Tonia Magras ‘86 looked across the crowd of the MLK room toward her old teacher, James Cornell, laughing and pointing at a picture of the two of them from the 1980s. In high school, she said, she was a member of Akers house, one of the four old “home bases” for students, as well as a basketball player and an “actually good” breakdancer.
Through her work making documentaries, Magras spent a lifetime telling stories, both those of other people and her own. And as she told students at the event on Feb. 28, finding her own voice and her own story was one of the most rewarding things she could have done.
Magras worked for WGBH on the show “Greater Boston” for 15 years, before recently transitioning and starting an independent filmmaking company with her husband, Gregory Magras.
Magras told the audience of one event from her high school years that pushed her to speak up and make her voice heard.
“I was in math class, taking a midterm, which would’ve counted for maybe 60 percent of our grade. And I was maybe one of two students of color in that class. And I did very well on that test,” Magras said. “But as the teacher handed back our tests, I didn’t get a congratulations. I got kind of a stern look, no ‘nice job,’ nothing like that. My teacher actually accused me of cheating. Why was that the first assumption that this person made of me?”
Despite her complaints being met with skepticism and ending up with a B- on the test, Magras learned then not to let anyone ignore her story.
“Someone had made an assumption, for whatever reason, and questioned my character,” Magras said. “I learned then I had to use my voice to be heard and let my words define the story. I learned that my voice matters.”
Magras told stories of her children, her mother and passing down the generational talent of storytelling.
Reinforcing the value she puts in one’s story, she also retold a well-known anecdote about Martin Luther King Jr., after whom the room was named.
“The night before his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, he was sitting in the room, writing it with his advisers, but when he got up to the podium, he pushed the speech aside,” Magras said. “Matter of fact, his speech didn’t even have the word ‘dream’ in it. He pushed it aside, he stepped up to that podium, and he gave one of the most iconic speeches in our history. He found his voice, and we’re happy he did.”
Relating the moral back to herself, Magras recounted the time when she made the shift to become an independent filmmaker to tell the stories she wanted to tell.
“In 2015, my husband and I started Hull Bay Productions. We made our first film together on the 100 years of our church, the Abundant Life Church in Cambridge. We titled it ‘100 Years, 100 Voices of Faith,’ continuing my mantra of telling everyone’s stories,” Magras said. “It was completely independently funded by me and my husband, and in 2018, our film debuted at the Roxbury International Film Festival.”
Magras wrapped up her speech with a challenge for students, which she hoped would inspire them to find their own voices.
“I think the point that I’ve been trying to make is many of you are in a position to make your voice heard and then to tell your story, based on what you feel, where you’ve been and the many layers that make you who you are,” Magras said. “You get to determine who you are and what you have to say. Your voice can make a difference and will make a difference, in other people’s lives and in your own, however complicated or frightening the world seems. Value and embrace your voice.”