‘Empathy is our superpower’: Smith College graduates 685

  • Smith College graduate Natalie Bourdon smiles as her sister, Abby Bourdon, takes her picture before commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Smith College faculty walk past graduates in the procession during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kristen Williams, front left, talks to Lindsey Winters before commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. They are Ada Comstock Scholars. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band perform in the procession during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduates pass the audience in the procession during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band perform in the procession during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduate Allison Erena sports a gauntlet and holds another during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduate Brianna Barrett, front, greets other graduates as they pass in the procession during commencement, Sunday, at the Smith College Quadrangle. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduates Bailey Southgate, from left, Priya Swyden and Leslie Abraham watch live video of other graduates in the procession during commencement, Sunday, at the Smith College Quadrangle. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Matilda Rose Cantwell, who is the director of religious and spiritual life and the chaplain of Smith College, delivers the invocation during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney calls on Aminata Khan to give the senior class address during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Head Marshall Joseph McVeigh, a professor of German studies, taps his mace on the floor of the stage to call the Smith College commencement to order, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. President Kathleen McCartney stands beside him. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduate Aminata Khan delivers the senior class address during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduate Aminata Khan walks to the stage to give the senior class address during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College graduates walk in the procession during commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019 at the Smith College Quadrangle. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 5/19/2019 11:47:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — At Smith’s 141st commencement, the theme of change — past, present and future — took center stage.

“Women have made changes to society,” commencement speaker Ai-jen Poo said to the audience.

Degrees were presented to 685 graduates, including 623 undergraduates. The class speaker was senior class president Aminata Khan, whose Gambian family attended the commencement.

Poo is a labor organizer and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for dignity and fairness for domestic workers. She is also the co-director of Caring Across Generations, a campaign to shift policy and perceptions on how society views and treats domestic workers. In 2014, Poo was a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Like many commencement speakers, Poo urged graduates to change the world. But first, she asked them to think about what that means.

In recent history, women have changed cultural norms, but the dominant beliefs that underlie cultural norms haven’t shifted, Poo said.

“We won more opportunity in a context set by men. But we never changed the context itself,” Poo said.

Context like hierarchies, which are present in different areas of society, Poo said.

To think of a world outside of hierarchies, Poo quoted Gloria Steinem, a 1956 Smith graduate and famed women’s activist, who said, “Imagine we are linked, not ranked.”

Poo told graduates to think about how change can benefit all members of society.

“My question for all of us is, do you want to change things or run them?” Poo said.

Poo made the distinction between being in charge of traditional positions of power in society and altering what positions in our society have power, in order to fit the needs of women and others who are marginalized in society.

“We don’t want to run things for the sake of running them. We want to run them because we’re going to do things differently,” Poo said.

Poo reminded graduates that the history of the nation includes colonization, slavery, and waves of migration by different ethnic groups, which have been the basis of some injustices felt today. Poo said that the message of a united country is both fraught and remarkable.

“The idea that we are both many and one is both the source of so much pain and conflict and precisely what makes us so unique and extraordinary as a nation,” Poo said.

Poo told graduates that in her experience, empathy is the essential ingredient to making change and moving forward.

As an organizer, Poo said that embracing empathy and vulnerability is a message that has allowed her to connect with women who want to be both powerful and human.

“Empathy is our superpower,” Poo said.

First-generation students

Poo’s messages of linking, not ranking, resonated with some first-generation students of color on campus.

Ashley Aviles, 22 of Los Angeles, was the first undergraduate to cross Sunday’s stage.

“I’ve been waiting all semester for this,” Aviles said.

Aviles, who graduated with degrees in studio art and Spanish, hopes to use both of her majors in her next step, although that isn’t clearly defined yet.

What is clear to her, Aviles said, is that she wants to work in her Latino community, which has been a source of knowledge for her.

“I need to give back to my community,” Aviles said. “I want to give that (knowledge) to someone else.”

For Diandra Dillon, 21, of Los Angeles, Poo’s message of redesigning power resonated with her.

At Smith, Dillon studied environmental science and policy due to her interests in environmental and food justice. This summer, Dillon will move to Geneva, Switzerland, to begin a master’s degree studying international history to focus on power, politics, geography and environmental science.

But for now, Dillon said, she’s going to live in the moment.

Sunday’s graduation “kind of snuck up on me,” Dillion said. “I’m proud that my parents are going to see me graduate.”




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