Nikema Williams

Tennessee State University Commencement Address - Nov. 20, 2021

Nikema Williams
November 20, 2021— Nashville, Tennessee
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Thank you so much, Sydnee.

Good morning y'all. [pauses to wait for response]

Good morning! It's graduation day! Everybody should be excited! [cheers and applause]

That's a lot better. Y'all, I'm southern, so I expect a little call and response when I say something.

President Glenda Glover, Dr. Deborah Cole and the entire Board of Trustees and to the administration, faculty, and staff—thank you. Thank you for having me today. What an honor to share a few encouraging words with the country's newest class of HBCU graduates ready to change the world.

To the parents, family, and friends that are here physically, virtually, and in spirit—thank you for the support and love that you've poured in today's graduates. Today is your day as well and I know that you're all celebrating.

And finally to the Tennessee State University class of 2021—thank you for welcoming me on your most special day. Congratulations—y'all did it. [applause and cheers]

Y'all, the world when you entered college looks nothing like the world today. Your campus experience turned to virtual learning then back again, just in time for you to see this day, and you made it. Today you turned the page to a new and beautiful chapter in a story that is yet unwritten.

And though you may be a little worried about what comes tomorrow, I just want you to pause. Just take a second. Reflect on today. Tomorrow will come and you'll conquer it just like you've conquered the last chapter. So savor this moment today.

And if you'll indulge me for a moment, I have to send a little extra love to my sorors of Alpha Kappa Alpha who are graduating today, because I know that the ladies of AKA always see it through. Congratulations, sorors.

I’m so happy to be here today celebrating with you all, and I was kind of thinking that I might claim that I’m an honorary member of the class of 2021 for TSU because somebody mistook me for a student in the back and I was like, “No, I’m the congresswoman!” so I’m making myself an honorary member of your class so that way you can say you had a member of Congress in your graduating class.

And as you continue to follow your dreams, I’m going to be watching everything that you do because who knows I might be saying that a U.S president was sitting in the audience today, that the person who cured cancer was sitting in the audience today, that the next president of Tennessee State University was sitting in the audience today.

You just never know, because we've more than proven that HBCUs prepare us for the real world. Just like Talladega College prepared me for Congress and Howard University prepared Kamala Harris for the vice presidency.

And even though it's my graduation, too, I'll still give y'all a little gift—well kind of, because I already did it. I hear that Tennessee State University under the leadership of Dr. Glover used the federal COVID relief funds from Congress and paid off some student debt and student account balances. [cheers and applause] That's my love language—paying off my balances.

But that's the best gift that I have for you for now. I won't be able to pay any student loans like you've been hearing about some commencement speakers who have been paying all of the loans for your school, because y'all, let me be honest, I’m still paying off my own student loans because it wasn't that long ago that I was sitting where you are.

But I can make you a promise—as a member of Congress, I won't stop fighting to cancel student debt, debt that is disproportionately held by black borrowers in this country and it continues to perpetuate the racial wealth gap. And remember what I said—I’m a lady of Alpha Kappa Alpha and we always see it through.

So while we're on the subject of promises, as a third-generation HBCU alum know that I’ll always fight for funding for our beloved HBCUs.

You may have heard that just yesterday the House of Representatives included an additional 10 billion dollars for HBCUs in the bill Build Back Better Act. Y'all, that's the largest single investment in HBCUs ever from Congress. [applause]

But don't think that it just happened by happenstance. It's a victory that took a lot of advocacy.

So what I need you to do now is thank your president, Dr. Glenda Glover, who was right there with us front and center. If she wasn't calling me or the vice president, she was making sure that other HBCU presidents were advocating for this funding, fighting for the resources to keep your school thriving so that we can create the next generation of HBCU graduates ready to change the world.

Thank you, Dr. Glover.

Seeing you all today reminds me of the days not long ago when I walked in your shoes, trying to determine what was next. Today I’m a proud member of the United States Congress; the first Black woman to chair the Democratic Party of Georgia; a mom to my very energetic first grader, my Carter Cakes; a wife to my husband, Leslie; and a leader to many.

Y'all, none of it came easy. It took time, persistence, and a commitment to charting my own path, out loud and on purpose.

You see, we're often faced with a choice—do we take the path that someone else set for us or do we follow the dream in our own hearts? Maybe you come from a family of educators or maybe you're looking to become the first family architect.

