Commencement Address by Christian Peele ’05

May 17, 2015

President Fox, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Family, Friends, and most importantly you, Mary Baldwin University Class of 2015, congratulations!

Now look, the last thing I wanna do is stand up here in front of a quiet crowd, and I think that’d be pretty boring for you, too. Not to mention, graduates, I’ve heard that of all the many wonderful things you are, quiet is not one of them.

So, let me hear you celebrate now and for the rest of this speech! Mary Baldwin University Class of 2015, congratulations!

Being with you today is and will always be one of the greatest honors of my life. Thank you so much for this opportunity. It wasn’t long ago, in fact, that I sat on this very terrace as a graduating senior.

I remember being so glad we hadn’t ended up at Expoland.

I remember looking over the campus from my seat and realizing just how incredible I was to have perfected the nine-minute speed walk from Kable to Pearce, which included a slide down the dirt path near the security house.

I remember hoping against hope that my family wouldn’t cheer when my name was called. They, of course, cheered any way..

And, I remember being filled with an indescribable sense of gratitude, probably a lot like the feeling many of you have today.

Of course, I can’t think about the milestone of my Baldwin graduation without remembering, too, all of the adventures that have followed.

From one of my first jobs at a jam packed community center in Harlem that was every day abuzz with hundreds of kids and the hopes and challenges of education reform-

To working at an innovative faith-based non-profit in DC helping those returning from 10, 20 years of incarceration find jobs, housing, and spiritual care-

To an electric four-year ride in the Obama White House, complete with meetings with the President, office visits from diplomats Bo and Sunny, and the very cool feeling of watching projects led by the eleven-person team I worked with be celebrated on national news-

To these days, spending most of my time at the tallest church in the United States, where speakers like Martin Luther King once delivered words, and where the church’s first female pastor, Amy Butler, now delivers words and vision for a future.

They all sound really pretty different at first, I know. But, there’s actually been something incredibly consistent about all of them, a particular kind of challenge. And, there’s a photo of me from a few years back that illustrates it perfectly.

A friend of mine snapped it while we were getting some work done one Saturday at a museum. In the frame, I’m sitting at a table working. I’m hunched over my laptop with my back arched and tense, left hand on the keyboard of my computer and right hand on my notebook. There are papers, binders, and books scattered all around, and I’m looking at the camera, but I’m kind of scowling, because when I’m working furiously and intensely I get, let’s call it, witchy resting face. Anybody else know that super intense, I’m working, why are you interrupting me, face? Right.

Now, directly behind me, my back to it and nearly touching it, is a humongous painting that completely engulfs the wall it’s hanging on. At maybe 14 feet wide and 14 feet tall, the painting is a canvas of epic proportion and color. It’s covered in rectangles of smoldering red, bright green, golden yellow, deep blue, wild purple, and fire orange that mash together to make triangles so dynamic the shapes seems to move.

And, the center point of this fantastic backdrop is me.

The thing is: when that photo was snapped, I had no idea the painting was there, because in all of my fury and intensity that day, I never once turned around to see it.

As a side note, having minored in art history, my, shall we call it, oversight, is deeply embarrassing, and I plan to avoid eye contact with Dr. James and Dr. Hobson for the remainder of today’s events.

I had no idea the painting was there, because I never once turned around to see it.

Living with eyes wide open to what’s seen and what’s not seen…yet, has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. And, I’ve found, in all my adventures, that the specific work I do with my hands never matters nearly as much as much as the work I do with my eye-

a mind’s eye that works furiously and intensely to see the here and now and the canvas that is yet unseen-

the smoldering red of something new-

the moving lines of a dream dreamed-

the humongous frame that shows poverty, violence, and oppression reversed-

so close our backs can almost touch it.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

The very first time I heard of Mary Baldwin University I was 13 and had just taken the SAT. I got a purple postcard in the mail that said something to the effect of, “How would you like to start college four years early?” I thought about it for a second … and remembered a news story I’d once heard about some young boy somewhere heading off to college. But, I thought … he was white and I had never heard of anyone who looked like me doing anything like that. So, I threw the postcard away – and logged onto AIM for a very normal evening of middle school fun as sofresh&soclean813.

