Social Justice Speaker Series Welcomes Ta-Nehisi Coates

JANUARY 29, 2021

In 2018, the graduating class and their families bestowed a priceless gift upon Nightingale: the Social Justice Speaker Series. Upon the presentation of this gift, the members of the Class of 2018 began by referencing the words of our school’s founder:

“At our school’s first commencement in 1925, Miss Nightingale stated:

‘If you truly live by that standard of truth, friendship and loyalty, you will find that you are given the power to share your life, which means forgetting yourself and thinking of other people, remembering that only in sharing and in service, and in sacrifice may the radiant fullness of life be realized.’”

Connecting Miss Nightingale’s 1925 charge to their gift, the Class of 2018 continued to write:

“This gift will allow us to select speakers whose messages are relevant to the times and meet the needs of our community. The chosen speakers will provide us with the wherewithal to encourage and leverage the kind of change needed for the benefit of every Nightingale student and alum. This series will be instrumental in raising our awareness in new ways and will serve as an opportunity to promote ongoing education for all members in our community.”

We are incredibly grateful to the Class of 2018 for their gift and for their hopes for a brighter future, and a stronger Nightingale.

This year, Nightingale had the honor of welcoming bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates as our Social Justice Series speaker. Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is also the author of the bestselling books The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between The World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. His first novel, The Water Dancer, was released in September 2019. Mr. Coates is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and currently writes the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.

This particular evening was unique in two ways. Instead of Mr. Coates delivering a pre-prepared lecture, he engaged in conversation with two senior leaders in our community, Cassidy S. ’21 and Indonesia O. ’21, co-heads of our Inclusivity Board. This particular set-up was a first for Mr. Coates: despite his many speaking engagements, he had never participated in an event moderated by students.

Prior to the event, Cassidy and Indonesia worked with Director of Diversity and Equity Johara Sealy to select their questions based on what they hoped would produce the most thought-provoking and interesting answers. They focused on structuring the virtual gathering in a way that balanced deep and insightful thoughts with natural and easy-going discussion—with some space for light-hearted conversation as well. “We didn't want the conversation to come off as stiff or forced. At the same time, we did want to ask the important questions and stay on the path we had planned.”

A natural conversation flowed between Mr. Coates and the students that proved engaging and informative. Cassidy and Indonesia did have a moment when they first met Mr. Coates that felt a little nerve-wracking. “We are both such huge fans. But it became easy to navigate our conversation with him in a matter of minutes because he is very easy-going...his answers were so profound and well thought, giving us a lot to ponder after the interview was over.”

The evening weaved its way in and around a variety of topics, including why Mr. Coates has decided to explore the themes of truth and racism through his work, what inspired him to become a writer and who he views his intended audience to be, how his experience at Howard University shaped his writing and view of the world, what his writing process looks like, and what gives him hope in our current world. In response to the last question, Mr. Coates posited, “It is not about hope. I want to live a life of meaning. I don’t need this to end well. I just don’t want to end up on my couch watching it.”

When asked about his writing process, Mr. Coates shared, “I write about things I go to sleep thinking about and wake up thinking about. The things that grab me. The things I’m obsessed with. I give in to that obsession.” As he continued to illustrate how and why he writes, Cassidy and Indonesia found themselves surprised. “He simply writes what is on his mind, without thinking about the ways people may take his words or the audiences absorbing them. His writing is primarily for himself! Yet it remains so relatable and enthralling. Being able to accomplish that duality is amazing.” They were also struck by Mr. Coate’s ability to write about race and systemic oppression, but still have the discussion around these topics with him feel like it was one-on-one.

In the days since our evening with Mr. Coates, Cassidy and Indonesia are still thinking about how there is beauty in simplicity. “We are both activists who are passionate about human rights and equity. But Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired us to also live for ourselves. He cared about telling the stories that he wishes he could have read as a child. He searches for fulfillment for himself, and he urged us to do the same. We took that to heart."