Cultivating Democratic Curiosity

Excerpts from Laurien Alexandre’s 2023 Commencement Address to Graduates of the PhD in Leadership and Change

As Antiochians, I want to suggest that we use our methods of inquiry to counter the madness! Being graduates of Antioch is much more than a credential, as noteworthy and fulfilling as that may be. Remember, it’s that expectation to go out and “win those victories for humanity.”

Renowned author Zora Neale Hurston asks us to think of curiosity as “poking and prying with a purpose,” to illuminate what life is like in the shadows. Consider your curiosity’s purpose to shine light on inequitable policies and practices, to uncover unjust leadership, to reveal missteps and misdeeds, to produce evidence for transformative change. 

I want to encourage you to use your scholar-practitioner inquiry tools for the common good. Use them to inquire into injustice. Use them to illuminate stories of the marginalized, dispossessed, and oppressed. And use them to interrogate illegitimate power.

Instead of framing curiosity only as an innate human quality, or as an important trait of good leaders, or as the disciplined work of scholar-practitioners, I want to frame curiosity as a social force and collective practice to propel our most creative democratic imagination.

Laurien Alexandre

Think of it this way. If curiosity propels change, and if powerful questions can change the course of history, then: to whitewash history’s narratives is to criminalize questioning, to ban books is to make a war on wonder, to shutter libraries is to close minds; to make gender identities illegal is a modern-day inquisition; to create roadblocks to diversity is to stop us from empathizing each other; and to demonize inquiry is to silence our right to interrogate democracy. 

No, not our right. Our responsibility. The spirit of agitation and inquiry is integral to the democratic experience—the persistent questioning of authority, the ceaseless challenging of disinformation, and the unwavering interrogation of injustice and inequality.

I have no doubt that each and every one of us needs to ask (there’s that word again, ask) to ask more of our ourselves, our workplaces, communities, and country. We need to ask, What is the reality? What can be done? What can we dream?

I hope as you walk out these Antioch doors you consider yourselves passionate practitioners who use purposeful curiosity to challenge society’s wrongs. Ask insubordinate questions, strategically. Inquire into wicked problems, relentlessly. Interrogate our fragile democracy, fearlessly.

As Antiochians, we must create communities of the curious to transform our cities. We must use insatiable curiosity to ignite an unjust world. And we must build a “new age of curiosity” to imagine a better tomorrow.

Watch the full Commencement Address: