Kennedy Odede's Commencement Speech
Thank you University of Hartford, the faculty and most importantly, the graduates. This is YOUR day! I stand on the shoulders of so many who worked to make opportunities and education possible for me and for you. I feel at home being in Connecticut and here at the University of Hartford. Just six years ago, I started my college education just a few miles from here - something I could have only dreamed of.
When I was six years old, I found my first grey hair - right in the middle of my head. My mother told me it was a sign of wisdom. I was convinced it was just stress. After all, growing up in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, is no easy task. Kibera is home to an estimated 1 million people in an area the size of New York City’s Central Park.
Which is why as a kid, if you told me that one day I would be standing before thousands of people, accepting an honorary degree from the University of Hartford, I would not have believed you. Living in the slums of Kibera meant that food and clean water were luxuries. And, education, well that was something that only the fortunate ones were able to experience. <br
My family could not afford the fees required to send me to school. I remember watching with envy as other children went. I spent my days finding newspapers in the garbage to piece together words, so that I could teach myself how to read and write. When one of my friends would come home from school, he would help me with the words I didn’t understand. I was determined to have a different life, but poverty felt like a shadow that I could not escape.
At eighteen, I worked a dangerous factory job for $1.50 everyday. It was a two hour walk each-way, from my home to the factory, and the hours were brutal. I came home and found out that my friend Calvin hung himself. Like so many others, he was tired of this life and the struggle that came with it. In Kibera, hope was getting scarce, but it was all we had.
At some point in all of our lives, there is a moment when you’re at a crossroads. You can continue on the path you’ve always known - whether good or bad - or you take the path of the unknown, the one that will likely change your life. One night after a long day at work, I found a boy selling a second-hand soccer ball. Something in me said I had to have it, so I used my last twenty cents to buy it. I was exhausted by the poverty, the violence, and constantly seeing my community suffer. For me, the ball symbolized that this was my time to choose a different path.
I started to unite youth in my community over soccer - simply to get us together and start somewhere. It turned into us talking about the problems in Kibera and ways to solve them. Those talks evolved into action - we began cleaning the litter from the streets, we started a theater program to showcase social justice issues, and developed initiatives to empower women and girls. The soccer ball turned into what is now called Shining Hope for Communities - SHOFCO for short - an organization that has two free schools for girls, health clinics, clean water kiosks and community empowerment programs.
I think that it’s important that I tell you that none of this happened overnight. It was a culmination of small choices that led me to this point. When I bought the soccer ball, I didn’t know I’d start an organization, be a CEO, or really make an impact at all. So, it is okay to not have everything figured out. Do the small amounts of good you can. And, know that there is nothing that you can do on your own. You need teamwork. Starting SHOFCO took years of work by the people of Kibera - people who were invested in their own success and took risks with me everyday to build a brighter and safer slum. Most importantly, I believe all of this was possible for two reasons: I took the unknown path, set on doing something good and I remained deeply committed to my community. These are the same ideals that the University of Hartford stands for. It’s why I’m so proud to be standing on this stage.
It’s unfair that only some of us in the world can get a college degree. That only some of us have a chance to achieve our aspirations. So, we must ask ourselves, what do we do with this privilege? The answer is: we must use it to make others lives better. We must use it to make our communities and our world better. As global citizens with so much opportunity and potential, we have a responsibility to do good. Just like the University of Hartford Alumni before you, like Robert Forrester, the CEO of the Newman’s Own Foundation. Robert believed in Shining Hope for Communities from the beginning. He took a gamble on me - and the vision I had for the people of Kibera. Our teamwork has made the incredible happen: last year, over 95,000 people in the slums benefited from SHOFCO’s programming.
College showed me that I could be anything I wanted - a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an activist. And, while I know that these past four years were not easy for any of you - with all of the sleepless nights and the hard work - I promise that one day you will look back with fondness of your limitless opportunities to learn and grow. My entire life, I’ve been reminded that light can shine in the darkest places if you let it. Marianne Williamson once said:
""Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ...Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do...It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
I learned in Kibera that when light shines, you can’t cover it! Today at Hartford, I can see it in all of you. We are all destined for our own kind of greatness and your education these past four years has been preparing you to discover it.
My mother once told me: You don't have to change the world. You just have to touch it. I hope all of you discover your purpose and touch the world for good. Choose the unknown path, stay committed to your community and always remember to let your light shine.