Good morning. First, of course, I have to congratulate this graduating class as well as my fellow honoree, Dr. [Seymour] Moskowitz, and I know I know years – yes, let's hear it for Dr. Moskowitz [applause] – years of hard work got you here today, and so I want you all to savor this moment. Just savor this day, because you earned it. You earned our applause, you earned our congratulations, and you earned that degree that you came here to get.
So President Boudreau, faculty, members of the board, staff of City College who have made this singular recognition possible, I thank you. I proudly accept this honorary degree and the privilege of addressing this class of 2018.
Now I know you're ready to get your diploma, and I also know from my own experience that you probably won't remember much about graduation day, and certainly not about my speech. But -- because I didn't, I don't really even remember who the speakers were from my college graduation -- but I do remember my favorite gift.
So that gift was a gift given to me by my mother on graduation. It was a set of new blue Samsonite luggage, and it's very impractical now. No one would carry it on an airplane. In fact, you couldn't get it in the overhead. The new luggage replaced a set of brown Samsonite suitcases that were given to me by a family friend, Mrs. Young.
Now, Mrs. Young had also been, as well as a friend, she had also been an English teacher to my older siblings in the segregated school system that ten of my 12 siblings, brothers and sisters, graduated from. Yes, I am that old. I am old enough to know what a segregated school system, segregated by law, looks like. And Mrs. Young, of course, being a teacher, was a revered member of our community. And so I was of course happy to receive a gift from her.
But my mother received the gift with sort of mixed feelings. And so, for the entire time that I was in college, my mother saved S&H Green Stamps for the sole purpose of getting me my own luggage. Now, some of you are looking quizzically because you've never even heard of S&H Green Stamps, but as I often say when there's a generational gap, Google it. They're kind of like little coupons that you get that you have to save a lot of to actually get something.
My mother and Mrs. Young sent me off to law school with two sets of luggage, the older versions with years of wear and tear and the wisdom that symbolized Mrs. Young. It also had her initials on it, and my new set of luggage had my own stick-on initials. Both were waiting to be filled with my own life experiences in a world that was going to be entirely different from my mother's and the English teacher's.
As you've been told, my mother was the youngest daughter of a man born just as slavery was drawing to an end, and my father, also the descendant of slaves, hoped that I would take with me something of what it meant to be an African-American woman growing up in a community of what was often called dirt farmers. And you can translate dirt farmers to mean that we never had much money.
My parents expected me to travel, and they also wanted me to take something of that community with them. And I proudly do today. They thought that I would go out in the world, but honestly, they could not have dreamed that I would be here at this great university in this great city receiving my honorary degree with this great class. [applause]
And like you, I am the descendants of immigrants. Forced immigrants, and no, their enslavement was not a choice. [applause]
So you may not remember speakers, the names or the words. You may not remember that I grew up in Lone Tree, Oklahoma. But please remember this: please remember that I am a female descendant of slaves, that I am a farmer from Oklahoma, that I am a former student and a graduate and that I am a teacher of 33 years, and because of all of these things, I am a lifelong advocate for equality. [applause]
And I do believe that you are going to remember this day, and also the times that you lived in through your college years. There are events that have marked it, that will be seared in your memory.
Now you're gonna hear today that you're gonna leave college now and you're going to go off into the real world. Right? You probably already heard that before if people tell you "Oh, you're going to college now, but now you're going to have to go out in the real world." Well, let me tell you this: You have already been in the real world, and you are ready to take the next step. This is the real world, folks. And what makes it so real is really some of the hard times.
As familiar as news reports of the violence and dislocation of war from abroad are, the stories that you have dealt with and that have shaped your life and your time at City College, are stories also that are too familiar. Stories of university, high school and junior high school campuses ripped apart by shootings. In 2018, an average of one school shooting occurs every week.
It is, of course, as someone has already referred to, a time of great social and political uncertainty and some would even call it crisis. And, let me just say what I mean by uncertainty. Specifically in your time on campus, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. But, at the same time, we've seen a rise in hate crimes and the introduction of so-called bathroom bills in this country. And you wonder, who speaks for America? The laws? The Supreme Court? Or those who would divide us?
