Amaryst Parks ’18: A Community Ethic [Honors Convo address]
Amaryst Parks ‘18 (Florence, Alabama) and Noah Martin ’18 (Spartanburg, South Carolina) provided the keynote addresses at Centre College’s annual honors convocation on May 1. Remarks from the speakers, who are selected by tallying votes from the senior class, are always a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.
Parks, a social justice major, has served as the president of the Student Activities Council, is a Bonner leader, and chairs the student judiciary. She is also a John C. Young Scholar, Brown Fellow, resident assistant and CentrePeace executive council member. Parks recently received the Newman’s Own Foundation fellowship, and, after graduation, she will be moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to work with The Discovery Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to build equity in education and create a world without prejudice.
A Community Ethic
First, I want to say how incredibly honored I am to be speaking to you now.
I received the email informing me that my peers trusted that I was capable of giving an interesting speech, and I thought “I guess I better make this good.” So, I want to start with my favorite Martin Luther King quote, which perfectly encompasses my topic of the next few moments. “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” As I’ve been lucky enough to spend my past four years as a member of the Centre community, I want to focus on a community ethic that I’ve developed in my time here.
I remember being so excited to be at Centre, and I still have my acceptance letter. I’ve gained so many wonderful friends, and some of those friends have become family. Centre gave me a community that I could never have dreamed of. And for the most part, Centre students are amazing at community. The amount of service that gets done is mind-boggling, the deeply forged friendships, the acts of kindness I see. We’re pretty good at community. But, community is hard work. Like many campuses, Centre sometimes feels like small community circles that revolve around each other like planets in orbit. In the same vicinity, but never touching. Cowan could be superimposed onto Mean Girls . The Phi Taus sit here, football tables are there, the Unfriendly Black Hotties at the joined high tables. “Birds of a feather flock together,” but what happens to a community that merely coexists?
Not only must we coexist, we must move on from our current rhetoric of community. Tolerance isn’t going to cut it. I tolerate onions being in my food. I can’t stand onions. But I tolerate them because I don’t want to make a scene in the restaurant. But between you and me, if I didn’t care about being polite, I’d send the plate back and get a dish without any onions at all. Is that really what we want to advocate for? A community built on tolerance is no community at all. Tolerance shows that you don’t really consider someone to be a part of your community. Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. And acceptance isn’t kumbaya by the Brockman Fire Pit. Acceptance is a process, and that process can be ugly. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like me. But the difference between acceptance and tolerance is acceptance is saying “Onions are okay. They’re good plants. I like their layers. And other people love their flavor. I’m not going to eat them necessarily, but I respect their value on this Earth.” Acceptance moves us past merely coexisting and into cultivating connections and community.
In my experience, three habits are most important. If Centre is a solar system of community planets that rarely touch, it is important to recognize that each planet has a unique position in the solar system. Similarly, each of us has a social location determined by demographics such as our gender, race, social class, etc. From each of these markers we inherit sets of social roles, rules, power, and privilege (or lack thereof). No two people have the same exact social location, but we are all heavily influenced by our identity and how we see the world. For example, a couple weeks back we had a tornado warning. I was having a conversation with a friend and was talking about how male-dominated Centre is historically and presently. And he asked me how. I was baffled. And if it hadn’t been for the threat of a tornado I would have been out of there. However, I just scoffed, and on further reflection I did not handle the situation with compassion. Our interaction was indicative of a few things. From my perspective, as a woman, I was talking about how structures like Senior Staff are not as representative of my identity. That colors the way I perceive Centre. As a man, my friend, did not look at it quite the same and noted the student gender demographics were nearly equal. We looked at Centre from different social locations.
If the moon blocks the sun during a solar eclipse, everyone would agree that the sun still exists, even if we couldn’t see it. However, our social positionality sometimes eclipses other people’s points of view. And some of us have never experienced, or “seen,” that point of view, making it harder for everyone to agree it exists. The ignorance of privilege acts as a “pattern of (mis)understanding the world that works to maintain systemic oppression and privilege.” Most of us have identities that offer us some privilege. For one, many of us were able to get a higher education. When we enter our communities, we ought to be mindful of the way that privilege, power, and positionality obscures other people’s points of view.
