Marlboro College

News Remarks by Claudine Brown

claudine brownMy greetings to the President of Marlboro College, Ellen Lovell, the faculty and staff, the graduating class of 2011, their families and friends. I am honored to join you on this most auspicious occasion.

If life is a journey, today you will end your stay at one stop along the way and head for new destinations. Some of you will be going back to your home communities. Others will be relocating in new cities to do jobs that didn't exist a decade ago. Some of you may have done internships and those organizations want you back; and some of you will start enterprises of your own. Many of you will continue your quest for knowledge and head to graduate school.

Graduations were always anti-climatic for me. They made me nostalgic for the past and just a bit nervous about my future. They reminded me that I was leaving a safe haven and entering new communities that would hopefully welcome, nurture and embrace me. When I declared at the age of nine that I would grow up to be an artist and a lawyer, my family assumed that I would at some point make a choice. Ultimately, I made a series of choices that helped me to shape a life and a career path that I could never have imagined.

I entered undergraduate school with a passion for art, intellectual curiosity, and family values that shaped my interest in community engagement. While my intellectual journey has taken twists and turns, my values have remained constants. My need to support and sustain the work of communities of learners over time has been the thread that has linked all of my work.

For many years when I taught in a graduate program at Bank Street College, I asked each new class of students to develop of a timeline. I provided them with a chart with two columns. In one column, I asked them to list their personal milestones, and in the second they were to list important historical moments in their lives. I had them find their peers and discuss their common experiences. I quickly learned from that exercise that shared experiences make us members of communities whether we know one another or not.

I graduated from Pratt Institute exactly four decades ago and I am still in touch with members of that community. While I honed artistic skills that I still use today, my most influential experiences took place outside of class. For almost an entire school year members of the Black Student's Union protested the lack of black courses. My peers and I participated in the negotiation of ten non-negotiable demands. Many of us also protested the U. S. invasion of Cambodia. Though we refused to attend classes for two years, we had buddy systems and everyone completed their work. Inadvertently, these strikes provided us with an opportunity to engage in self-directed learning.

As a group, we experienced the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We were directly affected by the war in Viet Nam. Men in my class who didn't maintain their grade point averages and those who didn't take enough credits were drafted and many were sent to Viet Nam. Others had recently returned from the war with spiritual and emotional wounds; and a few were conscientious objectors. Fortunately, all of our collective memories were not linked to tragedies. We were together when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and a large contingency of my peers went to Woodstock.

Our parents thought that we were extremists. We had too much hair. Our clothes were garish. We played our music too loud and we were righteously indignant about almost everything. We thought that we were mellow. They thought that we were high. They wanted us to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and dentists. We wanted to be artists, civil rights workers, and urban gardeners. They worried that we might never get jobs that paid a living wage so they said, "if you want to be an artist, minor in art education; if you care about civil rights, become a lawyer, and if you believe it's important to garden in the city, become a landscape architect." We believed that they were out of touch. They wanted us to be corporate-to join the establishment. We wanted to work for, and with the people.

Many of us did work for, and with the people and we quickly learned that our passions and energy were not enough. We worked for non-profit organizations that were under-financed and overwhelmed by constituents with great need. These organizations were often run by leaders whose models for social change had worked in the past, but were no longer as successful. We aggressively declared that new tools and strategies needed to be employed if we were going to make change. We believed that these thirty and forty year-olds were old and out of touch. They believed that we were young, impulsive, not very nuanced in our thinking and inexperienced.

We also discovered that those who fought against racism could be sexist and that feminist could sometimes be homophobic. The world needed changing on many more levels than we had contemplated. More often than not, the work was stressful and we were challenged to acquire new skills as we encountered peers on either side of the issues who were quite simply, much better prepared.

We went back to school. We got advanced degrees in education, journalism, law, city planning, cultural anthropology, business, public administration and architecture. When we couldn't successfully bring new skills and strategies to existing organizations, we created new ones. Green Peace was born. Ms. Magazine was launched. We ran innovative federal programs that helped poor people become first-time homeowners. We created tutorial projects for young people who wanted to go to college, and we continued to work long hours for relatively low salaries.

We had children who we sometimes didn't see often enough. They too believed in our causes, but they craved "normal" families like the ones on TV. Who knew that we were creating the new normal?

Several years ago, I attended a conference that featured well-known artists whose children were also artists. An accomplished poet complained when someone mentioned that a 30ish journalist earned $70,000 a year. It was his contention that she hadn't paid her dues and that her salary was excessive. With a straight face she said, "My parents are like you. They have worked for social justice organizations all of their lives. They have no savings and no retirement plan. My generation needs to do well so that we can support your generation."

My peers have chosen paths that have been shaped by education, experience and history. My friend Gail, the writer and lawyer runs an organization that serves prisoners with health issues. Linda, the artist with an MBA founded an art gallery, became an award-winning filmmaker and now runs an urban gardening program. Ted, the lawyer and architect is pursuing his interests in art history; and Ken the cultural anthropologist has directed a museum, run a film festival and is now a president of a library foundation. I studied fashion design, museum education and law. I have worked as an educator and administrator in an art museum. I was a program director at a foundation, and a faculty member in a graduate program in museum studies. Today I am a senior education leader in a major museum complex where I work with educators at science, art and history museums, scientific research centers and a zoo.

