Good afternoon – or is it morning still?
I want to thank Chancellor Haddon. You know, I knew her as professor. We have had a three-decade-long relationship, and I could not be more proud of the work that she has done and is doing in leading this university. So can I just get a round of applause.
I want to thank the Board of Trustees, Dean's Chen and Cahill for this singular honor and recognition – an honorary degree and the opportunity to address this gathering. I will stand a little taller every day because of this. I will also do my very best to live up to the ideals of this university and the promises of the class of 2018.
Now, I know what it felt to get this honorary degree and I know that you all are just bursting to get yours as well, but I also noticed that you're a little subdued. I just can't imagine that at some point you're just not gonna like let it all out. So I'm just going to give you a moment now to start to let it all out. Congratulations, class of 2018. I am one of you. You did what you set out to do – leave Rutgers…with a degree in your hand. And that is not anything that any of us can take for granted. We've already talked about how you've been assisted and guided by family, friends, partners, staff, as well as faculty. Because it is true – no one gets here to this moment that you are in, alone. So I want to thank you for letting me be a part of it and sharing this day. And I also want to recognize for a moment that I know that many of you have had challenges coming to this day, but you stuck with it. You stood the course and here we are, and I am so proud to be part of it.
Now, I mentioned that nobody gets here alone, but I also want to say that this day is uniquely yours. In the years to come you're gonna look back at this experience of having lived and learned together, having graduated together, and you're going to look back with it not just in terms of isolation of experience, but also you're going to look back in the context of what has been going on in the world during this time, especially in the law. From the legalization of same-sex marriage to the rise in hate crimes, from the end of the Obama era to the election of Donald Trump, and the March on Washington – these will shape how you view your law school days. It also will shape how you see your country and perhaps even how you see your work in the world. I hope it does.
It's increasingly hard, though, to name the defining features of the United States, and perhaps the kindest word that I can think of today – or the calmest word to describe where the times are – is uncertain. You have received your education in a time of uncertainty, not to mention a time of violence and terrorism to too many of your peers and even younger students on campus. So I know it's hard to live and it's hard to study, it's hard to concentrate in the middle of uncertainty. As a teacher, as a woman who could honestly for some of you be your grandmother, I am so proud of what you have done and I want to offer you just a few words in the minutes that I have to speak, to try, I think, as someone who has lived through uncertain times in the past, to give you a little counsel on what we will need to confront this uncertainty in a positive and meaningful way.
First, I want to talk about bravery. Second – and I've heard this word used more than once today – community, and finally I want to talk about a lasting commitment to positive change.
Now, when I was sitting where you were now so many years ago, Harriet Tubman was my hashtag hero. It was before hashtags, of course. But I believe that if I had been born in 1825, I would have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I would have served as a nurse in the Union Army. And in my later years, I would have been an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage. But since I was born in the middle of the 20th century, the challenges that I faced were not the monumental challenges that Harriet Tubman endured. I could never ever be Harriet Tubman, but I could as I grew older realized, I could honor her by showing in my own time a sliver of the courage and commitment to freedom that she showed in hers. And I did my very best to do so in 1991, and I have continued to do so every day since.
Courage is not something that happens once in our lifetimes. It's something that we live and exhibit in the way we live our lives every day. And I will say about Harriet Tubman – I haven't lost her as a hero. She is still my hero, and I believe she deserves to be on that $20 bill sooner rather than later, to be there and remind us all this is what courage looks like – Harriet Tubman, a freedom fighter.
But I also recognize that you, too, in your own ways in these last few years have become freedom fighters. You've witnessed others as well. You've witnessed courageous individuals and college campuses who have stepped up to say, this is who I love and who I should be able to marry. And fortunately the courts agreed. Others have declared that I am NOT the gender that was assigned to me at birth, and for now we don't know what the legal outcome of their challenges will be. In the last few years students of color have demanded greater inclusion and call for the removal of relics that symbolize our racist history, and that issue has not been settled. And in the same vein, students of all genders have claimed something very basic, so basic it's hard to believe that it's even debatable, but the right to have an education free from sexual violence. We all deserve that.
But all of these acts – surprisingly – have taken courage. In an age of harsh and sometimes immediate backlash that can be delivered nearly instantly and anonymously online with a click of the mouse, challenging the status quo is still risky.
So I want you to think about the courage that you have witnessed in your time, and think about what it has meant to your life. Some of you have become allies to those who have struggled for basic human dignity. Their movements across the country that have let the world know that campuses should be safe for all, whether it's #SanctuaryCampus that demands safety for all workers and students regardless of their immigration status, or the Me Too [#MeToo] movement that declares that we will not be silent again about sexual predation. I applaud your support for these efforts. You, too, fight sexual assault and violence by being an ally. You have been brave in the face of your own tragedies and your own challenges. And importantly, you have absorbed the education you have received here to make you not only brave but also intensely capable of combating bias and discrimination throughout society.
And for those of you who have not found your call to action, your time to be courageous will come, and I hope that you will look back on these days and your time here to see the examples that you have witnessed, and you will know when and how to answer your call. Uncertainty prevails only if it can make cowards of us all, and we can defeat uncertainty if we boldly stand for justice and fairness.
