By Jennifer McDonell
As far as traditions go, commencement speakers are as old as they come. With the likes of Winston Churchill at Harrow School in 1941 to John F. Kennedy at American University in 1963, the position of speech giver at a graduation is a hallowed position saved for the most influential and admired. Albion College has seen its share of great speakers but perhaps the newest announcement for the 2015 graduation speaker is the most vital in years . Albion Alumna, Reverend Faith Fowler, is the founder of Cass Community Services and has tirelessly served the Detroit community for 21 years. Fowler is uniquely able to find resources and talent where others cannot. She created 85 jobs for unemployed members of the community when she built a massively successful Cass Community store that sells coasters, sandals and mud mats with recycled tires, selling over 100,000 “Detroit Treads” sandals. And in the wake of the arrival of Mauri Ditzler–who has made a point to impart the importance of community-building to students–It is only fitting for our school to choose a Michigan community leader.
There is really no better person to teach us students a thing or two about community building. Reverend Fowler has never tried to garner personal attention, but rather use her position to raise awareness for the people she works for. In her book, “This Far by Faith,” Fowler mentions some of her own inspirations, including Jane Addams, a 19th century suffrage advocate from Chicago.
“Still, I feel a kindred spirit with the reform leader (Jane Addams),” Fowler said. “I gravitate towards Addams because she was not afraid to work at the grassroots level.”
Fowler begins her book by mentioning an instance when two elderly women were robbed several times, and how she dealt with the situation, while also personifying the very people many dehumanize and reduce to an umbrella term, “the impoverished.” Fowler, herself, was not afraid to start at the grassroots level, embodying the term to the fullest. Starting out at a Detroit church, she ended up being a makeshift social worker. People gravitated towards her helpful energy and enthusiasm, asking her for help when they didn’t have others to go to.
“So often, poor people get reduced to numbers of graphs. When they are not treated like research data, they tend to be either vilified or regarded as helpless victims,” Fowler writes,“One of my goals is to give a sense of them as three dimensional, flesh and blood people.”
Fowler’s memoir is titled after a 1963 hymn called “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” as well as being a play on her own name. It’s easy to see why the hymn speaks to Fowler, with a refrain of “I’m gonna stay on the battlefield/ till I die/I’m gonna treat everyone right/till I die.” In fact, Fowler has done just that. She’s had every opportunity to run and hide from the hardships she’s experienced, but has never stopped fighting for those around her. Saying she “treats everyone right” is an understatement. That’s why she is a perfect fit for the 2015 commencement.
Fowler proves that a liberal arts degree is malleable and flexible. We come out of this school as well-rounded, prepared individuals. She took her unique vision and made it a reality. So often, college graduates feel trapped by debt and societal norms. A lot of us think “I have to go to med school to have a profitable career…I have to prove that I am just as qualified and socialized as a public college student.” Fowler proves as an alumna that we can have confidence in our unique skills.Her successes show that profit is not just measured monetarily, but by the number of lives we touch with our work. It is not just being commemorated in Forbes magazine that creates a meaningful legacy, it is being remembered in the hearts of people we have helped. You can see it in the tangible change reflected in a once-broken community that now stands united.
Long after the newspaper articles written about her are forgotten, Fowler’s work will live on in the people she has worked with. There are dozens of Detroit children who can read and write because of her, and they will carry that gift forward for the rest of their lives. I’m proud that Fowler is the commencement speaker this year, because she doesn’t look to just “help” people—she works with them, and most importantly, she values them. She inspires people to help themselves and to dive deep into the resources around them in creative ways.