Each position provided me with experiences that informed my growth and my career choice. In my current work, I have been charged to look at multi-disciplinary approaches to learning and whole brain-thinking. Last week at the Smithsonian we held a two day conference on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. While there are many who believe that STEM is important to our nation as we strive to be competitive in the global economy, at the Smithsonian we have embraced STEAM. Scientist Robert Root-Bernstein has suggested that: "the Arts provide innovations through analogies, models, skills, structures, techniques, methods, and knowledge. [The] Arts don't just prettify science or make technology more aesthetic; they often make both possible."

At this conference, we invited educators from art, science, history and cultural museums to consider working together on issues of common concern. The participants were people like you. They were multidisciplinary learners who bring their whole selves to each new challenge and we were all enriched by the diversity of their approaches to problem solving. This group included a social scientists working at an astrophysical laboratory, interactive technologists who are also artists, an opera singer who has studied American history and kindergarten teachers working at the National Air and Space Museum.

I am a truly blessed person who has worked throughout my life on projects that have captured my imagination, challenged my intellect and reaffirmed my values. I have worked with smart people, crazy people, brave and defiant people, insecure people who were willing to put aside their fears for the benefit of others, shy people who chose to assert themselves when they were most needed and risk-taking young people who have grown into wise leaders; and I learned from them all.

This work life that has been so very fulfilling for me, did not come about because I had an orderly plan. It has been about leaving my comfort zone and embracing discomfort-taking risk and embracing change. It has been about teaching and learning.

So what have I learned?

Do work that you love-
Work can and should be the play of adults. When we have a passion for what we do, the hours speed by. We don't ask ourselves why we are doing this work; we simply can't imagine a different or better life. The work flows and we are open to new ways to grow and deepen what we know.

Know that we can be all that we want to be-
We should not indulge in language of limitation. Many of us will work in brand new fields or we will help rethink existing ones. Our unique perspectives on the world and our singular approaches to problem solving can make each of us a significant contributor in whatever field we embrace.

Embrace change. It will happen with or without you-
I ask myself daily, "am I capable of learning something new?" Can I afford to stop learning and be left behind? Who are the great teachers who can support my informal learning? And of the many things that I can learn, which skills will be most useful for me?
"All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change." Octavia Butler

Acknowledge that it is highly likely that you will have more than one great idea-
Give time and attention to your dreams and goals. Don't just talk about them, do something about them. Others my achieve similar goals before you, but your interpretation and implementation of that goal will be unique. If you care about it, do something every day to make it real.

Create a personal board of directors-
When we are asked to make difficult decisions, we should seek the advice of those who love us well and know us best. My personal board consists of my two sons, my three closest friends, my lawyer and accountant. They help me to weigh my options and make decisions that are right for me and the people I love.

Learn to reframe-
See obstacles as challenges, and failures as opportunities for course corrections. Think of the position that you didn't get, as the position that wasn't right for you at that moment in time. Describe yourself using affirming language. Others may see you as aggressive. See yourself as tenacious. If you have been described as being overly sensitive, be proud that you are empathetic. Use aspirational language that projects you into a healthy and confident future.

And finally, Give back-
Be clear about what you want to do and be just as clear about who will benefit from your efforts. Our willingness to give time, information, comfort, as well as our unique expertise contributes to the well-being of the many communities that embrace and nurture us. Mentor those who need guidance and inspiration, support those who are faltering, and actively listen to those who need to be heard. And know that today and every day you are valued, loved and needed.

I will end with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.

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About Claudine Brown

Claudine K. Brown is the assistant secretary for education and access for the Smithsonian Institution. She is responsible for defining the Smithsonian's education program and reports directly to Secretary Wayne Clough. Her focus is the Institution-wide plan for educational initiatives, assessment strategies and funding for students in the K-12 range. Ms. Brown oversees two of the Smithsonian's educational organizations-the National Science Resources Center and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies-and coordinates 32 education-based offices in museums and science centers. She also oversees the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian Affiliates, and the Smithsonian Associates.

Ms. Brown had been the director of the arts and culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York since 1995. In 1990, she joined the Smithsonian to serve as director of the National African-American Museum Project. In this position, she coordinated the efforts of advisory committees that considered the role of the Smithsonian in the development of a national museum devoted to exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. She developed the Institution's final study on the project and a program plan for the proposed museum. In 1991, she also became the deputy assistant secretary for the arts and humanities and developed policy for many Smithsonian museums.

As director of the arts and culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she positioned the organization as a leading arts grantmaker that supports institutions that are committed to excellence, diversity and community involvement. During the early years of her tenure at the foundation, she worked to strengthen community-based arts education programs. More recently, she has worked with innovative organizations that have helped creative young people acquire new-media literacy.

From 1977 to 1990, Ms. Brown held several positions at The Brooklyn Museum: museum educator (1977-1982), manager of school and community programs (1982-1984) and assistant director for government and community relations (1985).

In addition to working in the museum and philanthropy communities, she has served for more than 20 years as a faculty advisor and instructor in the Leadership in Museum Education Program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York City, giving her the opportunity to work with some of the pre-eminent museum evaluators, educators and thinkers in the field. Many of the more than 200 students she advised and taught are now directors of education and managers at art, history, natural history, science and children's museums throughout the country.

 

 

 

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