Becoming a Dangerous Woman

I confess to struggling a bit with the title, Becoming a Dangerous Woman, for my book, which Seal Press is publishing in October.

Titles are tricky—both the personal titles that often follow our names in an introduction and certainly, titles of books which, according to my book editor, can make all the difference in whether potential readers see value in what a title promises.

Declaring myself a dangerous woman—which I did, unexpectedly, in an episode I share in the book—still feels a bit, well, dangerous. I readily admit to some second thoughts about declaring it, even more widely and boldly, as the title of the book.

There’s a story, in fact many stories, about my evolution—from small town girl with no money, connections or influence, growing up in a segregated South, to declaring myself “dangerous” at age 76. The best of them are in the book, shared with the hope of inspiring others to be braver, bolder, more daring, to embrace risks—to become as dangerous as we need to be to shape a more equitable world.

I had an opportunity to go public with my new “title” of dangerous woman last weekend as a commencement speaker at the University of Miami. After UM President Julio Frenk gave me a wonderful introduction and honored me with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, I added: “I’m also a dangerous woman.” There was laughter and applause, gratefully.

Below, I’ve included my commencement speech in video and text for those interested in hearing more about why I believe we all need to become more dangerous to respond to these dangerous times.

I have become a Dangerous Woman—and I’m here to challenge you to become dangerous, too.

Why dangerous? Because we’re living in dangerous times and such times call for bolder, braver, more daring solutions and responses. 

What do I mean by dangerous? I don’t mean becoming someone to be feared, but I do mean being more fearless. I don’t mean abusing your power, but I do mean using and sharing your power to empower others—speaking up and showing up for those without voice or representation. I don’t mean being reckless, but times of danger require taking more risks—becoming an active, engaged and informed participant in the shaping of a better world than the one you are entering today. 

That world presents you with challenges: The waters are rising and the oceans are polluted and warming, threatening our supply of life sustaining oxygen. Racism, sexism, nationalism, violence of all kinds—and especially gender-based violence—are on the rise. Civility, compassion and empathy are in decline.We are connected 24/7, but we are more disconnected as a global community and divided as a country. We have more sources of information and yet are more misinformed and ill-informed than ever. 

None of this is news to you or to the parents who invested in the education that now makes you the most prepared be the risk takers, change makers, problem solvers the world needs. In order to be all that, I believe it’s time to become as dangerous as the times call for all of us to be. 

Who better to bring forward new ideas and solutions to the climate crisis than the Marine and Atmospheric Science graduates among us? You are prepared with the University of Miami’s groundbreaking research and disaster simulation work to identify and implement solutions to a climate crisis that is the existential threat of our times. Such a threat requires all of us to rethink our use—and misuse—of natural resources. And such a threat offers you the opportunity and the responsibility as well-prepared and informed scientists and engineers to become passionate advocates for science over politics; to end the debates and activate the policies that will put us on a path to survival as a species. 

To the Nursing and Health Services graduates, you have already chosen a dangerous path—as the first responders to disasters and disease. And you are most certainly prepared for the growing weather-related emergencies because you were on the frontlines of a Level 5 Hurricane during your time here.

When Hurricane Irma came ashore, some of you were evacuated; the experience of displacement and the practical learning that followed at UM’s simulation hospital, with its specially designed emergency exercises, prepared you to respond to all emergencies because of what you know and what have experienced. Take leadership in redesigning the health service delivery systems which currently leave far too many of our fellow citizens without access to affordable health care. I also urge you to consider climate change and all the related health challenges of a warming environment as you take your special preparedness forward to respond to the special health needs of vulnerable communities. There will be other hurricanes in your lives, both real and virtual—like your winning football team! 

Certainly, hurricanes and other weather disturbances being experienced everywhere remind us of the need to be intentional about the places we build to live and work, and this presents a big opportunity for the Architecture graduates. You know a lot about building for sustainability and resilience. It’s been a focus of your studies here at the University, and I urge you to keep both resilience and sustainability at the center of all your designs.

Dangerous conditions are already displacing entire populations, creating climate refugees, presenting challenges that you are prepared to meet with innovation and new technologies. Let me add two more imperatives to your work: Spacial Justice and Climate Justice. Both concepts create a frame of equality, restoration and resilience as guiding principles for designing where we live, work and come together in public spaces. 

