On Thursday morning, Union College students, faculty and staff gathered in Conway Boatman Chapel for the first in-person Spring Convocation since 2020. A solitary djembe—an upright hand drum originally from West Africa—sat center stage.
Joan Brannon, Co-Executive Director of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), began her address by playing the drum. Also the founder of DrummingWorks, Brannon uses rhythm and percussion to create safe, joyful spaces.
Brannon led the Union community in creating rhythm as both an energizing start to the semester and a metaphor for overcoming differences. While drumming, she recited poetic verse which referred to the drum as the “heartbeat of all people” and “as ancient as time.” She then invited the audience to clap along as she continued drumming.
“When we clap together,” she said, “we sync up and align our effort. When we do this, we can move in one accord.”
Brannon pointed out that although “nobody here knew where [she] was going with the drumming,” the crowd was able to “release to the moment” and trust the people around them.
Brannon defined being in sync as “a state in which two or more people or things agree or match with one another and work together properly.” She then asked how we can create other moments like this without the drum.
“In my work as a community organizer,” she said, “that’s really the constant question that comes up over and over in one form or another. ... How can we acknowledge the value in each individual voice and blend that into … a Unison voice?”
“Or,” she laughed, “a voice that is in Union. Get it—Union?”
Brannon encouraged the audience to “follow the example of the drum, to be led more often by our hearts, to be led by what is natural to us.”
“We know how,” Brannon said, reminding the audience of the trust and joy they had just experienced together.
Brannon also emphasized releasing fear as part of bridging social divides.
“Imagine the ways we can move and work together properly if we first connected to our heartbeats and then we expanded the connection to our community. Imagine if we could trust more and fear less,” she said.
“Even if we don’t have the same goals, needs and desires,” she continued, “we can still build community together. We don’t have to just have what we need; we can collectively have what we need and desire.”
Toward the end of her speech, Brannon invited the audience to create a rhythm together. She led the group in hand clapping and foot stomping and then asked, “What do you want to give the world?” As audience members called out ideas, Brannon wove them into the rhythm. Together, the crowd chanted, “love, peace, hope” while clapping and stomping with Brannon's solo hand drumming.
Last, Brannon asked the crowd how they could express being connected from the heart. “Hearts united!” someone called out.
Brannon’s address ended with the Union community chanting, “hearts united, yeah, yeah!” along with Brannon, her drumming, and the crowd’s continued body percussion.
“Oh my goodness,” Union President Dr. Marcia Hawkins exclaimed, “what a great morning, what a great convocation and celebration.” Dr. Hawkins then referenced CIRCLES, which stands for Union’s core values of celebration, integrity, responsibility, civility, lifelong learning, engagement and spirituality.
“The first C is celebration, and that’s what we need to do more of. That’s what we’re doing this morning, and we’re also celebrating the beginning of the spring 2023 semester.”
Campus Minister and Executive Director of Spiritual Life & Social Justice Initiatives, Rev. David Miller, closed the ceremony by repeating the words of the crowd-created chant. “Hearts united—love, peace, and hope. Let’s go forth with that in our hearts and in our lives. God bless.”
The program also included the National Anthem and Union alma mater, led by choir group Union Harmony; a processional and recessional featuring Assistant Professor of Music Dr. Yukiko Fujimura on piano; and remarks from Student Government Association President Carlos Barroso Sainz. He reminded students that the memories they make at Union will last a lifetime and wished everyone a “fantastic and successful semester.”
Press Release and Photo by Rachel Dorroh, Union College Publications Coordinator