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'Somebody say amen': Lisa Borders tells graduates to embrace adversity in Commencement address

As the 5,500 soon-to-be-official graduates sat, anxiously awaiting the conferral of their degrees, Lisa Borders took a selfie. 

Three minutes into her Commencement address, the former president of the WNBA and TIME'S UP took a selfie with each section of the audience. Borders, a Duke Trustee and Trinity ‘79, said her mother always took a photo of her at every progress point, so she wanted to do the same with the 2019 graduates. On her first mother's day without her mom, Borders shared the lessons she learned from her mother about the importance of tackling adversity head-on.

"'Adversity is like the agitator in the washing machine,'" Borders said her mom used to tell her. "'It beats the heck out of the clothes but they're clean when they come out.'"

Borders told the audience to welcome failure and difficulty, even if it feels devastating in the moment. She encouraged graduates to “expect adversity, invite it and embrace it” because it will make them stronger and open up new opportunities. 

She discussed two periods of her life in which she endured hardship and came out better for it. In seventh grade, Borders was sent as one of a handful of African American students integrated into The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga. She said that students there called her the n-word at least once a day from the time she enrolled until her graduation in 12th grade. 

Borders told her mother that she didn’t want to go to Westminster anymore, but her mother would not let her leave. She would remind Borders of the washing machine analogy and push her to succeed. Thanks to her efforts in school, Borders got accepted into Duke as part of the the Class of 1979—the first time she had felt truly “seen, heard and valued.”

"Discouragement does not have to be debilitating,” she said. “If anything, discouragement should drive you to open your own doors and design your own future.”

Three decades after Borders graduated from Duke, she ran for mayor of Atlanta and lost. For three days, she said, she wallowed in self-pity. Then, her perspective changed. She realized that there were more ways to serve than just public office. 

She said that if she hadn’t lost the mayoral race in 2009, she would not have been available to work as the vice president of global community affairs at the Coca-Cola Company—a company where she said her maternal grandparents had worked for a combined 45 years. Furthermore, she may never have become a Trustee, met NBA commissioner Adam Silver and become president of the WNBA.

Because of that election loss, Borders learned an important lesson that she urged graduates to heed as they go forward in life.

“Failure is not fatal—it’s feedback,” she said.

In the speech, Borders did not mention her stint as president and CEO of TIME’S UP, an organization founded in response to sexual abuse accusations in the entertainment industry. She led the organization from October 2018 to February 2019, when she resigned after allegations of sexual assault came out against her son. 

Borders also wanted the graduates to sustain their good health and fortune. She talked about her father, a doctor who would take her on house calls to open her eyes to the suffering of others. She said that “but for the grace of the universe,” anybody could be “adversely affected.” 

She called on the graduates to sustain their health and “find the power in discomfort” so they can ease the discomfort of others and lead a compassionate life.

Throughout the speech, Borders would call on the audience to respond to her words—“somebody say amen.” As the graduates said “amen” in one voice, she reminded them that they are entering into the Duke family.

“We will always be here not just to tell you, but to show you that the only way around adversity is not around it at all—it is straight through it,” she said. “Dukies are like titanium. We might be dented on all sides but we are never crushed.”

President Vincent Price presided over the Commencement ceremony, his second as president. Senior Leah Rosen gave the student speech. More than 5,500 undergraduate and graduate degrees were conferred. 

The University awarded four honorary degrees at the ceremony as well. The recipients were Elizabeth Alexander, author and president of the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor at New York University and National Humanities Medal winner; Brian Kobilka, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry and professor at Stanford University; and Caroline Series, a mathematician known for co-authoring “Indra's Pearls: The Vision of Felix Klein.”