Thank you so much President Brown and Chairman Feld for this distinctive honor.
I wish to dedicate this honorary degree to my ancestors. I know I am their wildest dreams.
To my mother, may she rest in peace and power. She prayed so many prayers into me, poured so much into me.
And to my father, who despite his entanglement with the criminal legal system, did attain two advanced degrees and went on to become a professor of journalism and a published author.
And I also dedicate this degree to my husband Conan Harris and our daughter Cora, who are my biggest cheerleaders and who sacrifice and serve right alongside me each and every day.
It has been nearly thirty years from the moment I first set foot on campus, until this moment today, so I think it would be fair to say that I’ve taken an unconventional route to this degree.
To all of the graduates today, no matter what path you have followed to get here, good afternoon, and congratulations!
Congratulations, as well– you can hand clap yourselves!
Congratulations as well to my fellow honorary degree recipients, Noubar Afeyan and Catherine D’Amato, who have made such important contributions to our community, both locally and globally.
And to your student speaker, Archelle Thelemaque. From Howard Thurman to Meek Mill to Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson — may they rest in power — Archelle, you delivered a word. And I am so proud of you, #SheReady.
And I am so grateful for the opportunity to join with all of you today and, after the events of the past year, even more thankful that we can be here together in community and in celebration.
And when I say “all of you,” indulge me while I innumerate that I am addressing not only the graduates, the esteemed faculty, the board of trustees, but the administrators, the adjunct professors, the teaching assistants, the custodial staff, the food service workers, the ASL interpreters, and of course the caregivers, family members, and friends. Thank all of you for the support you have provided and the sacrifices that you have made to bring us to this day.
Now, the story of what bring me here to this stage, to this moment, begins — as so many parts of my life do — with my mother, Sandy Pressley, the woman who gave me my roots and my wings.
Now, from the day that I was born, my mother made sure I knew that it was a beautiful thing to be Black and something that I should be proud of, but she wanted her baby girl to know that she was being born into a struggle. And she had an expectation that I would play a role in that struggle — a beautiful struggle — the fight for justice and collective liberation.
And, in ways big and small, my mother made sure I had the opportunity to step into myself, to stand in my own power, fully.
Instead of traditional bedtime stories, she read me the speeches of Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. She worked multiple jobs so that I could attend one of the best schools in Chicago, and she constantly reminded me that I am enough.
After high school, she encouraged me to come here to Boston, and seek the opportunity afforded by this Boston University.
When I arrived on campus, in fact, at Rich Hall, it was as the embodiment of all the hopes, dreams, and yes, fears, that my mother had for me. I knew not a soul here, but I threw myself into the University community. And like so many of you here today, I used work study and a number of temporary jobs to make ends meet.
And it was as a student here that I gained an internship in the office of Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II. Now my mother was a proud Democrat, a politically astute super voter, and I was familiar with the work of Congressman Kennedy because my mother had told me what he was doing to combat the practice of redlining in the city of Boston.
Throughout my internship with Congressman Kennedy, I gained a deeper and more profound understanding of the community that Boston University calls home.
During the day, I was getting a lesson in political science in the abstract, but each day in that Roxbury satellite office, I was seeing up close and personal the impact of policy.
Policy that is well-intentioned, but short-sighted. Policy that I would characterize as policy violence, that is draconian and discriminatory.
It was there that it was made clear to me, that conditions don’t just happen. They are legislated.
And as a 19, 20-year-old, I had the full weight of a Congressional office behind me to be able to connect someone that was battling housing or food insecurity with the resources that they need, to get someone the unemployment benefits they had been denied, or a veteran, help them to access healthcare. A senior to navigate their social security benefits.
My consciousness was stoked and my purpose made that much more clear.
It was where I saw firsthand the impact of policy.
The experience broadened my horizons beyond the bounds of BU’s campus, and it’s a lesson that has served me well throughout my life: do not allow yourself to be confined by the walls around you. Go beyond what is comfortable and what is known. You will always find more understanding, more inspiration, more joy in community than you will apart from it.
Now as is so often the case, life gets in the way and derails our best made plans. After several life-disruptive events, a layoff, an illness, I could no longer remain at Boston University.
It was no longer tenable. But I did maintain, while working three part-time jobs, my internship with Congressman Kennedy, and was eventually hired as a full-time staff person in his office.
In 2018, when I was elected to represent the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District in the United States Congress, it was indeed a full circle moment. Because you see, the seat I now hold in Congress, as the first person of color and the first Black woman ever to represent this Commonwealth in the House in its 230-year history, it was the very same seat, the same office that I began in as an unpaid intern 25-plus years ago.
Boston changed my life. Boston University changed my life. The experiences I had at B — both good and bad — shaped me in important, formidable ways — just as I know that your experiences here have shaped you.
What you have learned and experienced, the passions you have nurtured, the people you have come to know, and the community you have built over the past several years have brought you all here, collectively, to this moment. And that deserves celebration.
And as Archelle reminds us, this is one of the most diverse graduating classes in the history of Boston University. And that didn’t just happen. It was with intention.
In this stadium today, there are graduates from dozens of different states and even still, more countries. There are graduates who are the first in their families to attend college. There are graduates who grew up in single-parent households or the foster system, who are active duty military, who are immigrants.
And graduates who have defied the naysayers who underestimated them. Who counted you out. Graduates who underestimated your own power. Who wondered and questioned if you would ever arrive at this moment, at this day, and you would sit in these chairs and walk across this stage.
And in the past year, you have all weathered unprecedented challenges.
COVID-19 has introduced brand new challenges while worsening existing hardship and inequity. It has strained our normal ties to one another, but at the same time made clear the vital importance of community, and simple pleasures, and joy.
