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2023: US Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s Commencement Address
Text (unedited) of commencement address by U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock of Georgia
Hello, Bard College! Blessings on all of you. How are we doing today?
Let’s take a moment to give a big hand to all the incredible graduates here today!
Let’s hear it for our graduates. Young leaders who have crossed the threshold and deserve our love and our recognition. Today is about you. This is your day.
What a warm greeting from President Leon Botstein! Let’s give him a great big round of applause. Come on, the man has been here almost a half-century; give him a great big round of applause.
Thank you for all that you do to maintain the standards of excellence for which Bard is known.
I want to recognize my friend, Jim Chambers, the President of the Board, as well as the Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Jonathan Becker, for all the tireless work you do. To the entire leadership team, the faculty, and the staff.
But most of all, the graduates who have crossed this amazing threshold. And while we celebrate you, we know that you understand that you have not done this alone. We are grateful for the village: the mothers and the fathers, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, the aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and neighbors—and so, let’s hear it for the whole village!
Dr. King said we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. That whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. You have arrived, but you didn’t get here by yourself. We got here together.
The Reverend Doctor Samuel DeWitt Proctor, one of my late mentors, used to say that if you see a turtle on a tree stump, you know somebody put him there—he didn’t get there by himself.
But I’m especially grateful—and I do a few commencement addresses each year—but I’m especially grateful to be here at Bard College.
I’m grateful because Bard College carries with it a deep sense of mission.
This is a community that carries with it the burden of Benjamin Elijah Mays, that great schoolmaster and president of Morehouse College when Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student there. He said I’m disturbed—in the language of that day—he said I’m disturbed about man. I’m disturbed about the human. I’m disturbed about the humankind, because he said, when we train a person’s head, we don’t have any guarantee that we train your heart. That there is no correlation between knowledge and goodness.
And we are seeing in this very moment a kind of perverse genius at work that in many ways is waging an assault on our democracy. We need the spirit of Bard College throughout this nation, of faculty and the staff that understands that we must not only train the head, but we must tune the heart and ready the hands for service. That education ought to have a purpose. You ought to use your education to make a difference for the human race, particularly the most marginalized members of the human family. Thank you, Bard College, for your commitment to that mission.
I’m grateful for those who share with me today in receiving the honorary degree. That each of you in your own way embody that hope and that commitment.
So graduates, today is an important milestone. You have crossed the river, but the ocean lies in front of you.
And may you take with you the words of Howard Thurman, who said, “I'm tired of sailing my little boat far inside the harbor bar. I want to go out where the big ships float, out on the deep where the great ones are. Should my frail craft prove too slight for those waves that sweep the billows, I'd rather go down in the stirring fight than drowse to death by the sheltered shore.”
We send you not just into the world; we send you not just out of these academic halls. We send you into “the stirring fight.”
It is our hope that you will go into the world, and that with head and heart and ready hands, you will get yourself ready for service. The village has been preparing you. The village has been helping to build the boat. But as you set sail, as you leave this place, don’t forget about the people who helped to get you ready.
Thank God for your professors. Thank God for the faculty. But thank God also for the administrators and for those who attend to this place.
You have to thank the whole village. You have to thank the folks who prepared the grounds upon which you walk out into the world. And so we send you into the world with a great sense of hope because we know that’s what Bard College is all about. Head and hearts and hands, ready for service.
It was the scourge of fascism that descended on Europe in the 1930s that drove Bard to stand up and provide sanctuary to intellectuals fleeing the Nazis.
And in the 1950s, Bard stood up again and took in Hungarian students who opposed their country’s oppressive, Stalinist government. This is who Bard College is.
In the early 2000s, Bard stood up again to provide safe refuge for fleeing students as the authoritarian regime in Belarus clamped down on academia and free thought. Recently, Bard has stood up and taken in refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
You have remained true to your mission to be safe haven for those escaping tumult, to come learn in one of America’s shining institutions.
And now, Class of 2023, the latest graduates from this great institution. There are among you classmates who had to literally cross oceans and flee terrorism and brutality. And yet they are here today, thriving and graduating and ready to make the world better.
But the truth is, all of you have had to overcome obstacles never before seen in our history. Your journey was interrupted by the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning in isolation from your peers—and in that isolation, you had to begin the journey of discovering what you wanted to become.
