Michele Norris: 2019 Ford School Commencement

May 4, 2019 0:36:04
Kaltura Video

Michele Norris, Peabody Award-winning journalist, author, and innovator, delivered the Charge to the Class during the 2019 Ford School Commencement. Read more about Michele Norris here.



And now I'm delighted to
introduce our keynote

commencement speaker
Michele Norris Michel.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Michele is one of America's most foremost
thinkers and writers on issues of identity

and race you may not have seen her speak
in person before but you surely heard

her voice Michele Norris served as the
host of N.P.R.'s All Things Considered for

a decade providing clear rational
context for all the news of the day.

During her career and I agree.

During her career at N.P.R.

Michele founded the Race Card Project an
initiative that encourages people to share

their descriptions of race as a way to
launch meaningful discussion of race and

identity she and her collaborators won
a Peabody Award for their work in 2014

Michelle has previously worked for The
Washington Post The Chicago Tribune and

The L.A. Times she received both Emmy and
Peabody Awards in 2002 for

her coverage of the 911 attacks and

in 2010 Michelle published her 1st
book The Grace of Silence A Memoir

the University of Michigan presented
Michelle Norris with an honorary doctorate

of Humane Letters in 2013
the university's highest honor.

Michel it is my great honor to welcome
you back to the university back to the

University of Michigan back to an arbor
and here to the Ford School thank you


you love you whine and congratulations.

Dean Barr thank you so much for
that wonderful introduction

reachin Weiser It's a pleasure
to be here with you and

it's great to be here at
the University of Michigan

thank you day to the leadership

team the faculty the families the alarms
the distinguished guests but especially

the graduates most especially the
graduates you did this this is your day

thank you it's special for

me to be back here at the University of
Michigan for a couple of reasons also

as you heard I run a project
called The Race Card Project and

the University of Michigan was
the 1st institution to support and

embrace that work so this place
means something special to me and

also because it's in
the blood of our family tree.

My husband Broderick Johnson who's here in
the audience graduated from the University

of Michigan Law School and you will soon
discover that you leave this place but

it doesn't leave you.

Thank you if my household
is any indication

you will spend thousands of dollars over
the course of your career at the end then.

You will continue to get catalogs

you will mysteriously play rooms
in your homes Maize and Blue.

You don't understand why
are drawn to it it just happens.

You will perhaps bear children and you
will buy little twinkly lullaby things for

them that you attach to the crib that
doesn't play the traditional music but

instead plays Hail to the victors.

My daughter heard that before she could
talk and in our household she would saying

ham to the victors because she
didn't quite understand it.

Now all that is fandom and
you might even say fanaticism but

it also represents what happened here
you're part of this big family and

it suggests that people love
this place because it is so

special we travel around the world and
you know people from Michigan they wear

the stuff they told they was
a kid say they represent

they're always wearing that black and
there's one right there raise your hand.

Where I had indoors and that's OK
because it's got black and white.

And we travel all across
the world we were in Vietnam and

someone said you know it's like
you know they talk to each other.

But that means that you're graduating from
somewhere special that you will take this

with you one of the things that I love so
much about graduation is the day is filled

with possibility you got this big runway
ahead of you what will you do with it

a whole lot because you
graduated from the Ford school.

We are relying on you to take the wisdom
to take all that you learned Yes And

the stats again an example of this is a
special place you cheered for statistics.

We hope you will take all of that into
the world and lift us all up you all

made it and I say you all made it because
you didn't get here by yourself you had

a lot of support physically
financially spiritually and

so while we are all here to celebrate you
this is your day it is about you I'm going

to ask you to take just a moment I know
that Dean Barr asked you to applaud for

those who helped get you here but I want
you to actually get some exercise and

stand up for a minute and
look to the right and the left and

give a hearty round of
applause to all of the people

family faculty thank you thank you or
did you thank you


you because it's kind of their day too.

And when you go out wherever you're going
out to celebrate they're going to pick up

the tab for.

The degrees that you received today
are tremendously important but

they also represent something that
carries even more currency knowledge and

curiosity and humanity and how will you
use that knowledge that you have some

absorbed in the pursuit of that degree
how will you harness that knowledge and

become the caretakers of our culture our
politics our economy and our moral compass

our moral compass our national character
how will you reach across cultures and

disciplines and dialects to solve the
world's problems because in a whole lot of

areas the current caretakers have
left behind a bit of a mess.

