University News

Senior orators to deliver commencement speeches on activism, social justice

Sabrina Imbler ’16, Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16 to speak on shared experiences with racism

Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sabrina Imbler ’16 and Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16 will speak at the 2016 commencement. Their speeches will touch on activism and the experiences of people of color at the University.

Each year, the University chooses two seniors as the commencement speakers for the graduating class, rather than inviting outside orators who may not completely understand the Brown experience. Sabrina Imbler ’16, a former Herald features editor, and Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16 have been chosen to deliver this year’s speeches, both of which will focus on the importance of social justice, during the University’s 248th commencement ceremony.

Though Imbler and Watson-Daniels come from cities over 2,000 miles apart and had not previously met, they share similar experiences in discovering the necessity of speaking out after entering Brown.

Imbler grew up in Hillsborough, California ­— a city that is 66.3 percent white, according to the 2010 Census — and went to a school that was mostly white and Asian American, she said. When she stepped onto Brown’s campus, Imbler found herself surrounded by important conversations that people were having daily, hearing discussions of poverty and race as she was simply walking to class, she said. Becoming friends with people who faced overt racism and felt unsafe on campus was also crucial in sparking her interest in activism and social justice, she added.

As a queer, Asian American woman, Imbler has also been on the receiving end of microaggressions, such as being exoticized, particularly on the dating scene, she said.

After a hectic and “distressing” fall semester last year — especially for students of color who were constantly working to defend their own rights and humanity — Imbler sat down to record all of her thoughts. What started as writing for emotional release eventually became the first draft of her speech, Imbler said.

Drawing from her experiences, Imbler’s speech, titled “How Do We Want to Become?” examines the way that students become “fully-formed” as they progress through their years at Brown and discover who they are, Imbler said. The speech also highlights the value of student activism and the way it has shaped Brown as a university and community, she added.

Though she regrets not being involved with activism earlier, Imbler is “grateful that Brown fostered this space where a lot of students demand that you learn and teach yourself about the structures of oppression that students of color face,” she said.

Imbler is graduating with a degree in English nonfiction and plans to pursue a career in journalism. She is especially interested in analyzing the connection between climate change and colonialism — for example, how the areas most affected by climate change have historically been victims of colonialism, Imbler said.

Meanwhile, Watson-Daniels grew up in Collinsville, Illinois — a city that is 85.3 percent white, according to the 2010 Census — and also went to a school that was mostly white. Though she was always one of the few black students in her classes, she never felt an obvious divide between her and her classmates because she had grown up with them, Watson-Daniels said. In college, especially as a black woman physicist, Watson-Daniels was “forced into the conversation (because she needed to) advocate for (herself) in order to navigate Brown,” she said.

Watson-Daniels recalled times when she or other black students were treated differently. When students struggled with a particularly challenging concept, her classmates were affirmed by faculty members that it was a genuinely difficult idea to grasp. But black students may receive the suggestion that perhaps the field was not the right one for them and that they should reconsider their academic choices, Watson-Daniels said. 

But she was also motivated to pursue physics by her love for the field. “Fundamentally, I have a real passion for problem solving, which is what physics is,” Watson-Daniels said.

Though these obstacles were “very distracting,” Watson-Daniels dealt with them with support and mentorship from the department of Africana studies, and she eventually decided to double-concentrate in physics and Africana studies. The mentorship helped her resist internalizing negative attitudes, she said.

To help combat these racial issues, Watson-Daniels founded the “Inertia: Investment in Scientists of Color” initiative to support black students in science and served as a student representative on the Brown Diversity Advisory Board.

In her speech, titled “Storytelling,” Watson-Daniels discusses the ways in which the stories of individuals and the community can be told, as well as the importance of not erasing or rewriting people’s experiences. “We can tell honest and true stories and still be celebratory about our time at Brown,” Watson-Daniels said.

After graduation, Watson-Daniels will work for Boeing as an electronic design engineer. She is also deferring enrollment in the applied physics doctoral program at Harvard.

Both Imbler and Watson-Daniels said that some of the memories they will cherish most are the moments spent with friends. The relationships they have formed with some of their classmates are unforgettable and invaluable, they said.

As Imbler and Watson-Daniels prepare to leave Brown with the Class of 2016, they share words of advice with the incoming freshman class.

“Know that you can never understand anyone’s experience but your own, but you can empathize with others,” Imbler said. “You should be made uncomfortable and question your privilege.”

Watson-Daniels reminds victims of racism that “the problem is external.”

“It’s okay to be angry with Brown as an institution — it can be a part of what the Brown experience means to you,” she said.

The two seniors were chosen to speak after a rigorous selection process, which began with a nomination by a faculty member or a fellow senior. Imbler and Watson-Daniels, along with several other candidates, then submitted multiple drafts of their proposed speeches and delivered them in front of a committee of 11 faculty members and administrators, Imbler said.

The committee looked specifically for “speeches that are able to convey powerful personal experiences,” wrote Zachary Sng, associate professor of German studies and comparative literature and chair of the commencement speaker committee, in an email to The Herald.

Imbler and Watson-Daniels “have wonderful stories to share about their time at Brown and compelling reflections on how they might draw on their Brown experience in the years to come,” Sng wrote.

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