Commencement 2023: Address by Director of Art, Culture, and Tourism for the City of Providence Joe Wilson, Jr.

June 22, 2023

Thank you. I’m happy to be here with you and honored to share this day with you, your family and your friends.

Again what an honor it is to speak to this extraordinary graduating high class. I have to admit that I have always had a little bit of an inferiority complex. Becoming an actor made things a little more difficult for me. It’s a tough business. We are often judged about how we look, how we sound or how we move. People make assumptions about who we are based simply upon how we present. What’s on the outside. So, as a 51-year-old gay, black man being invited to speak to you has make me ask the question “why me?” I was an actor and director in the theatre. I have indeed worked in theaters on Broadway, off Broadway and around the country. I have also taught for many years at a few institutions. And yes, I have won a few awards. Shouldn’t your graduation speaker be someone important and famous? What can I offer? What do I say? Who will care?

And then I thought…well.. to start, many of you may share my love for the arts. As a matter of fact, I was asked to speak to you before I had this fancy new job. Some of you have come to know me through my work on stage at Trinity Repertory Company for the last 18 years. In January of this year, I assumed my new role as the Director of Art, Culture and Tourism for the City of Providence. This was a big shift for me in so many ways…

So today, I come before you not as an actor, but as a bureaucrat! An arts and cultural administrator, and some times a politician. And even with this new title, I come to you this morning humbled and grateful to share in your story. Because this day is and will always remain a part of your story.

Today marks the beginning of a new phase of your journey. For some a literal journey as you be going away to college or moving to a new city or place for other opportunities. I hope some of you will stay around and make a life of abundance here in our great city. And for those of you going away, come back! But your journey will also be a spiritual one, as each of you attempts to make sense of your place in let’s be honest, what can and will be a sometimes cruel, and seemingly unforgiving world. You are at a point of your on a journey that will force you to ask tough questions of yourself, and of the relationships and community you build around you.

Your journey will be filled with success and failure….a journey marked by crippling confusion, but made glorious by profound moments clarity. But I hope that on this journey you will realize that your battle/desire should not only be to exist or survive, but live in, and help create a world in which every human being has the opportunity to work for an honest wage…To live in and help create a world were every person has the ability to provide a decent life for one’s family. And to build and help nurture a world in which all people share the belief in the importance of people/citizens committing themselves to the work of finding connections with one another that transcend race, culture, class and creed. I want you all to harness your power to build your communities and a world where all people feel a profound sense of responsibility to one another. What ever you chose to do with your lives, whatever occupation or life passion you follow, chose to build space where all people can once again believe in, and forever draw strength from the power of the collective human spirit.

And yes…you are on a journey. Your literal journey is that today, you will be getting your diplomas and exiting these door as students for the last time. As you attempt to carve a space for yourselves in this world I gotta warn you, that there will be success, failure, obstacles, setbacks, there will be high drama, (and not all just on the stage or in city government), but there will be unspeakable joy(I am a hopeful person)! My hope is that now and forever you will challenge yourselves with questions like: “What do I really want to do with my life?”… “How do I balance what I think is expected of me versus having the courage to forge and follow my own path?”…”What are my true obligations/where should my loyalties really lie?” I hope you will always possess the courage to question and challenge all that was once important, or at the time seemed right, or in a particular moment that thing which felt like a priority…these are all questions that I continue to ask my self today. Your journey, will be constant…ongoing…always changing…but don’t be afraid.

This is what is means to live a full, committed life. Leading a committed life means recognizing and owning your hopes, dreams, desires, confusion, fear, self doubt…lack of faith…moments of depression…feelings of not belonging, or your own inferiority complex! Give yourself the permission to deal with your issues…ask those profoundly deep, personal questions. Give yourselves the space to reflect. Self care y’all! I am so thankful for my training as an actor. My training has given me the confidence to pose such questions, and to honestly come to what are sometimes hard and difficult conclusions. And you can and must commit to this too. Anybody can do it.

My life passion as an actor was simply a vehicle. Having the courage to pursue this passion has given me the permission to wonder, wander, ponder, question, and ultimately demand more of myself and others. But, how we deal with these challenges will be an additional, and I think most important component of our life test…Can we face adversity with thoughtfulness, patience? Will we have the courage to listen to the tough advice? To listen thoughtfully to opposing views? Will we be persons committed to building community, through collaboration and cooperation? Will compassion and empathy be central forces that guide and influence our relationships with our fellow human beings? Will we be the keepers of a creed that our individual wholeness and happiness is directly related to the oneness of mankind? Allow me to be an old man for a minute, and have an “I believe the children are our future” moment, but I am deeply moved by speaking to you today, because I am reminded of me, a few year ago, on my high school graduation day. You are a reflection my own hope, my dreams, my excitement for what the future holds.

I am grateful being in the arts because it’s given me permission to be a creative, imaginative thinker and has allowed me to develop my ability to make decisions that fill my life with love, peace and the pursuit of truth. And that has brought me to the position I hold now. But I got news for you. We all have that creative capacity and spirit if we allow it to have a place in our lives. My life as an artist has prepared me for this new challenge in unique ways. I have learned that my life as an artist was and is about service to others. But I have also been taught the power of stay open to change. Stay in the moment. Interrogate. Stay curious. And do so by one of the pillars that the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism holds true, live your life with radical joy. Lead with your brilliant minds, but mire importantly with an open, gracious heart. Wheeler has instilled in you these values, processes, techniques and knowledge that will guide you well into the future.