08/22/2012 08:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Parades With Purpose: Some Advice to the 2012 University of Georgia Graduates


Good morning. It’s great to be back at UGA to share this special day with you.

Let me begin with a confession. I love parades. I’m something of a parade addict. I love the music, the marching,  the meaning of parades. In fact, I may title my autobiography, if I ever get around to writing one,  I Never Missed a Parade!

Except one: my own commencement.  That day, June 5, 1965, I was in a hospital nearby, giving birth to my son, Mark. That was the beginning of a parade of sorts too: balancing parenthood and professional responsibilities, as any parent can testify. I’m quite sure that “Parades” are not the subject you expected from me. Media would have been more predictable, given the career you just heard described. (Thank you, President Adams, for the warm introduction and this irresistible invitation.)

So, let me explain why I love parades and what it is about parades that make them, in my opinion, a commencement-worthy subject. My parade addiction started early, about 100 miles southeast of here in a small town called Swainsboro, Georgia. The most exciting thing that happened there was the Pine Tree Festival Parade.  Once a year, all 5,000 residents took to the streets… Well, it was one street actually. Dressed in our Sunday best, we cheered for the brightly decorated floats pulled by tractors. It wasn’t exactly the Macy’s Day Parade. But the sights and sounds transformed my small town and me.

During the 20 or so magical moments that the parade passed through town, I could imagine other parades beyond the borders of my small town, and I dared to dream about a life beyond the expectations for a young girl growing up in the South in the '50s. When I was 15, following one of those “expectations,” I entered the competition to become Miss Pine Tree Festival, mostly because winning meant a place at the front of the parade. Being IN the parade that year was a thrill, and my addiction to parades kicked in for sure -- even though my parade took an unexpected turn. The tractor pulling the lead float came to a sudden stop, throwing me, crown and all, forward.  I fell on my face with the whole town watching. Within minutes, the tractor and I both recovered, and the parade continued.

Afterwards, as I was struggling to regain my enthusiasm about parades, my beloved Cherokee grandmother, who had a special way with words, said: “Honey, at least falling on your face is a forward movement.” With a few words, she gave me a new perspective on parades and falling.

Many times in my journey from that small town to now, when I stumbled or lost my balance, when I competed and didn’t win; when an idea was rejected or when I was unemployed and broke; times when I have literally and figuratively ‘fallen on my face,” I thought of my grandmother’s words, and how right she proved to be. The falls, the risks, the failures, the disappointments all did turn out to be forward movements, moving me further along in my professional and personal journeys.

One of the most important stops in my journey was here, at UGA, where I enrolled as a scholarship student in 1961, defying my father’s wishes that I go to a small women’s college. My father, who also loved parades (having been in the military) made his living after the war selling televisions, but he refused to let his own family own one. “Bad influence,” he would say when I would beg to have a television in our house.

Years later when I was making quite a good living as a television reporter, he commented, “All that big university education, and this is what you do for a living. What a waste!” My time at this big university, like I assume yours has been, was not a waste; it was transformative in so many ways. My class came of age here during two great social justice movements: civil rights for African Americans and full equality for women. Your class came of age in a world of social media revolutions, ignited by technologies that can topple governments, crowd-source protests, and make or break a reputation in a tweet.  

However they begin or end, all revolutions and transformations begin with an idea and a purpose. I came here, all those many years ago, with big ideas about what I wanted to be and very little purpose beyond my own life plans and dreams. I left here prepared to pursue my dreams and transformed by a newly felt purpose to defend that right for others.

The transformation began my freshman year when I met Charlayne Hunter Gault, one of the first African American students on this campus. It’s hard to imagine now the scene that greeted her presence here then. There were, in fact, parades of students throwing rocks and insults. One morning, I decided to walk with her and a few friends to class, right through the protests. I remember a feeling of fear in the beginning, but that was quickly replaced with a feeling of purpose and a new feeling of power that came with collective action leading to a positive outcome.  A small parade of Charlayne’s friends and supporters achieved our purpose to get her safely from her dorm to class. That was my first Parade with Purpose.

Ironically, 30 or more years later, Charlayne and I reconnected as colleagues in Washington, D.C. She was a correspondent for PBS Newshour, and I was PBS president. We talked about how much had changed and how much had not. She was still daring to be on the front lines of change, still dodging rocks in her adopted home of South Africa, and I was  navigating the challenges of being the first woman to lead PBS, with all the judgments that come when you’re the first woman, the first African American, the first of anything.

