Monday, April 28, 2008

Branch Vice-President Lavonta Williams' address to the Wichita State University Multicultural Center Graduation Ceremony

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to share in this great event in your lives. First, let me say Congratulations for successfully completing your studies here at Wichita State University.

This is your special day, and you have earned the recognition with the hard work and perseverance it took to earn your diploma.But in case your professors, advisors and family members forgot to mention it, here’s one last lesson: THINGS DON’T GET ANY EASIER.

You will walk off this campus and enter a world that has more challenges than you ever imagined. As members of the multicultural community here at Wichita State, you are well aware of the additional personal and professional challenges that await graduates with different skin colors, ethnic background, national origin and other factors that make up our diverse population. The challenges are huge, but there is good news, as well. The opportunities are every bit as huge, and they have your name written on them.

Your entry into the real world of full time career comes at a most interesting time in our history. You would have to be living under a rock to miss the great multicultural debate that rages in our society.

We can start with the presidential race. For the first time in history, our next president will either be an African-American, a woman or a senior citizen over the age of 72. The cookie cutter of presidential politics got lost this year. American citizens will be asked to look beyond the traditional barriers that have blocked a lot of talented people from rising to the top of the political world.

What does that mean to you? In a word, it means OPPORTUNITY. No guarantees, no entitlements, no sure things. Just the simple opportunity for talented college graduates like you to become productive and influential members of our community.

It means that today, more than ever before, it just might be possible to set aside cultural, racial and ethnic differences as we search for common goals and values. That’s not to say we lose our color, our heritage, our core beliefs. But it DOES say that we hope to find a way to communicate effectively.

The issues of the day demand a special kind of person. Tolerant and respectful, yet courageous and visionary. People who understand the value of consensus and compromise. Those are the people who will lead us into a complex future. Those people are YOU.

As this election year marches on, we will be overwhelmed with campaign rhetoric from candidates at the local, state, federal and presidential level. Except for those who return to their native countries, one of your first great responsibilities will be to participate in the election process. Listen to the messages, analyze the proposals and then cast an informed vote on election day.

The issues of multiculturalism will play a major role in choosing our next president, as well as leaders in the courthouse and statehouses across the country. On the top of the list is illegal immigration, an issue that generates every emotion from brutal racial hatred to the compassionate sympathy. How do you embrace our tradition of a national melting pot that urged the world to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free?” And while you are doing that, how do you stand guard against the internal and international threats to our life and liberty?

These fundamental decisions are shaped by our personal experiences. As members of the multicultural community here at Wichita State University, you can look around you and immediately understand the challenge.

Race, gender, ethnicity, culture … they all provide the starting point for your journey through life. The big question is this: How will you accommodate the differences in others, and still preserve your own core values?

Just like you, my views have been shaped by my personal experience. I am a retired career educator, I am an African-American woman, I am a wife and mother, and now I am a member of the Wichita City Council. Each of those experiences has taught me something. Most importantly, they taught me the value of human potential.

A classroom of minority children can be seen in two ways: Either a disadvantaged, underserved and underperforming social group, or a high-octane, high potential pool of pure talent. I always saw the latter. I saw a child who could grow into a responsible adult, someone who loved to learn and who felt a responsibility to his or her fellow citizens.

Others aren’t so charitable. Presidential candidate Barrack Obama recently roiled the political waters by talking about a “bitterness” among rank and file Americans that drives them into false havens of security. That comment caused considerable controversy on the campaign trail, but nobody can argue that complex issues like immigration, Affirmative Action, racial profiling, security against terrorist threats all push us to the edge of moderation.

Each of those issues can stir the heart at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. And every time that happens, the broad description of multiculturalism is changed once more. I don’t have all the answers for these complex problems. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to say I have the answer for any one problem. But my experience has taught me one valuable lesson that I hope will guide you as well. The time worn values of respect and tolerance will always bring greater benefit to more people than their opposites of disrespect and intolerance.

It’s not just something you do to make yourself feel better. It’s something you do because you know you hold a responsibility to every other human being on the planet.

I hope to see all of you on the front lines of this great multicultural revolution, armed with the virtues that will make our world more secure and our individual lives more satisfying.

Thank you for time, and once again, my heartiest congratulations.


Lavonta Williams serves as the Vice President of the Wichita Branch NAACP, City Council Representative for District 1, YMCA Board member, and a member of WIN (Wichita Independant Neighborhoods)

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Jung/Myers Briggs

INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
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