Plenary Speaker

Plenary Speaker

The superpowers of purpose, quilt working and humor
Kentucky School Advocate
March 2017
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer 

Bertice Berry wove this year’s KSBA annual conference theme, Be a Superhero for Public Education, into her keynote speech to the 1,000 or so attendees, but those threads also brought her audience both to tears and uproarious laughter.

Berry, a sociologist and best-selling author, said she rereads a book about abolitionist Cassius Clay whenever she comes to Kentucky.
“People who work with education – and if you’re a school board member, you’re an educator – to me, educators are the modern-day abolitionists. You are imbued with the powers to set folks free,” she said.

Reciting a Langston Hughes poem that ends with the line, “I’m still here,” Berry told board members, “It’s up to you to figure out what to do with the fact that you are still here – it’s up to you to figure out, ‘What is my ability, what do I do exceptionally well? How can I use this to make my board even better than it is?’ … Times like this are made for people like us. These times, as difficult as they are, as full of change, you don’t know which way the wind is going to go from one day to the next, they’re made for us. This is now not the time for us to fret and run – it’s the time for us to stand.”

A person’s purpose is not a job, but a calling, Berry said – and most school board members serve out of love for schools and children.

But, she said, “If finding your purpose is finding your place to serve, you can’t just ask about it, you have to do something about it. I believe we’ve all been imbued with these superpowers to do something about it.”

She recalled a high school teacher who saw her potential and got her on track to go to college. “Her purpose, her calling, was to find kids like me,” she said. When Berry was accepted by a college but couldn’t pay, she learned at the same time that a benefactor wanted to fund a college education for someone like her.

“This is why I say, when you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.” By age 26, she had her Ph.D. “Your purpose is never just about you – your superpowers are never just for you,” Berry said, relating how many members of her family and others in her hometown ended up with degrees because of her example.

Because of her background, Berry was touched when she learned about KSBA’s First Degree Scholarship Program while watching this years’s scholarship presentation during the conference. She called it “powerful,” and has offered to help promote next year’s program.

“You’re creating an example where there was not before. And you have to get chills about this. Your legacy is not what you leave when you die. It’s what you leave when you leave the room! People can feel your superpower,” she said.

Berry advised board members to laugh more – while telling stories that made them do just that. Humor, she said, “can really lift you from things – it’s a superpower that’s gifted to you who are willing to do this kind of work.

“Let me tell you something: I get you – you never in your life wanted to do something so important and been so criticized by it. You can’t go out in public, you can’t hang out with your own friends. Ethics for you is not ethics like it is for anyone else – it’s not what you do, it’s the appearance of what you do. So now you have to walk a certain way, be a certain way, say things a certain way. You have to act like you agree with people you don’t even like.”

She also urged board teams “to continue to quilt work.”

“Quilt working is critical in this,” she said, noting that abolitionists used to sew symbolic messages into quilts to point the way to fleeing slaves in the Underground Railroad.

“Quilt working says every piece is connected to the whole. That I am because we are. Everyone is important to this. You have some connections and ties and things that are necessary for the benefit of all society,” Berry said.

Set someone free

After her mother’s death, Bertice Berry discovered her journal and incorporated some of what she learned from it into her book, The Ties That Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory, and Redemption.

She ended her KSBA conference presentation by reading from it. The reading concluded with this: “Everybody who looks like you is not on your side and everybody who don’t, ain’t against you. Talk to God and never stop loving – the more I write, the more I see, the more I know everything is going to be OK. I can feel it, so I’ll leave these pages here with you because it’s my time now and I feel that, too.

“Learn from the past that’s yours; take the gift of what I’ve seen and use it for love. Here’s the recipe of life, the road to freedom: Freedom ain’t just about living free – it’s about being free and then turning around to set somebody else free. The only problem is this: the chains on the wrist ain’t as strong as the ones on the mind. The only thing that can win over that evil is your learning and your loving. So keep learning to love, keep striving to love, because, babies, we ain’t got time for nothin’ else.”
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