Gender and Women's Studies

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2015 Remarks

Comments at Triota Graduation Brunch

Professor Donna Hughes

May 2, 2015


“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Those are the words of black, lesbian poet Audre Lorde.

At one point in her life, Lorde faced a health crisis–the possibility that she had cancer. She writes: “I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger.”

Cancer seems like a rather depressing subject for a graduation brunch for young women in their twenties with their lives ahead of them. And yet, I recently realized that I am working with three survivors of cancer, all under the age of 30. That in itself is remarkable.

So on this morning when we are supposed to be contemplating your futures, I will recall Lorde’s thoughts about “becoming forcibly and essentially aware of [our] own mortality, and of what [we wish] and [want] for [our lives.]

In her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde discusses the tyrannies of silence. How we are affected by staying silent when we experience something, see something, feel something. In reflection on her life, she said “what I most regretted were my silences.” “Of what had I ever been afraid?”

She continues: “I was going to die, if not sooner, then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you … And, of course, I am afraid … because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation …”

Lorde goes on to write that through her crisis of fear, she realized she was also “a warrior.” “How you are never really a whole person if you remain silence, because there’s always that little piece inside of you than wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out, it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”

I want all of you to have a voice and the practice using it. Don’t wait to be brave enough to speak. If you wait until you are not afraid, you will never speak. However, if you speak, even when you are afraid, you will find yourself changing. You will discover that the more you speak, the less afraid you are.

Many of you were at the Confronting Violence conference at Radcliffe Institute a few weeks ago. There was a discussion about the terms victim and survivor. Flavia Agnes, the lawyer and women’s rights activist from India, pointed out they are not the same thing. Victims go through a process to become survivors. And I can say as someone who researches violence and sexual violence, sadly, all victims don’t become survivors.

This past year, I had the privilege of watching one of our graduates today grow from being a victim to become a survivor. She was stalked by a known predator on campus. For some time, she suffered anxiety and depression. Then she got mad. Mad at the stalker. Mad at the URI administration for not being willing to make her safety and security more important than the stalker’s free access to the campus. And then she transformed her silence and anxiety into speech and action. She spoke about her experience at the Take Back the Night March and then she did an interview with The Cigar, the student newspaper, and she identified herself in the interview for the story that appeared in the paper. She transformed herself from being a victim into being a survivor.


I want to tell you a personal story. When I was 12 years old, the immortal spirit of Harriet Tubman slipped from between the covers of a book and changed my life. While reading Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, Ann Petry’s biography of Tubman’s heroic life, I was so overcome I had to put the book down between pages. Up to that point in my life, I don’t recall reading anything more exciting than books from the Dick and Jane (1) genre.

The historical figures in biographies for young readers seemed lifeless, inaccessible, and of course, all male. While reading about Tubman, her escape from slavery, and her work to guide others out of slavery into freedom, I repeatedly said to myself: “She was a real person. She really did these amazing and heroic things–and she was a woman.” Up to that point in my life, all the heroes I had been introduced to at school were men. I was impressed that she was a woman and did more brave things than anyone I’ve ever read about.

Tubman and her activism for freedom inspired the direction of my life in many ways. The first thing her story did was send me flying back to the library in search of other books about real heroes, their struggles and triumphs. She set me on a lifelong course of reading–as soon one book is closed, I open another.

It’s hard to pinpoint all the factors that shape our lives and work. I can’t say it was reading about Tubman’s life alone, but at some point, the idea of opposing violence and exploitation and working for freedom and dignity caught hold of me. I gave up the study of genetics (2) and women, gender and science, to pursue the study of sexual exploitation. Ever since then, I have worked to end violence against women and, in particular, the sexual exploitation, of women and girls. But it took me over 30 years to make that decision.

The advice I’m giving you today is follow your passion. What is calling to you? What engages you? Don’t be afraid to change directions.

Today, part of our ceremony is to congratulate the Excellence Award winners and President Award winners. Out of 18 graduates, we have 6 award winners.

  • Kelsey Lever (Winner of the Student Diversity Excellence Award (for WOWW) 2015)
  • *Christine O’Connell 3.87 (Theatre University Excellence Award)
  • Tory Kern 3.92 (GWS University Academic Excellence Award)
  • Kristin Pollard 3.84 (Sociology University Academic Excellence Award)

You are brilliant. All those As!

  • Rachel Dunham & Lucy Tillman, URI Excellence Award for Undergraduate Research in the Social Sciences, Arts, & Humanities

Rachel and Lucy, along with Faith Skodmin, undertook a challenging project to study all the cases of human trafficking in Rhode Island. No one had done it before. And the project was so big, it required a team effort. Their achievement so impressed the URI Research Council that they broke with tradition and gave the award to a team. Until now, they had only given the award to individuals. Another thing, Faith had already graduated. That broke another rule. When I nominated all three of them, I told them that their chance of winning was not good because their team effort was so unconventional. Yet, they said they wanted to be nominated as a team or not at all. They stuck together and they won.

One last thing. Earlier I was admiring all the As of our Excellence winners. However I have a confession to make. I was not a straight A student. I got a lot of Bs when I was an undergraduate, because I hated memorization. Once I understood the concept, I lost interest in memorizing the details, and so I’d get a B on the exam instead of an A. It shouldn’t surprise those of you who’ve taken my courses that I don’t require memorization, but you do need to understand the concepts.

My advice to the B students here: You may not have found your passion yet. There’s something that you will be brilliant at. Keep looking. It’s out there waiting for you.

So, another huge congratulations to all of you; and best wishes for the future.


(1) For anyone born later than the 1960s, Dick and Jane books were readers used to teach students to read from the 1930s to the 1970s. They were based on white child characters, Dick and Jane, who led restricted lives with simple interactions with Puff, the cat, and Spot, the dog, baby sister, Sally, and Mother and Father.

(2) I have a PhD in genetics

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