Claire Kalala : Valedictory Address 2013

Claire Kalala '13 (Multidisciplinary Fine Arts)

135th Commencement
May 16, 2013
Valedictory Address by Claire Kalala '13 (Multidisciplinary Fine Arts)

Class of 2013 – congratulations!! You made it! I don’t know about you, but a few weeks ago I wasn’t so sure.

A few weeks ago today I, like many of you, was consumed with my thesis work, trying to finish my last minute projects and papers, making last minute preparations for graduation. And I was also presented with the task of writing this speech. As I sat down to write, I attempted to pin point the most important, profound thing I could say to my fellow graduates, our professors and mentors; to our parents and friends.

I remember struggling, as I am sure we all have at some point, to put it down on paper.
My mind drifted off and I was met with: “What are you?”

It’s a terrible question that I remember being first asked at 6 years old on the playground of my Washington, D.C., elementary school. Confused at how to answer, my puzzled expression prompted clarification: “I’m askin, is you black or white”


To this day the question has haunted me, seeped up through the cracks of my travels and exploration, of my small discoveries and creative expression. Followed me here to Philadelphia and it has required me to ask it of myself. “What are you?” Really think about this, “WHAT. ARE. YOU.” Not who, but what. How does one answer that?! It seems to me that if you are curious about one’s ethnicity or their heritage, or where their passion stems from, than you might just simply ask that. You might ask WHO instead of what.

Then one afternoon at 30th Street Station, the all too familiar encounter happened and I changed my answer. Instead of spelling out my family history to explain how and why I look like this, I answered with “I am a storyteller, what are you?” The woman who’d approached me with an innocent curiosity seemed perplexed and walked away. There was something so fantastic about that moment, not because I had maybe been a little too sassy for so early in the day, but because I had responded with words and an answer that I believe can be applied to each and everyone of us sitting here today.

We are all storytellers in our own right, and if not with words then with images, or sound, or movement, or materials, or color, or most likely a complex combination of them all. We have spent the last four years both together and alone, learning and refining the necessary skills to develop the most creative solutions to the problems set before us. As we have navigated the time and place that we have shared, we learned to become better at communicating both our observations and the inevitable questions that follow.

If there is one thing I would say to you, my peers, those voices and those faces that have been markers of our collective experience here at the University of the Arts, it is that above all else I am so incredibly inspired by your ability to tell stories. To have been invited into your work to witness all of the places that you have been, the people that you have met, the iterations of the beautiful, the dark and the uncanny.

These memories are important because they are yours and because you chose to share them. As I look out into this sea of faces, some I can recognize and some that I cannot, I wish to ask of you to never stop telling your stories. And maybe more importantly, as we have done in our classrooms and at our performances and exhibitions: never forget to listen. I was once told by a stranger that there is meaning in the space between elements, the moments in between our monologues, marks and musical sequences. Our stories can only be made more powerful when we remember to pause and to listen.

Your voice is brilliant, but our voices? Our voices together? That is not WHAT but WHO we are and that I am sure of.