We are honored to showcase the inspiring words of Sheryl Davis, USF alum, McCarthy Center Board Member and Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She was recently conferred an Honorary Doctorate by USF and spoke on the need to share our gifts, through courage, community and creativity
I wrestled with what to say to such a diverse group of graduates who have committed themselves to learning and academic achievement. As I struggled with what to say, I remembered something I read in the Book – Choose Wonder Over Worry – the author challenges the reader to live without regret – she encourages us all to share our gifts – she says do not die with your gifts still inside you.
In the poem Still I Rise, Maya Angelou writes – Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Are we not bearing the gifts of our ancestors? Are we not benefitting from the seeds they planted in us and the communities we come from? Sharing their stories, singing their songs, building on their rich history and culture? Many of us are living lives beyond what our ancestors ever dreamed or even imagined.
There are a few things you will need to share your gifts – courage, community and creativity.
The courage to be true to yourself – your whole self. It becomes really easy to rely on degrees and learnings, but it is important to mix the academic with lived experiences, to blend your gifts and talents with the knowledge you have gained.
Celebrate your culture. I grew up in the Baptist church, my stepfather was a pastor. Everything in my life has been a gospel song or a sermon. Those songs and sermons, were more than a spiritual or religious journey, they are my culture, they sustained my family and my people, but I was afraid to share those pieces of my life, to be true to me and my cultural experiences, those experiences are the gifts that taught me patience, history and resilience.
I didn’t want to tell people about my church experiences – I felt they wouldn’t understand or feared they would judge me. But those experiences taught me to sit and be still/ be quiet for long periods of time and taught me gratefulness. I could not stand peppermint candy, but on Sundays I was so happy and grateful for what Chance the Rapper calls Sunday candy. That candy was usually peppermint or butterscotch, sitting in the bottom of some sweet grandmother’s purse who had the foresight to pack it for the long service and fidgety bodies. Let me tell you something, that candy looked like it had been in someone’s mouth and put back in the wrapper. Back in those days people carried bottles of perfume in their purse and the candy usually tasted like perfume and was covered in lint, but by about 12:00pm on Sunday it was the best thing I had eaten all day.
The mothers in the church were committed to making the world better not just on Sundays, but for the generations to come, the candy represented more than Sunday morning. It represented being prepared for struggles and hardships and staying hopeful through the hard times. When hard times or challenging moments happened, They would sing a song – Have you any rivers that seem uncrossable, have you any mountains you can’t tunnel through, God specializes in things that are so impossible and he will do what no other power holy ghost power can do. As a child I was embarrassed when my grandmother broke out in song or laughed hysterically when she sang – I have telephone in my bosom. But today, when I face a challenging moment, those songs give me courage.
I can remember learning poems for Black History programs in church, I learned about my culture and history in ways I didn’t in school. Those lessons and poems had a lasting impact on me. As I grew older, I realized I could speak in public or share a song, because of those moments in church, without those experiences I never would have shared those gifts.
Church was more than a learning place it was my community and culturally it represents a place of supporters, encouragers and believers. My community shared with me and I now need to share with the community. We need to share our gifts with community, we need to recognize that community is a gift. Community is family, church, neighbors, those people who can see the gifts in you, you don’t see in yourself. Surround yourself with people who see you and encourage you to be your best.
A nurse interviewed ill patients and found a common regret is not staying in touch with friends.
Be in and build community. Learn from others and admit you don’t know it all – allow yourself to benefit from diverse ideas and points of view.
Don’t be afraid to express your feelings – be in the company of people who won’t belittle how you feel.
Rethink what it means to be an expert or smart. My grandmother with her limited formal education was probably one of the smartest people I knew. I probably make more in a year than she made in a lifetime, but her life was rich with people and love.
One summer visiting my grandmother, a possum came up through the toilet, I was afraid to use the bathroom all summer, thank God my grandmother had friends whose house I could go to and use their restroom.
I remember my mother. Not knowing anything about California, a college dropout, determined to provide for herself and her child, moving from Texas, starting a new job in a new place. But her Texas community saw gifts in her and supported her move – they knew she’d be okay. Building a new community, that community was a gift and helped me discover my gifts and let me share them with them.
I remember my dad, the summer I graduated planting new seeds of knowledge that would become important gifts in my future. Don’t have to be courageous like MLK or have an army of boycotters.
Harriet Tubman used her community, faith and creativity to exercise her courage.
Be creative- not just arts and crafts but in your thinking.
I was a kindergarten teacher for a long time, one of the books I continue to use from those days is a book called Honey I love by Eloise Greenfield. In that book there is a poem called Harriet Tubman. This poem chronicles not only the courage of Harriet Tubman but also her creativity.
Using the gifts that her ancestors gave: of song, astronomy, drama. Using songs like – meeting tonight, meeting tonight or this train is bound for glory, or get on board little children. Learning the stars and the land to guide people to freedom.
Then I am reminded of my ancestors, the generations before me and how they fought not just for their families, but for the community. I remember my grandmother. Who sacrificed so much for her children and her community.
What will you leave for the generations to come? What gifts will you leave behind? How will you leave the world a better place? How will you share your gifts? Make a commitment to share your gifts and not keep them inside. Learn from everything good and bad that brought you to where you are today.
Be courageous, have the courage to love, to stand against hate, courage to fail, celebrate your culture and be true to you.