Tarana Burke

UPenn School of Social Policy Commencement Speech – May 14, 2018

Tarana Burke
May 14, 2018— Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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Thank you, Dean Jackson. I almost want to say "Ditto" and sit down. [laughter] That was a lovely, lovely introduction. Thank you.

Greetings, Class of 2018. How are you? [cheers] I should echo those sentiments and say, "Puerto Rico!" [cheers] Yes, let's not forget Puerto Rico is still suffering, y'all.

Here's a fun fact – I did not attend my college graduation. My senior year in college, I was a busybody – or at least that' what the administration called me. I was serving as the president of the African-American Student Alliance, which was an organization I had co-founded the year prior.

And besides throwing the best events on campus, we were laser-focused on ridding the campus of its racist and discriminatory practices. In that one school year, the university instituted a discriminatory zero-tolerance policy for the mostly black residential students, and we organized a press conference to voice our discontent. The school created new fees, and then tried to remove the mostly black students from campus for not paying them. So then we held the biggest event our campus had ever seen, and used the proceeds to pay for the overdue fees of those students. Every trick the school pulled, we were ready to respond. We were bad asses. [laughter].

Then, less than two weeks before my graduation day, I got a call from my counselor's office, and a bomb drops that there's some discrepancy with my transfer credits and I wouldn't be able to walk. I was devastated – but also convinced that this was some form of retaliation for all of my radical activism on campus. It wasn't. It was my own oversight. In my haste to be done with school and get into the real world, I had become disillusioned with classes that year. I was a political science major, because it was the closest that I could get to my real goal of changing the world through my activism.

I knew through most of college that I would finish and go work for a nonprofit, social justice organization. I thought propelled by all the wonderful bad-assery of my college work that I was ready for the world. The truth is, I am 22 years removed from my senior year of college, and although I have had an amazing career as an activist and advocate and nonprofit professional, I am woefully aware of these nuggets I wish that I had had as I was entering the world.

You have all committed to the passionate pursuit of social innovation, impact and justice, and that is a very particular lane to occupy. I thought long and hard about what I wish someone would have told me, all at once, so that at least I could ignore it with some context. [laughter] Like some folks, some will listen and adhere, and others will learn the hard way and remember when was the first time they heard it. Either is fine, because I really do believe that things work out the way they're supposed to.

So here are my tidbits to take with you as you journey forward in this work.

The first one is the cliché – find your passion. I started with this one because it's probably the one you'll hear the most as a new graduate. It's like most stereotypes – they come with a nugget of truth.

The work is hard. And because this world is broken – beautiful, but broken – this work can take you in so many directions. So getting in touch with what moves you deeply, what gets you up in the morning and sends you to sleep at night, makes it easier to narrow your focus.

And passions change, so don't feel confused when that happens. As long as your passion remains the biggest driver of your work, you will stay on the right track.

The second one is find your tribe. This work – whichever direction you go in, from social work to social policy – is hard, and it's easy to get lost in it. So many folks get caught up in their singular contribution, but that can actually be a hindrance to progress. The lift is always more than you expected, and part of the problem is folks trying to be singular heroes instead of the Avengers.

That was my joke, y'all. [laughter] Unless you saw "Infinity War" – no spoilers. [laughter]

This work is best done in community. Whether you are MSW or a nonprofit executive, it is important to find like-minded folk who have a similar vision for a way forward, to build with, commiserate with, to win with.

Next is sharpen your instincts. You're going to be advised, over and over again, to follow your instincts. I think it's the advice that most people give out when they don't actually have an answer. But here's what few people will tell you. They will tell you to follow your instincts, but they won't tell you how to keep your instincts sharp.

Just saying, "Follow your instincts," assumes that your instincts will never fail you. That isn't true. Anything that functions better when it's sharp will need to be sharpened. This may sound a little bit of a contradiction to the last point, but follow me.

Human beings, particularly those who have committed themselves to reversing injustice, have a tendency to develop absolutes in our views of the world. But one way to keep your sharp instincts, I believe, is to challenge what you know to be absolutely true – or what you think you know.

One great way of doing that is by mixing up who you have in your community. Make sure you have some folks around you with different points of view and alternate visions for justice in the world. Keep them close, and practice active, deep listening when you engage with them. You will either expand your own vision or have a better understanding of why your vision is sound. But either way, it allows that muscle that controls your instincts to expand and contract, which will keep it sharp.

Re-examine your motives. This one goes right along with sharpening your instincts. Passionate instincts can either take you far or stunt your growth. And that reality is in direct relationship with how honest you are willing to be with yourself.

This is not to be mistaken with second-guessing yourself. But the nature of this work is service. You are choosing of life of being in service of other human beings in the world in some capacity. The people who we work in service of are often in critical need. An inability to, without ego, examine yourself and ask tough questions is a disservice to those people.

Ask questions like: Why am I here? Am I the best person to provide this service? Am I using my privilege in service of those with less than me? What is driving my investment in this work?

This is also where that tribe can come in really handy if you pick the right ones. Ask for honest feedback, and then gift yourself with the same honesty.

At the end of all this self-examination, you may draw the same conclusions that you are where you are supposed to be, doing things that you are supposed to do. But I guarantee you that your approach to the work will have improved and your output will be more excellent every time.

The next one is take care of yourself. Lately, in the last few years, the term "self care" has been really popular in pop-culture lexicon, right, particularly in social justice circles, and its popularity stems from the stark reality that the generations before us worked themselves literally to death. No pensions, no insurance, and no-one to say that you don't owe your life to this work. And I want to underscore that. You don't owe your life to this work.

My comrade and sister, Joanne Smith, who is the founder of Girls for Gender Equity, often says, "We come to the work because we are the work." And she's right. I keep that sentiment in the front of my mind regularly, because it's true in my life.

I became committed to interrupting sexual violence in my community because I'm a survivor of sexual violence. My motivation for wanting to bring healing into the lives of black and brown girls I worked with was because no-one spoke healing into my life. I came to this work because I am the work, which means I brought my baggage and broken pieces to the work, too. Eventually I realized how important it was to continuously unpack and repair in order to be more effective and impactful.

So many of you are coming to this work for the same reasons. When I say, take care of yourself, I'm talking about in the way flight attendants tell you to secure your mask before assisting others. [laughter] Everybody knows that though, right?

Do your personal work. Put that first. Don't let your commitment to social innovation impact and injustice supercede your need to have joy in your life and to be fully actualized human beings and to feel whole and healthy.

And our dean gave this one away a little bit, but the last one is, let love lead.

One of my all-time favorite quotes from the great scholar and activist Dr. Cornel West. He said, "You can't lead people if you don't love people, and you can't save people if you don't serve people."

I made a commitment to work against injustice and for social justice 30 years ago, at the ripe old age of 14 years old. What the last three decades have shown me is that if love is not leading, it becomes easy to lose your footing.

Me Too went viral now almost seven month ago. The night that it started going viral was a really interesting night for me. I was in my house and I had, from that morning, people calling me and saying, "I keep seeing #MeToo on the internet but I don't see your name. I don't see you associated." Or other people would call and say, "Oh girl – congratulations! I see #MeToo everywhere!" And so I was really struggling. One of the things I struggled with is, how am I going to contain my work? How am I not going to get lost in this viral moment?

And a really interesting thing happened. I didn't tweet at the time. I'm 44. [laughter] I just want to say that. You all know what I mean. I was on Facebook. [laughter] It hadn't quite made it to Facebook. And so I called my daughter and I asked my daughter to find this #MeToo on Twitter, because I don't see it. And so when it was set up, I could watch the hashtag. So I sat up all night, obsessively – don't tell nobody, y'all [laughter] – obsessively watching this hashtag. And I thought…I was calling friends and I was consulting people, and I was like – what am I going to go? Who is going to believe that this 44-year-old black women is the one who started this thing 12 years ago? Who's going to believe that? And I was out-of-my-mind frantic.

And then a really interesting thing happened. Somebody tweeted #MeToo with a link. I clicked the link, and when I clicked the link it opened up to this women's story, her full story of what had happened to her when she was sexually assaulted. And it was gut-wrenching. I'm a Christian woman, and in the Baptist church we say we get "convicted." I was convicted in that moment.

I read that story and I thought to myself, "My god, Tarana." I've spent this entire day trying to figure out how to save my work, and my work was happening right in front of me, all day. I remember sitting up in my bed and saying exactly that to myself. "Tarana!" You know how you get disgusted with yourself a little bit sometimes? [laughter] I said, "Tarana!"

The truth of the matter is, when I was 14 years old I discovered what community organizing was. I was taught that by some elders and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement and Labor Movement who really cared about passing on their legacy of work to another generation. And I made that commitment after the first thing I ever organized. I said, "This is the live I want. I want to do this forever." And I've kept that commitment all of these years.

So I asked myself in this moment, when you committed yourself 30 years ago to be in service of people, when did that change? The question for me in that moment after reading that story and watching this viralness happen online was simply, are you going to be in conflict or are you going to be in service?

Because conflict would have been easy, right? It would have been easy for me to say, "This is mine. I did it first. I've got the receipts. I can prove it. This is mine." [laughter] That would have been really easy. And y'all would have never heard of me, because who wants to deal with somebody in conflict? The truth of the matter was that I had no choice but to be in service.

And in the span of 24 hours, I had to tap into my passion. I had to consult my trusted tribe. I had to lean into my instincts, which forced me to re-examine my motives. When I came up for air, the answer was clear.

I love people deeply. I love my people deeply. I love this work deeply. That moment wasn't about my ego or my work, but about what I knew I had been called to do.

The truth of the matter is, the people – whoever they are – will frustrate you. The people will anger you. The people might ignore you. They might even fight you. But you will persist if you are led by love. Let love lead you.

I've so grateful that you have all chosen the path that you have. We need you, and you are ready – more ready than you probably realize. The "what's next" might seen scary to you, but that's perfectly fine. In fact, you should be a little fearful. I have an elder that always says, "If you're not scared, it's not courage."

So have courage. Find your passion. Find your tribe. Keep your instincts sharp. Examine and re-examine your motives. And take care of yourselves. Lead with love. Change the world.

Thank you. [applause]