Gwen Ifill

Commencement Address at Simmons College - May 15, 2009

Gwen Ifill
May 15, 2009— Boston, Massachusetts
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Thank you. Leave it to Simmons to make me cry just before I have to speak. Both of you – than you and congratulations.

I could not be more pleased to be anywhere that I am right here today. I feel such affection for you and I wish you such good things. Sending another class of Simmons graduates off into the sheer terror of the current employment market – it just fills me up.

I look at you and I see excitement and anticipation and nervousness and a little bit of dread.

I graduated from Simmons 32 years ago. I was obviously a child prodigy, and I didn't know enough that day to be scared to death. I returned here in 1993 to deliver the commencement address that year and I still didn't – well, actually I did know enough by then. I stared into the faces of former professors who looked shocked to see me standing there, and I felt unworthy.

I don't feel exactly unworthy today – that would be very un-Simmonslike – but I did wonder if you dialed the wrong number this time when you called. President Drinan, I thought you meant to call Queen Latifah instead.

And I know what you've been told – that you face an uphill challenge to get what you want to get out of life. You want great careers, many of you. You want partners and babies, many of you. You want a balance, all of you. And I'm here to tell you you can have it all – kind of. Just not all at the same time. You can do more, but value yourself, too.

At my Simmons commencement in 1977, the speaker greeted us with the cheery notion that – she said – "The state of the economy in the past few years has been such that a bachelor's degree might get you a job in a car wash." That's what she actually said to us.

Now, in the years since I've come to know a few important things about commencement speeches. I have learned that they should be uplifting and I have learned that they should be brief, because here I stand, the only thing standing between you and a really good party. (laughing) Yeah.

But to tell you the truth, when I thought back to that day in 1977, I could not remember a single thing that was actually said at my college commencement. Like most people, I know I vaguely remember the speaker but not the speech. I remember almost nothing else. I do remember we walked across the stage at Heinz Auditorium. I was wearing a short yellow dress – or was it green? – something like that. My father, I believe, wore a white three-piece suit with a red shirt and a white tie. It was 197. At least it wasn't a leisure suit.

The speaker who told us that we would get jobs in car washes was Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. And although I was thrilled to hear from her, for years I could not tell you what she actually said other than that. So I looked it up, and I discovered the words she told us that day could just as easily be directed at you.

But first a few words about Shirley Chisholm. She was scary smart. She didn't much care what people thought of her looks, her manner, or what some folks today would call her attitude. She ran for Congress and won, but she also ran for president and lost. And this was in 1972, long before Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or Barack Obama – the guys – ever even decided to try.

I tell you I tell you her story not just because I associate her with my own graduation day but because her experience is something every accomplished woman – and you guys, too – should know about, should keep in your toolbox of understanding.

People forget now that when Chisholm broke through, she was ahead of her time. Mavericks were not exactly welcome in the early years of black political power on Capitol Hill.

When she decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president, other black elected officials – including members of Congress – were among her fiercest critics. One black male lawmaker at the time called her candidacy "grandiose." Another called it an ego trip. Yet another said of her, "No matter how unrealistic, she was entitled to her hallucinations," as if that is an unusual thing in presidential candidates – hallucinations.

I wonder what they would have said about a senator from Illinois, a first-term senator, 25 years later and whether he also was suffering from hallucinations or whether that assessment would have been different because he was a man.

In any case, Shirley Chisholm did not win that year. She never even came close. But she did break through, and she began laying the groundwork of possibility for breakthroughs that would come decades later.

She told us to be truthful. She told us Simmons graduates that year more than just the carwash story. She also said this: "I believe that the primary responsibility of the educated individual in our society is that he or she must translate the knowledge gained by the educational process into a commitment to share of the opportunities which abound in this country. In other words, friends," she said, "Your education has a context not just a political one but a social one and a moral one."

She worried back in 1977 that we young people were rejecting all she stood for, that we were suffering from, as she put it, an impoverishment which has caused many of our young people to reject political involvement and the goals of progressive social change.

Well, if only old Shirley had lived to see the day. She needn't have worried.

Last year we learned a powerful lesson about change and transformation and why it happens when young people, especially, get engaged.

In life and in politics, transformation frequently unfolds as we are glancing the other way. By the time we look back, it turns out the rules of the game have shifted.

Women are often the game changers. The rules of the game shifted forever when Shirley Chisholm ran for president. They shifted forever when Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan took the podium at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. They shifted forever when Sojourner Truth declared, "Am I not a woman?" When Fannie Lou Hamer demanded the right to be seated with the Mississippi delegation.

And then, the class of 2009 came along, and you decided to work for that change. If your senior year in college told us anything, it is that young people are more engaged than ever before and that Shirley Chisholm was not right to worry.

You not only knocked on doors, you raised money and Facebooked and Myspaced. You convinced your parents to pay attention, and your kid brothers and sisters as well, and your grandparents. You were in our faces every day. It really doesn't matter which candidates you were working for. You changed the outcome on all fronts.

We have come so far from those post-Watergate days of cynicism that so worried Shirley Chisholm and so influenced our thinking when we left Simmons. We've come to the brink now of a truly new thing, and here you are ready to reap the rewards of it.

I've only a few words of advice for you today. As you enter into the workplace in this dire economy, you have only a couple of choices. You can be very afraid or you can be very bold. You can say yes – which is nice – or you can from time to time say no – which is essential.

I also have a few other words for you from another commencement speaker. Spoke at Simmons before, 1993. She said the unhappiest people I know have become that way because they have imposed artificial limits on their lives. She said, "I can tell you this. Take every choice you are offered. Have as much fun as you can, when you can. Do not shrink from life and do not shrink from the choices."

That was me, speaking to the Simmons class of 1993 and learning to take my own advice even as I said the words. The words have proved true for me and they will for you.

Simmons prepared me so well for the choices I would have to make in life.

Sometimes you choose to speak up. That means climbing out on a limb. That's what I did when I decided that it was important to defend the women of the Rutgers' basketball team after a radio DJ slimed them with a casual sexual and racial insult.

Sometimes it means you choose to shut up and let your work speak for itself. That's what I did last year when I became the target of attack for writing a book that folk decided should disqualify me for moderating a vice presidential debate. I could have engaged in that, but then I wouldn't have been able to do my job.

You can choose to participate, to change the world at large or to change the world in your home or in your hometown. Whatever it is, I plead with you to choose something. The stakes are too high and the challenges are too consequential.

And you are, after all, Simmons women. You have got to be loud.

My former NewsHour colleague, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, came to Simmons a few years ago to accept an honorary degree. I warned her in advance that she would get a little caught up in the Simmons spirit. She would become, I said, part of the tribe. I warned her – women at Costco and on public transportations and at airport concourses are going to run up to you and they're just going to scream "Simmons!" They will show up wherever you are, and they will tell you proudly they are the class of 57 or 67 or 97. They will tell you. That's who we are.

Sure enough, even though Charlayne graduated from the University of Georgia, where she was the first of two African-American students to integrate that institution – she's in the history books – now when I see her and she sees me, we greet each other by saying, "Simmons!"

So welcome to the tribe, and a glorious tribe it is. We are tiny but we are everywhere. And we expect a lot of you. So go forth and shout (waits for audience to shout "Simmons!")

Thank you and God bless you all.

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