“Books were my first teachers, my best teachers,” writer Paul Yoon told Milton students while on campus as this spring’s Bingham Visiting Writer. Mr. Yoon’s first book, Once the Shore, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, a Best Debut of the Year by National Public Radio, and won a 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. His novel, Snow Hunters, won the 2014 Young Lions Fiction Award. He is a former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and his stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, VQR, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories. The Mountain was released in the summer of 2017. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, the writer Laura van den Berg, and he is currently a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University.
“As a student in the ’90s, a lot of the curriculum was based on the work of dead authors. Although I loved it, because they were writing in a time that wasn’t mine, I felt really distanced from it. It was when my teachers gave me contemporary books, books from authors of color, that I came to think about writing as an active art form.”
Gun control has been the “third rail” of American politics for decades, stirring such passionate argument and deep division that compromise on gun-safety measures sometimes seems impossible, gun-control activist Brina Milikowsky ’96 told students. But once you move past messaging from politicians and powerful lobbyists, there is greater hope for agreement among Americans on both sides of the issue, says Brina, who recently worked as chief strategy officer for Everytown for Gun Safety, and is now a political consultant. Brina attended Harvard University and the New York University School of Law. Her career in law, policy and politics has led her to work in commercial litigation and advocacy on reproductive freedom, voting rights and immigration. She was a policy advisor and counsel to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and joined the Mayors Against Illegal Guns team, which evolved into the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
“We are proving every day to elected officials that we demand leadership on this. The student leaders all around the country who are pouring into the streets and maintaining the pressure on politicians are permanently changing our political conversation in a way that’s laying the groundwork for policy change.”
Born into “the most hated family in America,” Megan Phelps-Roper grew up believing that she was working to save people from eternal damnation with her church’s extremist messages. By the age of 5, she was on the picket lines with the Westboro Baptist Church, protesting everything from plays to military funerals with profane signs and slogans. Ms. Phelps-Roper, who left the Westboro Baptist Church — and most of her family — visited Milton as this year’s Class of 1952 Religious Understanding Speaker. Ms. Phelps-Roper’s 2017 TED Talk was one of the year’s 10 most popular. Her memoir, This Above All, will be adapted into a film written by Nick Hornby and produced by Reese Witherspoon. She has appeared on the television shows “I Love You, America” and “The Story of Us.” As a keynote speaker and educator, she engages with schools, faith groups, law enforcement, and anti-extremism organizations on strengthening human bonds through better public discourse. She has been featured in The New Yorker, The Guardian, VICE, The Globe and Mail, NPR, and other international organizations.
“I began to develop an undeniable understanding that we’re human and fallible. We are not divine. That was the beginning of the end for me. Through ongoing conversations on Twitter, I was learning a new story about people I had thought were my adversaries. In spite of their abhorrence of my beliefs, they befriended me.”
Rahsaan D. Hall, the Racial Justice Program Director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, visited campus as the Onyx Assembly speaker in recognition of Black History Month. Prior to joining the ACLU of Massachusetts, Mr. Hall was the deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. Mr. Hall also served as an Assistant District Attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. In addition to leading the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program, Mr. Hall serves on the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation’s board of directors, the Hyams Foundation’s board of trustees, and co-chairs the Boston Bar Association’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties section. He is also a member of the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee. He is a graduate of Ohio State University (B.A.), Northeastern University School of Law (J.D.) and Andover Newton Theological School (M.Div.). He is an ordained reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“For so many people, there is no justice in the system. You have to educate yourself about what the roots of these issues are: why it is happening, where it is happening, and to whom this is happening. There is a role for people to play in deciphering and sharing that information. We need economists and statisticians who can analyze how incarceration impacts communities. We need health professionals to look at how incarceration impacts families; the health impacts for children of incarcerated people; and how and why mental illness and substance use are overrepresented in our prisons.”
Navy veteran and former Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez was this year’s Conservative Club speaker. Mr. Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants, attended the United States Naval Academy and later became an aircraft carrier pilot. Within a few years, Mr. Gomez joined the Navy SEALs after passing its intensive selection and training process, and he spent his SEAL career primarily deploying to South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Mr. Gomez, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, is one of very few Naval servicemen who have served as both aircraft carrier pilots and Navy SEALs. Following graduation from Harvard Business School, Mr. Gomez worked in private equity before running as a Republican in the 2013 Massachusetts special senate election to replace newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Gomez won the Republican primary but lost to Democrat Edward Markey in the general election. He co-founded O2X, which provides training and education to first responders, with several Navy SEAL veterans.
