Commencement 2009 Speech Excerpts
Good Morning and welcome to the 121st Wheelock College Commencement exercises. It is now my pleasure to introduce The College of Fenway Choir including Wheelock College students Martha Gannon and Hilary Johansen who will open this Commencement ceremony with a musical invocation. A very special thank you to Choir Director Ray Fahrner and all the students who volunteered to participate in today's program. Thank you!
Our 2009 Commencement is being held in this beautiful sanctuary of our neighbor Temple Israel. We thank Rabbi Ronnie Friedman, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin and the entire congregation of Temple Israel for their generous hospitality and warm friendship. Our growing student body along with the completion of our new Campus Center prevents us from holding Commencement on the Wheelock campus green. We couldn't ask for a better alternative than here in the historic and beautiful Temple Israel. Please give Rabbi Friedman and the entire Temple Israel Community a rousing Wheelock applause of thank you for their kindness and generosity.
I extend a warm welcome to the husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, other caregivers, and family and friends of our graduates. We are so pleased to have you with us as we "bear witness" this milestone accomplishment of our graduates. We are most privileged and grateful to have been a part of your family member's life for the past few years. The entire Wheelock community shares in your pride and happiness on this very special day.
To our faculty and staff, we thank you and applaud you for the many ways in which you have helped prepare our class of 2009 to enter the professional world of work, to continue their education, to pursue travel or other learning opportunities. We know that Wheelock is a unique institution not only because of our special mission-to educate practitioners and leaders who are committed to our mission of improving the lives of children and families, but also because of you-our talented and exceptional faculty. Our students tell us how your close and personal relationship with each of them, your devotion to excellence in teaching and scholarship, and your untiring efforts to help them thrive is truly what makes Wheelock the very special College it is. On behalf of our students, thank you.
To the Class of 2009: Congratulations! You are graduating at a most historic time in our nation. It is a troubling and uncertain time-full of challenges and yes, full of opportunity. In these most troubling, uncertain, and challenging times you have persisted, you have prevailed, you have overcome adversities and you are here today-graduating. Congratulations! We honor our and we are so proud of you.
And it is during these times of challenge and great joy that we appreciate with much gratitude the love and support of family and friends. You are here today having achieved a very significant accomplishment. You set a goal, worked hard, and you achieved your goal. Many, many students cannot make the same claim. I'm sure you can think of several people who started out here at Wheelock with you and are not celebrating with you today. On behalf of the entire Wheelock family, I salute you with warm and affectionate congratulations!
Now the fact of the matter is that you didn't do it alone, you had help and much support: A family member cheering you on, showing up at Wheelock when you forgot or needed something or to see you participate in a college activity; a phone call at just the right moment when you needed to hear a reassuring voice; a faculty member that gave you advice and help with a problem; a classmate who helped you with a difficult assignment or competed more than his or her share of the project. And for those of you who are lucky enough to have someone here today, I ask that you give a symbolic gesture of your gratitude here today, at this your graduation. Please stand and throw a kiss, give a waver, a smile or quietly whisper thank you to that person. Now, please give a wave to all our family and friends who are watching this ceremony down the street at the Wheelock Family Theatre. Thank you and now please be seated.
Our 2009 Commencement Theme: "Speaking Truth: Inspiring Action" is a most important and appropriate theme for 2009 when truth speaking is needed more than ever and the need for inspired action is evident all around us. These words-speaking truth and inspiring action beautifully describes the work and impact of our three extraordinary honorary degree recipients. Two of our honorees have demonstrated in their own lives and work what a profound impact we can have on the world by speaking truth and encouraging each of us to be truth speakers-truth speakers for equality and justice and the use of all our intelligences to improve the world. Our other honoree has spent his entire life teaching us life lessons through stage, screen, and television. Now he is using his voice to speak truth to erase racism and injustice. We are honored and privileged to welcome each of our honorees to the Wheelock community.
And we honor each of you-our graduates. You came to Wheelock to make our world a better place and you leave here firmly committed to and prepared to deliver on this goal. During these past few weeks we have had the great privilege of participating in many celebrations of your accomplishments during your stay at Wheelock. We saw evidence of your passion and commitment to service through your work in schools, in homeless shelters, child care settings, hospitals and many other important social service organizations. We watched your amazing commitment to community service and to doing what you can, when you can, where you to make this world a little better. At last week's Leadership Recognition and Awards Ceremony, Assistant Dean of Student Leadership and Campus Programs, Allison Antonowicz spoke beautifully about why we do what we do. At the end of the day, Allison said we do what we do so that you can make your impact on the world. We try to live Ubuntu, the concept Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught us-Ubuntu-I need you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be.