We are going to need you to solve the
world's problems and light a candle for

the world in the with
the powers of your mind and

the strength of your ideas and
at this time it is common for

people to circulate commencement addresses
that have stood the test of time and I

not long ago came across one from a fellow
named Vernon Jordan who you may know.

And he said something in
a commencement address and

I should be honest here this is
commencement address that was the school

the other school that my husband attended
that he doesn't talk about as much.

And Vernon Jordan said it's been
a decade of trial and tribulation for

America's minorities the promise of
America 2nd reconstruction was ultimately

cut off by war by benign neglect by
national indifference many black people

escape the confines of poverty many
others sink deeper into poverty and

our nation itself has demonstrated
a poverty of spirit and

determination to make ours a land of
equals this was written in 1908 but

it sort of feels like this could
have been written of the moment

when you heard those words doesn't it feel
like it's speaking to us right now today.

This was 1978 it was 10 years
after the Kerner Commission

reported on America's deep racial divide
after the assassination of Dr King

it was a period followed by rioting and
protests I don't have to tell you that

much of that happened right here for
a 2nd time in 1967 and 68 in Detroit

the country we knew then still had much
to do a long way to go as Dr King said to

make good on a promissory note spelled out
clearly in our founding documents that all

men are created legal all men are created
equal and not just the men we need to say

that because the document said all men but
we now know that to mean all people and

we try to practice that all
humans are created equal.

were written for this time feel like they

are of this moment we've seen so much
progress on the economy so much progress

on all fronts technology education and yes
even the narrowing of our racial divide

and the healing of our original sins
in a country that was founded with

a significant birth defect because of
legalized chattel slavery in this country

customs and traditions that automatically
placed women minorities the disabled and

immigrants from a host of countries
Italy China Ireland Slovakia Slovenia at

the back of the line and it wasn't
fair it's just the way it was and

in those times people felt that it
was always the way it would be and

then things changed a lot of things
changed you are a generation

that has grown up with the dividends
of those changes the color line

that once seemed like it was 100 miles
long 100 miles high has seemingly fallen

I've seen that even within my lifetime I'm
not afraid to tell you all I am I was born

in 1961 which meant that they were places
that I could not even enter that I

could not dream to even stand
in it oratory I'm like this and

deliver a commencement address but

change is a surprising thing
the words bias and discrimination and

prejudice have for so many decades been
attached to people of color in America but

change is something that we all experience
and we now know that a lot of people

feel like they are the victims of bias as
well white Americans have been assumed to

have automatic privilege this assumption
still holds true and yet studies show that

a majority a majority of white Americans
say discriminated discrimination against

them exists today and every time I
say this people shake their heads and

say How can that be true but
studies show this survey showed this.

Survey by
the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and

Harvard School of Public Health sorry
to mention that other school found that

more than half of people surveyed 55
percent say they believe there is

a discrimination against
white people in America and

some of you will nod your head in
agreement upon hearing these things and

some will roll back and say whoa wait
a minute how can that be true but

those are the true beliefs for a whole lot
of people that America has become less

hospitable less wont welcoming and less
privilege for some white Americans and

that minorities or people who have only
recently arrived in America get the 1st

crack at jobs get more help from
the government or private institutions and

they feel like they're cutting a line
actual statistics perhaps don't bear that

out but perception is a powerful thing
especially in an era when America feels so

divided and when people so
often listen to news or new sources or

perspectives that come from people or
members or their social or political or

ethnic tribe where so
much of what we hear in my business

actually confirms or
affirms what you already

believe the stories that we tell ourselves
the stories that we hear the tales we

adopt and embrace can confine or define us
they set the template for opportunity or

pressure or oppression for ambition and
contrition for what we accept for

who we accept or tolerate or
celebrate stories

are the currency of my work
reporting fact checking Yes facts do

matter writing reporting and listening and

I want to spend a little bit of time
talking you today today about the skill of

listening because I really do believe it
is a skill right now in America there's so

much emphasis placed on what we say and
how we say it and

where we say it you all have devices in
your pockets that you thankfully silenced.

