One of the saddest stories I know is of the beggar who goes to sleep and has a dream that he is a king. He tells his wife and she says, “How wonderful! You got a little relief from your tedious daily life of begging.” He says, “Oh no, it was awful! In my life I just have to collect enough to feed my family. As king I had to make enough to feed the whole kingdom!” Poor guy was so stuck in his own paradigm he could not see beyond the confines of his world to even imagine the resources that he would have to help everyone as king.
Dean Lawlor, esteemed faculty, students, parents, grandparents, family and friends of our graduates and dear graduates, what a time in history to be graduating! Graduates, what an honor to be with you on this day. I have to admit, I love you—you had me at social policy, public health and social work. This is your time in history. Choosing these fields, developing these skills, acquiring this wisdom, you have the riches and resources of the king. You have the unique tool box to repair and to change the world.
Just look at these years that you have been studying in St. Louis. The bandage was ripped off a festering wound and we have been determined to keep it open until we heal the horrors that racism and its disparities have caused. You have seen a new generation of youth rise up much like tomorrow’s commencement speaker, John Lewis, and his generation did in the 1960’s. Today’s generation is also committed to non-violence because while they are willing to stand on the front lines, they have hope in their future, and they want to live to see it.
What I want to share with you today is that kind of hope. The kind of hope that no one can take away from you. No matter how hard, or messy, or scary, or impossible the world seems, you will stay in the thick of it. In Hebrew the word for hope is tikvah—from kav, a thread. All you need is a thread of connection, a thread of compassion, of kindness and believing in your tool box and your future, to keep hope alive.
We desperately need you as case managers who provide the one-on-one attention that gives hope to the most vulnerable—those who society would like to keep invisible.
We need you as social workers out there on the front lines making sure that with every intake, every encounter, you see the humanity, the holiness, in each and every person you are called upon to serve. Each person, not as another file folder piling up on your desk, but you see everyone as a whole world that tells the story of a human being with infinite worth. You help each and every one access what they need to be able to contribute because you know that each one is necessary for our world to be whole.
We need you who do the research and give us the evidence-based data to see as my friend and your teacher Dr. Jason Purnell has taught us—that every statistic is a whole human being with hopes and dreams and a family, and that these numbers not only count but that they tell us that, for the sake of all, each and every person counts.
We need you in public health to demand that the whole world sees through your eyes when you tell us that we are all connected and that violence is a public health issue and that we can cure the violence. We need you to tell us that we must allocate the resources to heal the trauma that so many suffer from. The kind of trauma that keeps kids from learning and that keeps so many from having hope in their future. We need you to help dismantle the stigmas and shame around mental illness, mental health, aging and differing abilities.
And you who craft the social and public policy, you have the potential to save lives by developing systems for all people to access affordable health care, gun laws that you can prove truly reduce violence, justice in our municipal courts and prison systems even for the poor and you must help us end the racial profiling policies that put so many at risk. Know that when you are creating and influencing legislation in the back rooms of our nation that you are on the front lines as much as anyone.
And know that when all of you are working together across the disciplines with the relationships and connections you have made here, breaking down the walls of the usual silos of competition and using your tool boxes not for personal gain but for the common good, you are the revolution. You are the change that we need to heal and to grow hope. This is your time, and you have the evidence-based, interdisciplinary, cutting edge, outside-the-box, creative opportunity to use your credentials, your privilege and your tool box to change business as usual. To create a new bottom line, where people matter more than profits. Where we make coalitions that share resources rather than self-serving silos that have to compete for the same dollars to do the same things.
Nine years ago a small group of faith and community leaders believed that this was possible and we created Missouri Health Care for All to bring affordable quality health care to every Missourian. This was before the Affordable Care Act and I had seen first-hand that pre-existing condition requirements and caps, and unaffordable and unmovable plans were making access to health care a privilege of the wealthy and not something that a civilized society must provide for all of its people. The disparities and the suffering kept me up at night and I was drawn into the world of health care reform. The personal became political; I could no longer separate them.
We had a vision but it was the fact that I had an intern from the Brown School that semester that we got off the ground, and many graduates of these programs have helped us become a statewide organization with seven full-time employees including an advocacy person at the capital who is also a graduate of this program. This would not have happened without the coalition building, the cooperation of all the stakeholders and your invaluable set of tools.
And Dean Lawlor, as this is your last formal commencement as Dean, I want to make sure that we add your vision and support of the health care reform that has saved so many lives to the long list of accomplishments that mark your visionary career.
These are holy weeks in the Jewish calendar as we journey from slavery at Passover to freedom at Sinai where we get the Torah that is supposed to be our guide, full of teachings that are meant to level the playing field and make sure that we leave the paradigm of masters and slaves, have and have-nots, behind. Moses’s great challenge is to help the people leave being slaves to pharaoh behind and make sure that we are still willing to serve something greater than ourselves when we are free. The great challenge was to go from being slaves to Pharaoh, to being servants willing to serve a greater good. To become people who are willing to serve and understand that true freedom means having a purpose and meaning in life and being willing to sacrifice for that mission.
How do we get from slavery to freedom? Here’s what I have learned:
- Show up, be as radically present as you can. It’s how you build relationships and coalitions of trust. This will take many of you outside of your comfort zones. Look for the “Delmar Divides” wherever you go and find the intersections that make you allies willing to cross all divides to stand in solidarity with each other. Cooperation, not competition, will save us.