To the Education and Child Development professionals: Challenge the ways we learn with what you learned. You are the first responders for the next generation—a generation that is raising their voices, taking to the streets, demanding that we act to reverse the damage to the environment before it’s late. You can remind them, and us, of the Native American saying: “We don’t inherit the earth from our children. We borrow it from the next generation.” 

Being caretakers of this precious planet requires all of us to do more to restore the balance between the natural world and humankind, and perhaps talk less—and to include more truth in all our talk. Truth, or ‘truthiness,’ as Stephen Colbert calls it. Real news, or the echo chamber of opinions? These are big questions waiting for the answers the Communications graduates have been prepared to answer, and important questions for all of us to consider as media consumers. 

My media perspective has evolved from being among the first women to challenge gender stereotypes and barriers and to advocate for more women’s voices, stories, issues and interests to be seen and heard. I’ve also been on the frontlines of transformative changes in the media ecosystem—at CNN, the first 24/7 news channel, which changed forever the way news was reported and consumed. And I was at the helm of this country’s only public service and noncommercial media network, PBS, just as the internet and digital media shifted the power paradigm of broadcast networks and cable channels as well as all the ways we consume information, access entertainment, buy and sell, shape opinions, connect for good and sometimes not so good. 

I’m still on the frontlines, committed to engaging media’s power for better outcomes. As chair of the Women’s Media Center, our mission is to advocate for more women on screen and behind the cameras—and the numbers are better, but not at the decision-making level. We also document and hold accountable media’s misrepresentation of women, especially women candidates and leaders. As chair of the Sundance Institute, I’ve observed the cultural shifts that occur when new talent gets nurtured and supported. At this year’s festival, nearly half of all the films were women-led and people of color led projects. As someone who produced hundreds of hours of documentaries when there were fewer places for them to be seen, the increasing interest and box office success for stories with socially relevant themes and impact is encouraging. 

I encourage you to put your University of Miami training at one of the best Communications schools to make media that matters and that is intentional about its impact. I’m not sure the world needs another superhero story—although I loved Black Panther—directed by a Sundance alum, by the way. But the world needs more films like Chasing Coral, a documentary about the bleaching of the coral reefs so important here and elsewhere; more podcasts like Mothers of Invention, former Irish President Mary Robinson’s climate series—and yes, we need more support for all independent and public media, from government and from viewers like you. 

The power of media is in our hands, quite literally. I urge you to be intentional about the media you create or consume and to be ever mindful of the dangers for a democracy when access to trustworthy information is limited and control of media businesses is becoming more consolidated. Nearly all of commercial media—television, cable channels, studios, Internet companies—are owned by less than a dozen mega companies and none of them run by media entrepreneurs or visionaries like Ted Turner, who believed that media could be a force to unite the world, or Jeff Skoll, whose Participant Media has proven you can make Oscar-winning films and have positive social impact.

I also worry about the dangers of today’s “always on” connectivity. I worry that we are texting more and relating less. I challenge you to put down your phones from time and time and meet your neighbors and talk to a colleague or life partner—that could be a dangerous and daring act! It’s harder to be daring when you’re different—the first or the only one who looks like you or comes from your community or shares your culture or religion—but this makes it all the more important to be the one who speaks up for the kind of diversity that has clearly proven to make for better outcomes in media, business, civil society and government, by every measurement. 

You are prepared to be the risk takers and change makers. You have the knowledge. I hope you will use it—to move us forward with passion and purpose and, of course, with music! To quote a famous rapper: “The revolution may not be televised, but it will have a soundtrack.” Music graduates, these dangerous times present big opportunities for you. 

In my college years, there were the two big social justice movements—civil rights for African Americans and greater equality for women, and music played a big role in both. Spirituals like “We Shall Overcome” kept us marching, peacefully, and “I am Woman, Hear me Roar” became something of an anthem for the women’s movement. It’s time for some rousing protest music—and possibly another movement, too, as we’re a long way from a just and equitable world. 

I’ve become dangerous to do my part—roaring louder than ever, calling on you to use the power and privilege you have earned, the learning and experiences you have had while a student at this University, to be involved, to get engaged, to take risks and create change. 

You can’t be dangerous from the sidelines. The water’s rising, and warming. Jump in and join me.

This post originally appeared on Pat Mitchell’s blog.


Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.