Friday, January 26, 2018

Famous Speech Friday: Megan Red Shirt-Shaw's convocation speech

In May 2017, Megan Red Shirt-Shaw became one of the first Native Americans to give a convocation speech at Harvard University, speaking on behalf of her fellow students in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the venue, the speech garnered much attention for its passionate defense of education for all. But Red Shirt-Shaw's take on the topic is a reminder that education doesn't start, end, or remained confined within a school--even a place as prestigious as Harvard.

Red Shirt-Shaw spent her graduate years balancing study time with time as a front-line activist working with the Harvard student group Future Indigenous Educators Resisting Colonial Education (FIERCE) on urgent issues such as the Dakota Pipeline Access movement. Her convocation speech is unusual in that it highlights the way that traditional classrooms and assignments can often be the least important parts of an education. This part of the address, describing her work with a Canadian education program for indigenous girls called Moving the Mountain, is just one of the striking examples of this fact:
That day with faces like mine would remind me in my greatest lesson of the year what resilience is, unlike my own experiences. Almost every person and every system in their life has let them down, and yet they persevere, rising like fire from the ashes. Moving the mountains, unleashed in their ways. I cried in anger for the entire flight back because I knew what I was learning here in the classroom wasn't going to make the world better for them tomorrow.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Take advantage of an historic opportunity. As one of Harvard's first Native American convocation speakers, Red Shirt-Shaw found ways to explain how her background had fueled and influenced her time at the university. The passage about how she carried the voices of her family and other native students with her, from her first day on campus, reminded me of what institutions have to gain from expanding the diversity of their student body. And one of the most popular lines from the speech passed around on social media (see below) was her mother's cherished Lakota phrase: "Weksuye, ciksuye, miksuye." ("I remember, I remember you, remember me.")
  • Reach for poetry, if it's in your grasp. Red Shirt-Shaw, among her many talents, is a gifted writer and editor who founded the online publication Natives in America to highlight the work of young Native writers. I think part of the appeal of her speech is the gorgeous bits of writing in it that verge on the poetic--lines like this one: "We cannot begin to predict in the future what will be difficult, what will feel safe, who will be beautiful to us, and what will make us feel like we've come undone."
  • Keep the conversation going after your speech. There are plenty of ways to make your speech resonate far beyond the time and space occupied by its original listeners. Recording and sharing video, transcriptions, links to materials used in preparing your talk and following up on social media are all great options. I was touched by Red Shirt-Shaw's follow-up on Twitter as the speech gathered more online viewers, listing her hopes the speech's future impact, including the hope to "honor indigenous voices and let's move more of them onto stages everywhere, every day, all the time."
Here's the full video of the speech:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

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