So, how did we get to this moment? We are in a moment, interestingly, of a number of social movements. I've referred to a couple of them. And some of you are gonna say to me, "Well, we got to this moment because of Twitter." Right? How many of you are on Twitter, have followed Twitter? Nobody? Some people will say it's Instagram that got us to this moment, the Me Too moment. Trust me – this is a profound moment in our time. But I don't believe we got here because of social networks or the platforms. I believe we got here because of our enduring longing for community, especially in uncertain times.
In another uncertain time, Martin Luther King penned his letter from a Birmingham jail, and his words that are most often quoted are the following: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." But Dr. King goes on to remind us of the inescapability of community when he says, "We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
So Rutgers class of 2018: of course because you are graduating together, you learn together, you are tied in a network of mutuality, but I would also say that you are tied to those who through no circumstances and no fault of their own could not make it to this day. Think back – I I know it's a day for us to be joyful and to celebrate but I also think it's important for us to not only think about the geese that are flying around [laughter] but also to think about some of the people who you know who are capable and competent and who could be here, who could be lawyers going out to practice law in whatever fields they choose, but who are unable to be here because of circumstances in their lives that did not go their way and allow this outcome.
So as you leave today, as you're thinking about your classmates in this new community that you have become involved in whether as classmates or alums, I also want you to think about how we can start to expand opportunity to make sure that more capable and competent people are in our ranks, receive the education that they can and would use if they had the opportunity. Think about the disparities that still exist in this country. The disparities that can be attributed to race, gender, sex sexual identity. Think about what opening up an education to all would do to eliminate that. Think about enlarging the community and not shrinking the community down to a few people who are in your class status. I want you to think boldly, not only about your own courage, but think about how you can embrace a broad definition of community – who gets in, how do we open the doors for more, a better inclusive world.
I love the idea that Rutgers University has been practicing inclusion, and you have been the beneficiaries of that – all of you, not just the few who you think might not have gotten in but for this program – but all of you have benefited from the inclusion at Rutgers. Think about how that should transfer to your lives when you leave here and you go into your practice.
So what happens now? I said I was going to talk about commitment to long-term change. Because, you know, we can think of the movements now and we can think that, you know, with so much energy, they're not going to last forever. Movements are important, but so are the efforts that it will take to enshrine the ideals of movements. What happens now? I would say we will never be the same after the Me Too movement; after such revelations of sexual violence we can never as a society ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist. We can't be the same as we were before and we certainly can't go backwards when we know that so many people are hurting and suffering. So how do we move forward? How does the ideals of the movement, how do they become our destiny, not just something we talk about and celebrate on Twitter?
I believe that no one is better equipped to make those ideals a reality than you are as trained lawyers. Now, I will just remind you, I mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King earlier, in the words from a Birmingham jail creating the movement in 1963. I would remind you that following that letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King developed a strategy that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. We will need to see legislation passed that puts safety of individuals first, that makes clear the right to live and work and be educated in safe environments. And you with your skills and your knowledge and your determination, having lived through this moment, are in prime positions to make sure that that legislation gets introduced and gets passed.
Now, some of you will not be a part of this next phase, and I know that so some of you will be thinking that you may have some time for social justice but mostly you just have to earn enough money to live and to pay off your student debts. You're fortunate because here the education is not quite as expensive as some of your peer schools, but I hear you about debt and I just want to share with you just a brief story.
When I was at my college graduation, my mother gave me a set of luggage. She gave me a set of luggage that was going to replace a set of hand-me-down luggage that I had received when I went off, when I graduated from high school. I received it from a family friend. So my mother's gift was this blue Samsonite luggage that is hard and impractical. It doesn't look like anything you have now, but it had my initials on it. And my mother had saved S&H Green Stamps for over four years to get it. Now, how many of you don't even know what S&H Green Stamps are. Quite a few. Google it. That's why we have Google now. But more than a place to carry my clothes, the luggage represented her aspirations for me. She knew that my life was not going to be her life, but she wanted me to have my own tools and knowing that I would go my own way but also hoping that I would take with me something of what it meant to be a member of a family of subsistence farmers. And I still have both the hand-me-down set of luggage from our family friend and the blue Samsonite luggage that my mother gave me. Together, they really do for me represent the tools that I have to go out in the world and to be myself.
Now today, you're going to get a diploma. And in many ways it's going to look like all of the other diplomas, except it's going to have your name on it. The diploma will reflect the relationships and experiences that you have shared here and have shared with the world. But in the end you will have to decide what that parchment paper means in your life and in your career. The JD you will get will be what you make of it, and no two of you will get exactly the same from it. And that's the beauty of it – because no two of you were alike when you came together.
Most of you are not going to go into careers in social justice, and it is sad to me that most people can't afford to. But I want you to promise me and your classmates that you will make a commitment to social justice part of whatever work or careers you enter. And you can do that. It doesn't have to be all of your career, but there's always something that you can do in your own workplaces, no matter what you call yourself, whether you're a prosecutor or a defense attorney, whether you're a law professor or a government lawyer or general counsel, you can make social justice part of your work. And you have learned to do that through your experience here at Rutgers.
So I would just say to you in closing – I'm gonna ask for promises, I know we all ask for promises – but I don't have any way of checking up to see if you keep them, so…but I will ask you this: promise me whether in times of certainty and clarity or in times of chaos that you will be your bravest self, the bravest self that you can be to confront the challenges of the world and to confront your own challenges. When uncertain times call, promise me that you will embrace community and not division. And promise me, finally, that you will live with a commitment to equal justice under the law, today and throughout your entire lives.