Many of you will be the “first” at some time in your life and career. Even now, with all the enlightened changes in policy and practice, you will likely find yourself doing something no one like you -- no one your color, your gender, speaking your language, coming from your place of birth -- has done before. When that happens, you may find yourself with an opportunity to lead a personal Parade with Purpose.

Maybe your purpose will be to challenge your company’s hiring or promotion policies, or to advocate for more diversity in top management and in corporate boardrooms, Or maybe you will use your position to shape policies that make it easier for mothers and fathers to pursue the work they love and still be the parents they want to be. When you are the first, you have an opportunity to redefine what a leader looks like and how a leader’s power can be used. First, you have to acknowledge you have power and accept the responsibility that comes with it. This is harder than it sounds.

Getting comfortable with power, especially for women, means letting go of negative associations and images of power defined by the gender that has had most of it. A few years ago, I invited a few young women executives from Google to attend Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference. They happily accepted but later told me that they didn’t tell their bosses that they were going to a “powerful” women’s conference. Why not? “Because someone might think that we think we are “powerful,” was their explanation. “You are powerful,” I insisted. “What are you doing with it?” Doing something outside of our own job responsibilities can model a new way to use power, whether we are the corporate secretary or the CEO. But I need to offer a word of caution. Using power to lead or even join a Parade with Purpose may not be popular. You risk being identified as an agitator or activist…“not a team player.” The pressures to stay on the sidelines, to be silent and support the status quo in a company or country are real everywhere.

I’ve felt those pressures many times and so will you, and like me you will weigh the consequences, sometimes choosing between participation in a parade with purpose and putting a job, a relationship, even a reputation in jeopardy. I faced one such dilemma during my first year as faculty here. A big civil rights march was planned in Athens, but there was an injunction against it, and student and faculty participation was discouraged. Believing so strongly in the purpose, I joined the parade, along with a few of my English 101 students. We were arrested -- or, more accurately, rounded up, taken to a holding pen near the Clark County Jail, and after a few hours, released.


As I was leaving, a red truck came careening into the parking lot, a farmer jumped out,  stepped in front of me, demanding to know if I was the English teacher who had encouraged his son to break the law. I had no choice but to say, “Yes.” I half expected a fist in my face, but instead he grabbed my hand, shook it hard and said, “Well, at least you got him to care enough about something to get off his ….!” You can fill in the rest.

Joining or leading the parades that disrupt, that advocate for new ideas, that redefine power and leadership can have other  unintended consequences as well. They can give you something that is increasingly hard to find in today’s driven, economically competitive world: happiness. It’s a fact. Serious social science research at some very big and important universities has proven that being engaged in activities outside our own career paths and beyond our own self interests leads to greater levels of happiness. The research makes it clear that being a part of something that really matters leads to a feeling of empowerment, and participating and leading parades of purpose turn out to be good for you as well as others. You could be thinking about now that helping others just isn’t high on your priority list today.

After all, you have to focus on getting a good job, getting that new career started and making enough income to pay back the loans you took to get the degrees that are supposed to move you faster to the head of all the parades that matter most. You may be thinking that there will be time later on to contemplate such concepts as power, purpose, happiness. But I know from experience that you will miss so much if you delay participating in the parades that may take you somewhere you hadn’t planned to go and that take others to places they need to go or be.

And you’ll miss the richness of life if you postpone the feelings of compassion and empathy that inspire purpose. I believe this. It has been my life’s experience. When I reflect on what has truly made me happy -- it’s not the big titles or jobs I’ve held. It’s not even the position I have now, although I feel fortunate to have it.

At The Paley Center for Media, I have power and a sphere of influence that comes with a big responsibility to use both, not just for myself but for others who can benefit if I align purpose with power. For me, that means leading the conversations about the unprecedented impact of media and technology on every aspect of the way we live and interact.  For me, it means leading a conversation about the under representation and misrepresentation of women and it means convening public forums on the role media is playing in politics. I’m participating in and yes, sometimes leading the media parade at a time of great transformations for the industry and for consumers, and I’m aware that my decisions as a woman leader in media and all my choices as a media consumer have impact. I need them to have purpose as well.

I urge you, then, as you take this next big step toward the pursuit of your personal dreams and ambitions that you consider the many parades with purpose that need you and your education, your inventions and discoveries, your art and music, your solutions to climate change, energy shortages, racial and religious tensions and the increasing violence against women and girls everywhere.

Parades with Purpose.  Looking for passionate participants and empowered leaders.

That’s you. Your Life Parade starts here and now. Don’t miss it!

(Delivered Saturday, August 4, 2012)