You see, in my case, when I got to Talladega College I was on the fast track to being a medical doctor because that's what my family wanted for me. That was their dream. I was raised by my grandparents in rural Alabama and y'all, we didn't have much. I grew up in a home with no indoor plumbing and no running water. So my grandparents put everything they had into me. So I knew that I couldn't disappoint them. So I majored in biology and while the coursework was easy, it wasn't my passion. Politics kept calling me.

I got to campus and I ran my first campaign, a campaign to be Miss Freshman. And y'all I don't like losing so I won. I was Miss Freshman at Talladega College. And over the next four years, if there was an election that I could be a part of, I was, because I had found my passion.

So the hustle and the grit, it didn't discourage me because I found a fire in my belly that the biology classes just didn't give me. Sorry, my professors, who were very gracious guiding me through that.

The popular saying goes, find a job that you love and you'll never work a day in your life. Well, I’m here to kind of break that myth and tell you that that's not quite it. Find a job that you love and you'll probably work harder than you ever have in your life because you'll find peace in your purpose.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it knowing your why because when you focus on your why— your purpose, your calling—you'll never be deterred and you'll always be able to tune out the noise and the naysayers and focus on your mission.

After I graduated from Talladega College with a degree in biology, I could have gone to medical school. I was very close, but I realized that being the first doctor in my family was everybody else's dream for me but not my own. Politics was my calling and I had to live out loud and on purpose.

So I packed up my little Honda Accord. I left Alabama and I drove to Atlanta. Y'all, I didn't know I soul when I got there. Didn't know what I was gonna do because the rent was a little higher than it was in Alabama. So I worked around the clock. I had three jobs at one point.

And I had to set out to find my new tribe. I picked up the latest edition of Who's Who in Black Atlanta and I started to attend every function, every night, to meet people and learn the city.

So shout out to all of my little social butterflies in the audience who've been struggling during COVID, the ones who earn perfect attendance for all the functions. I’m a social person, too, y'all and it pays off.

I learned an early lesson—make your friends before you need them. Your friends of today will be your co-creators and supporters as your journey continues. And you gotta show up for them. People never forget when you show up.

I could write an entire speech about my mentor, my friend, and my predecessor, Congressman John Lewis. [applause] One of the things that I admired most about Congressman Lewis is how he was always present for the moments that mattered. Mr. Lewis supported me in my very first run for the Georgia state senate just three years ago, and when I was sworn into office it meant the world to me that he flew from D.C. to Atlanta and right back to D.C. the very same evening just to show up and watch me take the oath of office.

Your village here and the village that you build along the way are the people that you'll change the world with. And you might have heard a thousand times that you're the future of this country, that you'll change the world soon.

But I want to even challenge that a little bit today, because you're changing the world right now. Your activism awakened a new movement for racial justice in this country. You're uplifting the voices and identities that for far too long have gone unheard and unseen. You're pushing this country towards progress and we're seeing it through an emerging leadership that truly represents all of us.

And yeah, we saw what happened yesterday, and it reminds us that we still have progress to make. Y'all, change takes time, but you've already proven that you're ready to do that. You're ready to put in the work because you're sitting here right now, leading from right where you are.

We need voices in the conversation. So today I want to challenge you to take the lessons that you've learned here on campus and use them to help you follow your passions, out loud and on purpose, a concept that resonates very deeply with me in my own life. Out loud and on purpose—in other words, be you, authentically you.

When I first got started in politics, I remember someone telling me, “You should put Nikki on your yard signs instead of Nikema,” to hide my real name in the hopes that voters wouldn't notice that they were electing a Black woman to represent them.

Well, those people might have meant well but they were literally asking me to erase my identity and change who I was in order to pursue my goals. And as I told them, I don't have anything to hide. My mama named me Nikema and I’m Nikema. [applause]

And y'all, I’m not gonna run away from my identity because it's the most powerful thing that I have in this world. And I’m able to do this because I followed my passion, and I stand here before you today as Congresswoman Nikema, because that's what they can call me now. [applause]

This world will try to strip your identity but you gotta hold on to it.

