April 5, 2019

Bryan Stevenson to deliver keynote address at 2019 commencement

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

Theaster Gates, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Bryan Stevenson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dr. Joseph Chazan. Photos courtesy of the honorees.

Stevenson will accept honorary degree along with Theaster Gates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nadya Tolokonnikova; Dr. Joseph Chazan will be awarded President’s Medal of Honor

On Saturday, June 1, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) will award degrees to 487 undergraduate and 214 graduate students at its 136th commencement ceremony. Commencement 2019 will take place at 10:30am at the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence, where RISD’s annual graduate thesis exhibition will also be on view.

This year RISD will present four honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees to visionaries in contemporary culture. Founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson will be honored with an honorary degree and will also deliver the Commencement keynote address. Artist Theaster Gates, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova will accept honorary degrees at the ceremony. Dr. Joseph Chazan will be awarded the inaugural President’s Medal of Honor.

Bryan Stevenson: honorary degree + keynote speaker
Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a social justice nonprofit based in Montgomery, AL. A widely acclaimed public interest lawyer, he has dedicated his career to helping people dealing with poverty or imprisonment, winning challenges against unfair sentencing practices, institutional abuse of inmates, youth incarceration and other major legal issues.

A 1995 MacArthur Fellow, Stevenson earned the 2018 American Bar Association Medal, the highest honor given by the ABA. The New York University School of Law professor has also written the award-winning memoir Just Mercy.

Theaster Gates: honorary degree + graduate hooding speaker
On Friday, May 31, Gates will speak at the graduate hooding ceremony as part of Commencement celebrations.

Based in Chicago, Theaster Gates creates sculptural and performance-based work focusing on space theory, land development and the productive possibilities discoverable in the “life within things.” Drawing on his background in urban planning and preservation, he redeems spaces that have been left behind and cleverly turns art values, land values and human values on their head.

Gates has exhibited and performed extensively, and has earned numerous awards, including a Légion d'Honneur commendation from the government of France in 2017 along with the Artes Mundi 6 prize and the Nasher Prize for Sculpture in 2018.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: honorary degree
Chimamanda Adichie is a writer, thinker and activist whose voice has helped shape some of the most pressing discussions of our time. Her widely translated works include the award-winning novels Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, along with the book-length essay We Should All Be Feminists, which is based on her influential 2012 TED Talk of the same name.

A 2008 MacArthur Fellow, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

Nadya Tolokonnikova: honorary degree
A cofounder of the Russian art punk collective Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova is a powerful voice in the fight against tyranny. After a 2012 public performance protesting the Putin-led Russian government, her two-year imprisonment brought wider awareness to state-sponsored injustices in her homeland.

Since her release, Tolokonnikova has cofounded the independent media agency Mediazona and collected her political thinking into two books. A recipient of a LennonOno Grant for Peace and co-recipient of the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, she has addressed the US Congress, the British Parliament and the European Parliament on issues of global human rights.

RISD’s joyous commencement ceremony offers a festive culmination to years of creative exploration in the studio. Students traditionally transform their caps and gowns in idiosyncratic ways—by painting, reimagining and embellishing them to make a more personal artistic statement or simply to have fun with this colorful RISD tradition. For more information on RISD’s 2019 commencement and to view the ceremony streaming live on June 1, visit

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