‘I belong to a generation that has fundamentally failed you’ — commencement speaker

Debra Bial (Mount Holyoke College)
Deborah Bial (Mount Holyoke College)

In my continuing coverage of interesting 2014 commencement speeches, here’s one that Deborah Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation, delivered at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley in which she bashes her own generation, not the usual focus of such events:

I wish I could tell you that we have been a good steward of the earth and have exemplified responsible citizenship and visionary leadership. At the very least, I wish I could tell you that we have learned from our mistakes and that, for the most part, today we are headed in the right direction. But that is just not the case….

The difficult truth is that I belong to a generation that has fundamentally failed you. It’s kind of like we are handing you the keys to a car we’ve completely wrecked and advising you on how best to care for it. Perhaps the most a commencement speaker can do under these circumstances is to apologize and hope that you can learn from our mistakes.

The Posse Foundation is a non-profit organization that identifies, recruits and trains public high school students with outstanding academic and leadership potential — many of them who have been overlooked in traditional college selection processes — and then arranges for full-tuition scholarships for four years at college. Since 1989, some 5,540 public high school students have been through the Posse program and 90 percent of them graduate from college. In 2010, President Obama named the foundation as one of 10 to receive a portion — $125,000 — of the $1.4 million he won with his Nobel Peace Prize.

Mount Holyoke College is a liberal arts college for women.

Here’s the speech:

Thank you President Pasquerella, the Mount Holyoke Board of Trustees, members of the faculty. I congratulate the first Mount Holyoke Posse graduates, and, of course, the entire graduating class of 2014. What an honor this is for me to get to share this special moment with all of you and with your families who hearts are full and bursting with pride today.

A commencement speech is a funny thing, if you think about it. It usually involves someone from an older generation, someone like me, talking to the graduating class about how best to approach their lives and the world they are about to inherit. As the commencement speaker, I’m expected to impart what are hopefully profound insights on how to be a responsible adult, woman, citizen.

But what qualifies me or my generation for this immense honor? I mean, my generation has made a real mess of things.

I wish I could tell you that we have been a good steward of the earth and have exemplified responsible citizenship and visionary leadership. At the very least, I wish I could tell you that we have learned from our mistakes and that, for the most part, today we are headed in the right direction. But that is just not the case.

The difficult truth is that I belong to a generation that has fundamentally failed you. It’s kind of like we are handing you the keys to a car we’ve completely wrecked and advising you on how best to care for it.

Perhaps the most a commencement speaker can do under these circumstances is to apologize and hope that you can learn from our mistakes.

And if you think I’m overstating, I ask you to consider a few things.

Take climate change and our role in it.

A recent report by a group of more than 300 scientists from 70 nations confirmed, conclusively, definitively, for once and for all that as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, we stand on the precipice of an environmental calamity, the likes of which we have never seen and from which we may not recover. This threatens every single one of us, without exception. The ice caps are melting, water supplies are dwindling, extreme weather patterns are increasing, and many species are going extinct. But strikingly only 40 percent of Americans believe that global climate change is a major threat.

Let’s face it, my generation has been a poor guardian of the planet.

Or consider our track record when it comes to issues of social justice, issues like racism for instance.

Admittedly, the history of race in America includes moments of great social progress.

But I’m afraid my generation has done a terrible job of protecting those gains. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, was a key piece of Civil Rights legislation that ensured that states could not create election laws that unfairly prevented minorities from voting. That critically important law was effectively neutralized last year by The Supreme Court. And thousands of people who risked their lives fighting for this legislation including Representative John Lewis – a hero who fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King – stood by and watched its principles get dismantled. We should be ashamed.

We are not dealing just with issues of race, but with class and sex and sexuality as well. Today, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country is wider than it’s ever been – ever in our history. And as Robert Reich points out — even with the economy in better shape now than it was in 2009, 95% — virtually all — of the income gains since the end of the recession went to the top 1%.

It’s maddening to think that in 2014 women still only earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. What is our excuse here?

This is where we are, where things stand in 2014.

I outline some of these challenges not because I want you to feel down today but because I hope you do better with them then we did. And because in front of me, in this crowd of smart young women now armed with powerful Mount Holyoke degrees, are the leaders we need to help this country, this world, change course.

You’re going to have to be brave. And sometimes even seemingly small things need courage.

Maybe writing every day about your experiences and thoughts and wishes and dreams seems ordinary. But be brave like Anne Frank.

Maybe it’s hard to imagine that refusing to give up your seat to a white man who demands it because you’re black took courage. But be brave like Rosa Parks.

Maybe speaking out politically is something you have always been comfortable with. But be brave like Gloria Steinem.

Maybe the idea of going to school despite death threats seems foolish. But be brave like Malala Yousafzai.

The truth is that in every generation there are heroes, there are heroines.

You all have it in you.

You have your whole life in front of you. You all have courage and you may not realize when you will be called upon to use it.

I hope you will work to make our worlds more equitable, more generous, more forgiving. Be brave. John Lewis was brave when he fought, 50 years ago, for the black vote. Frida Kahlo was brave when she painted images that challenged traditional views of women.

You don’t have to be a revolutionary but you should be brave. Eleanor Roosevelt was brave when she persistently spoke out both privately to her husband and in public about actions against humanity. Al Gore was brave when he began the very public fight more than a decade ago to educate the world about climate change and its consequences.

Their battles were no more important than the ones facing you in this audience. We need our best and brightest, you, to be fighting. It was not too long ago that it was a strange and uphill battle to defend a women’s right to autonomy, to a life of the mind, to full-fledged personhood.

Every single woman in this crowd of graduates today is someone’s hope for a better future, for equal pay, for a fair shot at the American Dream. It is on you that we hang our hopes for a more just and reasonable society.

For those of you who make the decision to lead, to make your life about improving the lives of others, know that you will have to be brave.

That’s just the way moral progress works, and we need you to fight the difficult fights. Dare to be the unexpected champion of what is right, no matter how unpopular, difficult or bizarre-seeming the position. Be brave. Have the courage to stand up for what you care about, for what you believe in. And remember, small things are sometimes bigger than you realize, sometimes huge.

History is not linear. It doesn’t guarantee us progress or solutions and sometimes we move backwards. Martin Luther King once famously said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but I would add that it does so only under tremendous and constant pressure. Be that pressure. We are never done. Be loyal to the truth, to compassion, to diligence and do your best to do the right thing.

The great poet and Mount Holyoke alumna Emily Dickinson wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” She also famously wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” My hope for you on this your graduation day is that you will use your sky-encompassing minds responsibly, for your own good, but also for the good of others, and that as you carve your life’s unique path, you hold fast to the hope that sings the tunes without words and never stops.

Thank you.

RELATED: ‘Be Kind,’ and other commencement advice to the class of 2014

 (Correction: Adding a dropped word in the transcript, to read that states could not pass laws that unfairly prevented minorities from voting.)

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 28