And in the midst of dealing with COVID-19 we were struck as a nation with the latest iteration and expression of an age-old pandemic I call COVID 1619, as we woke up one day, and saw another Black man named George Floyd with his body beneath the knee of law enforcement—something to which I’ve dedicated my life fighting and addressing time and time again. What I love about this generation is that we saw a multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-generational coalition of conscience, mask up to protect themselves from one virus, COVID 19, and you went to the streets waging war against that age-old pandemic, COVID 1619, that showed up as slavery, and then showed up as Jim Crow segregation, and then showed up in America’s prison industrial complex, and you said we’re better than this.
So for those of you who expressed those concerns, I’m on your side. This is the work I was doing long before I came to the Senate. And that’s why I’m most proud of what Bard is doing in this moment as you deal with the Bard Prison Initiative.
Because as we stood up protesting what happened to George Floyd—but not only George Floyd, but Ahmaud Arbery down in Georgia, and Rayshard Brooks, whose eulogy I preached. And Renisha McBride. And the list goes on, and on, and on. What you understand is that we are dealing with not only physical death on the streets, but social death in our increasing, privatized carceral state.
The United States of America, four percent of the world’s population, warehouses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. It is a scandal and a scar on the soul of our country. No other nation comes even close in both the number of people we incarcerate and the percentage of our population that we incarcerate. It’s a scandal and a scar on the soul of our nation that a greater percentage of the Black population is in prison in America today than was in South Africa during the era of apartheid. That’s a scandal and a scar on the soul of our nation.
And so we have to stand up in this moment. We have to bear witness to freedom. And so I hope, graduates, that you will go out from this place and that you will stir up good trouble, that you will challenge the systems.
First time I got arrested, first time—and to be clear I've only gotten arrested in acts of civil disobedience—but the first time I got arrested, I was a young seminary student not far from here, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
And there was a young African immigrant named Amadou Diallo who was standing on the stoop of his own home. And he was shot multiple times by the so-called “elite unit” while reaching for his own wallet. And I was arrested as a young seminary student in the late 1990s, before you were born, many of you. So when I saw [them] standing up for George Floyd, I said, here we go again, addressing this age-old challenge—but don't you dare lose hope. Don't you dare give in to despair. Bard, in a real sense, has set up for you a blueprint for how we address this issue. This college could have said, well, we are an elite institution; we graduate people within the pristine halls of academia. But not only are they graduating people under this tent, they’re graduating people in prison right now.
So a few years ago, I decided that when asked to speak publicly, in any occasion, no matter what they asked me to talk about, before I left, you were going to hear something about America's prison industrial complex—the fact that the land of the free warehouses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.
And so my church decided a few years ago, that we were going to get engaged in this fight. So we managed through our moral witness to pull together the constituent parts of our local government. And we had an event at the church. It was [the] proudest moment in my ministry. Because it was a small way of addressing this issue. We were clearing people's records, people who had been indicted, some of them never convicted. People who could not get a job, could not get an apartment, because they had a record. One of the proudest moments in my ministry is when I walked into our sanctuary one day and saw a sea of people in front of me, and literally everybody in front of me had a record. But it occurred to me that that's true every Sunday morning. All of us have a record. In other words, each of us has something, some area of our lives that we're not proud of, and we don't want to be judged indefinitely by our worst moment. There's human promise and possibility in every human being.
And so we got engaged in the work. And all I'm trying to say to you graduates, is I want you to find a place to get involved in the good fight. And I know as you sit here—perhaps 21, 22, 23 years old—you say, well, what should I do? What is it that the world needs? My answer again are the words of Howard Thurman: Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. In other words, I challenge you to find your passion. I challenge you to find that thing in the world that feels like such a deep moral contradiction that you cannot be silent. You have to express yourself; you have to stand up and try to make the world better. Find anything that you would do for free except that you have to pay the rent or the mortgage.
And chase after it with all of your might. Pursue the good life. Find your life’s project. Jesus put it this way—you invited a preacher—Jesus said if you seek to save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you would lose your life, he said, for my safe, you'll find eternal life. In other words, the way to find yourself is to give yourself over to something bigger than yourself. And if your life’s project can be completed in your lifespan, I submit to you that is too small. You ought to find a life project that is bigger than your lifespan and seek to continue the important work.