“If you become politically active, I implore you to be open-minded and do it for the right reasons, and don’t get stuck in the dogma. Think about what this country needs: people who can compromise and work together. I’m a firm believer that this country is much better than its politics.”
Over more than three decades as a sports journalist, Danny Ventura has covered high school matches, college championships and history-making professional sports events, and athletes at every level have left lasting impressions on him, he told students. Mr. Ventura has worked for the Boston Herald for nearly 30 years. In addition to his Sweet 16 football rankings, Mr. Ventura also writes a weekly “Around the Horn” baseball/softball notebook, the “In the Paint” basketball notebook, and a “No Holds Barred” wrestling column. His “High School Insider” blog was the first of its kind in Massachusetts. He has been honored by the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association as well as the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association. A winner of the prestigious Fred Ebbett Award of Distinction by the MBCA in 2004, as well as the David C. Weidner Media Award from the Agganis Foundation in 2007, Ventura was inducted into the state Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2011.
“For a lot of pro athletes, it’s a job, and they treat it like work. It’s very refreshing to cover sports at the high school level because the vast majority of kids are doing it for the love of the game.”
News coverage from heavily patrolled conflict zones in places like Syria can have wildly different angles, depending on the sources of information — and which international power has control over the sources, said James Bowker, an analyst and former journalist who has witnessed and tracked the shifts of power in Syria and the Middle East. Mr. Bowker was this year’s SIMA (Students Interested in Middle Eastern Affairs) guest speaker. Mr. Bowker attended Tufts University and studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, receiving his B.A. in Arabic language and Middle Eastern studies in 2013. He later worked in Jordan, facilitating study abroad programs, then as a journalist for a Syria-focused news website based in Amman. Since moving back to the United States in 2015, Mr. Bowker has worked in Washington, D.C. as a Syria researcher and analyst.
“Be very scholarly about the news, and investigate what is being presented to you as fact. It’s not just important to recognize biases, but to understand why they exist. False information and conspiracy theories carry a lot of weight in Syria because it’s a region where outside, international powers have had competing interests for so long.”
Climate change affects more than ecosystems and air quality — it directly impacts communities of color and lower-income families more significantly than wealthier, white communities, said climate activist Wilhemina Agbemakplido, this year’s Earth Day speaker. Ms. Agbemakplido’s visit to campus was sponsored by the student groups Lorax and the Sustainability Club. She is the energy program manager for the Mass Climate Action Network. Prior to joining MCAN, Ms. Agbemakplido was a co-founder of Refugees Welcome! and worked as a youth and police dialogue facilitator with YW Boston. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston with a master’s degree in mediation and conflict resolution. She is passionate about engaging communities of color in the grassroots efforts to organize for community-based climate action.
“If we are to continue to rely on natural resources, we need to start listening to indigenous people who live in the natural world. We cannot turn a blind eye to how rapidly our world is changing.”
“Institutions that promote the pursuit of truth and knowledge need to be honest about themselves,” Professor Craig Steven Wilder told students. Professor Wilder, an MIT history faculty member and author, was this year’s Heyburn Lecturer. In researching and writing his latest book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Professor Wilder revealed nearly universal connections between the earliest American educational institutions and slavery. Professor Wilder received his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University, and a master’s, master of philosophy and Ph.D. from Columbia. In addition to Ebony and Ivy, he is the author of A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn; and In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City. His has written essays for Slavery’s Capitalism and wrote the inaugural essay in the digital journal New York History. In 2004, Columbia University awarded Professor Wilder the University Medal for Excellence during its 250th Anniversary Commencement.
“The most important decision you make as a student is not about the history of the institution but the fit between your personality and the institution. Your decision is a personal, three-dimensional one, and not some grand statement about American history. The way it’s going to make the greatest impact is if you thrive in that institution.”
