Shirley Tomlinson, wearing a blue shirt with a light green blazer, stands smiling at a podium.

Shirley Tomlinson at the 2023 IOD Celebration on May 8, 2023.

At the start of summer, over 150 attendees helped the IOD honor trainees and students from NH Leadership, UNH-4U, Building Futures Together, and NH-ME LEND programs at our inaugural IOD Celebration event. Our keynote speaker was Shirley Tomlinson, the Community Engagement and Outreach Specialist at the Office of Health Equity at NH Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). She worked with JoAnne Malloy’s team on a video series that focused on storytelling, reducing stigma, and exploring barriers to mental health support.

Shirley’s moving speech (below), inspired by her own surprised reaction at having been asked to be the keynote speaker, reminds us how important it is to take periodic stock of our progress and accomplishments. In doing so, we’re less likely to react to a request like delivering a keynote address with “Why me?” and instead, recognize that the more appropriate question is “Why not me?”


Shirley Tomlinson | IOD Keynote Address 5/8/23

I am incredibly honored to be here today. I am proud to be in a room with such strong, courageous, resilient individuals. Your presence here today is a testament of all that and so much more.  I am going to be completely honest with you, when I received the e-mail from Kelly to join your celebration as the Keynote Speaker, I had to do a double take. I asked myself, why me? Why would JoAnne tell Kelly that I would be a great candidate to deliver the Keynote address? I mean, I do facilitate a group that we are a part of, but I don’t think that I ever mentioned public speaking being a tool in my bag of tricks.

The fact of the matter is, that when I heard the word Keynote Speaker, it scared me, and then add on a room that will be filled with some pretty important people, a time constraint, and this speech just started looking more and more like a horror film in the making.  When I think keynote, I’m thinking of comedian, Adam Sandler’s 2022 NYU Graduation address, where he managed to evoke the passion he had for his alma mater and tie it in to his humorous nature.  I’d be lucky if I could get to the pun of a knock knock joke.

I think of activists, such as America Ferrera, who delivered a powerful speech for The Women’s March on Washington. A leader through and through, who fights for all injustices. A woman who stands firm in her beliefs, when so many are against her.

I think Denzel! I think of his 2011 Penn State Commencement Address, where he talked about risk, and taking chances, and never holding back.

Well, when I went back to these 3 addresses, I was certain it would have confirmed my initial thoughts of, “Why me?” And that would have proved why I am not cut out for this. However, it did the exact opposite. These speeches motivated me to push myself outside of my comfort zone and instead of asking myself the question, “Why me?,” I started to ask myself “Why not me?” I took a second to reflect on my past and how I got to this point.

A girl born and raised right here in New Hampshire. A product of 2 immigrant parents from Haiti and Jamaica. Parents who both worked 2 – 3 jobs to buy a home in a safer neighborhood to raise their children. Parents that pursued their goals, in spite of a world that told them that because of their skin color, their social status, their limited English skills, and their level of education, that those goals were unattainable. A girl who stood out in a crowd having been 1 of 3 black students in her school, including her sibling.  A school that told her parents may not be the right fit for her, because no one looked like her. A girl whose parents instilled the importance of receiving an education. A girl who always saw college as an end goal, even when some teachers would dissuade her and others that looked like her from going that route. A girl that even in the darkest moment of her life, at the age of 16 when her father passed, still continued to hold true to her dream of attending a university, and not only received her Bachelor’s degree, but then went on to obtain a Masters in communication.  A girl that, because of the extra work that she put in, was sought after by two organizations, and was ultimately able to make her decision of where she wanted to work, and even negotiated her salary. A Black, Caribbean American, girl who has stayed true to her roots, by serving in her community to help those who are marginalized, and those that face inequities every single day.

So why not me? Why not me?

In preparation for today, I thought it important to meet with the some of the participants of the programs that we are celebrating.  I had the opportunity to spend some time with the NH Leadership Series class, and hear about the action groups that they have taken part in. I was beyond impressed with not only the projects, but by the participants in this program. In those short moments, I learned about programs that are being developed to help people obtain access, programs that are being developed to help build bridges, and change policies. I met with people that are directly impacted by this work and have a personal stake in the matter. People who are fighting this fight every day to ensure their children are not left behind, that their families are seen, and their clients are being heard. I understood the significant impact that these projects have had on the lives of those who may have a disability, but also the incredible impact it has on our community, as a whole.

I met with the UNH4U program, where I got to meet with graduates who will go down in history, as the first. Students who knew they had every capability of succeeding in a college setting, but just needed a few people to help prepare the way for them. Students that were so incredibly selfless, so incredibly humble, and so willing to take the next steps to create opportunities for people just like them. Though, my greatest takeaway from this time was the understanding of my role as an ally.

As students with disabilities face unique challenges that many of us may not understand, we have to make sure we stand alongside our peers to not speak for them, to not create programs without their input, but rather walk alongside them and ensure they know that they are not alone. They embrace their differences and recognize their strengths, they recognize their disability does not define them, rather it is one aspect of who they are. These individuals celebrate who they are, and embrace The Why Not Me mantra, every day of their lives.

In the work I do, I try and help build these systems up, by connecting community members like some of you in this room, to organizations in the community and within the department looking to make changes to insure inclusivity and equity. I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of nothing for us without us and that is exactly why I consider myself to be a partner in this work. I am challenged on a daily basis, challenged by people who often times do not want to take the time to understand and believe that a one-day DEI Training is enough. This is a forever changing movement, and it only works when you put it in the forefront of everything you do, and DO THE WORK. It only works when people like you and I, who are considered a part of the marginalized community, continue to advocate for ourselves and for one another. I know that the road ahead may not be easy. You will face barriers and obstacles that seem impossible at times. But, I want to remind you that every challenge is an opportunity for growth and learning. The most successful people in the world have faced adversity and overcome it through persistence and determination.

I urge you to never give up on your dreams, no matter how hard things may seem. Your disability may make things hard at times, but it also gives you a unique outlook and a set of skills that can be valuable in ways you may not even realize. Remember, that there is strength in community. Reach out to others who share similar experiences and seek support from those around you. Look to your left, look to your right, look to your front and your back, this is your support. These are people who want to help you succeed and achieve your goals.

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from someone who I consider to be one of the greatest Keynote Speakers: former President Barack Obama, who said in his 2008 famous Yes We Can Address, “For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.”

So, I’m going to re-write the ending of this speech with my little tag. Maybe it will come handy down the road if I decide to run for office, or I’ll hand it over to Garrett for his campaign run, because that guy is going places So “Yes We can, Yes We Can, Yes We Can…and Why not me?”

So, Garrett, why not you? Why not become a speaker and share your incredible journey with the world? And Laura, why not you? Your infectious smile and passion ring true; you can fight the fight for all of us.

When you leave here today, and the next person asks you to hop on stage and deliver a keynote speech -- because they know you are qualified to do so -- don’t question yourself. Don’t ask, “Why me?” Ask yourself the question, “Why not me?”

Thank you again for having me. Good night.