A Noble Life in the Digital Age

The following speech was given by Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation, at Queens University’s 2013 Hayworth College and Graduate school commencement.  

Greetings, educators, students, friends, relatives and especially the Class of 2013!

Queens University encourages you to lead noble lives. Tonight we will celebrate just that.

The Class of 2013 will have a chance to help Charlotte through an experiment in flash philanthropy.


I wouldn’t be here if not for the philanthropy of one of the greatest newspaper families of the 20th century.

Jack and Jim Knight gave their personal fortunes to create what became one of the nation’s biggest foundations, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Knight is a huge recycling project. We give back to the communities where the company made its money – and we give back to journalism excellence and media innovation, which is how it made its money.

The brothers were unique: Jim, the “nuts and bolts” businessman; Jack, the editorial chief. Jim wanted to expand into Charlotte — his is the name on the James L. Knight School of Communication here at Queens University.

Tonight it is my honor to recognize Jim’s daughter, Marjorie Knight Crane. She is a trustee of both the foundation and the university, and  a Queens graduate herself!

Why all this talk about philanthropy? Because you are the philanthropists of the future.

The report Next Gen Donors estimated that during the first half of this century, you, the GenXers and the Millennials, will inherit $41 trillion dollars.

Again: That’s Forty One Trillion Dollars – about 20,000 Knight Foundations.

Some say your generations will be responsible for a golden age of giving in America.

But that depends, doesn’t it? On your values … how you were raised … your education and your peers … on your sense of duty as a person of privilege.

Your philanthropic identities are already forming, the study said.  You care about community. You network and   volunteer. You give digitally.

Why digitally? Because every American generation grows up with a different form of media on the rise. For you, it is social and mobile media. So 15 percent of you already use phones to donate money.

Tonight we don’t need your money – only your vote.

Are you ready?

Class of 2013, please take out your phones!

Here’s the deal:

Dean Eric Freedman surveyed  your class to identify the issues you care about. Knight Foundation program director Susan Patterson then found three local nonprofits that are leaders in those fields.

You’ll see three video clips:  Each nonprofit will say what it will do with a grant of $50,000.

Watch the videos.  Then I’ll explain how you will vote on the project that best fits your philanthropic priorities.

Got it?

In alphabetical order:

Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg helps students stay in school and achieve in life. It increases the number of high school graduates, improves school culture and promotes a college education. It serves 6,500 at-risk students each year in 45 schools.

Video, please!

Since 1965, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont has provided services to this region. In their jobs program, they do everything from developing work skills to teaching life skills that prepare people for success in the world of work.

And the video!

Since 1975, Loaves & Fishes has provided healthy free groceries to the needy, currently through 19 Mecklenburg County food pantries. When people have enough to eat, they can focus on things like rent, medicine and jobs – and this helps prevent homelessness.

Roll the video!

Now it’s time to help us decide. Look at the card that was on your seat.  Identify the group you’d like to recommend.  See the code number? Text that code number to 22333. 

 (the theme from Jeopardy plays…. )

Let’s see how we are doing… it looks like, yes, Schools!

Molly, are you here? Please come up.

Molly Shaw is executive director of Communities in Schools. She has a master’s degree in education and has work for years strengthening teaching in local schools.

Congratulations! You will receive a Knight grant of $50,000.

Way to go, Class of 2013. You’ve just helped keep students in school.

But what about those other non-profits? They feed the hungry and help get people jobs. That’s good work.

Wait, what have we here? Envelopes for them, too!

Congratulations, each of you will receive a Knight grant of $25,000.

Let’s give these local nonprofits a hand! Class of 2013, these were your issues, this was your vote. It feels good, doesn’t it? We hope you will remember this feeling.

When you think of giving back to community, remember Queens and its motto, “Not to be served, but to serve.” Remember how last year alone, your university logged 80,000 hours of community service.

When you think of engagement, remember Knight. Was it hard to choose which nonprofit to help? The choices faced by philanthropists are easier when you engage the community. We’re doing that in Charlotte with partnerships: improving schools with Project Lift, getting families online with Connect2Compete.

When you think of digital media, remember the Knight School.  The Knight School at Queens wants to end the digital divide that makes some among us second-class citizens. It wants to help raise the digital media literacy rate of this entire city.

Literacy drives human progress – and yes, humanity is making progress. We are living longer, better and less violent lives than the people in centuries past.

We human beings tend to focus on life’s problems. That’s why we make progress. But that same focus on problems keeps us from seeing our progress. Literacy helps us see. It’s a light in dark days and sunglasses on bright days.

Digital media literacy is what helps you find, understand, create, share and act on information in cyberspace. Today theseskills are as important as reading.

But in Charlotte, the Knight School reports  that more than half the residents here don’t do things that you do all the time. They have never used a smart phone to connect to the internect. They haven’t used them to get online news, or interact with government or debate local issues online.

Think about the phone you just held up. To you, a smart phone can be, quite literally, a whole world in your hand. To many of the city’s older or lower-income adults, it’s just a phone.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The Knight School helped get an annual Digital Media Literacy day established in Charlotte. It organizes students and volunteers to teach digital media literacy through

You can help. You don’t need $41 trillion, or even $100,000, to make a difference.

You can help by simply teaching another person how to use a phone, a tablet or a computer. You can volunteer through the Knight School to be a Digital Citizen Trainer.  

What if the most important thing we can do in our lifetimes is help our fellow Americans turn their phones into lifelines?

Doing good isn’t just something that makes you feel good. It’s a good career choice. To help communities get information, I became a newspaper editor. To help people understand journalism, I helped create a museum of news. To help journalists find their footing in the 21st Century, I joined Knight to help make grants.

At my own graduation ceremony, about 35 years and three careers ago, I did not know I would do any of that. Trying to help others is what led me here.

After Jack took over that first Knight paper, the Akron Beacon Journal, he said, “I didn’t inherit a newspaper. I inherited an opportunity.”

That’s what freedom is. That’s what America is. That’s what life is: An opportunity. Seize it. Make it matter.

And remember tonight. 

This is the night  you, the Class of 2013, seized an opportunity to start your post-graduate lives by helping your community.

Tonight you used your priorities – and your phones — to help feed, employ and educate your fellow citizens.

Remember this night of media literacy and flash philanthropy.

Remember the night your lives were both noble — and digital.

And, finally, remember the words of the great newsman Edward R. Murrow, who summed up his hopes for the nation at the end of each of his broadcasts in the early days of television.

Those five words still work in the digital age. So here they are:

“Good night, and good luck.”

Related: “Flash philanthropy wows crowd at commencement” by Susan Patterson on