Last night, honoree Howard Gardner spoke beautifully about Good Works-how we can help our young people to live a life of good works by striving to live the four Es: excellence in all we do, being engaged in the world around us, living a ethical life, and being an empathic person. We believe you; our Wheelock graduates are on a path to live a life of good works. And we are so proud that you are 'good workers'- need more good workers in this city, in this state, in this country and in this world. Our hope is that you leave here empowered with the knowledge and confidence that you can make a difference-you can do good! In fact, you are destined to make this a better world by doing good works. With the excellent education and outstanding opportunities you have received, we also hope you leave here with the courage, the compassion and the commitment to speak truth for what is right and just-it is the only way you will truly live up to our mission to improve the lives of children and families. It is what we expect of you and it should be no less than you expect of yourselves.
Now, Mr. Robert A. Lincoln, Chair of the Wheelock College Board of Trustees will bring greetings, followed by Bonnie Page, Vice President of the Alumni Association.
We have accomplished much in the last four years. Today, we gather here to share in celebration of those accomplishments.
Therefore, I want to welcome families, friends, loved ones, into this wonderful community we call Wheelock College.
I'm going to say a few words about change. Today, we are ending a chapter within the book of our lives. Today, we will finalize the part of our stories that take place here at Wheelock College.
However, it will not end our success, only the beginning.
Nevertheless, it will be a change. Wheelock has provided us with the skills and knowledge that will allow us to improve the lives of children and families across the country and the globe, and we must continue to live out that mission.
Attending Wheelock has taught us as far as helping family and children in need, and we all must continue to embed this way of life into our everyday routines.
Our passion won't change, but our ability to put passion into action will. So it will be a change for us, but it will also be a change for society. As we all now go into the world to change it for the better. Youth educators, such as myself, who improve the education system, both urban and suburban communities, social workers will continue to improve the quality of life for children and families, juvenile justice workers will support youth and their families and ensure the safety of our communities.
Child specialists will help children and families cope with acute and chronic illnesses, medical procedures, grief, and loss.
The future of America lies in the hands of our youth, and families, and as seen in the 2008 presidential election, we have spoken and are demanding change. The Wheelock College mission will help us improve the quality of life for everyone in this country, which is one of the goals of President Obama . Change can be for the good, but change can also create struggle, and at times, it may cause you to question whether or not you want to continue the fight of improving the lives of children and families.
I am here today to tell you the fight must continue no matter what. Yes, we will struggle at times, and, yes, there will be many challenges. But what good will it do if we don't use the knowledge and experience we have gained from Wheelock College to help those in need around the world?
Don't let change deter you from realizing your potential. In fact, we have already dealt with change during our time here. Wheelock College has gone through its own share of changes, and every single one of you students in this room has been a part of this successful journey.
The growth in the number of students who attend Wheelock, the wonderful C.C.S.R. building, the increase of interesting courses and programs offered, the renovation of one of my favorite houses, Riverway. And the addition of our men's sports teams has been an important addition to our college and improved our everyday experiences. These changes have been difficult, but we still managed to be successful. Therefore, coping with change should be a lesson that we all have learned during our stay at Wheelock College.
And I hope that we all use these same methods and strategies that will allow us to continue moving forward in our future years.
Giving up is not a part of our lives. Because we all know that anything is possible, as long as you work hard for it. Seek change, create change, live change.
I am proud to say I am a Wheelock College graduate, and on behalf of the college and myself, I would like to congratulate you on this successful journey and accomplishments. I will continue my education by pursuing a masters in education and hope that I can learn and receive a wonderful education that will provide me with more resourceful information so that I can then join those of you who will already be out there improving the lives of children and families around the entire world.
Before I close, I would like to say something.
I would like to dedicate my bachelor's degree to someone special that I lost three months ago. I hope I made you proud. Thank you.
First and foremost, I would like to say Felicidades, Congratulations! We have all had several years of unrelenting classes and assignments, as well as our own personal challenges. For me, those include working full time, internship hours, staying up until 4 a.m. writing those infamous 10 page papers and sacrificing precious time with my four-year-old son. But I'm here, we are all here, and we made it. We did it Lil B! (that's my son). And to my family I would like to thank you for all the support, love, and guidance you have provided me; I could not have done this without you. I cannot tell you how many times I joked with my classmates and a few of my teachers and stated "If I have to crawl across that stage in May, I will." Good news, I'm not crawling as you can see. I'm upright-just barely. But I'm here relishing in this life-turning event with all of you.
