Ayanna Pressley

Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology Commencement Address - May 18, 2019

Ayanna Pressley
May 18, 2019— Boston, Massachusetts
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Let me take a moment and collect myself a bit here.

I found myself, something I've done throughout my life, standing on this stage with my head bowed and I could hear my mother from on high saying, Ayanna, lift your head.”

I'm very humbled to receive this honor and to be wearing this cap and gown for reasons I'll share in a moment in my more formal remarks. I never attained a four-year degree and so this is the first time I get to wear a cap and gown and so I'm so humbled. [applause]

I'm shaking. I'm trying not to be. you know. too emotional here but I don't know how to be anybody else but me, so I just want to take a moment and just say that I…. first of all I want my staff to text my husband that he has to call me “doctor” now. [laughter] And second of all, I want to dedicate that honorary doctorate to my mother, may she rest in power. Thank you. [applause]

So good morning! I mean, aren't you all a beautiful sight to behold and I don't just mean because you’re good looking. So congratulations to our graduates and thank you to President Benoit and the Board of Trustees.

I know that people do not serve on this board in name only. This is a working board that works right alongside a tireless and dedicated faculty and staff who labor in love every single day in this unique and special institution and community, and so I want to say thank you for what you do every day.

And I want to say a special thank you to Aisha Francis-Samuels, who invited me to be with you today for this milestone in your lives.

And last but certainly not least I want to say thank you to the parents, to the grandparents, to the siblings, to the caretakers, to the friends and everyone else here today who played a role in supporting our graduates in realizing their dream.

Of course we've heard it said many times before that education is life's great equalizer and that is true, but family is life's great stabilizer. And given the challenging times we find ourselves in, I know that so many of our families are destabilized. And so the fact that you have sacrificed and overcome those hardships to ensure that your children would be afforded the best foundation, setting them on the strongest path possible in life, you are to be commended for this.

My mother, my shero, the woman who gave me my roots and my wings, Sandy Pressley, sometimes worked three jobs while I was growing up to make sure that my zip code did not dictate or determine my destiny or final destination.

It's true that the challenges that our family faced and overcame—they were not unique to our family. Hardship doesn't discriminate.

And so I want all of our graduates, I want you to take a breath. I want you to pause and take this all in. Because despite distractions and temptations and derailments of life in the world, you made it. And for that I commend you.

I remember at times in my life when I was your age…if anyone's big on to-do lists…anybody makes to-do lists here? Okay. And I know in a disciplined environment like the Benjamin Franklin Institute, folks make to-do lists, definitely. But on my hardest days, all I could put on that to-do list was “get up.”

And so you got up and you did that over and over and over again, and so I salute you and I commend you and we celebrate that.

It gives me a particular sense of pride to be delivering my first commencement address as a congresswoman here at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, following in the tradition of good and clearly brilliant men, Gov. Baker and Mayor Walsh, who know what a special place this is and made this their first commencement addresses as well.

It also means a great deal to be here with you because so many of the students live in the 7th Congressional District. So that includes 70% of Boston and Cambridge, Somerville, Randolph, Everett, Chelsea, and Milton, and so I'm so proud to join you on this stage today, but even more than that to represent you in Congress.

And I thank you in advance for your partnership because I can't wait to see what contributions you will make, how you will lead in community each and every day. And we need your leadership, especially now. I expect thing but greatness from each of you.

So it's an honor to participate in this milestone in your life today. Being here for this leg of your journey certainly gives me pause and makes me consider my own.

I moved from Chicago to Boston 27 years ago. I came to Boston with big eyes and hopes and dreams. This city welcomed me, it challenged me, and it permanently changed the trajectory of my life.

While a student at Boston University—and again, ultimately I did not attain that degree. My mother was laid off and ultimately was taken out by leukemia and I was her caregiver in that in that time. But this city changed trajectory of my life.

While a student at Boston University, I began as an intern in the office of former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, II. He later hired me and then I went on to work for the United States Senator John Kerry for 11 years and then to serve on the Boston City Council for eight years. So what is very serendipitous and so full circle, that the very office that I began in as an intern 25 years ago is now the office that I serve in as a congresswoman. [applause]

But you know, I didn't only serve as an aide. I was also a volunteer and a mentor and an advocate. I served on various boards and causes and organizations, and I was especially passionate about supporting girls and women and their safety, development, and health and wellness.

