Dr. Ford addressing the class of 2016.

Dr. Claudia J. Ford addressing the class of 2016. Photo credits: Amy Nyman ’13

Imagining, designing, and repairing the world.

2016 Commencement Address by Dr. Claudia J. Ford.

In June, Conway celebrated the 44th graduating class (pictured above). Our guest of honor and commencement speaker for the event was Dr. Claudia J. Ford, faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design. Dr. Ford’s research interests include historical ethnobotany, traditional ecological and indigenous knowledge, Atlantic environmental history, women’s health history, sustainable agriculture, and ecological resilience. As a midwife, artist, writer and poet, her extensive time living abroad has inspired an interest in human-nature relationships and how environmental care and awareness can be enhanced for governments, corporations, institutions, communities and individuals.

Here is Dr. Ford’s full address.

Graduation from any level of school – secondary, undergraduate, or graduate – is undoubtedly one of the most cherished, significant rites of passage in our society. It is an honor and a pleasure to celebrate The Conway School graduates of 2016 by giving a commencement address. I stand in awe of all that these graduates have accomplished so far, and truly inspired by what they bring to our mutual future. I begin by acknowledging the original keepers of the place where we celebrate this occasion; the Pocumtuck and Mohegan peoples who cared for this land for many millennia before we arrived. I thank them for their stewardship of this land. I acknowledge their wisdom as a model for our current environmental decision making.

My mother was a New York City Kindergarten teacher during the post-war Baby Boom years, which means she taught sixty 5-year-olds per day – 30 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon – 5 days per week, ten months out of the year, for 27 years. My mother loved her job, and I admire her for that. As a result of being raised by a teacher, however, I have a lifelong fascination with the first day of school, graduations, crayons, and construction paper; and, of course, stories. So I will start with a very short story:

There was once a sage who would walk the streets shouting at the people to change their ways. At first some of them listened. But over time, they stopped listening and returned to their old lives and wasteful ways. The sage continued to walk the streets and shout. One day a small boy approached the sage. ‘Do you not know that they do not listen to you?’ the boy asked. ‘Yes, I know,” replied the sage. “Then why do you keep shouting?” “If I still shout,” answered the sage, “it is no longer to change them, it is so they do not change me.”

The members of the Class of 2016 embody the hopes, dreams, and vision of the founders of The Conway School, now in its fifth decade. Beginning in 1972, with the school’s founder, Walt Cudnohufsky, and the first chair of the Conway board of trustees, economist David Bird, joined later by Don Walker, a Conway School student in 1978, and subsequently under the leadership of Paul Hellmund, each of these visionaries were fired up by their innovative model of planning, design, and management that equally respects nature and humanity. This vision of ecological and social sustainability became and remains the mission for The Conway School. Let us not forget, however, that the idea of respect for the land, something everyone who is here today takes mostly as a given, a notion of land sovereignty that the indigenous stewards of this land based their way of life on, this idea is yet quite radical. So, at The Conway School we are privileged to experience a radical education in designing a future for all communities – natural and human communities. This is an education that defines itself by a significant immersion into learning to listen, respect, and respond to the needs of both people and nature.

We are designing and imagining a better future and yet, two weeks ago, we witnessed the joy filled lives of 300 mostly Latinx, gender queer, mostly very young people interrupted in a heinous, brutal fashion at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as they celebrated their identity, their lives, and their love for themselves and each other. 49 people killed, 53 wounded, some quite seriously, and 200 people and their families permanently scarred and traumatized. We mourn, and we weep over the individual stories of each of the victims – an 18-year-old, many college students, a mother of 11 children, and so many more. We are all traumatized and broken hearted, once again, at this egregious loss of life. We are reminded, yet again, that we live in a society that harbors racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, the widespread availability of weapons of war to unstable and/or hateful individuals, and an unwillingness to address gun violence or hate speech in our public discourse. Nothing about this is okay. It was not okay in December 2012 when 20 first-graders were killed in Sandy Hook, CT. It continues, it seems, unabated, and it is still not okay.

In the shadow of these tragedies we are forced to ask ourselves some difficult questions: How can we work against a societal legacy of division and harm? How can we strive to make a difference in the face of such brutal challenges? What is our obligation and responsibility to the creation of a more just world and how do we meet that obligation? How do we face and dispel fear, shame, and isolation? How do we dare have hope? We must dare to embrace spaciousness and hope while remembering that hate and violence built and unfortunately still sustain this society, because that remembering is critical to not forgetting, and in that way, remembering honors all who have lost their lives and their loved ones to the darkness of our collective history.

