Susan Landrum, VOX’s Executive Director, was asked to be the alumni speaker at North Atlanta High School’s 2017 Visions of the Future ceremony. Here is what she shared with the 2017 graduates.
So, I have a confession to make. I think this is an utterly terrifying proposition. Go back to your high school and stand in front of current grads and their families, former teachers of yours, your OWN family and try to inspire them all. In a gym. On top of that, I suffer from a pretty intense fear of public speaking. This all leads me to wonder, right now, as I stand before you, why I said yes to this…well, truth to be told, my experience at North Atlanta is why because it HAS shaped me.
My four years in these halls, with classmates like Star Brackin and teachers like Ms. Hunter, Dr. Daniel and Coach Yeargin, in this microcosm of Atlanta, a beautiful and complicated city, is forever a part of my story.
I made really good friends here…in fact, my oldest friend in the world, fellow class of 2000 alum, Mary Stuart Hall, is here tonight – still showing up to support me! Thanks, MSH!
Here, I had some hilarious times and some of the most challenging relationships. And within these friendships and connections, I learned that some people have privilege that others don’t – that I have privilege that others don’t – and that’s an unfair and unjust reality. I learned here that life is far richer when you don’t exist in a bubble and you find ways to genuinely connect with people from other backgrounds, races, experiences and neighborhoods. I learned here that it’s our duty to dig in, talk about tough and uncomfortable things and create friendships and community.
Today, 17 years later (and I can say that with a straight face), I work at VOX Teen Communications, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. This unique organization puts teens in the drivers’ seat in everything from creating content to leading as board members. Y’all just ask your incredible classmate Jada Jackson; she can attest that VOX is a really special place.
So, I work with people your age every day and I learn from teens constantly. Let me assure you, so much wisdom is already within you. As you look towards your next steps, know that you’re already holding on to some very important truths. I thought I’d share three of those things tonight, the three things I hold most dear from working alongside y’all.
The first, let’s question every single box we’ve ever been taught. Question the mere fact that you’re told you’re too young or that your opinion doesn’t matter. Question the boxes you’ve been put in or the boxes you want to put others in. What does it mean to be you? On your terms? Thalia, a teen editor at VOX wrote “we had to find the truth so others could find their truth.” I’ve found Questions often lead to more questions but somewhere in there, your own truth will be found and within that, your own freedom.
The second, never stop creating. Create art, create ideas, create moments of joy, create love with solid friendships and relationships. Believe that your voice matters. Your perspective and experiences are valuable. Find a way to tell your story and share it. Cat Boyd, a 19 year-old at VOX would like you to remember, “Your uncensored voice is the purest form of rebellion and creativity. So, use it well.”
The third, find and build community. Find the people that make you laugh, that inspire you to create, that support you in questioning those boxes. Accept love when it comes your way and give it right back. Build a community of folks that listen to your story and want to share theirs. Tyler, a VOX alum wants you to know that “if you have community, you’ll become a better person, you’ll discover joy and you’ll be open to truly helping people.” Get involved in your community in the ways that both challenge and nurture you.
I charge you to hold on to these truths because in the words of writer and activist James Baldwin, “The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”
I will take this quote one step further and say you CANNOT take this world or leave it as you found it.
We are living in a world that requires us to act, to speak up and speak out, to claim our ideas and our opinions.
We are living in a world that requires us to dig deep and get to know ourselves so we can show up for others, so we can operate from a place of kindness and empathy.
We are living in a world that requires us to listen to one another’s stories, to actively wrap our hearts and minds around the experiences of others so we can build a beloved community where all people are seen and loved and valued.
Graduates, go out there and continue to question and create and build.
You’ve got this and we’ve got you. I am honored to have shared this time with you tonight.
May you take your next steps with love and in joy! Thank you!