Meanwhile, we should foster a framework of inclusivity. That means not leaving Pluto out of our planets. Because that was messed up. We need to make sure Pluto feels included in the solar system, no matter its size. Part of our awareness has to be that it’s not a great day to be a colonel for everyone. Not everyday, at least. Some of us get called the n-word on our way from class or at frat parties. Some of us face microaggressions about our hijabs or our faith or why we eat what we eat. Some of us have to worry about how we dress, the way we wear our hair, the volume of our voice. That’s not specific to Centre in any way, but, as a community, we can try to eliminate the in equality our peers face. A kind word, researching how to be an ally, not using exclusive or hurtful language. Knowing that we are all going to mess up (I know I have). But I am trying to get better at messing up, owning up to my mistakes, apologizing, and learning from the experience. Like I said, community is hard work, and sometimes it’s ugly. As the Centre College community, we must understand that diversity and inclusion are two sides of the same coin, but they are distinct. Diversity is the who and the what–having differences in the community. Diversity is not just race, it’s gender, religion, worldview, background–all the identities that make us who we are. Inclusion, is much harder, and involves the how. How are we going to welcome students or community members once we get them to the room? It’s not enough to bring diverse people to our communities, we have to support them. And not just on an individual level. The structure must support all our community members equitably.
Ernest Hemingway said “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” I introduced myself to the Centre College community 4 years ago on a facebook group video with these words: “In Florence, Alabama, born and raised, in a bookstore is where I spent most of my days.” As I pushed send, I remember feeling like my heart was beating at a 1000 beats per minute, kind of like right now. But I was vulnerable and trusted that the Centre community would accept me and all my strangeness. My last point is that community is built on trust and genuine relationships. Imagine if the Centre community had a foundation of trust. How many incidents this year could have gone differently? To return to my earlier example of my friend. If he had been just a classmate and not a friend, I could have taken him asking me how Centre was male-dominated to be invalidating. Or belittling. But because I knew him and we had established rapport, I knew he was asking my opinion and not dismissing it. The conversation very well could have ended there but because of mutual trust and vulnerability, we continued the conversation AND ended on a good note. That’s not always going to happen, but trust makes it not only a more likely option, but a possible one.
Keeping these points in mind, I am advocating for a principle of conditional trust that seeks to understand first and “requires that when we are faced with a claim that we judge to be biased or stereotypical, we trust the person who made the claim is reasonable and well-intentioned, so we engage the person further to understand [their] reasons for making the claim.”
To those who experience privilege in some capacities: When a marginalized or excluded student tells you their experience, one of the worst answers you can give them is “Here? At Centre? Centre’s not that kind of place!” As we discussed, we all have different social locations and experiences. Centre may not be that kind of place for you, but it is that place for them. We have to trust their experience. Recently a group of black students expressed that a sense of compassionate community is not what they feel and that they have unmet needs. This is an important moment for our community to decide what kind of community we’re going to be.
To those who experience marginalization in some capacities: This principle of trust is conditional on your personal and emotional safety. We have allies for a reason, and some of this work has to be on them. And always remember that you are capable of being oppressive and ignorant as well.
To everyone: Our communities collide when we are aware of our privilege and bias, when we are inclusive, when we practice conditional trust. It’s when… a woman I barely knew was trusted me enough to tell me she was homesick and cried to me on a bench outside of Chevans. We’ve been best friends ever since. It’s when a friendship was cemented over a late night conversation. It’s when a study abroad experience in Mexico made friends out of acquaintances. Thank you all for the Krispy Kreme dates, letting me practicing my Spanish, ordering me ubers. When we use this community ethic, our planets collide, and we get to live in the same world, the same community. Building trust is everyone’s job. This is an ethic for us all. Not just white students, or straight students, or administrators. As I’ve said, Community work is hard. But it’s a little easier when trust is involved.
One of my closest mentors told me “Always end with a challenge.” My challenge to you is this: You will be going into communities all over the state, the country, the world . Take this community ethic with you wherever you go and enact it with kindness and compassion. Centre College’s mission is to prepare us all for lives of learning, leadership and service. At the root of this is community. When many of us in the room get our diplomas, the work is not done. The work is never done. So I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from a Paul Farmer commencement address. “Resisting the easy anesthesia that privilege affords is going to be your next big challenge.” Together, let’s realize the community that we say we are–a “community characterized by compassion, understanding, and kindness.” Thank you.
by Amaryst Parks ’18
May 3, 2018