I'm a living witness that you can make a difference in the world, and you never know when, you never know how. Here I stand as the first Black United States Senator from the great state of Georgia. And while I am the first Black senator from the state of Georgia, don’t say it like Georgia is a lagging indicator. I'm only number eleven in the whole history of the country. But I grew up in public housing, one of twelve children; I'm number eleven. I had to stand up and celebrate those first-generation college students because I was you not long ago; first college graduate in my family. I grew up in public housing, now I serve in the Senate—only in America is my story possible.
We got work to do. The great thing about America is we always have a path to make America greater. And so my life is a testament to our grand democratic experiment, to people who stood up to keep our society reaching towards its highest ideals.
I had a high school teacher who told me that service is the price you pay on space you occupy. Before that I had a mother and a father who poured a lot of love into me, and they nurtured me in the faith that sustained me, and they passed on to me a fierce work ethic. We were short on money, but we were long on faith.
My dad was a preacher and a junk man, literally. During the week he lifted old broken cars on the back of a rig that he built himself with no engineering degree, no formal training in physics; he’d load one car on top of another on the back of an old rig, and take it to the steel yard—and that’s how he took care of his family. But on Sunday morning, the man who lifted broken cars lifted broken people, and reminded them that there is a God who sees the people that other people have thrown away.
My mother grew up in Waycross, Georgia. You know where that is? It’s “way ‘cross” Georgia. She grew up picking somebody else’s cotton and somebody else’s tobacco. But because this is America, hands that used to pick somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton, picked her youngest son to be a United States Senator. Anything is possible in this country.
So when I made my way into the halls of the Senate, I brought with me their story and my story. Yes, I've worked hard, but I wouldn't be here if someone hadn’t helped me along the way. You're not just looking at a graduate of Morehouse College. I'm an alum of Headstart. A good federal public program. I’m a graduate of Upward Bound, another good federal program that put me on a college campus as a high-school student so I could imagine myself there. And then it was Pell grants, and low-interest student loans, that made my journey possible. That’s why I keep pushing for student loan debt relief. I keep pushing for it because I don't believe that our children should have a mortgage before they have a mortgage. And if we would free them up, we free the American entrepreneurial spirit.
So that's all, graduates; that's all I really want to say. Make an impact. Leave a legacy.
When you see me fighting for children, I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. When you see me passing legislation that caps the cost of insulin, and other prescription drugs, know that I'm trying to leave a legacy and make an impact. Because I believe that health care is a human right.
When you see me standing up for a woman's right to choose, know that I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I believe that a patient’s room is too cramped and narrow a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government. That’s too many people in the room.
And if we really want to make a difference for women, we ought to address the issue of maternal mortality; if you want to preserve life, address the fact that there are too many women dying trying to have babies in our country. And Black women are three to four times more likely to die.
When you see me challenging my colleagues to do more to rescue us from the terrible scourge of gun violence, I’m trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I do not buy the lie that mass shootings are the necessary cost of freedom. It’s a strange freedom that sends our children on lockdowns, every single day in this country.
When you see me fighting for voting rights, know that I'm trying to make an impact and leave a legacy. Because I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea; that your vote is your voice, and your voice is your human dignity. That we’re all created in the Imago Dei, the image of God—if you aren't given to that type of language, put it this way, we all have value. And if we have value, we ought to have a voice. We ought to have a vote in the direction of our country and our destiny within it.
And when you stand up, my beloved, you never know the difference that it will make. I didn't know that when I flipped the Senate, that I would be able to stand one day and confirm the first Black woman to the United States Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The day we confirmed here, the chamber table was full. Everybody was there. I'm standing there with my colleague, Cory Booker. We were standing next to the chair of the presiding officer and the Vice President was sitting in the chair, because it was such a moment. The Vice President looked at me and Senator Booker and she said, you know, guys, this is quite a moment. I said yes. She said, you know what you ought to do? You ought to take this moment and write a letter to somebody who comes to mind in this moment. She made that suggestion to us the way the Black women in my life make suggestions. And then she handed each of us distinguished United States Senators a piece of paper. But it wasn’t just any sheet of paper, it was the letterhead of the Vice President of the United States of America.
