Art, Entertainment, and Culture, School Notebook

Kenya Barris, “Black-ish” Creator, to Deliver 2017 Tufts Commencement Address

Film and TV writer and producer is among seven honorary degree recipients

Award-winning television writer, creator, director, showrunner, executive producer, and feature film screenwriter Kenya Barris will deliver the commencement address to the Tufts University Class of 2017 on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Barris will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the ceremony to be held at 9 a.m. on The Green on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

The Emmy-nominated Barris is best known as the creator, executive producer, and co-showrunner of the hit ABC television series “Black-ish,” which is critically-acclaimed for its ability to tackle challenging and provocative topics in thoughtful, funny and entertaining ways.

The format and tone of “Black-ish” is influenced by the works of film director Spike Lee and television producer Norman Lear. Like Lee and Lear, Barris’ writing gracefully finds comedy and affirmation when reflecting the difficult conversations happening in many homes and workplaces across the country.

The show is also semi-autobiographical, partly based on Barris’ life with his wife, Rainbow, and their six children in Los Angeles.

Barris received principal writing credit on acclaimed episodes, including “Hope,” in which the multi-generation Johnson family discusses black victims of police violence, and society’s reaction to those incidents; and “Lemons,” in which characters process their responses to the unexpected results of the 2016 election.

Barris grew up in the Inglewood and Hancock Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles. After a brief stint at UCLA, he moved to Atlanta and attended Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.

While in Atlanta, Kenya wrote and directed a one-act play and become involved with the Atlanta comedy scene.

After working as part of the writers’ rooms for the sitcom “Sister/Sister” and late-night comedy program, “The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show,” Barris worked for four seasons on the series “Soul Food,” based on the movie of the same name.

While working on the Showtime drama, Barris co-created, with childhood friend Tyra Banks, the international hit reality TV competition “America’s Next Top Model,” just completed its 23rd season on VH1.

After leaving “Soul Food,” Barris returned to comedy, writing for shows such as “Listen Up,” “Like Family,” “The Game.” “Girlfriends,” and “I Hate My Teenage Daughter.” Additionally, he wrote and created BET’s “The Start Up” and Hulu’s first half-hour comedy series “We Got Next.”

Barris’ first feature film, “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” was released in 2016.

“Kenya Barris’ witty and wise work entertains and enlightens millions of viewers every week, using humor to open challenging social issues for discussion without sugar-coating them,” says Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco. “We are delighted to welcome him to Tufts and excited to hear his address to this year’s graduates, their families and friends, and the university community.”

In addition to Barris, those receiving honorary degrees at Tufts commencement will include:

Bruce J. Baum, DMD, Ph.D., a pioneering dental researcher and clinician, renowned for his innovative work involving gene transfer strategies aimed at improving the quality-of-life for many oral cancer and other dry-mouth patients by repairing damaged salivary glands. Dr. Baum campaigns to increase the relevancy of biological science in dental education and the development of strong critical thinking and investigative skills among dental students. He is an alumnus of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, class of 1971. He will receive an Honorary Doctor of Science.

Sean B. Carroll, Ph.D., an award-winning scientist, science communicator, author, educator, and executive producer, who is Vice President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the largest private supporter of science education activities in the United States. An internationally-recognized evolutionary biologist, Carroll is a professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. He received his Ph.D. in Immunology from Tufts University’s Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in 1983. He will receive an Honorary Doctor of Science.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, who served as a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet as the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, where she supported America’s small businesses with financing, contracting, counseling and exporting. A former corporate executive, three-time entrepreneur, and California Cabinet secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, Contreras-Sweet was the founder and Executive Chairwoman of ProAmerica Bank. She was also a founding director of the California Endowment, a $3 Billion healthcare foundation. Early in her career she was a U.S. Senate appointee to the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission where she advocated for the advancement of women in corporate America. She will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service.

Joyce Cummings, who, along with her husband William (Bill) Cummings, is founder of Cummings Foundation, Inc., which has awarded more than $140 million in grants to non-profit organizations serving a broad range of causes in greater Boston and around the world, including human services, education, health care, social justice, and support of education to help prevent future genocides and other intercultural violence and injustice. The Cummings’ philanthropy has had a significant impact on the Tufts community in particular, including a naming gift in support of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She will receive an Honorary Doctor of Public Service.

Jean McGuire, who served as the executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO, Inc.) from 1973 to 2016. The METCO Program aims to provide educational opportunities to urban school children by furthering school desegregation. Through McGuire’s work, more than 3,300 African-American children from across the state of Massachusetts have been able to attend schools in some of the most highly-rated public school districts in the United States. McGuire is also the first African-American woman to serve on the Boston School Committee. She will receive an Honorary Doctor of Public Service.

Joseph W. Polisi, DMA, an accomplished musician and scholar who has served as the president of The Julliard School since 1984, leading the school to more than three decades of growth, increased collaboration with partner institutions and community organizations, educational outreach, and global development, all in support of the arts. Polisi also has performed extensively as a bassoonist, both as a soloist and chamber musician. He received a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts in 1970. He will receive an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

In addition, Richard Engel, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, will deliver the Class Day speech at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University on Saturday, May 20.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will address graduates of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy as part of the commencement festivities on Sunday, May 21.

– Submitted by Tufts University

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