Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here.
I want to thank the Board of Trustees, President Roth and the faculty and staff of Wesleyan who have made this singular recognition possible. I proudly accept this honorary degree and the privilege of addressing the class of 2018.
Class of 2018, so far you have been fairly reserved and quiet, and I suspect that at some point, maybe right now, you want to make some noise. [cheers and clapping]
I also want to thank my fellow honoree, Dr. [Joshua] Boger, who is now my new model for how to do well in the world and also to do great work.
So, now, we're all classmates and you have done exactly what you set out to do just a few short years ago, and that is, you're ready to exit Wesleyan with your degree in hand. So congratulations. I have about ten minutes to speak to you on this day and a few things I have on my mind so I want to get started.
The first thing I want to do is to salute this class. Class of 2018, during this time that's your time here, you had seen at neighboring universities violence on campuses in ways that we have never seen before. You've also experienced great social and political turmoil, and I would call this time uncertain.
Let me just say, what do I what I mean by that "turmoil," the social and political turmoil. Specifically I want to talk about the fact that you in your time on campus have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage and at the same time, it's almost like a whipsaw, you have seen the rise in hate crime and in bathroom bills across the country.
It is indeed a time of uncertainty but you have stayed the course, no doubt at times when events in the world outside of this college challenged your concentration and maybe your own commitment. And there were personal struggles as well. Those tested your resolve. You supported classmates and they in turn supported you through rough times. You looked to mentors here on campus to help you get through the hard decisions. Many of you may have had concerns about your parents, who may have been ailing, or grandparents – that sick grandmother story that we often hear is sometimes true. Yes, and some of you had your own children to worry about, whether it was their illness or their daycare – you had to make choices.
And some of the tough choices had to get done, really, in ways that most of us don't care to think about. You had to decide sometimes whether to buy books or to buy food, whether to quit and save money to get your education or to continue as a struggling student. You had relationships that concerned you, relationships gone bad, required courses that you absolutely hated but had to have to graduate. And all of those things lead to great tensions, whether they're world affairs or personal and private affairs.
As a teacher I often hear the term "snowflakes" in reference to students. Snowflakes – not at all.
What I have witnessed is tenaciousness. What I have witnessed in my students and what I see in your faces is resilience. You have stood the course and you deserve applause.
I've also seen today the joy in accomplishment, the joy in learning, in getting to this day, and I hope you will relish that with me, and if you could just see from my point of view how I see you. I look out and I see the future. Each year that I teach I am reminded of what a privilege it is to be a member of the University, and I want to thank you for reminding me and giving me that joy again today.
So to the class of 2018 – thank you, congratulations, you all are winners today and I know that you're going to carry forward your knowledge that you have received here and make a better world.
Second, I want a tribute to survivors and activists. [applause] Now… [applause] And I have a lot to say about survivors and activists, but I'm gonna start out saying to you that when I was a teenager I adopted Harriet Tubman as my hashtag hero, before we had hashtags of course. Why not? She was an Underground Railroad conductor, a nurse in the Union Army, and in her later years she was an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage. The things that I cared about she believed, she stood up for and I realized that I could never really be as fearless as Harriet Tubman was in her time.
But in 1991 I did my best to honor her and the bravery of so many women who came before me when I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, to do so every day since then to remember what it means to be fearless and to recognize that courage is not something that is measured in one deed, one act – even if it is before the Senate – but it is measured in how we live our lives.
Harriet Tubman remains my model for what I call "sheroism" today, and she deserves to have her face on that $20 bill to remind all of us that hers is the true face of what courage looks like and what belief in freedom and equality should mean to all of us.
In 2018 I have new heroes, heroes and sheroes, all of whom represent courageousness and some of whom sit right here in this audience today. You have shared the truth about sexual assault and harassment, privately and publicly. Throughout the country, women and men have demanded that universities and workplaces take action to end sexual violence.
Even today, however, silence breakers faced backlash, often delivered instantly, harshly and anonymously with a click of a mouse. But speaking out despite the hardships can be self liberating and can empower others.
Because you have persisted on campuses, campuses will be safer for the next generation of students. And we know that we can make our campus safer – safer against sexual assault and sexual violence and sexual harassment – safer for everyone in processes that involve protections of everyone's rights. That is the only way that we are going to proceed with this issue and we know that.
The writer Marge Piercy tells us that " Strong is what we make each other. Until we are all strong together…." But you deserve also to know that you have gathered your strength. You have been examples of strength and courage. You should look in the mirror every day and celebrate that strength and that courageousness. And you should also know that another generation will come behind you on these campuses and finish the job, if it has not been completed during your time here.
I want to call out other activism of this graduating class, and I'm going to call it out because I know it has taken place in support of people both on the campus and outside of this campus. Earlier it was mentioned the group called SEMI – Students for Ending Mass Incarceration, the hashtag SanctuaryCampusMovement to make campuses safer for everyone, regardless of immigration status, and the campaign on behalf of farm workers, to get Ben & Jerry’s to sign on to the “milk with dignity” program.