Didn’t take me long to know who I should write that letter to because the only thing I love more than being Georgia’s Senator and Ebenezer’s pastor is being Chloe and Caleb’s dad—my six-year-old daughter, and my four-year-old son. And I sat down and I wrote a letter to my daughter as I thought about a woman named Ketanji, who would serve on the Supreme Court. And I said Dear Chloe, today we confirmed to the United States Supreme Court Ketanji Brown Jackson. The long history of our nation she is the first Supreme Court Justice who looks like you, with hair like yours. And while we were confirming her a friend of mine, the Vice President, suggested that I write a letter. By the way, she's the first Vice President who looks like you, with hair like yours. I write this letter just to say that in America, you can be and you can become anything you set your head and your heart to do. Love, Dad. I was so moved that I couldn’t wait to get home. I called my daughter, who was then five years old, on FaceTime, and I read a letter to her. She’s five-years-old, she listened to the letter. She was not the least bit impressed. She said, can I go play now? She didn't understand the letter now, but she'll understand it later. But it occurred to me in the weeks after that, that in a real sense, the work I do as a legislator is a letter not only to my daughter, but to all of our children. But not only that, the work that you do as a citizen, the work that you graduates will do after this day, is a letter to the future generations.
So I want you to start his day writing a letter to the future. I want my letter to say that I stood up in this defining moment in America. I want my letter to say that I stood up against fascism. I want my letter to say that I stood up for women, that I stood up for members of the LGBTQ+ community. I want my letter to say that I stood up like somebody who understands that there's no such thing as equal rights for some, there must be equal rights for all.
I want my letter to say that I used my gifts, and I used every opportunity to make a difference in America and to build a better world—and what Dr. King called the beloved community.
Now it is your turn. Now is your time. All of us are standing on tiptoe to see just how great you shall become. God bless you. Keep the faith.
2022: United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s Commencement Address
The United States Secretary of the Interior addressed Bard graduates on May 28, 2022.
Good evening, President Botstein, faculty, staff, and the Class of 2022! I am honored to be with you and the people who love you on this beautiful afternoon for this important step on your life’s journey.
I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican and Iroquois Tribal Nations, who have stewarded these lands for millennia, and I thank the ancestors for giving me space here, and thus the profound opportunity to have this time with all of you.
Du hino meh, Idz ah dyu ee dza, suwimi hanu.
I am a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. I am who I am because of the people who raised me. My maternal grandparents were boarding school and assimilation survivors. I identify as a Pueblo woman, and my pronouns are she/her.
You should all be proud—I know that getting to today wasn’t easy, but you did it. You did it!
Your Bard education will not only lead you into the next chapter of each of your lives, but I also believe that it has instilled in you the power to change the world for the good.
We should all believe in that possibility and always work to make the world a better place for everyone. An education, and specifically a college education, is a unique gift. None of us are born to be naturally afforded a higher education. It takes hard work and every support system to succeed in it, and along the way, you have recognized the value you bring to this endeavor.
I don’t have to tell you that the college experience is about more than just gaining an education—it’s about the connections you make, the new ideas you share, and exposure to a new world beyond the one you were nurtured in by your parents and your communities.
Here, you have had opportunities to think about our country and our world from the different perspectives of this beautifully diverse class of students.
As I look out over this sea of mortar boards, I think about the professors at my alma mater, who didn’t just teach me how to string complex sentences together or to analyze English literature, they also cared that I needed to get out of an apartment lease because it was an unsafe environment. They counseled me when I mourned my father’s death, and they never ceased to inspire me because of their combined decades of dedication to teaching and their commitment to a better world for all of us.
Hearing from people at Bard tells me that the community that has been cultivated here over the past four years is similar to what I experienced. You all are more than classmates—you’re each other’s problem solvers, support systems, and friends. You share the experience of getting through first year seminar together, learning Citizen Science, completing a strenuous Senior Project, and going to the Bard Farm stand on campus (and by the way, I will say I’m sad that not every college campus has a farm and a market to go with it).
