Award-winning poet, author and Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou encouraged a standing-room only crowd in Wake Forest University’s Brendle Recital Hall to take individual responsibility for creating a community of kindness and respect.
Angelou, Reynolds Professor of American Studies, delivered inspiring opening remarks for the Nov. 6 celebration marking the first 30 days of a yearlong, campus-wide “Dignity and Respect Campaign.”
With a mix of song and practical wisdom, Angelou suggested college students have much to offer in fostering a more civil society.
“When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore,” Angelou sang. Then she said, “Each one of you has the possibility, the promise, of being a rainbow in somebody’s cloud.”
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion launched the campaign on Oct. 7 to unite the campus under the core belief that everyone deserves dignity and respect. Wake Forest is among the first to join the national movement, originally established by the Center for Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The campaign promotes inclusion through behavioral and organizational change. Nearly 2,000 members of the greater Wake Forest community have taken the Dignity and Respect pledge.
The Nov. 6 event, which was free and open to the public, also featured Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, and Dr. Edwin G. Wilson, provost emeritus at Wake Forest.
The willingness of three “living legends” to take part in the conversation shows the importance of this topic, said Barbee Oakes, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion and an organizer of the event.
From partisan divisions in Washington to social media incivility, the speakers shared how to focus more on commonalities than differences.
“It seems so simple—and it is. When we treat others simply as we wish to be treated, it is the most revolutionary act a human being can commit,” said Cole, who also served as president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women.
Wilson, who was Dean of the College when Wake Forest made the historic decision to admit its first black student in 1962, had some bipartisan advice for politicians and students alike.
“We need leadership that looks beyond race, beyond sexual orientation, beyond all trappings of our society. We need leaders who look at the hearts and the minds of our people and believe that America is destined for something more than name-calling and criticisms. I think if we can do that, maybe we can rise above our separations and work together for something better than we have known.”
In her closing remarks, Student Government President Jacqueline Sutherland acknowledged Wake Forest’s efforts to promote diversity, inclusion, kindness and respect on campus.
“Looking around this room, regardless of what you look like, what group you identify with, or what ethnic religious or racial box you check on standardized forms, we are all multicultural. Every single one of us runs the risk of being misunderstood, misrepresented and mistreated. That is why we have to treat everybody around us with dignity and respect.”
The primary goal of the ‘Dignity and Respect Campaign’ is to embed the message ‘You Belong Here’ into the very fabric of our campus,” Oakes said. “Dr. Angelou is famous for saying, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’”