All Our Voices

A HIP graduate shares her wisdom with the 2017 graduating class

Kim Oanh Nguyen

On April 29, seven Humanity in Perspective (HIP) students celebrated their completion of the eight-month course in a ceremony at Literary Arts in downtown Portland. Humanity in Perspective is a free college humanities course, offered by Oregon Humanities in partnership with Marylhurst University, Bard College, and Portland State University, for adults who do not have a college degree and who face financial barriers to continuing their education.

This year’s commencement speaker was Mary Thompson, who graduated from HIP in 2016.

Below is an excerpt from Mary’s commencement speech.

Growing up Native American and going to school in the 1960s left me with the feeling that the humanities had nothing to do with me and was horribly boring. We had a different story that seemed to totally be ignored in school. I searched the library until I found writers of color and read everything I could find, and even though at the time I did not find much Native experience, I found writers like Richard Wright and Elie Wiesel. I read books on Burma and World War II. But what school offered did not really interest me. I walked away very young with a lot of attitude. I found much of the same in my first stint at college in the '80s. Just where were we and why did these instructors believe we worshipped animals instead of knowing Native peoples were in relationship to everything, including animals?

What Oregon Humanities did for me was help me realize that we have a right to be included in the story of us. And when I met Kyle I knew this would be a different kind of thing, as he asked questions about how comfortable I felt around all races and genders of people. How exciting and how very different, I thought at the time. This class made up of different ages, races, genders, and experiences was not like any other classroom I had been in. The other huge difference was that each individual was valued for their own experience and wisdom. This is the place where I learned to listen better, not shut down but stay engaged and use the voice I was born with. The environment here at Oregon Humanities is one that asks each one of us to contribute. Each voice is valued. Here I learned that the humanities are all our voices combined and not just a dominant culture. It is each one of our responsibilities to use our voice and be involved even when we believe no one is listening, perhaps even more when we are not being heard. It is our combined experience that is the humanities. 

I write stories. My particular stories contain elements that many in society are unaware of, pieces of native life, struggle, and humor. I can write about my experience of being a mixed blooded Native American in a society that ignored us for so long. Each time a story is told it changes history and makes it more inclusive. Each time we tell a story it makes us more honest as a people as we see ourselves anew. It is not always easy to include the stories of all of us, but it is so much more interesting and alive with the promise of different possible outcomes. What I know about life and story is that it can be rewritten, and one can change history and life at any time. 

The human story of what has happened in our combined history, the art we made, the things we wrote and ways that many have thought before and do now. It’s us. “We,” not “I.” The good and beautiful; the bad and ugly and the indifferent. It’s our endless story that we are a part of.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear and know in our bones stories of suffering and injustice done to others that lived before or now. You chose to learn and look honestly at us. Good on you. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” You carry a piece of that hope of a better humanity, a better us when you leave here.

You each have a story unique to you but also within a time and place with different social beliefs of who and what is important to include in humanities studies. My hope is that you keep using your voices. We need each other to work for a better tomorrow, a more just tomorrow.

Oregon Humanities is now accepting applications for the 2017–18 Humanity in Perspective course. The deadline to apply is August 13, 2017. Class begins September 2017. HIP is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust, and individual supporters.

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