engage the wider community about critical issues? In attempting to solve a problem, we can create infrastructures of collaboration and maybe community organization, a nonprofit, a business, a collective, and affinity group. And this assembly may in fact be the more enduring work, particularly when trying to address ongoing and recurring problems.

Thinking beyond the specific project means embracing that change and struggle are ongoing, and we need to find ways to settle into the work and celebrate and be fueled by the joy of seeing our work utilized. This is something I have seen actualized with Swarthmore students as they embrace methodologies and programs for social change through a variety of community-based initiatives, or students that come through their work by activism during their time here. I'm aware of students who began mobilizing around climate justice and are now deeply involved in ongoing organizations, the challenge, climate disparities, and also during the Occupy movement. Folks, students that were occupiers but now are doing work that continually challenges wealth disparities in this society. Embrace movement where you find it. Figure out what your community needs, what skills and knowledge that you have that can make the place better to live, can make us all stronger. What this society needs, what this world needs. Make yourself useful, the remuneration will come. Believe in that.

Paid in full. Don't get confused. A livelihood and a paycheck, and not even to talk about profit, are not necessarily the payment in this critical work that we do. The work of making society a better place, dare I say, trying to make the world a better place, is its own reward and will sustain you. You will feel the love as you give love. I see documentary film not so much as a way of revealing my personal understanding of things, not a time-based media journal for my personal musings, but as a way of learning from others. The community of wise men and wise women who have had profound understandings of cosmology, of love, of politics, of history, of the future. In the words of the poet Nikky Finney, "Those who know so much about so much."

Some of these wise ones had in fact gained their knowledge from the rigorous studies at universities and colleges, but many had benefited from the personal insights and words passed down through family, through community, through time on the planet. Often this knowledge was remembered, really contained in stories. So that is what motivated me to make films.

Toni Cade Bambara, the writer of filmmaker and cultural worker, was known in first meeting a younger person to ask, what's your plan? It's a question that I ask of young people cautiously, because I realize it almost invariably strikes a kind of terror. Being forced to decide what is important in life, what is needed. And the terror, in part, in accepting that the plan might require a commitment that may well be an entire life. Delicious work.

There is work to do, delicious work to do, work fueled and rewarded by love, work that will help carry our communities, our society, this world to someplace better, much better. It is work that calls out for comradeship and collaboration. It is work that will allow you to use your intelligence and heart. You have started it. This is your commencement.