That allow us to focus on what is said but
I want to talk a little bit about what

it's heard people ask me about my favorite
stories in the 10 years that I hosted

me to talk about presidents and

Oscar winners and people with big
titles that I interviewed and

I will tell you in truth
the stories that I really loved

were really close to the ground they
were stories from everyday people.

Yes I talk to I've interviewed
several presidents and

I'm not saying that they
smell me it's part of the job

we interview movie stars I've
interviewed Nobel laureates I once

interviewed astronauts while they were
traveling in outer space thank to say

thanks to the wonders of modern technology
and I have to say that was really cool.

And that morning I did it
we if you work at N.P.R.

you all have we all have a little studios
in our homes if we have to update and

it's usually in a quiet space in
a closet or in my case it was in

the 3rd floor of what we call the Bird's
Nest and I remember I had to do that

at a really odd hour because of you
know the time difference in space and.

And after I did the interview
I came downstairs and

I was I was smelling myself
I was really proud and

my husband said it's your turn to make
the sandwiches this morning and that this.

Brought me right back down to earth.

But the stories that I
love are are simpler and

almost weird by journalism standards
they're they're stories that you can

do when you do isto a show called
All Things Considered when we endeavor to

consider a lot of things
every day before for.

I did a whole series on the American
porch and what porches do for

us and I actually relied on Michigan for
some of the reporting

I called the dean of Michigan's College
of Architecture and urban planning.

I don't know if you still hear.

He helped me out with that story and help
me understand that porches are uniquely

American phenomenon I did not know that.

But it was the stories of individuals and
how they used their porches that really

moved me the the porches that
helped clean up a neighborhood

in a failing neighborhood in Norfolk they
decided to put porches because women and

would sit on the porches and
they could tell what was going on and

someone was going on in the corner
they could shoot people the way

that people started to become house proud
and they would decorate their porches and

then there was a little bit of competition
She put out geraniums allotment put out

daisies and it changed the neighborhood
and it was something that

they then emulated in cities across the
country porches that created a space for

a gentrifying neighbor a homeowner slowly
get to know the other people in her

community who feared her arrival heritage
thought heralded something ominous having

seen what happened in so many other areas
where yuppies invaded with their little

dogs and their brewpubs and
their co-op ponds porches allowed

that young woman who saved her money to
buy that house in a neighborhood that was

deemed trying transitional gentrifying
that space to get to know the people

who would sit on their porches late
at night to get to know and love and

cherish the older neighbors and working
class families who sat on porches to cool

themselves or play cards or
swap gossip porches worker on ramp

porches that allowed a kid with glasses
that were too big and shoulders that were

always slumped into Nero to hear the words
that encouraged him from the porch

as he passed where women would sweep and
snap green beans and set out jars for

sun tea because the Scotch Irish
immigrants in his coal mining town had to

save every penny they could
I loved interviews and

interactions with every day people.

A style of the hat lady who made special
hats for household seniors on Easter who

housebound seniors on Easter who perhaps
couldn't get to church on Sunday but

she made a hat for them so when they
listened on the radio or watched on T.V.

that they felt that they had their
Sunday go to meeting outfit on

even though they were in their living room
the man who placed an ad in the paper so

he could find a family that would share
Thanksgiving with him he was lonely so

he placed a small ad and every year
he went to a different household

they welcomed him into their home I had
similar encounters with everyday people in

another quirky serious I did this time on
children's books with Jared presents guy

who was a young kid whose
mother was a heroin addict and

was raised by his grandparents and
he used to doodle in class because he was

distracted and one day they brought
in a big deal author into school and

the author was walking up and
down the classroom talking about

the work that he did it he noticed
that juror was drawing and

he drew a cat and he touched Jared
on the shoulder and he said Nice cat

and Jarrett said his heart grew several
sizes bigger and he kept drawing and

he kept drawing and that little bit
of encouragement was just like water

on a desert rose and he says that
was the moment that he decided

to actually try to apply himself in
school similarly children's book

there's a books are really deep they're
written not just for the kids but for

the parents who are sitting at the edge
of the bed at night often reading to them

an author Gary De Schmidt who's
teachers who was he describes how he he

was in his school and I remember I'm old
enough to remember the tracking that went

on in schools where you were in different
groups and his group they were tracked one

track to track 3 I remember in my
school there were the the robins and

the Bluebirds and
the crows they weren't even subtle.