But when I decided to run for Congress in 2018 after 18 years on the Boston City Council, despite all that I had achieved in life, I still felt lingering self-doubt and there were whispers about my strength, the legitimacy or lack thereof of my qualifications. Despite having worked on the federal level for 16 years and again being an elected official representing the entire city of Boston, I did not have an undergraduate degree, and that bothered many people. In so many ways, I challenged their conventional wisdom and assumptions about who has a right to lead and when they should lead.

Ultimately they spoke of many things. I didn't have an intimate knowledge of the scope of specific committees in Congress. I didn't have the backing of incumbent members of Congress. I didn't have the personal resources to fund the sort of grassroots campaign that I spoke about.

But whatever the reasons that they offered that disqualified me, it all boiled down to one thing. And how I processed it, how I internalized it, is that I wasn't good enough—that I simply wasn't good enough.

It was a familiar feeling in the abstract and in real life. I knew what it was to be judged, to be counted out, to be underestimated in so many ways…in so many ways, my profile—my life profile—was unconventional and disruptive and it made my pursuit seem especially improbable.

You know the world has its landmines and life its hardships and family its challenges, but sometimes the greatest obstacle is ourselves. I don't know about all of you, but throughout my life I've had a tape that I played in my head about myself, and depending on the day I would say, “Your father was a junkie. You're too dark. You're too light. You're too smart. You're too dumb. You're too pretty. You're too ugly.”

The traumas and the dysfunction of my family life and those things that I held within me, all of that I almost stopped me from bringing to bear my full contribution to the world. Because sometimes that tape that we play in our head about ourselves is reinforced by society around us.

Fortunately—and I want to encourage all of you to do this—I had a support system of family, friends, and staff and supporters who reminded me who I was. You have to surround yourself with people who remind you of your why and also your whom when you are tempted to forget. [applause]

And so because I have that, ultimately what I learned is that government—a truly representative democracy—is based on the fundamental belief that our shared lived experiences qualify anyone—everyone—to serve. Because after all, you can't be a government that serves the people, that meets the needs of the people, if it isn't represented by the people. [applause]

And this is why I have been open and transparent about my story and the struggles I faced in my single-parented household while my father, who battled addiction and was in and out of the criminal justice system, of being a survivor of a near-decade of childhood sexual abuse and later campus sexual assault.

It's why I've been transparent about bearing witness to my mother being victim to violence at the hands of people who said they cared for her, of men being promoted over her that she trained, and on the challenges of being her caregiver and slowly watching life ebb out of her.

I have been transparent about these stories not because my story is a unique one, not because it's easy to tell—it can be very triggering—but I am willing to share my story to make myself and others uncomfortable in the pursuit of equity, in the pursuit of justice, and to create space for others to do the same, and to know that they are seen and that they are heard by their government.

These experiences and these hardships my family does not have the monopoly on them. Millions of Americans and thousands of Bostonians and many of you in this room can relate to elements of my story, and you are why I serve.

I never ran to be anyone's voice. I ran to lift up the voices of the people, to create space for the ignored, the unheard, the left out, and the left behind.

We all know what it is. There have been times in your life when you underestimated you, your family underestimated you, where the world underestimated you—but you know who never underestimated you? The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. [applause]

No matter how unconventional your path, whether English is your first language or not, what zip code you come from, whether you've been justice-involved or not—Benjamin Franklin Institute saw something in you.

I want to let you know this—you're not great because you're graduating from be BFIT. You were already great. They just developed and nurtured and cultivated that which was already in you, that you came into this world with. Never forget that. And that’s why this space, that’s why this community is so special. [applause]

But we all know what it is to be underestimated, and we have moments where we feel unseen. Something in my bio, my resume, that isn't usually reported is that I was a hotel worker for six years. I know what it is to be a part of a workforce where you make contributions every day and you work hard and people look over you and through you and don't often celebrate or recognize what your contributions are to this city.

