‘Orienting Toward the Liberation Horizon’

Climate activist Colette Pichon Battle ’97 H’18 tells the Class of 2023 that “Today, we honor your future role in making a better world.”


The following is the prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by Colette Pichon Battle ’97 H’18 at Kenyon’s 195th Commencement on May 20, 2023. 

Mr. President, esteemed faculty, honored guests, families, friends and graduates. I bring you peace and greetings from the traditional lands of the Choctaw Nation in Southeast Louisiana. 

And offer peaceful greetings to the First Nations of this land we stand on today. Peace to the Erie, Kickapoo and Shawnee, the Lenape and other tribes whose nation names I do not yet know. I respectfully ask for permission to offer a few words on your lands today.

I offer my gratitude to all the people working to make today beautiful — including the service staff, the technicians and those who have come to make an honor offering to the Class of 2023.

And to the graduates, I offer my congratulations! A Kenyon degree is an achievement, not just a goal. 

You have worked hard, hopefully you had fun, you’ve met the friends that you will have for the rest of your life. This Kenyon experience has also taught you how to think critically in many dimensions and directions; how to examine not just the topic at hand, but the premise of the question; how to hear truth in music, poetry; how to understand power and partnership in dance and sport; how to build a global community on the top of a little hill. You have accomplished a worthy and honorable achievement today. I salute all the work, educational and emotional, that you’ve done.

So, what are you going to do next? If you haven’t gotten the question yet, you will … it’s the question that all of society has a duty to ask all graduates … “What are you going to do next?”  

But given where we are today, in light of all that is happening in our communities, in our nation and on our planet — I think there is an additional question that you should contemplate today. “Who are you going to be now?” What kind of human are you going to be as you go out into this world and make your mark?

I’ve been hanging around some of you “Gen Z” folks. And I like the creativity with which you see the world. You have a bold understanding of life and liberty and I like it. You’re ready to resist the status quo — thank you. I appreciate that. 

But, you’re growing your best life in a difficult time, my friends. I do not envy your role in leading the next iteration of this world. We have real challenges — some that have been around for a long time and some that humankind has never seen before.

  • We are part of a global society where access to dignity — including fair and affordable housing, healthy food, healthcare, clean air, clean water and clean soil as well as a good education — depends on your proximity to wealth and access to money. 
  • We are living in a country that has offered a powerful vision of democracy, but
    • Continues to exercise colonial power over places like Boriken (Puerto Rico) 
    • Disallows voting representation in Congress to the delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as one delegate for each of the other four permanently inhabited U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 
    • The Cherokee Nation, recognized as a sovereign nation, wants a seat in Congress but doesn’t have one. And the treaty-based right of the recognized sovereign Choctaw Nation has not been formally considered.
    • Our country has yet to recognize the sovereignty of many of the indigenous Peoples of the very land where democracy is supposed to grow and live.
  • We are in a global reality where people’s bodies are being targets for control, people’s freedom to move away from harm to safety is being challenged, people’s right to remain in their homes and homeland is being eroded — all for the control of a power class that can only stay in power if we stay in chaos. 
  • And chaos is coming. 

My work inside of the climate justice movement is catalyzed by:

  • My experience in the 17 years of Hurricane Katrina (2005) recovery and the 13 years of recovery from the BP oil drilling disaster (2010).

  • Agreed upon climate science that says we are on the brink of the next extinction. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a report this year that has experts worried about our human future.

  • Global natural and biological resources management reports that state drinkable water, non-genetically modified food and biodiversity are dwindling. We’re destroying forests in South America to put more beef into the international food market. We are destroying forests in Africa so that the western world can have chocolate candy.

  • Financial, defense and security assessments are making changes because of the expected sea level rise that is already moving military installations around the world, whole cities and indigenous communities in my state of Louisiana, in places like Alaska, in island nations like Barbados, Tuvalu, Mauritius and many others. The seas are rising.

The seas are rising — yes, because the Arctic ice is melting. 

But the ice is melting because the planet is warming. 

The water is expanding because the planet is warming. 

The tidal surges are higher and go further because the tropical storms they ride are getting stronger, faster and more unpredictable — because the planet is warming. 

