2013 Commencement Address

The 47th Commencement of New College of Florida
The Hon. Charles E. Williams, Circuit Court Judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit of Florida

President O’Shea, members of the faculty, board of trustees, distinguished guests, friends, and family…. and on this evening... I hope that you will accept me into your New College family… so that we can all be family, at least for this evening.

It is with great pride that I participate in this commencement ceremony of New College. Founded in 1960, the mission of New College remains unchanged and its mission is even more important today:

“To offer an undergraduate liberal arts education of the highest quality in the context of a small, residential, public honors college with a distinctive academic program which develops the students intellectual and personal potential as fully as possible…To encourage the discovery of new knowledge and values… And foster the individual’s effective relationship with society.”

The academics of this college needs no promotion from me, each of you here today are a testament of the academic excellence of this institution.

Different observers have viewed education very differently. Albert Einstein once remarked, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

I am not quite that cynical about education—I prefer to quote Nelson Mandela, who observed: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

I speak to you today to celebrate with you your accomplishments. I recognize your being here today was no easy task. There was fear, anxiety, worry, sweat, tears, and serious concerns about whether you would make it to graduation… and I‘m just talking about your parents right now!

I realize that as students you shared these emotions equally!

However, you have persevered, and this has resulted in you graduating from one of the finest institutions of learning in the country.

To the parents: or those who hold that position with perhaps a different title: Congratulations to you!
So again to the parents: Job well done! You did it! You deserve a round of applause.

To the graduates:
Now that you are about to take the knowledge that you have gained outside of these walls—your increased intellectual ability brings with it—increased responsibility. And this begins my message to you today. We all know and have heard many times: “Of those to whom much is given…much is required.”
We cannot accept that this wonderful education that you have received has been delivered only to give you an economic advantage in life, do not get me wrong, all of you who have worked so hard should take advantage of the economic opportunities that come to you, however there should also be more to your degree than that, and economic benefit is not mutually exclusive to helping those who are not fortunate enough to be where you are today.

John F. Kennedy, in a speech he gave to Vanderbilt University during a time of much social upheaval in this country, told those students: “You have responsibilities to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.”

So to you graduates, it is not lost on me that I have the great privilege of giving you your last address at this school, for that I will be eternally grateful.

So I wish to take this forum as we celebrate your achievements to discuss briefly what I feel is an issue that as individuals, and as a society, we need to focus on and that is the increasing diversity in this country and the lack of diversity that still exists in our society and in our most cherished institutions especially in education; and the opportunity for all people, regardless of background or circumstances to have the opportunity that you have today, to succeed.

The road to diversity and inclusion right here in Sarasota shares a common history with New College and your predecessors.

In the early 1960’s this area was a much different place. In making a documentary film a few years ago I spoke to members of this community about the last days of segregation.

Great change in American society resulted from the impact of a Supreme Court decision called brown v. Board of education, which was decided in 1954. That decision in effect ended state sponsored segregation in public schools based on race.

This decision had a great impact on Sarasota and emboldened the local community to seek to integrate other public facilities such as beaches and transportation. Although not as famous as places with names like Selma, and Birmingham, Sarasota had its share of civil rights struggles in the fight against the Jim Crow laws that were the norm during this period.

During a particular contentious period in this struggle, the schools in the black community were shut down briefly. The call went out for volunteers to help in newly formed “freedom schools” that local activists set up in churches.

Among the first to answer the call for volunteers were New College students.

So the commitment to using your talents to serve others, to ensure they get the benefits of education, is etched in this school’s DNA and in those who attend this institution, and is consistent with your mission.
I recognize that the most important perception that people must have in the institution I represent is fairness. This idea of fairness is important for all of our institutions including education. And history has taught us we cannot always accept the status quo and consider it to be fair and just live with it. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown everything from beaches to cemeteries were segregated based upon race. This was recognized as law.

This fundamental unfairness pulled this country apart, and denied credibility to the United States until the Brown decision finally put the idea that a government sanctioning forced separation based solely on race was inconsistent with our Constitution and our core beliefs. The country is still healing from the scars.

So we have an opportunity today, and you have an even greater opportunity, to help us to continue to heal, and accelerate that process by embracing and promoting the ideas of fundamental fairness through diversity in all matters; not just diversity and inclusiveness in regard to race, but in regard to religion, physical disability, gender, age, wealth status, sexuality and most importantly, thoughts and ideas.

We must look around at every gathering, including this one, and constantly ask ourselves the question, does this gathering truly represent the diversity of the community, the State, the Nation, or the world that we live in.

Are we doing all we can to be inclusive to all who may seem different?

To welcome new ideas, and a new way of looking at the world?

This similar question needs to be asked in every environment and every community that you choose to live and work in.

I am pleased to discover that New College promises to continue to be a leader in this effort toward diversity and inclusion as it was over 50 years ago, with those students from here who volunteered to go into the community and reach out to those people whom at first glance shared very little in common, but on further review shared common beliefs that educational opportunities should never be denied because someone is perceived as being different.

As long as education is denied to those who would most benefit from it – the poor; including those who live in this city of great affluence; the oppressed; both here and worldwide; whether the oppression is a result of racism, sexism, or religious intolerance – we will never reach our potential, as a college or a nation.