Thankfully, and not long after, my dad found the postcard and asked me why I’d thrown it away. So, I told him. And, the depth and wisdom of his response pushed me out of the comfort of the “what I see now” and into the discomfort of “I don’t see it now, but it could be and it could be me,” his response pushed me to have, if even for a second, eyes open to what’s seen and what’s not seen … yet.

He said:

“Girl, if you don’t get out of my face with that nonsense and call these people back, Imma hurt you.”

So I called, applied, visited, and began my Baldwin journey of a lifetime. It was still the case that I’d never heard of, at that point, a person of color doing anything similar, and the unknown of that terrified me.

But, the bravery, creativity, and grit that greatness and change require, are only found in that tricky little place where we dare to see both what is and what can be.

On the one hand, and because one can’t cast a vision for something new onto present systems she doesn’t understand, the challenge is to see and study the nuts and bolts of the world’s right-now-needs as they really are: complex, not to be oversimplified, inter-connected, not mutually exclusive, shape-shifting, not stagnant.

And, because the way things are is not the final word, the challenge is to also and at the same time dream outside the bounds of reality, to imagine new systems, new solutions, new ways of being, and new and more-creative-than-we-ever-thought-possible expressions of change and justice.

Just as the voice of fear, that great critic, rose up in the mind of sofresh&soclean813, it will arise for you if you dare to work and live from this place.

Seeing something that hasn’t yet taken shape takes courage, because it resists the security of what we’ve seen and done so far – because even if “the way it’s always been” is destroying us, there’s a seeming safety in at least knowing what the heck to expect.

When 34-year-old Mary Julia Baldwin became the head of the Augusta Female Seminary, on the one hand understanding the effects of war on the national and academic economy and on the other hand believing deeply in the vibrantly patterned backdrop of what our school had the potential to become, I’m sure the unknown terrified her.

But, the bravery, creativity, and grit that greatness and change require, are only found in that tricky little place where we dare to see what is and what can be.

In all of my adventures, I’ve been challenged to be in that place, and to comprehend the value of being scared, shoot, being terrified, while still having eyes wide open to what is seen and not seen…yet. Because, no one’s really asking us to be fearless. The world just needs us to, with visionary eyes, see our communities’ biggest questions and the change that’s possible.

Word on the street, class of 2015, is that, in fact, a good many of you understand yourselves to be change makers, justice seekers, boundary pushers, the right kind of outspoken rabble rousers, even advocates and activists.

And, that’s really good, because the combination of your Baldwin foundation and your passion makes you particularly well-suited for living with eyes wide open.

You know what it means to study the complexity of the world as it exists right now. Just have a look at your Capstone presentations and senior and graduate theses that explored questions of neurological development and mood, themes of love in music, criminal justice and violence, teacher tenure in public education, and international affairs and politics. Just have a look at your internships and creative leadership in hospitals, jails, and schools.

More than two hundred and fifty of you will receive baccalaureate degrees today and more than 100 will receive one of four types of graduate degrees, honoring your study of our world. Some of you tackled Business or Psychology, two of you are triple majors, and one brave, brave soul among you is majoring in Applied Math.

As a side note, perhaps you, lone Applied Math major genius, can help us derive an equation that solves for just how a fork makes its way into a dining hall ceiling.

Class of 2015, just as you know what it means to study the world as it exists right now critical and interdisciplinary thinkers, you know, too, what it means to say yes to a vision unseen, even while standing in the fear of the unknown. Your passion for change and justice speaks to hopeful eyes that refuse to take “the way it is” as the final word, and dare to see a fantastic canvas of epic proportion, color, and possibility.

And, how could this not be true of you, of us, graduates of Mary Baldwin University?

That kind of seeing is woven into the very history and spirit of this school you come from, this institution that is growing and evolving, not just as any school, but as a women’s college, a celebrated college of the liberal arts, a community that does Boldly Baldwin really well.

In every adventure that matters you’ll be challenged to choose the way you will see. Keep your eyes wide open to understand furiously and intensely the right now and to see, with your mind’s eye, the yet unseen frame of what can be, the possibility of justice, the possibility of change, the possibility of our world renewed.

Class of 2015, again, and again, and again, congratulations!