What actions can we take personally and within our communities to dispel hatred and nurture hope? We can start by joining the changemakers in our midst for decisive action that recognizes the important cultural shifts happening in this moment, in this country. Welcome this change, embrace it, chase away any fear of it, be curious about it. Chip Blake, Chief Editor of Orion Magazine, reminds us, “People used to believe that environmental issues could be held separate from issues of justice, race, gender, sexual orientation, equity, and peace. Those days are finally (and thankfully) over, but it will take a great deal of imagination to understand how to continue to bring all of these conversations under one roof.” What do we imagine when we envision these changes and hold these conversations?

We can deeply engage our society’s shifts in social consciousness and demographics by tending to and nurturing diversity. We must ask ourselves: Who do we discuss in our practices, whose work do we promote, use, and talk about? Who is at the table when decisions are made? If there are people whose differences of age, race, nationality, religion, gender, class, or ability have historically kept them from having a seat at the table it is entirely up to us to open the door, invite them in, listen, and by listening let them know they are welcome. Listening is a fundamental act of social justice. We need to make reaching out and deep listening an integral part of our personal and professional practices.

I spent more than 30 years abroad, pursuing a career in international midwifery, public health and development, schlepping my four children who were educated in 10 different countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. When my family was living in Thailand in the early 1990s, I had two teenagers and a toddler at the time, and my middle child, 15 years old, asked, in a typically slightly snarky adolescent way, “Mom, what is the meaning of life?” Now if I was Toni Morrison, and count on this, as a writer I would be immensely happy to be Morrison even for a day, Morrison would have said, “There is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood… Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” What I told my son that day was the meaning of life was the ability to cultivate a deep sense of compassion, to cherish friends and community, to seek the wisdom found only in solitude, and to entertain the possibility that two opposite things can be simultaneously true.

Deep listening and true friendship are acts of maturity and compassion, but the issues of solitude and contradiction are a bit more challenging for most of us to contemplate and really grasp. A sense of community should be cultivated as the only way to ask those questions that we cannot envision on our own, but it must be balanced with the absolute necessity to embrace solitude and silence, especially in nature. Virginia Woolf calls this, “seeing to the bottom of the vessel.” Yet we often fear and find discomfort in peering that deeply into the container of our soul. We feverishly pursue social networks and connections. But a life without solitude is a life, as many have said, unexamined and unlived. It is a life that shuns the depths of joy and despair for the seemingly safe shallows of ordinariness. If we do not know our own depths, we cannot continue to develop. We get stuck in what we think is just safe enough. The pursuit of solitude in service of self-knowledge is a journey that requires abundant courage. Camus says, “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” Thoreau reminds us, “By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

What about contradiction? Why must we be able to entertain the possibility that two opposite things are simultaneously true, and at the same time? How do we learn to live with such contradiction, and the heartache, vulnerability, and confusion such ambiguities will bring to our lives and the lives of those we love? Perhaps one of the most perplexing contradictions that we all face is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people. That the brambles of darkness and sorrow overtake all of us, even if we stay very close to the path. This shared inevitability of experiencing pain and disappointment in life is also the point at which we may learn compassion for each other, and for ourselves. Yet, we remember as well that good things happen to good people. Therefore, it is the glory of our intensely hard won adulthood to equally embrace, equally refrain from shunning, all of these moments – the joys and the difficulties, the social and the solitude – with a sincere sense of gratitude.

For the task of imagining, designing, and building the future we hope for; to seek the meaning of our lives, alone and in community, and to genuinely commit to the continuous incorporation of diversity, social justice, and hope in our ecologically informed practices, here are three habits that we can cultivate: Be curious. Create masterpieces. Tell stories. Be curious. Educator John Dewey says, “In a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.” If you entertain curiosity you will not be afraid to ask the naïve questions. You will be lucky enough to experience that explosion of brain growth that typically manifests itself in a four-year-old that answers every statement with the simple question, “Why?” If you continuously entertain curiosity you will be fortunate enough to approach every situation with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” A condition of extraordinary openness, vulnerability, and receptivity to creative ideas. Maria Popova, of the blog Brain Pickings, believes that if you entertain curiosity you will also entertain diversity. You will celebrate and protect diversity as the linking together of disparate ideas at unique creative intersections. Peter Senge reminds us that it’s all connected, and as ecologists, planners, and environmentalists no one knows these interconnections better, or can teach and transmit this interconnectedness with more passion and vibrancy.

Create masterpieces. Make everything you do a work of art. This is not perfection, which is a trap of the ego, in fact, making everything a masterpiece is a commitment to what some indigenous peoples call The Beauty Way. Walking on this path means that we are observant, we are allowing wisdom into our lives, and we have a good relationship with all beings and people. Making everything a masterpiece means that your work is your signature, it is your unique and important contract with the world. Making everything a masterpiece means that you will not neglect the art of conversation and the building of community, the art of relationships with other humans and non-humans. Making everything a masterpiece means you will give as much attention to the mundane routines of everyday life as to the extraordinary examples of your work in the world.