And, frankly, now this is – I know we're not supposed to do political speeches – oh we can? Ok, good. Let me just say it. Frankly, to characterize movement from a Barack Obama presidency to a Donald Trump presidency – to call this astonishing is an understatement. I don't care what party you're in. And, so, it is almost as though we're whipsawed. It's almost as though we're, you know, our heads are spinning to try to figure out what this country is about.
So those are the external factors that I think are shaping your experience today. Those are the things that you're reading about in the newspaper. But, some of the hardships of being a student in 2018 aren't gonna make the newspapers. For some, they are personal, deeply personal, and they, too, have tested your resolve. They have caused you to question your commitment, they challenge your concentration. You've had relationships that have gone sour during your time in college? Maybe not? [laughter] You had required courses that you absolutely hated. [cheers] Maybe not? But you've also had other concerns. You've heard concerns about your parents or grandparents well-being. It might be physical or health concerns, maybe financial concerns and, yes some of you have your own children's health or childcare challenges.
Then there are the tougher issues facing students that made all of us uncomfortable, especially those of us who are in higher education – problems of food and housing insecurity and homelessness among the student body. And those are just examples.
And, sadly, as a teacher, I have watched students face marginalization due to a whole range of isms, some intentional and some just thoughtless. I've seen young people struggle to prove that they belonged on college campuses despite their proven capacities for learning. And it is disappointing and disturbing when that happens. But it is real and it is part of the student experience of far too many students. Because of age, class, language, students are made to feel less.
In all of these, we know as a nation that we need to do better by our education system, by our students. We need to provide more scholars. We need to provide lower tuition. And you are fortunate that this city university has taken that demand seriously. But we also need support services. Scholarships can get us in to school, but those services help us get through and get to this day to get your degree. [applause]
We all need to commit more to public resources to education. Yet in 2017 as many as 20 student states had reduced public resources to education and some fall sample below amounts offered during the 2008 recession. And, unfortunately, many of those choices are made not because of quality of education but because of politics. And educational systems become the grounds for political battles - and all of us suffer.
But, you at City College, you graduates stayed the course at times when events of the world and when real-world personal problems challenged your concentration and maybe your commitment to your education. And, as I've heard before, you supported each other as peers. You went to mentors and caring professionals here on campus and friends and family off campus who helped you with all kinds of resources. And some of it was just emotional and then some of it was financial. And when you weren't sure about yourself, you sought help. Help that would enable you to see your possibilities and assured you that demographics and other people's prejudices do not define you or your destiny. [applause] And perhaps you weren't burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of school debts. But so many others are.
And so I say, you know, we hear a lot of talk about the greatest generation. Well, I look out at you…. Now the greatest generation has been described as the World War II generation from the 20th century. When I look out at this class of 2018 I see the greatest generation of the 21st century sitting right here in front of me. And I want you to look around at your peers and acknowledge that you are the greatest generation of our time.
I look out and I see tenacity and I see resilience and I see joy and learning and I see joy in getting to this day that you will share with your family and your friends. You overcame roadblocks to arrive here. Relish this moment and when times get tough, think back on this day and believe that you can overcome obstacles that you are going to see in the future and you will achieve your goals.
But, your generation of college grads did more than get degrees. You engaged in activism. During your time here, you have seen students from across the country from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Columbia, Missouri, to my own school, to Brandeis University, here on your own campus at City College – and really at a hundred campuses across the country – students protested for racial inclusion, demanding changes in content and in the culture of our campuses and everybody benefits when those demands are heard! [cheers and applause]
Sometimes these requests were ignored but students have standing21:20. Not only did they change the campuses, but you have changed the world. You've gone and made it much more inclusive. And you have advanced knowledge because of your activism. At the same time, students of all genders organized to end campus sexual assault and harassment and made their campuses safer for everyone.
In these times of great change come great opportunities to reinvest in gender equality. Basics like safety from violence should not be up for debate! Time's up! [applause] Time's up for one and every for undergraduate woman having to face the reality that sexual assault will occur, and she will be the victim. Time's up for that. We are better than that! We are a better community than that, and we must acknowledge that this day.
