Dean Edward F. Lawlor’s 2016 address at the Brown School Recognition Ceremony


I received a very nice letter this spring from one of our recent Distinguished Alumni Award winners—a graduate who was sitting here just five years ago. At her orientation, I had urged our incoming students to be activists, both in their approach to their education, but more importantly in their work for social justice and population health change. She said she thinks about being an activist virtually every day in her work in global health.

My theme for you tonight is to go be an activist in both your personal and professional lives. A simple definition of an activist is “a person who campaigns in their work and in their life for some kind of social change.” This idea is completely consistent with the goals of the Brown School. Our mission statement is to create “positive social change through our path-breaking research and educational excellence.”

I would argue it is our professional and moral responsibility—all of us faculty, staff, graduates here tonight—to be activists. It does not matter if your field is direct practice or epidemiology, whether you plan to work in St. Louis or in Nairobi, whether you will be a community organizer or a professor—your charge, as old as the fields of public health and social work, is to affect the systems that create injustice, disparities or disadvantage.

Our speaker today, Rabbi Susan Talve, is a fantastic example of the power of committed, passionate, purposeful professional work on behalf of others—she is a true activist working on many fronts in public health and social work. Think of the amazing impact she has had on the lives of others. Think of how selfless she has been in her work; activism is just not a day job for her. I hope you will think of her as a role model and inspiration for the long run of your career.

All of you are doing important work in your own right. But we also need to be addressing systemic, political and policy changes that will fundamentally affect the life circumstances of the individuals, families, groups, and the communities we care about. As you leave our School tomorrow, I hope you will commit to creating your own lifestyle of activism. It may be in your professional work. It may be via social media or organizing in communities. You may become active in an advocacy organization, or join the board of a community-based organization. You may work on the national grand challenges in social work or public health, and make one of them your own. You may be going back to China and be the pioneers in social policy leadership.

Systemic change is why we are all here. It is in the DNA of social work, public health, and social policy. With all of your talent, you could make more money elsewhere, and you certainly could pick easier life and career path. But you now have your Brown School degree, and we are counting on you to be our force for good.

You are my last class as a dean, and this is the graduation, other than my own, is the one I will most remember. But it will be particularly memorable if I see you coming back also as one of our distinguished alumni of the last decade, as an activist in your own field of practice. You are the embodiment of the values, interdisciplinary education, critical thinking and activism that should come from university-based graduate professional education.

So to remind you of your responsibility, I have a personal gift for each of you. It was hand designed by me and produced locally on Cherokee Street. It is your very own activist button.

I hope it will remind you of your role and responsibility, and of this graduation ceremony. Graduating from the Brown School is an extraordinary achievement. You all are our reason for being optimistic for the future of our St. Louis community, our nation, and for the 31 countries you represent. Use your Brown School education, be evidence-based, be activists, and create positive social change.