Conversion is the goal



Welcome (truly, welcome!) each and every one of you —

We’re thrilled that you’re here.

Who are we that are thrilled? What is this School for Cultural and Social Transformation that convenes us? Last year I said, and I still believe, and I’ve been asked to repeat it:

If you take the coolest dance troupe, wed it to a protest, link it to a book club that reads the hippest books, and make it sing with fiery joy—a joy that breaks barriers, confronts institutions, soothes wounds, cracks jokes, dresses rad, and calls things what they are—you have TRANSFORM: the School for Cultural and Social Transformation.  It’s as if galactic performer Beyoncé and political leader Cesar Chavez and race/sex comedian Margaret Cho and trans-disability theorist Eli Clare and indigenous lands activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard with immigration activist Marisa Franco and author Oscar Wilde all got together—and had a brainchild. We are it.

And together we are change.  All of us here are making change, feeling change, wanting some change—all of us gathered for this second convocation for the School for Cultural and Social Transformation. So, I’ll speak to change. But let’s speak to history for a vital moment.

There is something that we say, whenever we gather, and it never gets routine: All of us together stand on native land, mindful of the history that saturates this soil, sacred ground that must always be acknowledged. The traces of native cultures are around us—and we must not just honor them but learn from the power and spirit of traces.

History and change. Let’s talk about change.

Hey, cool graduates, how have you changed? What’s different in you now? What words are in your body What emotions in your brain? Parents and supporters: how have they changed?

A common answer I hear from parents and students in our School is that you have more anger. That you seem more outraged. Let me speak to that—since that could seem … bad … in this time of fervent calls for less division, more civility, stronger norms of kindness.

Strange as it may sound, I say “get mad”; get your anger on; feel a sense of outrage. Things are not ok. We can’t pretend they are. So much of what is happening — just take the widening of financial inequality — the burst of white supremacy — the dangers of migration and incarceration — it’s worthy of our anger. But then what? Where does anger get you?

It is righteous fuel. Let it propel you.

Then, convert it. Convert that energy! Conversion is the goal. Would you memorize that phrase? “Conversion is the goal.” How will you convert what is now inside you? (We human animals run on conversions—and many are strange. Carbohydrates in our bodies become glucose; the labor of our bodies becomes coin; a word you put in me can become pain. These are material transformations.) Conversion is the story, and conversion is the goal. Ours must be an anger that is turning into beauty. That is birthing kindness. That is fierce around the edges.

What will you be crafting from your righteous anger? How can you convert it into structural change?

There’s another phrase I love, spoken by poet Don Revell about the trans-feminist poet Eli Shipley: “Outrage, in perfect calm of mind.” Outrage doesn’t have to undo you; it doesn’t have to unravel your thinking; it doesn’t have to take something from you. Why can I be calm? Because I think outrageous thoughts.

The wily and angry political poet, William Butler Yeats, has taught me so. He gets at the calm that sits beside his anger:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Outrage, in perfect calm of mind. Take it with you. And convert it. Ours must be an anger that is turning into beauty; that is birthing kindness; that is fierce around the edges.

We go with you, you stay with us. Much to convert from the deep heart’s core.

We adore you, class of 2019! Let’s all applaud this happy day.

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