He was in group 3 which would've
in my school been the crows and

he couldn't read and he said that the kids
who are in the top group were destined to

come to a place like this the kids are in
the middle group would probably get

a job in the factory in town and he told
me that the kids in that bottom group

were probably destined to
serve French fries or.

Maybe they'd be lucky to do that he felt
that he had been discarded by the time he

was 8 years old and he said a teacher
walked into his classroom for

some reason she'd taken a liking to him
she heard him cut up in the hallway and

he made her laugh and
she walked into his classroom and

she just put her hand out and
said Come with me and

she took him across the hall and she sat
him out a little desk next to her and

she filled the desk up with Golden Books
to any of you remember Golden Books those

little books and
they were well below his reading level

but he still couldn't read them
because he had been in group 3 and so

she said just keep trying and every day
she would spend a little bit of time with

them a little bit more time little bit
more time and eventually he learned to

read that one woman made a difference
in his life I asked him.

By the way what was his favorite book and
he said the book was the big jump and

if any of you remember that it was part
of a series of the 1st golden books along

with Green Eggs and Ham I bet you remember
that story I love these stories because

they they give listeners a dose of
humanity and they remind us that the basic

human condition needs to be centered in
all that we do policy is not just about.

Statistics and policy politics it's
about changing people's lives and

protecting their health protecting their
dinner dignity honoring their humanity

these all sound like feature stories and
yes they were quirky and

I probably couldn't do them in some of the
other newsrooms that I've worked in but

every single one of those stories hinges
on public or social policy in some way

how we treat the elderly how we treat our
children how we create neighborhoods where

we have people who live in one area and
people who live in another based on F.H.A.

policy it doesn't just
happen through us MOSIS it's

based on policy you filled your brain with
knowledge here but also make sure that you

feel your heart in your work and that you
hold on to that humanity and shaping that

world that you are the world that you are
about to inherit when you leave here and

you make the big jump you are leaving
this campus as both beneficiaries and

and basters of what I like
to call radical curiosity

you are graduating from a school with
a demonstrated hunger for knowledge and

experience and also for
understanding America and

never underestimating America and so I
want to spend what little time I have with

you focusing on a few of the ways that
perhaps you can carry on that tradition of

radical curiosity into your
future life a do a don't and

a dare 1st the dare say we come with
list you had your list I have mine

dare to listen to someone that
you do not agree with this is so

important I'm going to say it again
dare to listen to someone who you do not

agree with and
at this moment in America that person

might be in your family that
person might be in your job.

And it's no surprising it's no
surprise that someone who spent so

much time in radio would try to
get you to focus on listening but

this is really important we are losing
the ability to actively listen and

engage in deep in meaningful conversation
I just learned today that students on this

campus created an organization that
allows for just that coming together and

listening to each other it's important to
listen to the things in the people that

you might otherwise shut out we are living
in a time where there doesn't always

seem to be a common set of facts or when
so many people can see the same thing and

come away with totally different
interpretations Make America Great for

instance to some a campaign slogan to
others an offensive an offense black

lives matter to some a curiosity
don't all lives matter to others

a rejoinder to the all lives matter
because history has shown that black

lives are sometimes in fact
often valued less climate change

an obvious threat to some a political
distraction or distortion to others

I think quite a bit about reaching across
difference because of the work I do with

the Race Card Project I know
that you can not necessarily

reach common ground but
you can use dialogue to create

an effective bridge and
the bridge is important because

if you think about the bridges that you
cross every day in your life what allows

that bridge to remain standing
oppositional force tensile strength.

So I'm here to basically provide
the exclamation point behind

what Dean Barr said today you are strong
because of your differences but

you only realize that strength if you're
reeling to reach across the aisle

if you're really to reach across that
ideological chasm to listen to and

engage with someone that that
you might not agree with

I know I left out a dangling
participle there apologise for that.