Focusing on two goals—creating a better place to work, and a better way to source food—Irene Li shared her mission for responsibility operating her popular Boston restaurant. Irene owns the Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Restaurant, where she balances environmentally sound kitchen practices, the use of fresh, local ingredients, and ethical labor practices. Irene has collected accolades from publications such as Eater, Bon Appetit, Boston Magazine and the Improper Bostonian, and was named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation in its Rising Star Chef of the Year awards for three years in a row. In 2017, Zagat named her one of its “30 Under 30.” Mei Mei began as a food truck in 2012, then as a restaurant in 2013, and includes a successful catering business as well as its own line of sauces for retail sale.
“I’m not a church-going person, but I imagine that people who go to church feel the way I felt about going to the farmer’s market every weekend.”
The differences we bring to institutions strengthen those institutions and our relationships within them, says Dr. Kedra Ishop, the vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Speaker, Dr. Ishop reviewed legal battles for racial and ethnic inclusion in higher education, from Plessy v. Ferguson, a 19th-century Supreme Court case that ruled public institutions may be “separate but equal,” to modern legal challenges to university admissions processes. Dr. Ishop serves on multiple national and international committees and advisory boards related to university diversity, affordability, assessment, admissions and enrollment. She holds three degrees from the University of Texas-Austin, where she began her career in admissions: a B.A. in sociology, a master of education in higher education administration, and a Ph.D. in educational administration.
“Who you are matters. The color of your skin matters, your economic background matters, your sexual identity matters, your political affiliation matters, and we should do our work to try to craft the diverse environments we are seeking. We are no longer using these things to keep people out, but to bring them in.”
Veterans Day speaker, Army Brig. Gen. Richard F. Johnson P ’19, encouraged students to ask themselves two questions: “What inspiration can I draw from the service of veterans?” and “How will I serve?” Brig. Gen. Johnson is the Land Component Commander, Massachusetts Army National Guard. He is responsible for training, readiness, and force development for a formation of over 6,000 soldiers, and serves as a Joint Task Force Commander and Contingency Dual Status Commander in domestic security and natural disaster response operations. He is a highly decorated veteran of four combat deployments: as a platoon leader in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, company commander in Afghanistan in 2009–10, and as a senior combat advisor with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2012–13. Brig. Gen. Johnson is a senior executive fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He completed the National Security Management Fellowship at Syracuse University and holds graduate degrees in criminal justice and public affairs from the University of Massachusetts, and he was a national security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“In a world that’s fraught with peril and those that would do harm, your veterans have been the guardians of freedom and the protectors of peace and humanity. Celebrate their service and sacrifice by making your own contribution. Find your future, decide how you will serve, and pay the best tribute that you can to those who have served you.”
Mental health advocate and spoken-word artist Hakeem Rahim, this year’s Talbot Speaker, shared his story as part of a presentation to destigmatize mental illness, encourage students to reach out when they’re hurting, and to be supportive friends when someone they know needs help. Mr. Rahim received a psychology degree from Harvard and later received a dual master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. In 2012, Mr. Rahim began openly sharing his journey with mental illness. He has testified in front of the House of Representatives and Senate, and has shared his story with over 60,000 students. In 2016, he launched the I Am Acceptance College Tour Campaign. He is a TEDx speaker and a member of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s national board. Mr. Rahim is the President and CEO of I Am Acceptance Inc, a nonprofit committed to building a platform based on values of community, wellness, and acceptance. He is also the founder and CEO of Live Breathe, LLC.
“Many people are suffering in silence, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s OK to talk about mental illness. There is no shame in seeking treatment, and a diagnosis is not
In works that explore the intersection of ubiquitous moments in history and intimate, personal narrative, poet and Bingham Visiting Writer Ron Smith asks, “What is my place and what keeps me in it?” A native of Savannah, Georgia, Mr. Smith is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, Moon Road, Its Ghostly Workshop and The Humility of the Brutes. A distinguished poet and critic, his work has appeared in many periodicals, including The Nation, Kenyon Review, New England Review and The Georgia Review, as well as several anthologies. He holds degrees from the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, and has studied at Bennington College, Worcester College at Oxford University and the Ezra Pound Center for Literature in Merano, Italy. Mr. Smith was selected as an inaugural winner of the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize in 2005, and now serves as a curator for the prize, and he was Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2014–2016. He teaches at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia and as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond.
“The number-one job of any writer, in any genre, is to tell the truth.”