We are now ready for our professional lives, to go out in the world and begin to serve humankind to the best of our abilities. I am now a social worker and I make this statement with pride. The education I have received here at Wheelock has granted me the opportunity to enhance the well-being of society and bestowed upon me the chance to make a positive impact.
That impact is needed in our country now more than ever, and it is those with the least that need us the most. As Americans, we take pride in the belief that everyone is created equal, yet we are a nation guided by socially constructed categories used to create divisions within our society: divisions about identity, power, and privilege. Unfortunately, this power and privilege is usually withheld from selected individuals on the basis of ascribed status. Many Americans tend to believe the poor can avert poverty by working hard enough. Logically, those believing in poverty as a personal failure would be less likely to redistribute wealth from the affluent to the disadvantaged. This translates into a widening and, unfortunately, growing gap between those who have and those who do not have. Yes, ideally we would like to claim equality, but the reality is, it is an unequal America, in terms of health, wealth, education, law enforcement, and availability of resources.
In addition, our current system fosters co-dependency among people seeking social services. The system oppresses individuals enough that they embark on the belief that there may never truly be a way to sever this cycle, which is passed through generations and contributes to maintaining the need of these individuals and families for social services.
The question then becomes: "How can we address the issues?"
I would argue that now is the best time for our profession. We finally have a government that is on our side. We have waited for a long time for an opportunity such as this to come and it is here and it is now. Policy direction is changing based on the shift in power and we need to seize the moment. We need to be wave makers and boat rockers and embark on a mission to instigate constructive changes that will benefit the most vulnerable populations, the people we serve. Social inequity is a social construct and now is our chance to construct society differently. We now possess the tools, resources, and knowledge to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. I refuse-and I hope that you refuse-to be an individual who goes along to get along.
We should encourage policy makers to increase funding to efforts-such as mediation services-to negotiate with landlords, first time home buyer programs, financial assistance, emergency assistance in food, clothing, transportation vouchers, job readiness, healthcare, mental heath services, childcare, domestic violence prevention, and stopping the violence taking over our communities and youth. Our local, state, and federal government cannot continue to ignore these ongoing crises, and we now possess the power to become part of a solution.
The historic mission of social work is to battle social injustice; it is the main reason I entered the field. It allows me to empower those disadvantaged in society, to raise awareness needed to initiate positive change, to inform individuals of their rights and to continue to educate those willing to listen. My desire lies in helping others, yes, but yet that is not enough. We must have a course of action-a strategy to promote social justice, equality, and empowerment and begin to facilitate positive social changes.
This diploma can now aid us with that vision, to begin to serve humanity to the best of our capacity, to live up to the ideals of our righteous professions and begin to serve human kind while bringing forth the best in us. I can tell you that taking the path of greatest resistance is not easy-it never was and it never will be, we all know this-but if a positive social change is to be made it is the only path I wish to take. I charge all of you to take it with me.
Good luck to you all, and once again congratulations!
Dear friends, faculty of Wheelock College, and the Board of Trustees, friends of graduates, and you wonderful young people, it's such a privilege for someone of my age to be able to speak to such a captive young audience. It's wonderful to see you all listening to me. I've done this around the world, and it's a pleasure. It's God's gift to be able to speak from my heart, so you won't hear an oratory today. You will hear something as if you're sitting in my living room. I think the word goes a little bit further.
I was born right after the depression. I know you must have read about it from time to time.
But in the 30s, everybody had no money. They had bread lines, but in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York there seemed to be a composite of different races, of ethnicities where there was no one who was rich, no one who was poor. We kind of needed one another. And I came up in that neighborhood where if my parents did not get home by 6:00 in the evening, I had a choice of having gefilte fish, lasagna, corn beef and cabbage, fried chicken-whatever who was cooking at the stove at that time.
So at a young age, I broke bread with everybody of different ethnicities, and something seemed to have stuck in my young mind about how that experience is still in me today.
There was one winter when there was a great deal of poverty in New York, and it was very cold. And my father, who sold the newspapers, as one thing as a young man. He had another job. He was a first mate of a fishing vessel. And there was a run on cod fish, and he came home with 150 pounds of cod fish.
He immediately brought one piece of cod fish to each person in the neighborhood, and he became the first famous Louis Gossett. He saved people's lives. He became the hero of the neighborhood.