Someone that held beliefs
that you might find offensive

someone who holds the lease that
might make you uncomfortable or

even afraid figure out how
you can engage with them

you will be stronger they will
be stronger I promise you that.

To don't quantify success
in terms of numbers that

inclination can start early especially in
a place where you cheer for statistics.

How much candy did you get on Halloween
how many soccer games did your team win

how many badges are on your girl scout
uniform we're conditioned to always sort

of count things and
rank things how many friends or

followers our likes to you have on
social media and admitted if I asked

one of you today you could probably tell
me how many likes you had or how many

followers you have you check you're
nodding your head you check don't you.

And then she unfollowed me what was
that about that's part of our media

universe today with grades and internships
and measures of popularity it continues

into adulthood with salaries and
promotions and the cost of one's home or

the exotic nature of one's
vacation success by the numbers

is all around us the Zagat rating of
the restaurant the size of your dress or

small is preferable an unrealistic for
some of us or your bank account

where large is preferable than
on realistic for some of us.

Numbers can signal and even define success
the zip code the floor where your office

or your home is located the secret signs
that flashed into our heads to rate almost

anyone and anything and sometimes
the way that we automatically apply

the discount when we meet certain kinds of
people or hear certain kinds of accents

but I want the people who now hold these
degrees to hold also the promise in their

caps and gowns and also the promise that
perhaps you will not measure your life

solely in terms of numbers is a 1000000
dollar picture more successful

than the Little League coach who manages
to find time to spend every weekend

with a ragtag team of 10 year olds despite
the fact that he holds down 2 jobs.

Is the working woman who doubt everyone
she comes in contact with more successful

than the woman who choses to be
a stay at home mom and volunteers for

a number of good causes is the investment
banker more successful than the poet who

helps us see the light of the world
is the computer programmer who can

churn out algorithms more successful than
the journalist who pursues the truth

especially the hard troops that help us
understand our world and pursues that work

knowing that they will never get rich
at least as defined by their paycheck

is the business tycoon more successful
than the elementary school teacher or park

ranger or police officer or aid worker who
does famine relief or the person who sits

behind the desk at the senior citizen
center who is memorize the 1st name and

dietary restrictions every of every
single every person who walks through or

rolls through or
is carried through the front door or

the person who clean up this
beautiful room when you leave and

go off to celebrate the answer
is simple if you're

only looking at numbers but it's not so
simple if you're looking for

Excellence in success and excellence and
success are qualified in different ways

success is based on all kinds of
factors some in your control others not

you can be born into success
if you're really fortunate and

if you're only looking at numbers but not
no one is born into excellence even if you

enter the world as a singer with perfect
pitch a pitcher with a golden arm

as a future academic with a mind like ion
Stein you can only achieve excellence

through hard work remember you were told
You need to work hard and you do you

need to possess a mindset based
on discipline self-sacrifice and

a strong ethical compass excellence
may take you to dizzying heights but

also allow all of us to flourish where
we are to bloom where we're planted

to find our own personal best despite our
means or challenges our restrictions or

our relative gifts and the pursuit of Alex
excellence allows us to measure that same

quality and others to see those who are
doing their best even in simple things.

To lift up their work to new heights
the barista who turns out a latte and

turns it into a work of art the landscaper
who transforms a plot of land into an Eden

the swim coach who is known as the pool
God because she can coach even the most

scaredy cat kids to move into the deep
into the pool I had one of those coaches

once they give you the seeds of
courage that will flower into

more adventurous lives I can tell you that
you begin to value excellence in all its

forms the mastery of the complex and the
simple talents that exude that eludes so

many of us how many allegedly Successful
People Do we all know who are not

necessarily excellent are not necessarily
excellent listeners are excellent

at consoling someone in grief or excellent
in providing an atta girl at exactly

the right moment because trust me no
matter how long or flip it privilege to

live on this earth we all need
the occasional note in our lunch box

I wish success for everyone success
is great but my great hope for

the class of 200-1000 is
that you think long and

hard about how you measure success and

that you understand the satisfaction and
the self-confidence the self-worth

that comes from the pursuit of
excellence on one's own terms.