- Know when to stand on the backs of others and when to be the back for others who need you to use your privilege to hold the space for them. I have a male clergy ally who will not be on a panel that does not include women and I do my best to make sure my sisters of color are honored and included when I am asked to participate. I have learned to use my privilege to hold the space for them and not let anyone make them invisible because until black lives matter nothing will ever really change.
- Be a witness to this moment in history when we must infuse into everything that we do that black and brown lives matter. The legacy of slavery has built a conspiracy of shame that dehumanizes people of color and sets us up to shame and blame the victims. The “thug” language that was used to distract us from mourning the lives of our teens like Mike Brown and VonDerrit Myers and Trayvon Martin, needs to be seen for what it is. A shaming of the victim to get people in power off the hook for perpetuating systems of oppression. Shame gets inside and becomes what we call internalized oppression. But we heard loud and clear a new generation, a generation that the baby boomers told that their lives mattered, calling out, “Look at me!” The young protesters shouted, linking arms in the early days of the movement, “When you see me see a nurse and a mother and a student and a human being.” They were rejecting the shame meant to control them.
- Remember that the politics of identity is never either-or, it is always and-and. Either-or leads to the demonizing that feeds racism and antisemitism and islamophobia and homophobia and transphobia. And-and says the only way we will fix this is by working together. With your help, this can be a crossroads moment when identities do not have to compete and we negotiate our entangled histories with compassion.
- We need to form coalitions of unlikely allies to create whole new tables of people coming up with whole new solutions. Your teacher, Enola Proctor, wrote that you understand the complexities of change at the community, organizational, provider and client level, and you know how to bring people together and to solve hard problems. We are counting on you to keep doing the “research without walls,” and to pay attention to the data and to listen, listen to the people you are serving.
I’ll never forget a committee I was on that had a little money to address health disparities in East St. Louis. We came up with all kinds of great ideas: a playground, a community garden. We brought the ideas to a group of parents in the neighborhood receiving the grant and they laughed at us. “Get us a dog catcher first. If you want our kids to be able to play outside we need to do something about the packs of dogs that are terrorizing our open spaces.” If we hadn’t listened, there would have been more money wasted on yet another project that would not have made a difference. You know better. You have learned to listen and to be creative and work together with the people we are called upon to serve, not to keep the status quo, but to level the playing field, to end the cycles of poverty and hopelessness that keep us from real change.
- Be motivated by big ideas and apply them to the fine-grained realities of everyday life as only you can.
- And finally, Embrace the essence of public health that teaches us that until we are all healthy, until we are all valued, until we are all free, not one of us can be healthy, valued or free.
Last year at graduation Ken Burns said we need less Pluribus and more Unum. There is a commentary that asks, what shook the knife from Abraham’s hand when he was about to sacrifice his son? It was the holy chutzpah that shook the earth as the slaves marched through the sea generations later that ended that cycle of violence and gave birth to a whole new paradigm. We cannot afford to lose any more of our children to addictions and lack of hope, any more of our black and brown young men and women to the ravages of racism and we will keep marching and keep shaking things up, trusting that you are using your social work, public health and social policy tool box to build a safer and more just society until there is one Ferguson, one St. Louis, and one America. And dare we hope for one world where we use the tools of your education to resist and transform the structures of racism and oppression wherever they exist.
This holy time of your graduation, of your launch into the next chapters of your lives takes us closer to Sinai and a glimpse of the way the world is supposed to be. Some years ago I took my children to climb Mt. Sinai on the holiday of Shavuot when tradition says we receive the Torah. Our youngest daughter had health issues and I was determined for her to do and experience everything. The problem was that she could barely breathe at the top of the mountain because the air was so thin. Coming down it was so dark and dangerous. I couldn’t carry her because it was steep and rocky. At one point about half way down I just started to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said to her. “For what?” she asked. “For everything. For your suffering, for the dark and broken world we have brought you into.” Now I couldn’t breathe or see beyond the dark. She took my head in her little hands and she pushed it up and said, “Look! It’s not dark at all.” And I looked up and I saw so many stars, there was barely room for sky. A sky so full of stars that it lit up everything and in that moment I knew—I knew there was hope for her, for us, for people, for nations, even for our precious planet. Hope that enough of us would have the kind of holy chutzpah that defies what we think we know, and grows the kind of hope that we can do better.
I want to give you a sky full of stars that gives every one of you graduates who are each a whole world of infinite worth—infinite hope. And I do love you, from my friend and graduate Kinsley who is a new bride, and my dear graduate Maria who sits on the board of my congregation and is a wonderful grandmother, I want to give every one of you infinite hope because the kind of change you have been trained to bring about will take time and will require patience and self-care and support.
So take this hope with you because this is your time and you have worked hard to acquire just the right tool box filled with the resources and the skills, and the data (all evidence-based of course!), and the compassion and the wisdom to see the holiness in absolutely everyone and the understanding that serving creation in the way that you have learned to do will keep hope alive and that, like the king, you have the resources and the knowledge and the relationships to bring us all closer to the just society we know is possible.
And I have great hope that we will find ourselves closer to the Promised Land because of each and every one of you.