Anchored in the Gap

An address delivered at the University of Toronto Scarborough  Fall Convocation on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 in Toronto by Atkinson’s Colette Murphy.

Like most of you, this is my first convocation. I’ve earned two university degrees but I’ve never walked across a stage like this one. Back in 1987, I dreamed about walking the landscape of my textbooks and meeting the people whose lives I studied. Before the ink was dry on my undergraduate diploma, I was en route to Turkey with my boyfriend David, a backpack and a well-worn copy of the Lonely Planet’s Guide to the Middle East.

Ten years later, I earned the right to wear a master’s robe but once again missed my chance to celebrate.  By then, I was too busy finding my way in the world of work – only this time I was traveling with my husband David, a mortgage and no guide book.

Tonight, from this vantage point, I’m reminded how privileged I am and what a privilege it is to have a post-secondary education. Perhaps like you, I’ll never forget the moment I first became aware of my privilege in relation to others – my earned and unearned advantages. The details of the story matter less than the feelings: first, the confusion followed by the shame and anger that comes before the compassion that gives rise to feelings of solidarity.

It was the visceral experience of solidarity that put me on a new path and posed the question: what am I doing with my privilege?

Before long, I found many others on this path who were asking the same question and who had anchored their lives in the vast open space between “what is” and “what could or should be.”

The Atkinson Foundation has been working in this gap for almost 75 years. Our founder Joseph Atkinson did not inherit wealth or social status but he was given an opportunity early in his career to run a fledgling newspaper. Over five decades, he built the Toronto Star into Canada’s largest national daily.

Time and time again, Mr. Atkinson chose the side of working people and used his power to advocate for what everyone needs – decent wages and working conditions, pensions, unemployment insurance, a quality education, and reliable public health and transit systems. He was unwilling to give into the “corrosive cynicism” or “irrelevant idealism” that can dominate public discourse. His example leads us to the places where open-minded, principled and pragmatic people are quietly demonstrating what’s possible – not repeating what’s wrong.

That’s why the Atkinson Foundation invests in Scarborough and is proud to work closely with your principal and chief administrative officer on strategies for more equitable economic growth in the eastern part of the Greater Toronto Area.

You too can take pride in your choice of UTSC as your alma mater. It’s demonstrating how anchor institutions like universities can source goods and services locally to create economic opportunities and pathways for a diverse group of small businesses and residents who currently face challenges and dead ends.

I’m not surprised UTSC is among the first universities in Canada to use its privilege in this way.

After all, the architect who first envisioned your remarkably connected campus chose an appropriate design over brutalism in style. For a long time, your principal has been fighting racism and sexism in sport. Your chancellor, when he’s not conferring degrees, is challenging the stigma and barriers associated with mental illness. And many of you have already made the choice to take a stand with your communities and within your disciplines for the world that “could or should be” – a world that is just and inclusive.

For this reason, I’m here to encourage you wherever you find yourself on this path – at a crossroads or well down the road. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice or lessons to make your journey less arduous or more fun. But I can tell you what keeps me going, and it’s not a preoccupation with problems or issues. It’s my relationships with people and places.

When I was on the UTSC campus last week, I spoke with Nasir Al-Huttam. You know him as the fabulous hot dog vendor who has had the seriously popular stand outside your student centre for ten years. He’s also someone who should be teaching a master class in customer service for business students.

While Nasir served an impressive line of customers – in person and by text message – I had the chance to hear about his long journey from Yemen to Ethiopia to the United States and finally to Canada. We talked about my post-graduation trip to his homeland before exchanging views on Yemeni and Canadian culture.

Almost 30 years ago, David and I were lost in the highlands of Yemen for three days. We had set out on foot from the mountain town of Shibam to At-Tawila – about the same distance from Highland Creek Valley to Queen’s Park, approximately 30 kilometres but without paved roads or bridges.

The ancient terraced hillsides with their steep footpaths were deceiving. We soon figured out that we’d have to go down to go up.

In cultures wired for upward mobility, this would be a counter-intuitive move.  But we knew we had to push hard against the feeling that we were losing ground to gain any ground at all.

Even then, we eventually discovered that there was no way to get to our destination from where we started out. We were lost. We had also wandered off the route sanctioned by government authorities. If not for the kindness and generosity of a farmer, a Sudanese school teacher, a truck driver, and a long string of women, men and children, we would have never found our way back to the city of Sana’a.

Nasir seemed to enjoy the image of two twentysomething Canadians on the loose in the Haraz Mountains and take pride in Yemeni hospitality. When I asked him what he would say to graduates at convocation if he had the chance, he didn’t hesitate. “There will be ups and downs, “ he said, “but just keep going. Don’t give up.”

What I can add from my own experience is: don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. In fact, seize every opportunity to share your stories and to invite others to do the same. There is knowledge to be found in lived experience as well as in books. Say yes to every call to adventure – large and small. It’s the only way to turn this lonely planet into a truly safe planet for your children and mine.

Thankfully, tonight marks the end of an American presidential election season. For too many months, the world has been bombarded by messages laced with fear, mistrust and hatred – messages that we have had to push back against hard with everything we’ve got. We’ve gone down into places I could never have imagined we’d go – where civility simply does not exist – only to fight our way back up to firmer, higher ground.

The contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of democracy have been exposed and laid bear for all of us to examine going forward.

A few words penned by a man of stunning contradictions, Thomas Jefferson, come to mind as I imagine the road ahead. You’ll recall Jefferson was the principal author of the US Declaration of Independence – an inspiring defence of freedom. But at the same time, he was an owner of slaves and one of the most powerful defenders of this abhorrent practice. He said:

“In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

If you’re like me, everyday you’re learning more about the rip currents of these times and excavating the bedrock of principle beneath your feet. Everyday, you’re discerning when to swim as fast as you can and when to stand firm. If not for the formative people and places in your life, you know in your bones that you too would be lost.

For this reason, I have three wishes for you as you head out on your next adventure:

First, I hope your UTSC community will be your rock, your anchor, when the world’s problems are swirling madly around you and demanding a principled response. Hang on to each other – and to the best of what you learned from each other, and throw the rest away.

Second, I hope you will be an anchor for others when the world treats them like problems rather than people.

Third, I hope this is a moment that you will remember when you’re trying to reach a distant destination, when you’re feeling frustrated, lonely and lost, and when you’re ready to give up.

Remember what it feels like to be at the top of the mountain looking down on the winding path after a long, hard but immensely satisfying climb.

Remember how proud you are of yourself.

Remember how inspired we are by your perseverance and your achievements.

Remember how much we love you and how much the world needs you, and walk on.

Thank you and good luck.