Tell stories. There is an old adage, “If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.” Create your work and your practice around the art of storytelling. Stories require cognitive complexity and emotional maturity. Stories require critical thinking and openness to innovation and change. Stories are blueprints for human experience that enable us to face complex and intractable problems, with resolve and perspective, again, and again, and again. Stories are born of observation – of deep listening and deep attention. For any of us who dedicate our lives to a just concern about our collective future, an ability to tell stories is critical to grounding our respect for a shared environment. Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, says that stories connect the mind of humans with the mind of nature.

Some say Thoreau was cunning in his evocation of place. His cabin on Walden Pond was little more than a 20 block walk from home. Yet, that is the genius of his storytelling. He coaxes us into remembering, into revering a sense of place simply by telling its stories. Donna Jacobs Sife, educator and Jewish peaceworker says, “I am a storyteller. The type that went from place to place, gathered people in the square and transported them, inspired them, woke them up, shook their insides around so that they could resettle in a new pattern, a new way of being. It is a tradition that believes that the story speaks to the soul, not the ego, to the heart, not the head. In today’s world, we yearn so to understand, to conquer with our mind, but it is not in the mind that a mythic story dwells.”

Here is a short and funny story told by Donna Jacobs Sife:

The King of Persia was stricken with an illness that could only be healed by drinking the milk of a lioness. An announcement was issued: “Whoever obtains a lioness’ milk will be greatly rewarded.” And a young man, who loved his king dearly, determined that he would get the milk to save his king’s life. The youth set off in search of a lioness, and on the way, his body parts began to argue with each other as to which one was the most powerful. They decided that this adventure would serve as a test. After several weeks of searching and waiting and gaining the lioness’ trust, the youth was able to milk her, and return to the palace with a jug of precious milk. On the way, the body’s organs and limbs began to argue.

“I could see where to find the lion, and how to milk her,” said the eyes.

“I heard the lion’s purr and roar, and knew when to approach without danger,” said the ears.

“And how would you have got there and returned safely if not for me?” argued the feet.

“Thanks to us,” cried the hands, “we were able to draw the milk and carry it back without spilling it.”

They argued back and forth, until the tongue added quietly, “It’s not over yet. What would you do without me?”

“You?” they all laughed. “Who needs you?”

When the young man stood before the king, the tongue took over.

“Your majesty, I have brought what you need, the precious milk of a …. dog!”

The king was furious at the insolence of the young man. “Hang him!” the King ordered, “Until his tongue hangs out!”

And the tongue turned to the other body parts saying, “You see, without me, you have no power. I can undo with one word, in one second, what all of you have worked so hard for. Admit that I am the most powerful and I will save us from death.” Hands, feet, eyes, and ears quickly agreed.

“Oh Majesty,” said the young man, “In my haste, I stumbled over my words. The milk is that of a lioness. Drink it, beloved King and you will be healed. My life is at your mercy.”

Something in the voice of the young man moved the King. He drank the milk, and recovered.

The young man was greatly rewarded by the King. But greater still, was the tongue’s reward when all the parts of the body agreed that the tongue carried the greatest power for both good and evil.

Be curious, create masterpieces. Tell stories. And carefully watch your naughty tongue! Maybe we cannot individually address all of the challenges that face this troubled and beautiful world. But we must keep shouting like the sage, so that we are certain that the fear, hate, and violence of this society do not change us. As we celebrate your graduation and your success, and the love of your family and friends, we simultaneously remember Orlando, and we embrace the heartache and danger of these times of fear, hatred, and violence. To honor both is a contradiction, but it is necessary. Toni Morrison says, “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox.”

How dare we have hope in the face of murderous hatreds? Indigenous peoples around the globe, all of our indigenous ancestors, have existed by the paradigm that their decisions were to be made for the good of seven generations. They literally lived for our success. Acknowledge our ancestors and tap into their dreams for us. Why should we maintain hope in the face of intensely challenging, complex environmental problems? Barbara Kingsolver says, “The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, “We already did. We have made the world new.” The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes.” Lin Manuel Miranda, the brilliant creator and star of the award winning play Hamilton says, “We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer/And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”

I wish for each graduate every opportunity to rise, put on your shoes, and make the world new, individually and together. Go forth, enjoy the accolades which are your earned present, the sense of accomplishment which acknowledges the past that led you to this moment, and your earnest hopes for the future. Go forward and repair the world with your newly found skills in ecological planning and community building. Go forth from here with a hint of unrest married to a profound sense of peace and joy. Congratulations!

Thank you.