Column: A message to the Class of 2021

Toiell Washington

Whether you are graduating from high school or completing a college degree this spring, I want to congratulate my fellow Class of 2021 graduates. While every graduation is a big deal, we are the first class to walk in and walk out of a school year during a pandemic. The challenges of the past year – and all that we achieved despite them – led me to recently share my reflections as a student commencement speaker at Salem State University. I wish to share these sentiments with all who have persevered to reach this milestone as members of the Class of 2021.

While I could reflect on the how frustrated this last year has made me and on those who prayed that I would fail, I instead want to acknowledge unity and recognize the support given by family, friends, faculty members and social media followers who believed in us all. For every person who hopes you lose, there are 10 more that hope you win. In my 23 years of living, I have never seen so many people stand together in solidarity than I have this school year.

I also want us to acknowledge each other, because despite all that has happened, every day we chose to keep going. A friend once said, “I just feel like I’m in a place that doesn’t appreciate me and wouldn’t even recognize if I was gone.” I told him he was right. The truth is that a lot of people do not want us here. They do not want first generation students breaking generational curses with that degree; they do not wish to see someone from a working-class family secure a six-figure job; and they sure did not want to see a Black woman delivering this year’s commencement address. The system was created to keep us disempowered, unwealthy and uneducated – but that is why we must continue. We are not letting the system control us anymore, we are going to control the system. For such a large, diverse group of minorities, there is nothing minor about us. Our generation is full of creativity, innovation, perseverance and above all things, it is full of resilience.

I will leave you all with three lessons that I have taken away from the last four years, which I hope you all will take with me:

-- You do not ask for change. You demand it. I say this because I have evolved as a leader and as an activist. I have learned that when you ask for anything, you give someone the opportunity to tell you no; therefore, I will no longer ask for anything. It is not enough to be the change you wish to see in the world because there is too much change that needs to happen and not I, nor anyone, can save the world. But we can change the world together, collectively, if we demand it.

-- Never show up with problems, show up with solutions. It is not enough to say, “this program is not inclusive to low-income communities,” but rather, “this program is not inclusive to low-income communities, and this is how we are going to fix it, here are our options, and here are some ideas.” Show up with solutions, because advocacy without action just amounts to complaints.

-- Celebrate yourself every day. Celebrate the big wins, and the small wins. Celebrate the opportunity given and the opportunity that is to come. Celebrate each other. We should always seek to advance and take our lives to the next level, but on your journey getting to where you want to be, remember to appreciate and celebrate where you are now.

Congratulations to the Class of 2021, as well as to the Class of 2020 before us, which includes many graduates who did not get to celebrate their commencements until this year. Our generation shines for countless reasons, which the world will continue to see as we keep moving forward, undeterred by the obstacles ahead.

Toiell Washington graduated from Salem State University in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. This op-ed is adapted from her commencement address delivered during the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education ceremony. Washington is a Boston native and founder of the community organization Black Boston.

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