My grandmother was born in the late 19th century, one of the youngest children of parents who had been slaves when they themselves were young. One Christmas, when she was a child, her family saved to buy a treat for each of the 12 children. One orange apiece.
When the orange seller drove his truck into town, they waited, as they had to, until all the white customers had been served. They were offered the bruised and spoiled fruit that was left.
My grandmother and two of her sisters went home at dusk, then sneaked back in the dark, took every orange and pelted them until their own anger and frustration was spent.
I loved that story as a child, the mischief, the sense of outrage. As a parent now myself, I feel the terror her mother and father must have felt, and imagine they kept them quietly in the house for days. That wordless defiance of three girls in the night could have been deadly.
When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, my grandmother had a new way to speak, nearly 70 years into her life.
As a child in the 1970s and ’80s, I always knew when it was Election Day. My grandma got dressed in her Sunday best, put on her black shoes, hoisted her hard, black pocketbook, adjusted her hat, and waited by the door for my father to drive her to the polls. She never missed an election.
As a college president now, I remember her actions with such wonder and pride. My grandmother never would have dreamed it could be true, but I’ve spent more than two decades teaching and working with students at Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology, New York University, and now as president at Pomona College.
You probably know by now that many people don’t believe a lot in what we are doing in colleges and universities across our country.
What would have once been par-for-the-course debates on campus now draw national scrutiny, the term “snowflake” gets bandied about like a beach ball in a long graduation ceremony, and even the value of a college degree has come under increasing question. The truth is hand-wringing about higher education — and students — is nothing new. Academic work and research, by their nature, can feel set apart from society until they are fully developed.
With Election Day near, this is the moment for you to step beyond campus, to speak up, to be heard.
I want to remind you of something I hope you already know. Many of my students in California are citizens of this country. But many are not. They come from around the world, from nearly 60 countries, and they are watching this experiment we have in democracy.
Each of us who has the privilege to speak our loudest voice — to vote — must do so.
I just called America an experiment in democracy — and it’s an experiment that isn’t over. You should deeply question the ultimate consequences of refusing to grasp a right that others have fought and died for. Sometimes our vote is a duty we have to others. Your silence or speech is not going to be punished — but your silence can punish someone else.
My grandmother had to know this.
Votes are not always words, but they can become cries: This is what matters to us. It’s a collective act. That’s why Grandma had to dress up and participate as part of a democracy, she was part of something she had been denied all of her life.
Now is your chance. If you think carefully, you will realize that in your time as a student something has happened to you, something transformative. Speak to that new knowledge, and do something no one else can do for you.
The students I’ve worked with know I love a good dare. And I send one back. I dare you.
G. Gabrielle Starr is president of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.