A speech by Reza Corinne Clifton
This speech was delivered as the keynote address on Monday, May 21 at the Rhode Island State House at the 2007 Ceremony of the Lieutenant Governor’s Leadership Awards. These awards are given annually to exemplary high school seniors from public and private schools across Rhode Island.
I’d like to begin by thanking Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts and her staff for choosing me to speak to you important young people. I’d like to next acknowledge all the proud families, friends, and school staff members here to support you, and I ask them to join me in another round of applause for all the student leaders being recognized tonight.
I was asked as both a leader in my own right and as the daughter of an important RI leader to speak and recognize today’s students. My mother is Superor Court Judge Rogeriee Thompson; she was RI’s first Black woman district court judge. I use the word was because when she was appointed and promoted to Superior Court, she became the state’s first Black woman Superior Court judge.
Now, seeing who my mother is, it is easy to see what or who might have inspired me. But I had the opportunity to talk to my mother recently – when I interviewed her for a newspaper – and I’d like to tell you a little about some of the people and some of the experiences that inspired my mother. There are 3 or 4 lessons within these stories about being a leader that I want to share with you.
(1) My grandmother – my mother’s mother – was not a judge or even a lawyer. She was a teacher. And my mother’s grandmother was a seamstress. But my mother’s grandmother was a person of great significance to my mother, and it was the love, attention, and time she dedicated that made her so important to my mother. I say this because a leader is not always a CEO or president. Sometimes it’s just someone who cares.
(2) My mother grew up in South Carolina during the days of segregation – separate but equal; Blacks here, Whites there. My mother was too young to participate in a lot of the activities we hear about, like freedom rides and sit-in protests, but one particular opportunity did arise. One day, in response to the unequal treatment she and her fellow black students received and in response to the lousy attitudes of her white student counterparts, my mother joined a number of her black classmates in filling waterguns with black ink and squirting them at all the white kids at the last bus stop – where they were always taunted by the white students entering the bus as they exited. I share this because sometimes a leader stands up for important principles like equality for all people, even when they don’t fully understand what it means.
(3) The last story I want to share is from when my mother was in high school. Like you folks being honored today, my mother proved to be a great student. Well, one of her guidance counselors submitted her name to take part in a summer program designed to give opportunities to African-Americans who were great students. Remember, there weren’t abundant opportunities at African-American schools. My mother did not know her name was being submitted, but when the offer came, she decided to take advantage of the program and go. This opportunity changed her life and eventually led her to attend a high school in a whole other state. I share this to tell you two lessons, really.
(a) sometimes you’ll have to do the work to be recognized as a leader – things like applying to school or for scholarships. But like the honor you’re receiving today, sometimes someone else recognizes and recommends you, and this is just as important.
(b) While sometimes being a leader means taking an important, principled stand, like the one my mother and her classmates did that day on the bus, sometimes it’s about doing or getting things important to or for you, the individual. Studying hard, getting involved in school – it may be about you, but it’s about being the best that you can be, which is part of being a leader.
So I want to take the time to congratulate you for some of the first steps you’ve taken in becoming a leader and I want to wish you the best as you continue forward on your path. Friends, family, supporters and loved ones, please take the time to join me one more time in saying congratulations to these important young people.
For more information about recipients of the 2007 Lieutenant Governor Leadership Awards or about this year’s ceremony, visit http://www.ri.gov/press/view.php?rss=1&id=4180.