Dear Makuu Class of 2020
I met some of you nearly four years ago, in the most unfortunate circumstances, as many of you were just meeting yourselves.
New Student Orientation had happened, as had the waves of Open Houses and other free food festivals that you quickly figured out were the places to be. We’d moved through Fall Break and Family Weekend, and were in the first or second round of midterms, depending on how your classes were set up.
Then came November 8, 2016.
They say — or maybe they used to say, I don’t know if they still do — to never talk about religion or politics. But we have to talk about November 8, because that day has produced this day. That day has shaped your four years of Penn.
On November 9, there you were, packed into Makuu, mourning a world that the Presidential election had just snatched away from you. For the bulk of your grade school years, you could revel in the reality of a Black President, a notion that my generation didn’t imagine was possible even after we were witnessing it come to be. Believe me when I tell you, in 2008 we flooded the streets with tears in our eyes and pure joy in our hearts. We did not think that an America existed in which a Barack and Michelle Obama could become, and yet there we all were in this magical moment.
There was no such victory lap eight years later. On November 9, 2016, you and I were left wondering what had happened, and worse, what would happen next.
We found out on November 11, when some of you were added into a racist GroupMe, and experienced a kind of digital trauma that left you completely shaken in ways you couldn’t describe.
This. This was how I first met some of you. In VPUL’s conference room where you gathered to share what had happened and be supported. In one packed town hall after another, as the community mobilized to process this ordeal and the many ways that it reflected other things that had often gone unspoken in the Obama years.
I also met many of you at Du Bois College House a couple weeks later, at a fish fry spearheaded by my friend and fellow alum Aaron Campbell. Other alums heeded the call and joined in. We laughed, we shared stories, we played cards, we did what we could to help you see this thing through and know that you weren’t alone.
T-shirts with these words — Makuu: Still We Rise, #BlackPenn2020 — were passed out to you at that event. For me, this shirt serves as both a marker of time, in the ways that the community rose up to wrap around you, and a call to action, to continue to rise through whatever was next to come.
We began seriously discussing Makuu’s 2020 Senior Celebration this past February. I can’t tell you how excited we were, as we had finally secured a venue that would be large enough for the ever-expanding program, and we would be laid out in ARCH auditorium for the reception. The added bonus was the announced Commencement speaker — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was so so excited for you all to have this special weekend.
My plan was to enjoy spring break, catch up on my many emails (some of you know very well my monumental struggle there), then iron out the rest of the Senior Celebration details with the Makuu team the week everyone returned from break.
But as we all know, there was no return from break. Everyone’s world changed. Again.
You all have been asked to make the hardest pivots imaginable. Shift your travel and housing plans mid-semester. Return home or go to some other safe place. Move to virtual classrooms, and figure out how to live an entirely different kind of life amid a debilitating uncertainty around health, money, family, your future, and the future of the world you used to know.
No one can quantify in words how shocking it is to literally be uprooted in this way. You were making the final turn on the last leg of your race here at Penn, then you ran face-first into an invisible wall. Your loss was unparalleled, and yet, you may not have had the space, or time, or inner permission to grieve. Please know that grief, anger, sorrow were and are valid. As happy as I am today to be healthy, to be employed, to care for my family and have them with me, and to celebrate you, I am just as angry that you and I can’t be together this weekend, that so many people have lost so much, and that race is evermore the exposed nerve of our nation, causing searing pain with every move.
If these four years have taught me nothing else, I have learned the story of seasons. There are seasons of striving and glory, just as there are seasons of strife and despair.
Our charge now is to build a better world.
America is an idea. Nothing more. When this idea was shaped, we not only were absent from the table, but also from “our forefathers’” very definition of humanity.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
These words would not be said to us in this gathering.
What does this mean for us now? What does this pandemic mean? What is the way forward?
In my support circle through these past two months, there has been a recurring theme. It comes from the writing of Arundhati Roy, and frames the pandemic as a portal to a new world. Her declaration is by no means a given. Yes, our world has been changed, but shaping a new world, a world worthy of the best that I have seen in all of you will require us to connect in ways that we have not yet done, and feel each other with new hearts, and — as Solange sings — see things that we have imagined.
“We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?”
Those words are from W.E.B. Du Bois. Ninety four years later, the answer is perhaps more true than it was then. No, we are not satisfied.
We who are dark are uniquely positioned to blaze the path through the portal to another side that is more just, more honest, more empathetic, more forgiving, more sustainable, more loving, more human in the ways that humans should be like God.
You, Class of 2020, are receiving your college degrees in the light of this portal. You have been molded by this event in ways that I will never know. It is my belief that this is your calling — to use your talents, your experiences, your brilliance to lead us to a freedom dream that is as radically just as it is boldly transformative.
Ava Perry. I remember when you came to visit with Haywood; you were in maybe 10th grade. I saw you scoping things out, contemplating how you were going to make this yours. You did it, and so much more along the way.
Daniel Gonzalez. You’ve shared when your confidence was shaken, but never broken. You brought a special kind of strength with you here, and it helped you overcome obstacles and be the kind of friend and example that so many of your peers needed. Whether it was BMU, FGLI spaces, La Casa, the GIC, Makuu, or others, you used your voice to make others feel welcome and heard.