Now, I've been teaching for 33 years, as I've said, and I have never seen more energized students who were more committed to change. And some will chalk that engagement up to Twitter or the internet. For me, these are only platforms. I attribute today's campus engagement and activism as an enduring desire for community – community within and community outside of your campus walls. When you protest mass incarceration, when you protest for better labor conditions for farmworkers, you are engaging in reaching out and building a broad community.
Together, today's campus activists are breathing new life into the words that Dr. Martin Luther King penned in 1963 from a Birmingham jail. And he wrote this just a few weeks before he gave the City College community commencement address. Dr. King reminded us that we are all – all of us – are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Martin Luther King's warning that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere is just as critical today – maybe even more critical than you have ever seen before – because we live in a time when divisiveness and isolation pose as solution to our pressing problems, when in fact isolation and divisiveness is the cause of our social problems. [applause]
Fifty-five years ago in 1963 when Dr. King spoke at the commencement of City College – 55 years ago, and I am proud to stand at this podium today 55 years later – he spoke of three evils: war, economic inequality, and racial inequality. The three evils that he talked about. Sadly – again, sadly – it is almost as though we did not hear his words. But much has changed since then and you will bring in the tools into the world to change even further.
Now, we don't know what will happen in these challenging times, but history does teach us if we don't commit our hearts and our minds to dream a better world we are likely to be stuck where we are and we cannot let that happen.
So, I want you to just take a little trip with me imagining a few scenarios. And I know I've got some artists right here in front. Yes? So, for you people in the arts, I want you to imagine that you will write, produce or direct an award-winning Broadway musical [cheers] about the life of a courageous early American leader. Now you say, that's been done already. But I'm not talking about Alexander Hamilton. But, let's say I'm talking about Harriet Tubman. [cheers] She liberated herself from slavery and became an Underground Railroad conductor, a nurse in the Union Army, and years later, an advocate for women's suffrage, proving a life-long commitment to freedom and equality. And what could be more the ideal of America than Harriet Tubman? Which is why she has earned that musical that is yet to be written and why her picture should be on the $20 bill! [cheers] And maybe this generation will make sure that happens, too.
Some of you are going to be going into business, though. Do I have some business majors over here? Yes, okay. They're not as loud as arts majors. Maybe you'll be even going into finance, okay? Imagine with me all U.S. banks are rebranding themselves and revising their practices and included in the C-suite offices and on the boards are people whose communities were devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and individual students who were burdened with massive amounts of student loan debts. And at the top of their agenda, in their rebranding and revision…at the top of the agenda is the development of loan forgiveness policies and partnerships to restore cities and communities and institution like public colleges still suffering from the recession.
Finally, imagine a United States House and Senate, led by members of the members of the #MeToo movement [cheers] poised to put into law strong measures to protect people on campuses and military government and private industry workforces against sexual harassment and sexual assault.
We didn't finish the work that was started in 1991 and, it was said earlier that I did not win my challenge. But I did not leave Washington, D.C. a loser. I continued to battle and this day is possible because of many people who battled with me. We didn't finish the work in 1991 but we can finish it today. [applause]
Now those are just a few of my dreams of a better world. Those are just for starters. You have your own dreams. And I even imagine that they are better than my own. Today each of you will leave here with a diploma and it's gonna look just like many other diplomas that you're gonna see, but it's gonna bear your name. Your diploma is different. It's not just a piece of paper that you can hang up on the wall. Your diploma is a treasure. Your diploma, like my luggage, symbolizes your City College education, the tools and the resources that got you through hard times, and those who you will use to achieve your aspirations.
Though most of you will not pursue a career in social justice or in a social justice field, you can pursue social justice everyday. It can guide you on how you treat your colleagues at work, and how you treat those in the community that do not have the privileges that you enjoy. For all of the classroom lessons and the real-life experience of the past few years, we can never be the same. We cannot go backwards to the days when we denied the universal harm of inequality. We cannot go back to the days when we denied that sexual violence was a part of our culture and that it has injured every one of us as members.
Class of 2018, friends, family, supporters, all of you who have helped us to get to this day, everyone in the City College community, I submit that we cannot go backwards, that the only way is forward. [applause] And I ask you, I ask you, to join me with an unwavering and unboundless commitment to a more just and inclusive society for today and forever. And I ask you to continue to support this 2018 class as the greatest generation of the 21st century.
Thank you very much.