But I want you to know that as you make contributions in construction, in HVAC, in engineering, you will never be an invisible work force to this congresswoman and I will make sure that this city celebrates and honors what it is that you contribute.

Now I decided…Dr. King said everyone can be great because everyone can serve. And I decided the way that I would be of service would be to be in a government. And as much as I would love for you all to be on the front line of the gun violence prevention movements, of climate change, of Black Lives Matter, of MeToo, or fighting for the rights of women—and I want you to vote in every single election, city, state, and federal, and I hope you do that—but please be clear, make no mistake about it, that the role of BFIT has been to build you up so that you can build this city and our world up. And that is the ultimate service. [applause]

So in my faith tradition, we say it's a sin to have a gift and to not share it with the world. I need all of you to share your gifts.

And although you're graduating today I do have a homework assignment for you. [audience laughs and groans] Oh yeah, and it's a heavy lift.

My challenge, your challenge, our collective challenge, is to make sure that we and that others check our assumptions about who has something to contribute and who deserves to have a seat at the table, regardless of the path they walked, or the degree they hold or they don't, or the neighborhood they come from, or the language they speak, or whether or not they were justice-involved, or whatever their family model is.

Yes, we need your skills to build up the city of Boston. We need your entrepreneurship. We need your ingenuity. We need your perspective. We need you quite literally to be in the DNA of and to build this city. And, we need you to lift as you climb.

So when you find yourself at the proverbial seat at a table, take a look around and see who isn't there or see who is there but no one is listening—and be intentional about making space for those voices that are not included in those conversations.

As President Benoit indicated, the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District is the most diverse and we celebrate that, but it is the most unequal congressional district in the Massachusetts delegation.

You don't believe me? You all like details. I'll tell you the data. From Cambridge to Roxbury, life expectancy drops by 30 years and median household income by $50,000.

And that is why institutions and communities like BFIT are so important, because they're going to ensure that you have a place in the economy, that you have economic freedom, that you have social mobility, that women receive equal pay for equal work, and that you not only benefit from the prosperity of this great city of Commonwealth but that you have the opportunity to contribute to it.

And that is why I wanted this to be my first commencement today.

Dr. King said, paraphrasing, it will really be all in vain and we have failed if we integrate a lunch counter but you can't afford to buy lunch at. Economic justice and freedom matters. And I see BFIT as being part of the solution to get us to the final refrain of that Pledge of Allegiance, “and justice for all” some day.

I've been in Congress less than four months now and given the polarizing political climate, the toxicity that we find ourselves in more often than not, and the gravity of our challenges, people ask me if I'm cynical, if I'm apathetic, and I tell them that I don't have the luxury.

We find ourselves in unprecedented times with unprecedented challenges, but I intend to meet these unprecedented times and these unprecedented challenges with unprecedented hope—and each of you gives me that.

So as you begin this next chapter and commence this new chapter in your life, remember that BFIT, as dedicated as it is to economic justice and your bringing to bear your full contribution to this world, this institution is also dedicated to civic engagement. It's not just so that you can add it to your resume and get that next job or that promotion—it’s because civic engagement is a lifeblood of our democracy. It is your responsibility to hold your congresswoman—that’s me—accountable.

You know, the word “entitlement” is 11 letters, but people treat it like it's a four-letter word. It shouldn't be a bad thing. We allowed it to be co-opted. You are entitled to a living wage. You're entitled to health care. You are entitled to housing you can afford. You are entitled to transit you can rely upon. You are entitled to feel safe in community. You are entitled to an economy that rewards hard work and instills dignity in every profession. You are entitled to be respected however you identify. And you are entitled to move with self-agency through this world. [applause]

I wish I could say that today is the end of all the struggles that we've each overcome when on that to-do list I wrote “get up,” you kept getting up. I wish I could say that you'll never deal with any of those struggles again, but that's not reality. The work continues because the struggle continues.

But on this day, celebrate and know that I am grateful to you and for each of your families.

I thank you, class of 2019, for sharing your talents with us and I need you to continue each day to get up.

Thank you and congratulations. [applause]

Franklin Cummings Tech. “Commencement 2019 Speaker: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley | Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.” YouTube video, 24:13. May 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUJyWmNLwgQ