Anita Hill

Commencement Address at Lesley University - May 18, 2019

Anita Hill
May 18, 2019— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Wow, thank you. This is just…I'm overwhelmed.

I suppose I should start by saying thank you to the Board of Trustees, to President [Richard] Hansen, Provost [Margaret] Everett, faculty and staff and students and everyone here today for making this one of the highest honors of my life.

I am thrilled to accept the Lesley University's honorary degree and I am privileged to address this outstanding class of 2019. Congratulations.

In 1973 I sat at my college graduation just as you do today. It was a great day for me and my family and my friends and all of those around me, as I'm sure it's a great day for you and yours today.

But along with the memories of the four years that I'd spent in college there was apprehension and questions about the future. Had I made the right choice to continue my education rather than get work experience? Would I do well in law school? Would my friends keep their promises to stay in touch with me? Would the commencement address soon be over so that my parents could get what they came for – a photo of me holding a diploma?

Well eventually the answers to all of those questions came, and the easiest one to answer is the one about the length of the commencement address. I was given 15 minutes, so I'm going to get to it.

So how many of you enjoyed your time as a student at Lesley? [Applause] I've had the honor of visiting your campus three times now and I can say that I've enjoyed every time I've experienced the Lesley campus, the culture and especially you students.

But let me just say this. I know that college is not all fun all of the time. A lot of hard work goes into being successful in college and you are successful. You have graduated.

For some of you there have been personal struggles and those struggles have tested your resolve. You've had relationships that soured – maybe. You've taken required courses that you really didn't like at all – maybe not from a Lesley professor but at some point in your life you've had a class that you just didn't…just didn't quite do it for you.

And some of you have had concerns that go beyond what we think of as the routine concerns of college. You've been concerned about maybe your parents' or your grandparents' health and well-being, and maybe you've even had health issues of your own.

You know, it's common for students to talk, especially in this Boston area, about how expensive it is to live, so I'm sure that all of you have exchanged stories about finding housing in Cambridge or near Lesley so that you could continue your education.

But then there are the things that perhaps we don't talk about enough, things that, issues that are facing students today that do not get enough attention or haven't been spoken about out loud.

Hunger is one of those issues. And I realized that, from being on a campus myself, I realized that there are times when students have to decide whether to buy food or to buy a book or school supplies. That is a choice that I wish no one ever had to make. I wish we could do more to make your educational experience more affordable, and all I can say is that we are working on it.

Many of you students have had to bear the burdens of the expenses and the challenges of school, but I am sure that here at Lesley you have not had to bear it alone. So I'd like to say please at this moment, give yourselves and your classmates a hand and thank those people here – teachers, staff, family, friends who stood by you and helped you to continue to believe in yourself despite those personal challenges.

And then there are the issues that make the headlines. Of grave concern is campus violence in its many forms. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security reports that university, high school and junior high school campuses have been ripped apart by shootings. In 2018, an average of nearly two school shootings incidents a week. And we are on track to match or exceed that number in 2019.

The National Institutes of Health has noted that since college entry 22 percent of students reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault. Women and gender non-conforming students reported the highest rates, although men experienced…12.5% of men also reported sexual assault. This is happening in your years in college.

You're not immune, as well, from the things that are going on outside of college. The uncertainties that exist that are economic, social and political in the world today all have an impact on you as well.

And on a day like today, a graduation, where you're moving into a different phase of your life, the issues of college and the issues of what will happen when you graduate and move on, whether to work, they converge, especially as you think about going into the workplace.

Many years ago when you were in elementary school, 60 Minutes warned baby boomers to watch out for you. Now, I know that 60 Minutes is probably not the most popular program among millennials, right? You're probably more likely to watch Game of Thrones.

But their warning went something like this: the workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the millennials have the upper hand because they are tech savvy, with every gadget imaginable almost becoming an extension of their bodies. They multitask – talk, walk, listen and text – and their priorities are simple: they come first.

So don't worry about the criticism, because these are some of the same pundits that call my generation – baby boomers – the most spoiled generation ever. And when I see you, I see something quite different than the pundits saw. I see resilience.

Your generation has faced difficult issues head-on. You've organized marches for legislation that would end school shootings. You shared your stories of bullying, harassment, assault on campuses. And you've demanded better protections on colleges throughout the country. Your activities have laid the groundwork for what we now call the Me Too [#MeToo] movement.

And the organizing is having an effect. We have all heard you. The world hears you. And we thank you for your efforts.

But today you are confronted even in the most noble of efforts with resistance. I saw on one of your hats when I was coming in the words "Nevertheless, she persisted." You're smiling.

Nevertheless, we persist. We persist in the face of those today who would have you think that divisiveness and isolation are the solutions to these pressing social and economic problems we face. In fact, the times and the recent rise in hate crimes teach us that defy divisiveness and isolation inspire more violence, division and isolationism. They are the problems. They are not the solutions.

There is so much that you have learned at Lesley, and I'm just gonna focus on one piece of what I know about you.

At Lesley, you've used art to engage the university and your guests in the question of, and I quote, "Will we act to improve our world, to address the violence and harm that humankind seems prone to?" Now that's a profound question and you have been involved in engaging that. You have been involved in engaging the question of will we pursue social justice for all.

Most campuses talk about social justice. It seems to be the popular thing to do. But you are actually engaging in the kind of work that will help us reach that goal. You took on questions or issues of incest, sexual assault, toxic masculinity and racism and more, issues that caused so much pain to members of the university community and so much pain in the homes throughout our world.

I thank you for taking those on, but your work does not have to end here. Your years at Lesley and the resources you've engaged with have put you on the path for the next phase of your life. At the core of the lessons that you have learned, I hope will always be the idea of community and that, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the idea that we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

When it comes to social change, intergenerational divisions do harm to all of us. And that's why unlike the 60 Minutes producers I don't see you as a threat. I see the millennials as partners to us, the baby boomers.

At times when the personal trials and events of the world outside of this college challenge your concentration and maybe your own commitment, you stayed the course. Many of the battles you fought and the things you care about are my battles and my concerns.

As Ella Baker, civil rights activist and organizer of the 1960s, said, to me, young people have the courage to push for change where we – your parents and grandparents – fail. But I honestly believe that together we will never fail, and really only together will we succeed.

When I was where you are today, I knew the world was not perfect, but I believed we were on the verge of monumental change. I thought that through the movements of the 60s and 70s we would sprint toward equality for all, that we could end racism, sexism and poverty and all of their violent expressions. Yes, I was idealistic, but I had seen the world come so far from my parents' own lived experiences of having grown up in segregation and raised 13 children and moved beyond to an era where civil rights were finally being acknowledged and protected.

As a baby boomer, I consider it a privilege to carry on the works of the civil rights and women's rights pioneers. Without them, I would not be here today.

And I remain committed, realizing that this race is not a sprint. And I no longer even think of it as a marathon. I think of it as a relay, and the goals for equality are broadening in every leg of this race.

Four years ago when you were freshmen, I had the privilege of engaging with you through the book "Reimagining Equality," and I asked you then to think about what equality would mean for you in your lifetime. Not necessarily how would I define it, but how you would think of it. And I ask you today to continue that engagement.

My work will continue. People often ask me if I would undertake the journey again, and I say yes I would. I say yes because I believe in equal justice under the law in its broadest sense. I say yes I would continue because I believe that each and every one of you deserve it. I say yes as I focus my work on one simple principle – that is that every individual regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, age, disability, religion, color or class has a right to be schooled, work, walk the streets and live in their homes free from violence.

And I say yes because we need now to start working on prevention. Condolences after an act of violence are no substitute for action that could be taken to eliminate the violence and prevent it from happening.

That means that we are going to have to change cultures of silence, those cultures of silence that enable violence. And we're going to have to examine and rethink many of our structures, because many of those structures sustain violence and allow it to continue and in some cases thrive.

I ask you to reimagine with me and to believe with me that a better world is possible. And I ask you to act on your belief in that better world. Whether you continue your education or you go into the job market, whatever you do you will be a citizen of this society and as such you have a stake in improving the lives of those around you.

Please know the following – violence is never the answer. Know as well that it is not inevitable. Do not allow anyone to convince you that there is nothing you can do about violence that is experienced, whether it is in your home or on the streets. We can do better and we must do better.

Do not allow yourselves to be convinced, as well, that the answer to violence is more violence. That is not the answer.

And most of all, believe that if we join together, those of us who care about humanity, those who see the humanity in each other, if we act together on the basis of our shared values and our shared humanity, we are all better off.

Humanity is not a zero-sum game. And equality cannot be parsed out. Equality is either whole and complete and is for everyone and if it is not, we have failed. It is inequality.

So keep in mind, most of all – when you hear the criticism of millennials that when it comes to social justice you should never be ashamed of being the generation that would only take yes for an answer. Only take yes for an answer when someone asks you, should we have a more just world. The answer is yes. That is the only answer.

Only take yes for an answer if someone asks you if we and our government should be doing more to protect young people on campuses and schools throughout this country.

Only take yes for an answer when our leaders approach you, when you know that it is their job to protect you.

Only take yes for an answer when you are asked if you will step forward and do the hard work it takes to improve the world for everyone, even the people who are not like you.

Now here's what I see in you. When I look at the class of 2019, I see the future. I see the future in your eyes. I see it in the hard work that you have done. I see it in the joy that you have taken in learning and I see it in the challenges that you are going to face and face bravely in the future. I see the future and it looks very, very bright.

I salute you. I thank you for the privilege of sharing this day, a small portion of it, with you and I ask you simply look upon this day when times get hard, when people challenge you, when you are told that the world will never change or that you have no impact on it. Look 'em in the eye say I know what I am made of, I know what I can do, and I know that I will change the world.

Thank you.