He also was a great farmer. We had a backyard, and he grew all kinds of watermelon and tomatoes. Of course, that's the roots of the south.
So we made a hodgepodge of a society where there really was no racism. Coney Island had the amusement parks. We had our jobs there. We celebrated we had great sports, played things like stick ball which you would not know anything about or stoop ball, because there was nothing but a stoop and a ball. And the broom sticks, the brooms would be cut off and we used that as bats, and we had ourselves the time of our lives.
Why would that neighborhood be so exemplary? What happened? Well, back in the 30s and the early 40s, there was a black list, turned out to be wrong, but it was a black list at the time. And in anticipation of that black list, the intellectual cream of the crop of America and all the universities across the country split. The actors left and changed their names. And they left. They left the biggest jobs across the country, and they came to New York where there was a sympathetic Board of Education. William Jackson was his name. They changed the name from Rosenberg to Ross, and Bloomberg to Bloom. And they came and they sequestered themselves in Coney Island and Sheeps Head Bay, where I was born and lived.
So I had the privilege of growing up with this intelligentsia and their children, from public school, all the way from junior high school to high school. So by the time it got to me being sent to do a lead in a Broadway show in 1953, I had no idea how deep racism was because it wasn't in my neighborhood. So at 14 and 15 years old, my acting teacher said, "they're trying to find a young man, an African American young man"-"negro" we called them at the time-"who is about your age, who is going through what you're going through, and he's a lead in A Broadway show. Tell your mother to take you down to New York on Sunday. What can you lose?"That's what a teacher gave to me.
My mother brought me down on Sunday. And there was a man who laughed at me. He caught me halfway down the street, and it turned out to be a man who looked just like me. He was another one of those teachers. So I was set in strong molds of there's no such thing as impossible in the 30, 40s, and 50s, and part of the 60s.
I was formed in the fact that I can go as far as I could, way before Jackie Robinson. So by the time I got to Los Angeles, California, they sent me to the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's a trivial thing that I was the first African American to be in the presidential suite at that hotel. But they didn't get the memo to the police department.
Because when I went to take a walk that night, they handcuffed me to a tree. I think they wanted me to get to know the flora and fauna of the neighborhood.
I spent three hours looking really closely at this palm tree, and after three hours, they cut me loose, and they said, "You can't walk here after 9:00." And I went back to the Beverly Hills Hotel, called my mama, and said, "Mama I want to come home." She said, "Come on home, but you'll be sorry if you do because you have to keep the doors open for the people behind you."
As a result, I did the first "movie of the week," and universal with some of the great actors like Donna Winter, and Kit Young. They rented me a car. It was a Ford Fairlane Galaxy 500, hard top with a convertible. I took it down and put the R&B station on. And that was my second experience with the Los Angeles police department.
I often wondered if I had Lawrence Welk on if they would have stopped me. I have a feeling they would. I got to know each one of those people from the parking lot to the hotel by their first names. The next morning. I went to Universal, acting with my favorite actors, the very first "movie of the week." And it was a difficult ballgame.
Back in Brooklyn, there was an exodus in the 30s and 40s, where the young people would come up to the cities, and when they got a job, somebody else would come up, so that by the time Christmas happened, there was a 10 to 15 block radius of people who were part of the family, so Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, were very special.
The matriarch of my family was my great-grandmother. The Bible was started after the slaves were freed in Georgia, and her birth was not recorded in the Bible-births and deaths and marriage and she was alive when I was doing "take a giant step" and other things. So we figured true arithmetic when she passed away, she had to be approximately 115 years old. Why? Because she was so busy raising us, her and her daughters, my grandmother and her aunts, she was too busy to leave us, did everything by hand. When my youngest cousin went away to get married, she went to bed and never woke up, figured that was it. But she would never admit to being senile.
One day she was sitting in the kitchen with her two girlfriends, and one of the ladies said, "You know, I think I'm get a little senile. I went to get something out of the refrigerator, and I stood there for five minutes before I could remember what I wanted to get out of the refrigerator." The second lady says, "I know what you mean. I stood in the doorway of my closet for 10 minutes trying to remember what I was doing standing in there.
And my great-grandmother said, "You ladies ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Don't matter how old and senile you're getting, I'm at least 10 years older than both of you, and thank God.
But that's the same lady that when I did "take a giant step" and had my new shoes and clothes and shirts and ties acting like I was larger than life, she called to me and said, "come here, junior" that's what my name was. "Let me tell you something. God was hear when we got here. He's going to be here while you're here, and he's going to be here long after you've gone. So you may as well calm down and let him run your life." There's been moments when he has not run my life, and I remember those moments very vividly because there were brick walls behind those philosophies. I'm full circle, ladies and gentlemen, to you young people.
