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Karis Braxton Delivers Grace Church High School Commencement Speech | Be a Leader for Righteousness

Righteousness is about the pursuit of what is morally right and what is just. (May 26, 2023)

Photo Credit: Samuel Stuart

Speech posted with permission from Karis Braxton.

For the past fourteen years of my life, my father and I have started each day with a series of affirmations and encouragements. The most long standing tradition between him and me begins with him saying, “Be a leader for…,” and I respond with righteousness. "Be a leader for righteousness." Righteousness is about the pursuit of what is morally right and what is just.

It is the affirmations and words of wisdom from those who raised me that have shaped me into who I am today. Many of the lessons I’ve been taught have been grounded in Christianity, primarily through sermons and scriptures. While one singular religion cannot encompass the entirety of every human experience, I have discovered that many themes and messages within Christianity offer beautiful insight into what it means to be human.

There is one particular message from a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon that has always stuck with me. The title of the sermon itself, “A Tough Mind and A Tender Heart,” encompasses its main message—the importance of balancing a tough mind and tender heart. Now, a tough mind is not an invincible mind, but rather a resilient, vulnerable, and thoughtful one. A tender heart is one imbued with kindness, empathy, and compassion.

We have grown up under a microscope in a fast-paced and clamorous world. Through technology, we have been gifted the costly ability to witness almost anything we could want even though it might not be what we necessarily need, or should have, to experience. It is quite easy to desensitize ourselves and harden our hearts out of a need for survival. A need to “make it through” the chaos. But to harden a heart and maintain a desensitized mind is to evade the responsibility of the soul to explore, to exist, to learn, and to teach. The world’s roar is not one we can always quiet. So, we must be able to stand in the noise, as leaders for righteousness with a tough mind and tender heart.

The world’s roar is not one we can always quiet. And, so, we must be able to stand in the noise, as leaders for righteousness with a tough mind and tender heart.

At Grace, we have been given a world-class education that has shaped us into leaders, revolutionaries, brilliant thinkers, creatives, and artists. They have given us the skills to find and embrace antidotes to complacency, and it is our responsibility to act upon them. We must solve problems, not perpetuate them; embrace diversity not conformity; prioritize empathy over ego; value humanity over profit; honor lessons from mistakes rather than idolizing perfection.

This world is loud. It is messy. It can be unforgiving. But, we can still be kind and just through it all. We can employ and maintain a tough mind and a tender heart. We can find joy amidst the fear, hope amidst the sorrow, and hold on to our integrity and our purpose.

It is not always easy to choose love over fear. But it is always a choice. One we are privileged to make. We can choose to show up in the entirety of our humanity, flawed and all—to try, and fall and fail, and try, and fall and fail, and try again because life is rare, it is beautiful, it is precious, and it is worth everything our soul has to offer.

So, if you find yourself, in this next chapter of your life, feeling pushed around by the noise of the world, or feel that you are on the brink of wanting to push back, I hope that you look in any mirror you can find and ask yourself: Is my heart kind? Am I allowing my mind to embrace resilience and change? Are my choices just? I hope you ask yourself these questions everyday.

I hope you ask these questions to your friends, your family, your future colleagues, and the people you meet in this next chapter of your lives. And, I hope the answer is always yes.

For the past year, I have greeted you all in every email message or grade meeting with the phrase “hello wonderful people.” We are truly wonderful people, and I hope that we continue to be wonderful leaders for righteousness with tough, resilient minds and vulnerable, tender hearts. Stay wonderful, stay excellent, and stay honest, beautiful people.

Karis Jendayi Braxton enjoys researching how relationship dynamics, often those divergent from racial or heterosexual norms, are influenced by social pressures, ideologies, and institutions. At Grace Church School, Karis served as Student Body President, Peer Leader, and School Ambassador among other leadership positions. In her roles, Karis acquired a valuable lesson: leadership and supporting a community is not about perfection or expectation. It’s about creating space for others to be vulnerable, openly reflective, and introspective, and ultimately letting others decide if they want to engage with that opportunity. Her love for children brings a vibrancy and ignites her “inner-child” while also teaching her how to understand emotional nuances. Karis will attend Yale University as a freshman in the Fall of 2023.


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