And, for too many, it has meant an empty seat at the dinner table, or one less loved one to share in today’s celebration.
Now I imagine many of you may feel compelled and feel an urgent desire to move on as quickly as possible from this pandemic. To put the pain and hardship behind you. To not look back. But there is much to be said for pausing, for taking a break. To think and to reflect.
For some, this experience has provided greater clarity about what matters to you, about whom matters to you, what your purpose is, and what you are called to contribute. Don’t lose that.
For others, the pandemic may have had a less profound, but no less impactful, impression on you.
Now, I don’t know about y’all. I’m an aquarius and we like to make lists. I’m an exhaustive list maker.
Every day, I make lists of the things I want to accomplish. But there have been many days in my life — including as a student here at Boston University — when the only thing on my to-do list, the only task, was “get up.” Just getting out of bed some days was a victory. Each and every day for the past 16 months, you have all “gotten up.”
My dear friend Joshua DuBois refers to this as the gentle battle that we are confronted with each morning. You’ve been winning that gentle battle.
And for everyone, as we now begin the long road to recovery, the Work of healing is a journey not only for each of you as individuals. Your reflection, your healing also helps to create space and to heal all those around you — the village that has carried you here, and the broader community of which you are a member.
At the same time, we cannot romanticize and be content with a return to a pre-pandemic normal that was unjust and inequitable to begin with.
Individually and together, we must learn the lessons of the pandemic, and act accordingly.
As we recover, as we begin our collective healing, we are all called to do our part.
Among the many lessons my mother taught me is this one: there is a difference between your job and your Work. Your job is what you do to pay the bills, and your Work, with a capital W, is the work of justice-seeking, of community upliftment and building.
Now when I look out at all of you, I see thousands of what I would characterize as values engineers, social architects, table shakers, and trailblazers ready to do the Work with a capital W that my mother so often spoke of.
Sixty years ago, one of my favorite authors, James Baldwin was reflecting on the nature of majority and minority rights in America. It’s a quote I’ve come back to often this commencement season, and one I think carries particular weight in this moment.
In defining the majority, Baldwin writes, “…majorities [have] nothing to do with numbers or with power, but with influence, moral influence” and “this majority is you. No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”
“You need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”
Now Baldwin was speaking at the height of what is traditionally thought of as “the civil rights movement” — the monumental struggle for racial, social, and economic justice in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But make no mistake: that movement isn’t confined to the past — it’s still happening all around us, every day. And the challenge Baldwin raises is just as urgent today as it was six decades ago.
Baldwin was right. He is right. You need not take the world as it is, as you inherited it.
In fact, you cannot. We need each and every one of you to meet this moment, to imagine a better world, and then to work for it.
You are graduating into a country and a world grappling with challenges that are breathtaking in their scope but, at the same time, each of you embodies the potential for transformative change — person-to-person, community-to-community.
I don’t know if any of you have seen this, but recently, there have been online images from the early chapters of the civil rights movement that have been colorized. When we see those same images in grainy black and white, it’s easy to consign them to a different era, a long time ago.
But when we see them in color, it imparts a recency, a reminder that it wasn’t long ago. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago, and much work still remains to be done.
And when I look at those images, I’m struck by how young everyone was.
Now the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be one of this institution’s most revered alums, but it was Coretta Scott King who said “Freedom is never really won — you earn it and win it in every generation.”
So now it is your turn. You are today’s freedom riders, you are today’s justice-seekers, you are today’s foot soldiers and organizers.
It may be at a protest or a march, or it may be through the lens of a microscope or the inside of a board room. Whether you are a chemist or a computer engineer; a businessperson, an aspiring educator, a dancer, a nonprofit leader, a poet, a pastor, or any of the other dreams and ambitions represented here today, there is a place in the movement for everyone and the movement needs you.
Over the past year, in addition to the trauma caused by the pandemic, our country has been rocked by gut-wrenching moments that have shown the depth of racism, of white supremacy, and profound injustices in our communities.
But racial, social, and economic injustice are not present only in momentary spasms of violence and hatred — they are codified, they are systemic.
And dismantling those systems, building a more just and equitable world, requires collective determination, collective action.
As BU’s own Dr. Kendi has challenged us, it takes a commitment to be anti-racist.
It requires tackling problems that are small enough to solve and big enough to matter.
It requires each of us to take a stakehold in our communities and to, as Baldwin tells us, to exert “moral influence,” and to refuse to accept the world as we have inherited it.
Another world is possible, where racial, social, economic, environmental, and healthcare injustice is the exception, rather than the rule.
Another world is possible, where Black and brown folks needn’t put our very lives at risk to demand our humanity be seen, affirmed, and valued.
Another world is possible, where women are seen, their lived experiences respected, and their bodily autonomy protected.
Another world is possible, where LGBTQIA people do not have to struggle every day to safeguard their most basic rights and freedoms.
Another world is possible, where no one is burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and where everyone has the right — and the ability — to vote, and where everyone who wants one has a good job that pays a living wage.
Another world is possible.
When I first ran for Congress, I said “change can’t wait.” It still can’t.
So go now, beyond these walls. Take what you have learned, take the village that you carry and the village that has carried you, take your lived experiences and build the world you want to see.
The future belongs to all of us and, Boston University Class of 2021, when I look out at all of you, I know that change is on the way.
Boston University. “U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley: 2021 Boston University Commencement Speaker.” YouTube video, 21:38. May 16, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL1KBt-aJKk
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. 2021. “REP. AYANNA PRESSLEY DELIVERS COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY.” May 17. https://pressley.house.gov/2021/05/17/rep-ayanna-pressley-delivers-commencement-address-boston-university.