It might be you might think that the number one most important commodity on this planet that you see on television, radio, news, might be oil, huh, because people are dying over there fighting for oil. Does that make sense? You might think that it might be military might, don't you, because people are dying over there, fighting, dropping bombs, maybe that's important. Maybe diamonds. Diamond's the most important commodity on the planet. But I beg to differ. Some of you already know what the answer is.
The most important commodity on this planet is you.
And what our responsibility is as mature people and these people on this stage is to plant those positives in you, which is why I have Wheelock as partners for my foundation to plant those positives so you can continue to live in the solution to make this world a better place to live.
The most important concept is the mentorship of young people and the salvation of the planet.
Now, in order for the planet to be saved from all kinds of greed, everyone has to drop all of the other agendas, and cooperate on the salvation of the planet. If they're not doing that, it's like everybody is in a 747 airplane, and the plane is at 30,000 feet, plummeting to the ground, and everybody inside the plane is fighting over who's going to be in first class.
This is what you must do every day. So now you've got a diploma. But there is no diploma in life, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen.
It's just life. Learn what the solution is. Learn what you have to do in your personal lives in order to make this planet better. It must feed us all.
We must have service of one another.
I found in my 11 years at the service to youth and others has gotten me more life on me than anything I could possibly manufacture myself because God's light seems to shine through me today, and God's light can shine through you.
About the things that I've seen in my life, the people I've admired so much, all of whom are dead -the late Dr. King, Jackie Robinson, J.F.K. his brother, Bobby. So many people have died so that we could live free on this continent, or read something from one of them. I'll tell you who it is at the end, about his idea of what violence is. Now I suggest to you to live today in the solution. Have it in mind how you want the world to be and live it today.
Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily, whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, or in cold blood or passion, an attack of violence or in response to violence, whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.
Our claims to civilization-we calmly accept newspaper reports of civilians slaughtered in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.
Some look for scapegoats, for conspiracies, but this much is clear-violence breeds violence. Repression brings retaliation. And only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.
Racism is a disease like others. We have to live on a daily basis to eradicate it personally in our lives, on a 24/7 basis with one another.
I see Wheelock personifying this philosophy here. So I salute you. Put the diplomas in your back pockets. Live in the solution, and may God bless you all. Thank you.
At this time, I would like each graduate who has received a B.S., B.A., or B.S.W. degree to move his or her tassel to the left side of your mortarboard. The turning of the tassel symbolizes the awarding of a bachelor's degree. Congratulations to each of you!
This has been a wonderful Commencement ceremony. The outstanding commencement address by Lou Gossett, the awarding of honorary degrees to these three exceptional individuals, who are courageous truth speakers and amazing role models for us all, was inspiring and motivational. The applause and cheers of your family, friends, and the Wheelock community acknowledge how proud we all are of your accomplishments during your years at Wheelock. We extend our very best wishes as you commence into the next phase of your life journey.
At the beginning of this ceremony, I encouraged you do "good work" to be a truth speaker, to leave here empowered with the knowledge and confidence that you can make a difference. Samantha Power, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide wrote about people she referred to as "up-standers" and "by-standers." Up-standers are people who think critically, live by a moral code, and stand up in the face of injustice even when it's not safe to do so. Up-standers are courageous and compassionate and passionate. By-standers stand aside and ignore or watch from the sidelines. Samantha wrote about the terrible genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda-and those who had the courage to stand up and those who stood by. We live in a time where there is an urgent need for up standers and truth speakers and every day, here at home and all over the world-some child, some family, some community is desperately in need of an up-stander-a truth speaker.
Each of you will be faced with opportunities in your professional careers and in your personal lives to speak truth and to take action. You will surely be confronted with situations where you have a choice-blow the whistle, say time-out, and shout out in words and action "not on my watch." The choice will be entirely yours. It is our fervent hope that you leave here with the confidence, courage, compassion, and passion to be a truth speaker and just as important to be a person of conviction and action.
On behalf of the entire Wheelock community, once again I congratulate each of you, our graduates, your families and friends. We will conclude this 2009 Commencement Ceremony with a benediction from Rabbi Stephanie Kolin. Following benediction, we will process to the new Campus Center for a reception with family and friends. In celebration of this excellent Commencement ceremony, the Omega Brass Ensemble will play a medley of selections for our Recessional.