Three influential African-American figures in politics, education and arts received honorary doctorates during the University of Pennsylvania’s 256th Commencement on Monday in West Philadelphia.
President of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Geoffrey Canada, civil rights activist U.S. Rep John R. Lewis and actress, author and playwright Anna Deveare Smith were bestowed honors for achievements in their respective careers.
Canada received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters; Lewis received honorary Doctor of Laws; and Smith received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Canada also served as the commencement speaker.
“Our slate of honorees istruly extraordinary,” said Andrea Mitchell, University of Pennsylvania trustee and chair of the Trustee Honorary Degrees Committee. “In their lives of discovery and service to others, through government and public service, education and the sciences and the arts, our honorees set a superb example for our graduates.”
Canada’s pioneering work with the HCZ Project has served thousands of Central Harlem children from the time they are born. The program is a model for other communities across the nation. His work was featured in the award-winning 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
“Geoffrey Canada has changed the landscape of American education,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann. “By developing a groundbreaking program that provides youth living in one of America’s toughest neighborhoods with caring and comprehensive social, academic, health and moral support from cradle to college, he has created a pathway to success for thousands of students.”
Lewis, a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, has served as the representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1986.
He was a participant in the 1961 Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis was a keynote speaker along with Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. As a leader and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis participated in one of the seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 march in Selma, Ala., which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
He also directed the Voter Education Project, which added nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls. President Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“In bestowing honorary degrees each year Penn seeks to inspire our graduates ,” said Leslie Laird Kruhly University Secretary and Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania, “by recognizing individuals who have made their mark on society through lives of scholarship, discovery and service to others. Throughout his unparalleled career — one distinguished by courageous leadership, personal sacrifice and dedicated public service on behalf of our county and all Americans. Congressman John Lewis has set and extraordinary and inspirational standard.”
Smith is a dramatist who doesn't compose her character's lines; an interviewer but not a journalist, an actor who has been told that she's not Black enough for African-American roles.
The MacArthur Foundation granted her with its “genius” award in 1996.
Smith is known for creating her plays by interviewing people who experienced an event, repeating their words verbatim in the performance.
In her performances on Broadway and around the world, she portrays as many as 46 individuals in the course of a one-woman show. Her most recent play, “Let Me Down Easy,” is a collection of testimonials about life, death and the care of the ailing body. Smith’s play “Twilight: Los Angeles” depicted the 1992 Los Angeles riots, exposing and exploring the devastating human impact of that event. She interviewed more than 200 people during nine months and selectedvoices that reflected a city in turmoil.
Other honorary-degree recipients on Monday included David H. Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and retired United States Army general; Ruzena Bajcsy, professor emerita of computer science and engineering at Penn and a pioneering researcher in machine perception, robotics and artificial intelligence; Akira Endo, biochemist and pioneering statins researcher; and Peter D. Lax, mathematical theorist.