Traci Adedeji’s 2021 Rho II Commencement Speech

In February 2021, on the heels of a waning pandemic that spun the world into a state of uncertainty, the Rho II class was encouraged to dive deeper into those feelings and idea of leaving conversations with “more questions than answers.”

Eight months later, things felt closer to ‘normal’ as the Rho II gathered at the iconic Newport Towers for an in-person graduation ceremony to reflect on their experiences together. With so much having happened over the last eight months not only in the world, but within the class, were we any closer to having answers? Class Speaker Traci Adedeji shared her perspective with her classmates:

“On behalf of the Rho II class – the BEST, best class ever, I’d like to start by thanking Mike, Kristin, Teresa, Kim, Joanne, and the entire LRI staff and board of directors, for all that they do to make this program possible.  I can imagine the challenges of executing a program with so many moving parts. But you all do it seamlessly, with patience and grace.

I am truly honored to stand before you today representing the Rho-torious Rho IIs! What a 10 months it’s been!  And true to our program’s theme, most of us still have more questions than answers.  Questions like how big is Geri’s closet?  Who does Ace of Base better at karaoke – Lamel or Adriana?  Or how much does Dennise charge for her master class on taking selfies?

I’d thought to keep my remarks universal, but I figured that since you chose me to speak, you were interested to hear what I had to say.  So, thank you in advance for indulging my introspection.  It is my hope that what I have to say will resonate with you all.

I applied to LRI because I am a transplant to Rhode Island.  I moved here in 2017, when my employer relocated me.  I moved here alone, with no family or friends, seeking ways to learn about my new home state and to discover ways in which I could contribute to my community.  When I happened upon the LRI program, I started the application, and partway through, I did that thing that we sometimes do to ourselves – I started comparing my background and credentials to that of past program participants. I started to doubt my qualifications and what I had to offer.  I talked myself into believing that I wouldn’t measure up, and that it would be a waste of time for me to apply, so I abandoned my application.  About a week later, I received an email from Kristen encouraging me to complete it.  I took her email as a sign from the universe that it was meant for me to apply.  I decided that the worst that could happen is that I would not be accepted, in which case I would be in no different a situation than I was prior to applying.  So imagine my delight when I was accepted, and afforded the opportunity to make all of you amazing new friends, and to do one of the things I love most – to talk and exchange ideas.  It reminded me that leadership is not about titles and credentials – it is about mindset and commitment.

I am a music lover, so one of my favorite things about program days was the music. You may recall that we were asked to share our favorite songs at the beginning of the program.  It was interesting throughout our time together to hear songs with which I was not familiar, and a lot of fun trying to figure out who had selected a particular song.  As I prepared my remarks for today, I searched for musical inspiration, and who knew that that singer/songwriter Johnny Nash, who famously recorded the songs “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Tears on My Pillow”, had also recorded a song called “More Questions than Answers”?!?  Seemed fortuitous, so I’d like to share a few lyrics from that song. And because I am a leader who recognizes her limitations, I will speak them rather than sing them:

There are more questions than answers
Pictures in my mind that will not show
There are more questions than answers
And the more I find out the less I know
Yeah, the more I find out the less I know

The problems we face as a society – the ones we considered during our program – are huge, complex issues. Although our conversations on program days only scratched the surface, I certainly recognized that we were not going to solve pervasive issues like homelessness, food insecurity or equity in education in the space of an 8-hour day. I often wondered if that might not have been by design. Since our theme was “more questions than answers”, was the structure of the program designed to force us to slow down and consider these issues through a fresh lens?  Was it a challenge to not be baby birds with our mouths open, waiting to digest what the program fed us, but to instead soar like eagles and to drive the direction of the discussions?

As leaders, we must have the courage to ask uncomfortable questions. To be fair, that is sometimes easier said than done. Courtesy and political correctness have a way of tamping down that question that is percolating in your spirit.  You don’t want to be “that” person who “stirs the pot”.  You don’t want to come off as confrontational or disrespectful.  So you wait.  You wait for what feels like the right opportunity to express an unpopular sentiment.  You wait for someone else to take the risk and to say what you are thinking and you then co-sign. And while you wait, those in our community who feel that they do not have a voice or any power-  they wait for respite from their problems.

I choose to believe that we did what needed to be done within the framework of the program, by starting the necessary conversations.  We connected with resources that are doing the work, or that can be held accountable to do the work.  We were gifted with information and granted access to an extensive network comprised of our classmates, the LRI alumni network and community leaders.  We have been handed a powerful toolset that can help propel those conversations into action. Action in the form of our individual social contracts and group projects, many of which will impact Rhode Island long after today.

Complex issues that evolve over time, require multi-faceted solutions, that are flexible enough to adapt to evolving societal norms and needs, technological advances and other factors that stress the systems put in place to make our communities work.  Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all answer, and few solutions are evergreen. The good news, though, is that the need for multi-faceted solutions makes room for each of us to be a part of the solution, regardless our level of experience or expertise.  If we think of these issues like a puzzle that needs to be put together, we recognize that while no two pieces are exactly alike, each piece is necessary to complete the picture.

More questions than answers, huh? That’s a tough one for leaders who are the often looked to specifically for a­­nswers.  We instinctively want to decisively and efficiently solve the problems that come before us, so that we can move on to the next one. But there is power in allowing room to ask questions before jumping directly to solutions.  And if you really think about it, there is something a little arrogant about leaping to the implementation of solutions without having taken the time to ask questions that ascertain need. We can all agree that water is a basic human need that sustains life, right?  Well, jumping to answers without having asked any questions – meaning taking the time to hear from those we seek to serve, to understand what they believe will best meet their needs – is the equivalent of offering a glass of water to someone who is drowning in the ocean.

We spoke a good deal during the past 10 months about the idea of “service”. So I would like to throw out a few rhetorical questions for your consideration:

  • How do we embody servant leadership?
  • What is the “why?” that drives our Leadership in Action?
  • As individuals, are we working toward a greater good as identified by those we wish to serve, or are we working toward some self-aggrandizing goal?
  • Do we have the humility to openly acknowledge what we don’t know as confidently as we pontificate about what we do?
  • Do we feel that we must always be the ones “in charge” because we know best, or do we allow grace and space for others to be heard, in the interest of true collaboration?

Questions are the tools that arm us with the resources we need to enact meaningful change. And meaningful change requires sacrifice.  What are we willing to sacrifice to make change in our world?  As leaders we certainly are busy people and absolutely have the right to set the priorities in our lives.  We have families.  We have careers.  We have personal commitments we have made to ourselves and others.  But we are also citizens of this world.  I would argue that the right to bemoan the ills of society comes with a responsibility to be a part of the solution. Another belief I hold is that people make time to do the things that are important to them. I would challenge each of us to pick at least one thing we can do, to make a meaningful change, that requires personal sacrifice. You might already be doing it through one of your social contracts.  But I would also argue that if your service doesn’t cause you at least a little discomfort or inconvenience, then it is not really a sacrifice. But remember that if everyone does a little, no one has to do a lot.

The only constant in this life is change. As leaders, our charge is to move through this world with an endless, healthy curiosity, that propels us to ask the questions required to influence that change.  The more we ask the uncomfortable questions, the easier it becomes to continue doing so.  Our courage will inspire others to follow suit, and we will progress toward the ultimate goal that is captured so beautifully by another lyric from Johnny Nash. We will eventually be able to say:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day

Thank you for allowing me this time to share with you and congratulations to my fellow Rho II’s for being the BEST best class ever!”