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News > Community > Graduation Speaker - Oenone Chadburn

Graduation Speaker - Oenone Chadburn

24 Jun 2024
Written by Nadia Al-akhal

On BBC Radio 4 there is a programme called “Young Again”. The presenter Kirsty Young talks to high profile guests on what they learnt about themselves, throughout their life experiences, and what advice they would give themselves if they were starting out again.

I may not have quite the ranking of a “high profile BBC guest”, but I do need to thank Marymount. Preparing for this speech has given me that exact same, slightly self indulgent, opportunity. Sadly, you do not have Kirsty Young to pull out key observations, so I am afraid, my esteemed graduands, you will have to use your finely honed analytical skills to find my key messages in the speech. There will be a test at the end. Just kidding. 

I distinctly remember my first exposure to workplace sexism. It was over tea and cake. I sat there with a burning indignation while politely making conversation. I was too well behaved for anything else.

Twenty five years ago, I gave up a managerial job to become a volunteer in Sri Lanka. Despite the opportunities of progression and financial security in the UK, I found I needed to be true to myself. Aged 19 I had had a very clear calling from God to both serve and address the injustice of international poverty. By my late 20’s I was no clearer how this was going to happen, so I made some sacrificial choices. A wise friend once said to me, courage or comfort - you can’t have both. My placement as a Projects Advisor with HelpAge Sri Lanka gave me extraordinary insight, and I realised how narrow my life experiences had been to date. Like you graudands, I had had a private education. Like you, I had a very international upbringing living in Japan, Australia and South Korea before I went to University. And like you my privilege had given me a protection - a protection which allowed me to grow in confidence, stature and my own capabilities, but also a protection which one day needed to come down, so I could face and experience the world as others do.

My placement was not easy. There were no women in positions of authority. Women were all junior officers expected to give up their jobs when they got married, or senior ladies acting as secretaries to the various directors. Influence was not driven by performance or intellect. I was judged by my youth and identity as a woman. This, combined with my naive understanding of the power, hierarchy and status, meant that my voice struggled to cut through.

I had a couple of wonderful colleagues who valued me for who I was, and the trainees allocated to me were hugely keen to learn new management practices. But I had been overzealous with senior management, writing paper after paper identifying fundamental changes they needed to improve the quality of life for the older people. I felt deflated, and after 18 months I handed in my resignation. Next day, I was invited in for tea and a cake. I felt patronised as they thanked me for my assistance, and we sat and made small talk about me getting married, and my future family life.

Then a strange thing happened. In my 6 weeks notice period, I was invited in to leave a training plan, and then I got invited into meetings for advice. I saw small but significant changes in their systems and processes, and more budget was given to the trainee officers to support the older people’s homes.

If I had genuinely listened to my pre-departure volunteer training, I may have seen this coming. I may have understood that being a disruptor did not always mean a strong minded female voice who constantly challenged authority. Nurturing relationships, understanding culture, embracing your context was where influence began. And it started by drinking tea and eating cake. What you don't know about me is that I don’t even like tea.

Those experiences in Sri Lanka taught me a significant lesson - you never stop learning. Since then I have chosen to be a lifelong learner with the principle that every situation has something to teach me. A coach once said to me “what do you know now that you will find out in 1 year's time?” (Repeat).

It's a profound question. For you graduands, what do you know now, from your years at Marymount, that will equip you for your road ahead? I had been taught in a classroom on what to expect in my volunteer placement, but it was not until I went through that experience that I retrospectively realised what I had been taught.

Store up your Marymount knowledge, emotional intelligence, support networks and friendships as the reserve tanks for your journey ahead.

I certainly did not always feel prepared for my journey. Going into University I thought I was going to go into the city of London on some kind of graduate scheme. Coming out I knew that my faith asked me to serve others. My life needed to be more than prayer on Sunday. My decision to follow Christ 24/7 evolved into a profound life changing adventure. It taught me that the blessings and privilege I had been given, needed to be exercised with humility and grace.

In other words I learnt to drink tea.

My decision also taught me, I could trust stepping out in my faith. If you had told me that my time in Sri Lanka would result in a UN job working in the (then) conflict affected areas of the North and East, I would not have accepted the placement. And if you had told me I would end up working with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister's office on demining programmes during the peace process, I would have not got on the plane. And if you had told me I would find a life partner, and we would be bringing up multicultural kids, I would have run a mile. And if you had told me I would be in Sri Lanka when the 2005 Tsunami came, I would have been terrified.

Your motto this year is “rooted in love, a heart without boundaries”. Much of my time in Sri Lanka, I was out of my depth, but never out of God’s love. 1 John 4 vs 8 says “perfect love casts out fear”. I learnt that I needed to have the courage to step out of my comfort zone, to address the injustice of poverty, exclusion, greed and exploitation which the Bible speaks so deeply about.

And my journey of being out of my depth did not stop. I ended up working in Afghanistan drinking tea with women in the remote Kindu Kush, but where it is now impossible for any girl to graduate. They need your voice. I felt compelled to work on climate justice issues and its impact on the livelihoods of the Sahel and the deltas of Bangladesh (to name just a few locations). The world needs you to train as climate scientists, policy makers and campaigners. I ended up in a multicultural marriage and my eyes were opened to the historic suppression and the current trauma of what is going on in Haiti. Humanity needs you to exercise your privilege in a way which redistributes wealth and opportunity. In that way your future lives will bring hope and leave a legacy on a world which has some pretty wicked issues to address.

When I was 15, I was not taught anything about black history. But through my own exploration I found myself a book on Martin Luther King Jr and the 1950s black civil rights movement in America. He immediately became a hero of mine, and while he is probably considered as the forefather of the Black Lives Matters movement, he also understood what it was to be an inclusive internationalist. To quote his very last Christmas sermon.

Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese [person]. Or maybe you’re desirous of having [have] cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

So what do you think I would have said to Kirsty Young as my messages to my younger self?

1. Courage or comfort - you can’t have both. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by others - have the courage of your convictions. Also don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by the unknown road ahead - have the courage to make mistakes and be humble enough to learn from them.

2. Be a lifelong learner - what do you know now that you will need to draw on later? Don’t let pride or arrogance create the illusion there is nothing to learn. Every situation, both positive and negative, should mould and shape you. Wisdom is learnt, it is not genetically gifted.

3. Know who you are - privilege is not about power, it is about humility, being true to your faith and identity. Listen to others in their life experience, hand over opportunity and seek collaboration, spreading hope wherever you can.

Today, I know your story does not end here. In fact, today, I know it has only just begun.

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