Tufts UEP Commencement Speeches 2018: Erica Walker, Alumni Keynote

This is the final post in our series of 2018 Commencement addresses. Click here for Nakia Navarro’s speech, here for Christian Brandt’s speech, and here for our earlier coverage on Erica Walker’s community noise research. 

Hearing and Listening: Notes from a Noise Researcher 

Dear UEP Class of 2018. I am so incredibly honored to speak at your graduation ceremony. That you invited me to share this special day with you is overwhelmingly humbling. So, thank you. I must admit that it feels very good to be back home. My academic foundation was created here, thanks in large part to Dr. Mary Davis, my former advisor. This program challenged everything I believed in, while, at the same time, gave me the space and support to piece together a meaningful future.

I was in your shoes about 6 years ago, nervous but excitingly ready to embark on my “lifelong things” as I like to call that vast place in the world just after graduation. I am sure some of you feel the same way today. I know the questions are swirling about in your head: Did I take all the right courses? Do I know enough? Am I taking the right job? Am I going to get a job? Am I too old for this? Can I handle a 9 to 5—or in my case, can I go on to get another degree? In other words, am I on the right path?

There are no cut and dry answers to those questions. I will say to you what the strongest women in my life have consistently told me—you will figure it out. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that time but it was exactly true. While I don’t have it all figured out yet, when people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I am a noise researcher, despite the eyebrow raises and side-eyes, it STILL feels right to me. And, today, I am going to encourage you to be what feels right. And it all begins, in my opinion, with understanding the difference between hearing and listening.

I grew up, in poverty, in a small town in Mississippi. It was the kind of poverty that got into your bones and ate away at you if sat too long in it. If you were lucky, you were invisible but in the eyes of those with little empathy and great power, you were always unworthy. Because your life had no value, your future was of very little consequence. As you can imagine, I heard my fair share of racist, classist, sexist, and, because I am a dark and kinky haired female, colorist comments. I was a welfare kid. I was on food stamps. I was the N-word. I was stupid. Name the insult, I heard it. But the beauty of this story is that I heard these judgements placed on me but did not listen to them.

Observation #1. Hearing—unless we are impaired—is something we do by default. It is a physiological response processed by the auditory system. We could argue that it is a passive state. The end products are facts and fictions.

Observation #2. Listening, on the other hand, requires us to be plugged in to ourselves. It is a gut algorithm and a filtering system. You have to present and engaged, confident and aware, egoless and humble. It is wholly active and requires intuition. The end products is always a certain kind of freedom.

Tip #1. Listen more than you hear.

Bad statements about who I was didn’t stop in childhood. On my journey to becoming a noise researcher, my ideas were trashed constantly. A statement by someone who was on my research team: “It’s a shame that you came all this way to be a community organizer instead of a research scientist.” You, my dear audience, have heard, and are going to continue to hear awful things about who people think you are.

Observation #3. This world is filled with a lot of scared people. Perhaps life didn’t work out for them in the way they hoped for. Perhaps they do not possess the courage to be who they want to be. Perhaps they did have the courage and failed along the way and decided to stay down. I don’t know, it’s sort of not your problem. But here is the thing, they are everywhere and they like to talk and they are super loud. The more beautiful your soundtrack, the louder they get. They want to drown out your beautiful inner music.

Tip #2. Turn the volume up on your inner soundtrack.

A bit earlier, I told you about ego and how it needs to be quieted for us to be able to listen. The community organizer comment bruised my ego. I really wanted to be taken seriously as an environmental scientist. But, after thinking about those words—whose original intent was to put me down and in my place—unbeknownst to the originator, she was speaking my destiny. What was missing from my work was the community voice. And this revelation has ushered in the next phase of my work.

Observation #4. Those scared people we spoke about just a few minutes ago. Sometimes, in a warped, obscure, crazy kind of way, their fear may actually end up being quite useful to you. And sometimes, they may say things to you that don’t jive with your core, initially. Be open to sitting on it, revisiting it, and repurposing their words for good.

Tip #3. Turn the volume up on your inner soundtrack. But don’t turn it up too loud. Negative or fearful or uncomfortable words can be repurposed for good.

UEP Class of 2018. You would not be here if you weren’t present. If you know what I mean. I am proud of each one of you and strongly encourage you to take risks, declare yourself boldly, fall and get back up—as many times as you need to, and of course, continue to dance to beat of your own music.