Roberta Nin Feliz. I remember seeing your focus. Like seeeeeing it when you studied in the ARCH. I also remember letting you know that I knew that you were killing the whole game. Because you absolutely were. And will continue.
Vincent Jones. I am so so happy for you, and I will miss our conversations about life, and sound, and family, and history, and futures. You will change lives through your work with young people, and through the questions you continue to ask.
Imani Davis. You have shared the words of your soul with this community long before you arrived, enhancing a tradition of critical art and communal therapy through performance. There are no master’s tools, sis. They are all yours.
Zee Yusuf. I remember you asking to meet with me, and talking about the future you saw for yourself vs. the one that was laid out for you. It was, and will always be, a struggle to negotiate. You’ve summoned a will to move forward, and to do everything for your family and yourself. That strength will keep pushing you forward. It’s already inside of you.
Desteni Rivers. I was so glad that I attended the PAVE training you did with BMU in February. One, because it was one of our final group gatherings on campus, and two, because it allowed me to experience the confidence and passion you give to this critical work. People have been pushed to become better selves through your commitment, and people have learned to love through your presence.
Promise Adebayo-Ige. I remember shortly after the GroupMe incident, trying to take on the task of matching 2020 with alumni mentors. You were one of the easiest to connect, because I had the perfect person for you. When I bumped into Mike shortly afterwards, he lit up speaking about you, as do so many others on campus. Continue shining your light for the world to see.
Christine Olagun-Samuel. You stopped by Makuu a few times each semester to see me or Michelle with a new idea. They were never small ideas Christine, as I’m sure you’re well aware. You made them happen, and you tackled an extremely rigorous course and research load in the process. Thank you for giving all that you did to enhance Penn’s Black community.
Nia Akins. I don’t have a story about our work together or a formative conversation because I’m simply a fan from afar, who vaguely remembers what it’s like to have to sprint for two laps, but who’s never done it as well as you have, while also tackling a Penn Nursing curriculum. You are a champion, in every sense of the word.
Sheldon Amoo-Mitchual. Your poise and determination are remarkable. You have asserted yourself in multiple spaces on campus, and have led your peers with each step. Your compassionate wisdom is exactly what we need to move us forward.
Jordan Andrews. I reached out to you after you became UA VP, and I did what I tend to do — pitched you about a half dozen ideas. You listened intently and shared your ideas, then you got to work on making them happen. Your impact has been remarkable, across different communities at Penn and beyond.
Micheal John. I remember when you came to visit me before making your final decision to transfer to Penn. This may be revisionist history, but I’m pretty sure you finalized it in my office, and we started making a transition plan. We gained a lot in our community because of your presence and commitment.
Nikki Thomas. I was there when it wasn’t working like it should. You taught me how to listen to what was being said, not what I wanted to hear. You needed time to heal, not to do it on Penn’s schedule. I heard you. And I’m glad you are here today.
Louis Davis. “Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my Penn career, the importance of trusting and following one’s instincts when faced with doubt and uncertainty is by far the more salient.” Those are your words. Thank you for sharing them with us, and being vulnerable, while also being the positive proof of what happens when you meet the uncertainty head on and continue growing.
Nadiyah Browning and Kendra Williams. I had to put you together because of the way you would both stop by to talk through an UMOJA idea, and in how you covered for each other when you needed to. Kendra, I remember when Makuu became your summer headquarters, and Nadiyah, working through some tough questions that needed answers. You have both made Makuu better.
Gregory Nesmith. Unfortunately your story is not as uncommon as we may think, but what makes yours different is that you came back and did this thing. You absolutely did not have to, but you told yourself that you would, and you did it. I’m so very proud of you, and thankful for the work that you will continue to do.
I don’t know how, Britney Firmin, but I learned pretty quickly which was a “Britney extremely high expectations crisis” and which was a “crisis crisis.” I’m so thankful to have been able to be there for you for both types, to gain insights from you on critical issues, and to see the ways that you pushed through and achieved your exceptional goals. The world needs you, now more than ever.
Mckayla Warwick. I remember reading your first paper and calling you into my office to encourage you to say what you said in this paper in class. Then I remember seeing you in your first 4A show, and calling you back into my office. Do you remember what I said? I said to make sure that that girl who was on stage is in class on Tuesday. You found your voice here, and you’ve created spaces to give other people voice and power as well. I’m so excited for what’s next, and for the lives you will impact.
There are other stories. And for some of you, the Makuu story has not yet happened, but your own narrative of achievement, growth, and impact most certainly has. As I close, I leave you with words that fellow alum and colleague Nicole Maloy shared with me years ago. You are a Penn student for four years. You are an alum for life. This lifetime membership is a special kind of open invitation to continue connecting with Makuu, for us to continue the work of thriving in this new world ahead. We need to leverage and extend our relationships like never before. We must become more socially connected, socially intentional, and socially empowered as we make our way to the other side. I am following your lead, and we are here to help in whatever ways we can.
Congratulations, Class of 2020. Thank you. And we love you.