Thanks for the many requests for my commencement speech at Mass May Community College. Excerpts follow below.
Mass May Community College
May 26, 2011
Thank you President Berotte Joseph and congratulations to each of you.
Because of the pressing business at hand, I will say only three things to you this morning about my experiences and your opportunities, and then sit down.
First, as much as I appreciated that generous introduction, you should know that while everything that president Berotte Joseph said is true, that is not who I am. At least it is not, and of course could not be, all of who I am. Yes it is true that I worked in government and started Share Our Strength and that we’ve raised more than $300 million and that I was included as one of America’s Best Leaders in U.S. News and World Report, but that is only part of who I am.
I am also the son of a loving mother who died from a drug overdose. I was a principal architect of three losing presidential campaigns, one of which spent more than four years paying off its debts. And after graduating law school I failed the bar exam. Twice. I tell you this not for sensationalism’s sake or to gain sympathy, or even to get and hold your attention, as desperately as I’d like to do that for the next ten minutes.
I tell you this to persuade you that no life, not even a successful life, perhaps especially not a successful life, is lived as an unbroken string of successes. And indeed the shortcomings, failures and even bad luck that are an inevitable part of being human need not hinder your success in the least if you know what to take from and do with them.
Second, as diverse as you are in your intellect, appetites, energies, appearance and ambition, you share in common these world-changing powers: to share your strength, to bear witness, and to be a voice for those whose voices are not heard.
Share Our Strength was built on the belief that everyone has a strength to share, sometimes a gift that you may take for granted but that can be deployed to benefit others. I’m talking about something more than writing a check once you are financially successful, or volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter. I’m talking about giving of yourself, of your unique value added, as chefs have done by cooking at food and wine benefits or by teaching nutrition and food budgeting skills to low-income families. In the same way we have engaged authors, architects, public relations and marketing executives, and numerous others.
As a result we have helped to build the emergency food assistance network in the country, distribute 2.4 billion pounds of food, add millions of students to the school breakfast program, and made a life and death difference in places like Haiti and Ethiopia.
You also share the power to bear witness. Whether you graduated magna cum laude or by begging your professors to pass you, each and every one of you has this gift in equal measure. The power to bear witness is the power to go, see, feel, and share what you have felt.
I went to Ethiopia during a famine, to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina, to Haiti after the earthquake. What I really wanted to do was to go and see for myself what had happened and how the victims were coping. I wanted to go and see and allow myself to feel things about what I’d seen, and then share what I’d felt. I had less of a sense that I could effect change than that I would be changed by the emotions – sadness, sympathy, despair, anger, outrage, and ultimately hope – that are the inevitable response to such a situation.
That is what it means to bear witness. You “bear” witness because what you experience weighs on you. And one way to accommodate such a weight is to redistribute and share the load.
When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Bearing witness has always been the essential prerequisite for changing society’s most grievous conditions, for righting injustice, for reaching out to those in need. In the 21st century bearing witness is destined to become an even more powerful tool for advancing social change.
You also have the power to be a voice for the voiceless. And the need has never been greater. We have 48 million Americans living below the poverty line for the first time in history, and 19 million of those are living in “deep poverty” below half the poverty line, meaning a family of four living under $11,500 a year and a family of three living under $7500 a year. 44 million Americans are on food stamps and 22 million of them are children.
You leave here today with a degree, and an education, and the support of a community, that gives you a voice. But you also leave with a choice. Will you raise that voice only on behalf of your own interests, or on behalf of others whose voices are not heard.
Third and finally, I hope you will leave here with a sense of urgency. Martin Luther King once said that “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs.”
To me these have always been more than eloquent words. I went to Ethiopia during the onset of a terrible famine there in 2000 and 2002 and met a 13 year old girl at a school we were supporting, and where we were trying to build a hospital next door. Her name was Alima Dari and we stayed in touch for several years, exchanging letters, and pictures. But one day a colleague of mine went to Ethiopia on a trip I couldn’t make and I gave him a letter to give to Alima but then didn’t hear from him for many days. He finally wrote to say “ I hate to tell you this but Alima died of cerebral malaria. She’s been misdiagnosed with Tuberculosis and by the time they realized it was malaria and got her to Addis Ababa it was too late.” And there again were Martin Luther King’s words.
But you don’t have to go all the way to Ethiopia to find and meet your Alima. Alima is in Boston, and in Washington, and Denver and St Louis and wherever kids are at risk, vulnerable and voiceless.
No one spoke more eloquently about the need to share our strengths than the poet Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote:
We are others harvest
We are each others business
We are each others magnitude
I have learned that these words are true. Whether you are a banker on Wall Street or a baker on Main Street we are each other’s harvest.
Whether you are an engineer, entrepreneur or an educator, we are each other’s harvest.
Whether you design video games for next year or cathedrals that last centuries we are each others harvest.
Thank you and congratulations.