Commencement Speaker 2018: Reverend Liz Walker

By, Teresa L.

Reverend Liz Walker, this year’s graduation speaker, had a long and exceptional career as a journalist, but that work was just preparation.

She spent close to thirty years in television, culminating in twenty years as a co-anchor of WBZ-TV in Boston, where she was the city’s first African-American television news anchor. For her work on WBZ-TV, she won two Emmy Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award for journalistic excellence. Reverend Walker’s career began when she took a job as a public affairs director in Little Rock, Arkansas, out of college, but that wasn’t always her plan.

“I grew up in the desegregated South, so dreams and expectations were limited for me as a black child growing up in America,” she said. “I made my path as I walked it. The possibilities emerged as I grew and went to different places.” In college, after her writing was praised by a high school teacher, Reverend Walker was inspired to study journalism, theater, and education, and when she graduated, she found a job in television.

Then, in 2001, she took a trip to a very “different place” — South Sudan. Her visit as a reporter was transformative. Reverend Walker realized that she had to do more than just report on what was happening. “I think I learned from journalism about the importance of stories, but I think that it was just kind of preparation work for where I am now,” she said. “I think where I am now [is] a lot more work than journalism because you’re not just viewing something, you’re actually trying to change something, you’re trying to make a difference in a deeper way.”

She produced reports and a documentary about Sudan, and co-founded “My Sister’s Keeper,” an organization that seeks to support Sudanese women and girls through economic and educational opportunities. Reverend Gloria White-Hammond, co-Pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston, joined Reverend Walker in this effort. A Winsor connection: Reverend Gloria White-Hammond’s daughter, Reverend Mariama White-Hammond ’96 spoke at Winsor’s commencement last year. Chief among the group’s initiatives is the Kurnyuk School for Girls in Akon, Sudan, the first of its kind in the region, which opened in 2009; however, operation has become increasingly difficult as the political system in the region has become more volatile. Reverend Walker’s experiences in Sudan also prompted her enrollment in Harvard Divinity School, where she earned her master’s degree in Divinity in 2005. Her work in Sudan has close parallels with her efforts at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, where she has served as Pastor since 2011. “[The oppression of women] is a global reality, that’s not just Sudan,” Reverend Walker said. “In that part of the world, girls don’t even get educated. They have to fight for that because in that part of the world there are prescribed roles that women play, and women are pushing up against those roles. Well, isn’t that what’s happening here? [… We see] the same themes that you run into anywhere, that women are pushing the envelope and trying to find our identities and who we are and our potential.”

The historic church, which is housed in a beautiful gothic building, was established in 1886. Although RPC has had a long history of activism, even facing arson as a result of their support of a Freedom School and the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program during the 1970s, Reverend Walker has made it her priority to increase this focus on social issues and the community’s advancement. She oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art facility, which will open this fall, for the Dearborn STEM Academy, a Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE) school that has a close relationship with RPC.

As Pastor, Reverend Walker strives to heal wounds in the community caused by mental health issues, gun violence, racism, domestic and sexual abuse; the church houses the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing. “We try to give people a safe space where they can come and share their wounds, and maybe we can all help each other to heal,” she explained. “I’m trying to teach people to see the common pain that we share so that we can find some kind of common path to healing. […] The work that we’re doing there is healing work.”

It was through her work with “My Sister’s Keeper” that Reverend Walker first experienced and developed her skills in this “healing work,” especially through establishing dialogue between groups with opposing viewpoints.

“What I believe in healing is that if you and I can have a conversation, perhaps together we can find out what the real problem [is] and see how we can join together with our different views on solving the real problem,” she said. “Working for healing is not a sign of weakness. Working for healing is a sign that you want to expand your power… So that’s my kind of simple theology and simple philosophy around healing.”

So how does that philosophy apply to Winsor? In these highly polarized, divisive, and violent times, it is more important than ever to work to find common ground with others and recognize each other’s humanity while still advocating for our values and what we know is right.

Reverend Walker met with Winsor’s graduating Class of 2018 in mid-May, and she was struck by the Winsor students’ awareness of the world.

“I want to remind young women that you have a lot to fight for—God, we have messed up a lot of stuff out there!—but you give us hope because of your world view and your generosity of spirit.”