Something similar happened to one of your Tennessee State alums, Oprah Winfrey. Early in Oprah's career, she said producers suggested that she take on a new name, Susie. Susie was nice. Susie was approachable. But Susie wasn't the award-winning Oprah Winfrey Show that ran for 29 seasons, so we saw who won that as well.

As a black woman, as a youngish person, and as an activist, y'all, I take this seriously. I’m fully aware that I’m operating in a system that was not created by or for people who look like me. But I’m determined to make this system work for all of us.

And I’ll tell you, when you start walking into the halls of power and you start looking around those rooms, when you don't see a role model for yourself, that means you have to be the role model for the people that are going to come after you.

So I bring my full self into every room that I walk into, because I don't want my staff, my interns, or any single little Nikema out there to ever feel like they have to change their name or change who they are just to make other people comfortable.

So whether it's voicing my opinion to a group of people who don't look like me, bringing my son with me to political events, or literally getting arrested standing up for our democracy, our sacred right to vote, I always live my values out loud and on purpose. [applause]

And I feel that I have an obligation to do this because I know that the people in my district who sent me to Congress are counting on me to bring my values to the table, to bring their values to the table, to deliver the changes that we desperately need, to lead from the context of my lived experiences, to own my differences as strengths. Our differences make us powerful and our values, our stories, and our voices are what make us strong.

So I’ll tell you where we are right now. Y'all, we need your full strength. We need your voices at the table. We need you to bring your whole selves into the room. As we look forward to what our country can and should be, it's going to take diverse voices of all backgrounds to keep fighting for the progress that we need.

And we can't wait, y'all. We're living in the fierce urgency of now. You can't always choose the moment—sometimes the moment chooses you. So as my grandma taught me—if you stay ready, you'll be ready. So I need you to be ready, TSU grads.

Last summer when I was nominated to fill the seat by Congressman Lewis, I wasn't thinking about a congressional campaign. I’d just overwhelmingly been reelected to the state senate and I was happy with that.

But after the unfortunate passing of Mr. Lewis, the Georgia law forced Democrats to nominate who should replace his name on the November ballot in just a few short days. Running for the 5th District seat was a dream that I had one day but not that day.

But the moment shows me and everything that I'd done prepared me to answer boldly. I put my name in the running with 132 other candidates and I emerged on top. [applause]

So everything that you've learned has prepared you for this time. Every hour in the library—or not in the library—every moment in the classroom or in front of a computer screen, your work and even your play. You have everything that you need to write the story that you've dreamed of.

And as you write that story, remember that it's not just for yourself. You're creating a better world for all of us and for the people that will come after you.

So I look out into this incredible group of college graduates before me today. I know that you're ready. Whether you've long anticipated this moment, whether you're the first one in your family to have this opportunity to earn a degree—what you share is that countless barriers had to be broken in your family and in our country for us to be here today.

i grew up hearing the stories of my auntie Autherine Lucy, who integrated the University of Alabama, making it possible for countless Black women—including me—to realize my goals of a college education.

Beyond your family, countless strangers have lived, fought, and died so that you can have the opportunities that you have today, so that education that you received on this campus, so that it can be truly available for everyone.

S when you walk across the stage in just a few minutes, you're living your ancestors’ wildest dreams and it makes it all the more important that you recognize the power of your voice.

Every single one of you has made sacrifices to be here and your unique stories and experiences have shaped you along the way.

As you exit this campus and go on to your jobs and careers, to your communities and to the very bright futures ahead of you, it's even more important that you stand in those experiences. Represent your own stories and live out loud and on purpose.

So now I know you're about to get your degree, so you're like, “Why won't she hurry up?” and classes are over, but I have a little homework for you—a little bit.

I want you to think about how you can live out loud and on purpose right from where you are/ Think about your family and your friends, and how your ancestors’ stories have shaped you and built you up to the leader that you are today.

Think about what you've learned on this campus, what you've learned from your professors and your peers, and commit to bringing it with you along the way.

Think about how you can use your story and your own power to connect with others in your community and work with them to create a better world.

Think about how you'll live Tennessee State University's core value and make excellence a habit.

Tennessee State University graduates—you have everything that you need to step into your power to live out loud and on purpose and lead from where you are.

Congratulations, y'all. Now, let's go change the world and make us proud. [applause]

Tennessee State University. “2021 Tennessee State University Fall Commencement.” YouTube video, 2:52:40. Nov. 20, 2021.