Until we are all allowed to be educated and given the same opportunities you have been given; we will never reach our goals. Not until then will we be able to have informed and intelligent debate about the problems affecting us all.

I would like to ask all of you as the beneficiaries of this wonderful education to see to it that the seeds of education---which become the roots of power---and eventually the tree of knowledge—be planted and allowed to flourish in places that are at times, hostile to such growth.

A single dedicated individual is capable of accomplishing this task. One such person is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

Dr. Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who currently lives in Canada. In 2009, in Gaza, three of his daughters were killed when errant Israeli shells hit his family’s home during a clash between Palestinians and the Israeli army. Unfortunately this all too common occurrence is not particularly remarkable. What is remarkable however was Dr. Abuelaish’s response to this tragic loss of his daughters; Bessan 20, Mayar 15, and Aya, 13.

Instead of seeking revenge or sinking into hatred Dr. Abuelaish called upon the people of the Middle East to start talking to each other instead of hating each other. It is Dr. Abuelaish’s deepest hope that his daughters’ deaths will be among the last sacrifices on the road to peace.

Dr. Abuelaish would go on to write about his experiences and titled his book, “I Shall Not Hate.”

Dr. Abuelaish’s memoir, translated into 16 languages, has spread his message of justice and non-violence to a global audience. He established the Daughters For Life Foundation to advance the education of girls and women in the Middle East in the belief that lasting peace depends on empowering young women through education, irrespective of nationality, ethnic background or religious affiliation.

I am proud to take this opportunity to advise you that The Daughters for Life Foundation and New College are working toward an agreement that will hopefully, beginning in the fall of 2014, bring up to 10 students each year from the Middle East to this campus to be educated, with a particular focus on students from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

President O’Shea and the faculty of New College, along with Dr. Abuelaish and Dan Boxser deserve special recognition for spearheading this effort.

For as you can see as it was almost 50 years ago when those first New College students volunteered to teach in those freedom schools, inclusion of all people in education is the first step we must take before the healing can begin.

I may be the only government official on the podium, unfortunately I do not have the authority to declare today New College appreciation day or give you the key to the city, for as only New College students would immediately point out, that authority is vested in a different branch of government!

I can, however, render a judicial opinion: and that opinion is that New College, in addition to having an outstanding reputation academically as represented by all of you this evening, including the six Fulbright scholars in this class, has a reputation of producing and nurturing active and engaged students outside of the classroom.

The dedication you have shown in your devotion to this community in terms of your public service in programs such as Habitat for Humanity and Vista, along with your work tutoring students in our local schools and the individual initiatives you have launched to make our community better and more inclusive, is a product of the diversity of thoughts and ideas that has made a real difference here.

I ask that you keep that activist spirit with you as you leave here today. Sometimes agitation can be a good thing!

On behalf of all of Sarasota and all the people you have touched during your time here, I thank you.
In closing let me remind you that I started by saying, “We are all now family.” And like all families we may occasionally argue with each other and disagree; but like all families we should support and encourage each other. We should always stay in touch. We should comfort each other in times of sorrow. And celebrate with each other in times of joy.

We should get together every now and then and celebrate our oneness. And you should always remember where your home is and do not forget your way back.

As a member of the New College family you are here at home now. But it is now time for you to leave.
To quote Thomas Wolfe: “Something has spoken to me in the night saying: To lose the earth you know for greater knowing; To lose the life you have for greater life; To leave the friends you loved for greater loving; To find a land more kind than home…more large than earth.”

And with those words, take care, Class of 2013 and may God be with you on your continued journey.


Judge Charles E. Williams

In both his professional and personal life, Judge Charles E. Williams has been an advocate for fairness, diversity and equality, with a record of remarkable accomplishments in law and in community non-profit organizations.

Judge Williams was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997 to the 12th Circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. He previously served the 12th Circuit as assistant state attorney, assistant public defender and as an attorney in private practice. He now presides over civil cases.

Judge Williams has held numerous positions for the Florida Bar Association and the Florida courts system. He is chairman of The Sarasota Bar Association Diversity Committee, and a judge member of the Central Division of the Mediator Qualifications Board. He has served on The Florida Courts Technology Commission, the Florida Bar Jury Innovations Committee and Florida Bar Trial Court Performance and Accountability Committee. He has been a member of the Supreme Court Judicial Resources Work Group and the Florida Supreme Court Committee on the Access to Court Records.

He is a member of the board of directors of the Palmetto Youth Center and co-chair of its Martin Luther King Committee. He also is a member of the Literary Resource Group for Florida Studio Theater. 

When he is not performing his judicial duties, Judge Williams directs and produces documentary films. His film "Through The Tunnel' was named best historical documentary at the 2010 Doc Miami International Film Festival. More recently, he helped produce "We Are Sarasota," a multimedia event celebrating the city's history of diversity and inclusion.

He has been a recipient of the Community Service Award from the Manatee Bar Association, the Public Service Award of the Manatee County NAACP, and the Edgar H. Price, Jr. Humanitarian Award of the Palmetto Youth Center.

Judge Williams was born in Durham, N.C. and raised in St. Ptersburg, Fla., where he graduated from  Lakewood High School. He received his bachelor's degree from Howard University in 1979 and his law degree from University of Florida in 1982. He and his wife, Jacquelyn have two daughters.

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