As you decide what type of human you’re going to be in this new world, it is imperative that I make sure you know that this planet is not warming because of natural cycles. 

Not only is this a manmade moment of climate chaos; this is a privileged and imperial legacy of extraction that we are living in. It is our dollars, our silence and our addiction to ever-growing profits that have protected extractive industries like oil and gas, private prisons, private military, corporate agriculture. As you decide who you’re going to be now, my hope is that you will decide to take down the scaffolding holding up this extractive philosophy of living on the planet — mass production for mass consumption of the world’s wealthiest nations and modern day imperial powers — multinational corporations. We cannot simply shift methods that are rooted in the harmful philosophy of extraction, destruction and exploitation — for the benefit of a few. 

The year 2030 is the point of no return for the climate crisis (that’s seven years from now. Many of you won’t even be 30 years old by then, and your 30s are when you get to have all the fun!). We either find the courage to face ourselves, our past and our role in the maintenance of these unfair systems or we prepare for a world where only those with access to resources will survive. 

We can see 2030 as a point of no return. Or we can see the precious (albeit fleeting) opportunity of the greatest human possibility, the potential for global potential for humankind to be its best self. Instead of seeing doom, we can choose to be the type of humans that see 2030 as a point that will not hold our demise, but instead as a moment to manifest our collective liberation.

What if we decide to be the type of Kenyon graduates who seek to use this accomplishment as a mandate to do good in the world. 

  • What if today we graduate the future engineer who will choose to use their skill and knowledge not just to build physical structures, but to support the building of power in the most targeted communities. 

  • What if today we graduate a scientist who will not only observe and document theories in a lab, but will advance the research that validates traditional ecological knowledge without the harmful extraction of it. 

  • What if today we graduate a future artist who will not only do the work of self realization through their craft, but will lend their creativity to social movements for justice and equity.  

  • We could graduate future professors to train their students on the truths at the roots of these great societies and what type of destruction it took to build and hold on to wealth for generations. 

  • We might graduate a medical doctor who will advocate for access to healthy lives, not just healthcare. I’m certain that today we will graduate a future lawyer who will have the courage to challenge the unjust laws and the desire to transform the unjust system.

Who are you going to be now? Whoever you choose to be, your contribution must move us toward the liberation horizon. I do not envy the amount of work ethic/rigor and the amount of courage that you will have to muster to actively participate in the management of our future. All I can offer you, my beautiful Kenyon family, is that I will be with you. And we will not be alone in this righteous struggle to make a better world.

Whoever you’re going to be, be forever the Kenyon student. 

  • Root yourself in gratitude. Be grateful for this family that supported you to get this amazing education — that was curated to build your foundation for your best life.

  • Be curious but don’t be extractive. Be a student of your own transformation. Be curious about who you come from and what their relationship to the land was. And bring back sustainable ways of living with the earth and living with one another.

  • Lead with Humility, Root in Love. Be humble but when it’s time for you to lead, you lead. Root yourself in love. Coach yourself to be flexible.

  • Be your best self in community with others. In a world that is going through some unprecedented times and changes. We are living in a time where individualism is not just a political philosophy, but a daily, almost minute-by-minute practice of being alone; sitting in your own thoughts; moving with your own interpretation of information that you’re exposed to. Challenge yourself to learn other perspectives.

This liberal arts education is one of the best tools that you can have if you choose to engage in making this world a better place. You have not received a one-dimensional line of information. You have been exposed to multi-dimensional critical thinking — fuel for imagination and innovation. We’re going to need that creativity to build solutions that do not cause further harm. We are going to need you to invest in the building of your courage to ensure that the world we build is not a reformed version of what we’ve always had, but instead is a transformed version of what you, me and every human on the planet deserves. We will need to do the work to usher in an atonement and accountability for a past that we are all benefiting from, but that has wrecked our future.

Today, my beautiful graduates — we salute your work and accomplishment.

Today, my dear Kenyon family, we honor your future role in making a better world.

And today, y’all — we seed the future leaders of our collective liberation — it’s just over the horizon. I look forward to joining you in creating a future where we can all live, rest and thrive in the places we love.

Congratulations. Merci. Ashe.