It's living life with a work ethic but
also a worth

ethic so I've shared a dare and a Don't So

in closing I'd like to share something
that I hope you will do do listen

to the little voice in your head
always listen to rule a voice in your

head it's the wisest counsel
that you will receive you know

what I'm talking about sometimes you have
a voice you have a conversation with that

little voice in your head sometimes you do
it silently I bet that you have long and

deep conversations with
them in the shower.

If you're like me I am
eloquent in the shower.

I think of all the things that and another
thing I think of all the things that I

wish I would've could've should've said in
the moment they all come to me when I'm

washing my hair listen to the little voice
in your head because you've heard me use

the word compass several times it is your
compass it will guide you it will help

you find your way and I know that because
of the last story I will share with you.

Which is summed up in a car that I
received at the Race Card Project I

collect stories and 6 word stories about
race and identity and it starts with 6

words and then people give me their back
story of the 6 words that I received from

this gentleman was race is
throwing rocks at kids was handed

to me by an elderly gentleman he was frail
he moved slowly he was quietly fighting

back tears when he gave me the card he
did not want to give me his name but

he gave me his story this isn't North
Carolina it was after a book signing and

he's now this was years ago so I'm I I'm
not even sure he's still on this earth he

was in his seventy's then I hope he is but
he said as a much younger man he was Staci

opposed to integration and when
integration came to North Carolina he and

his friends made clear that they were
against the idea of brown children

going to school with white children by
throwing rocks and bricks and rotting

vegetables that children who were crossing
the color line to enroll in what were

then all white schools in North Carolina
he knows that some of those projectiles

hit their target he knows that and so

he said this now aging man
with broad shoulders and

very thick hands that suggested that
he probably worked with those hands for

a living he said that every time he
goes around his town when he encounters

an African-American man he
immediately looks at their forehead.

He said when he goes to the hardware store
the Piggly Wiggly he looks immediately at

their forehead he's looking at their
forehead for what he's looking for a scar

he said he knows he bloodied someone with
one of those bricks he doesn't know that

person's name he doesn't know how
badly they were hurt he doesn't know

that there was a lot of blood he remembers
it the image is still in his head and

he remembers also that he got a lot of
praise from his friends for making that

direct hit he got a lot of added boys so
as he goes about his errands and

encounters black men who like him
now are older and slower now gray

able to move through a community that once
can buy them a certain sections of town

when he can when he encounters them he
immediately looks to their forehead for

a scar but he's also looking for
something else he's looking for

a chance after all
the years to say I'm sorry

he said I just want to
say I'm sorry to his face

he knew that throwing rocks was
wrong he knew that the hatred for

kids who were not any different from
him except for the color of their skin

did not comport with the lessons that he
learned in Sunday school did not comport

with most of the lessons that he
learned of his own dining room table

there were life lessons about loving the
neighbor except that neighbor was black or

perhaps came from another country
something inside him at that time

told him that trying to injure people were
just trying to get an education wasn't

right was in violation of the human code
of conduct there was a little voice that

said Don't do this but there was larger
voices there were larger voices all around

him loud pushy passionate
voices that encouraged and

indeed implored him to join the crowd and
create a wall of resistance really a wall

of hatred that would uphold what was
then the status quo to keep schools and

libraries in the public parks in
the swimming pools the way that they

had always been cordoned off for
white Americans only.

He didn't listen to that little voice in
his head and 6 decades later he wished

that he had it was a big lesson in
that story listen to that little

voice even when it's drowned out by the
crowd especially when it's drowned out by

the crowd because that voice is your inner
G.P.S. it's honed by your parents and

your elders fine tuned at this fine
institution listen to that voice always be

in touch with that voice allow it to help
guide you on how you use your own voice no

matter how far you travel after graduation
no matter how far your talents and

your dreams and your new skills take
you make sure a piece of this place

never leaves you make sure you
hear your voice in the voices

of your professors here this
intellectual circle this

wonderful spirited community make
sure you always hear that voice.

I know that you

will make America strong I pray
that you will make America.

I trust that you will make America strong

and I am as certain as
the sun will rise tomorrow

that all of you who have graduated
from the Ford school on this day

in May of 2019 will make America solor

and you will do you will do that by
listening to that little voice to

the class of 2019 I honor you
I celebrate you go blue and