Now, I also have to say I cannot say enough about the students of color and their allies from all over the country, including here on your campus, but from Columbia, Missouri; to Charlottesville, Virginia; to Brandeis, who have demanded the removal of relics—physical and intellectual—that symbolize our country’s racist history. They should be commended and their allies who have joined with them who have led this movement, because we are making for a truer and better world.
Now some will chalk up this bravery and energy to Twitter or Instagram. For me, those are only the platforms. I attribute today’s campus engagement to an enduring desire for community, whether it is community among or community outside of these campus walls. I include in that community, the many of you who have looked at activism – the groups that I’ve called out – and you've had your disagreements with them, but you have stayed on to engage in civic and civil discourse with those movements. And I want to salute you, too, because that often takes courage as well. It takes courage to have peaceful and productive disagreement in a time of uncertainty.
But I say you all together are breathing new life – this generation of activism and activists – breathing new life into the words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote when he was in a Birmingham jail. He talked about our needs to embrace others, really the only way to receive and to achieve solutions to our social ills. He reminded us that we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
You all have been tied in a garment of destiny while you're here on campus, but you have reached out to others who are in that garment as well. You have reached out across lines, across differences. I applaud you for rejecting the calls for division that come from the outside and choosing instead to reach across those lines and demanding that our institutions do so as well. And that is not only the institution that you find yourself in today, in the university, but the institutions that support our democracy our political institutions and the institution that you will be entering into as workplaces.
So keep up that drive, keep up that energy, keep up and continue to embrace community over division.
Through sharing your experiences through protests, through teach-ins, you have spoken truth to power. You have spoken truth to power and you have given voice to the voiceless in our society And then you have done something that it's the hardest thing to do of all. You have stepped back and relinquished the platform and listened. Now, listening is sometimes hard to do when you're used to having a megaphone – I know because I'm a teacher – and those of you who have previously been excluded and those of you previously been excluded understand how hard it is to get others to listen.
But if you have learned that lesson – really only one lesson from your experience here with activism – I want you to learn to listen. In some ways, as I say, this is the hardest thing to do, but listening really is the most important. It is what really does bring about community and it is what will ultimately bring about change.
Now I know that you haven't won all of the fights you took on. Trust me, I know that feeling. But believe me, you have left your mark on this institution and its leaders in your time here – am I right, President Roth? – and you and your generation have left a mark on the world and a path for others to follow. You've also learned that change takes a long time and a long-term commitment.
So what happens next? Who knows? The world is an uncertain place. I already talked to you about that. We don't know what's gonna happen next. But we also know that if we don't stand up and continue to stand up for what we believe, the world becomes even more uncertain.
I graduated from college in 1977, and when I left college, from Oklahoma State University, having grown up on a subsistence farm in Lone Tree, Oklahoma, I would never ever have predicted that I would be here in Middletown, Connecticut, speaking about a new day for social justice. But that's where we are, and this is where I am.
Today, you're going to leave here with a diploma in your hand and it's gonna look like many of the other diplomas that you see, except this one is gonna have your name on it. It's not just a piece of paper that you can hang up on the wall. That diploma symbolizes, really, the tools and the resources you have to achieve your goals and your aspirations. So when you leave here and you take that paper with you, please, think of it always, something of that parachute. Not because it's a physical parachute, but it is symbolic in the sense that it will, if you remember your time here, get you through more rough times and more hard challenges.
Now, a final word about social justice. Most of you are not going to use that degree to go into careers in social justice and sadly because of student loans, many people will not be able to afford to go into a social justice career. However, I would tell you that even though social justice may not be your vocation, your job title may not include "social justice crusader of the world," social justice can guide how you live and work every day. It can decide or guide you in terms of how you treat your colleagues at work, whether you are truly open to inclusion or just simply paying lip-service because the environment is entirely too competitive for you to want to be inclusive. It can guide you in terms of how you spend your spare time, whether you continue to embrace the communities that you live in and do great things in works around the neighborhoods for the people who are less privileged than you are.
As I said, many things are uncertain but you really are the future. You have choices at your hand, in your disposal, that can make the world a bit more certain. For all that you've seen and you've done in the past few years, for all that we have all seen throughout the world, we can never be the same. We can't go backwards, and we cannot deny that inequality hurts all of us and that the times demand that we do everything in our power to eliminate the social and structural inequalities that have held too many back from being where you are today. We cannot go backwards.
So class of 2018, friends, family, supporters and all of you who have helped us to get to this day, everyone in the Wesleyan community, I submit that the only way forward is with an unwavering and a boundless commitment to a more just and inclusive society for today and forever. And I ask you to join me in committing to that just society that will undoubtedly come if we band together and we prove that we are the change that makes America great.