All this, in the midst of a deadly pandemic that had early and terrifying consequences for New York State. The world will never be the same, but you all are prepared to take on new challenges and achieve tremendous success because of—not in spite of—the experiences you have had together. You and your classmates will be bonded by the collective experience of getting your degrees during the pandemic.
These are moments and circumstances that leave an indelible mark.
However, it’s also the small things that tighten the bonds that you created here—searching for a shuttle that never seems to be on time, eating DTR sliders, and organizing trips to the “old gym” or “SMOG” for music. Eventually these connections will become your professional networks.
Many of the people I went to college or law school with went on to become incredible lawyers, nonprofit leaders, advocates, organizers, and elected officials.
When I was younger, I helped many of those pursuing public office to get elected, because I believe that leadership matters. Because representation matters. And it would take me another decade or so to recognize my own potential as a leader. Needless to say, we learn by doing.
Now, this is the part of the speech, where I say that your college degree is just the beginning of yet another journey. The hard work is not over yet! Even though you have your degree in hand, your educational journey is, in some ways, beginning again.
Some of you will or already have secured a place in graduate or professional school, or perhaps you are traveling, or steeping yourselves in the outdoors and nature for a while. Regardless of what you decide to do, I believe that your passion for fighting the good fight will still be viable whether in a few months or a few years, and that your Bard education is something that will get you there.
In 1978, on the day I graduated from high school, I had no college applications in the queue and not a thought about a career or a future—neither of my parents nor their parents graduated from college, and I had to figure that out on my own. I went from part time to full time at the local bakery where I had worked since I was 15, and I had early and very long hours... until one morning I looked in the mirror and asked myself if I would be doing this for the rest of my life. The following day, I called my sister to ask how to fill out a college application.
I started my first semester at the University of New Mexico when I was 28 years old. I had 13 years of experience as a retail salesgirl and later as a cake decorator.
For the record, I can still decorate some pretty awesome cakes, but when I think about how far I’ve come, I also remember that at times I was doubtful about what I could actually accomplish. Though, I never gave up thinking that I could make a positive difference for people who often don’t have a voice. So, to you I say: trust your inner voice, know your strength, and follow your heart.
If you do those things, it will be nearly impossible to not live a fulfilled life through making a positive difference in the world.
I know that your experience at Bard has allowed you to fine-tune your passions, develop critical thinking, and has empowered you to move forward with purpose. Part of that purpose and the privilege of a college education is the responsibility to open doors for others.
When I won my election and became one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress alongside Sharice Davids, it was incredibly clear that people looked up to us and that we had the means to leave the ladder down for future leaders.
Leaving the ladder down for those who follow you, and for the next class of students to climb is one of the most important things you can do.
Now, I made plenty of mistakes before I set on the road to Capitol Hill. I was not perfect, I wasn’t groomed from a young age to go to college, run for Congress, or be a cabinet secretary. My work experiences, my work navigating life for my child and me, and my mistakes, good and bad, led me to my life’s purpose.
No one finds success alone.
We all have family and community who have said a kind word, given us $20 for our birthday, and even the smallest tokens of support have helped you all get to this point.
I’m here today, a 35th generation New Mexican, not because I have done anything on my own, but because centuries ago, my ancestors worked hard, fought drought and famine, reclaimed their land, and had the intelligence and foresight to protect our culture and traditions against all odds.
You never know how one’s journey will inspire their future.
My father was a 30-year career Marine, who won the Silver Star Medal for saving the lives of six Marines in Vietnam. My mother was a Navy veteran who went on to spend 25 years as a federal employee working in Indian Education. As a child, my dad’s military career took us to military bases on the East Coast and throughout Southern California on the west. I went to 13 public schools before graduating from high school. I raised my child Somáh as a single mom, and there were many times when I had difficulty paying for rent and even basic necessities. In fact, because times were sometimes so hard, I am still paying off my student loans.
All of these experiences and especially the struggles, have made me who I am today.
We need more people in leadership positions across the board who understand the struggles that people face. We need leaders who understand persistence and know what it means to be fierce in the face of adversity.
It’s why representation matters. It’s why I’m so impressed by the work Bard does to ensure the doors of opportunity are open to a broad group of students who bring their whole selves to this institution–their experiences, perspectives, and struggles.
This is part of the big picture. It’s part of who you are and who you will become.
To the parents, family, friends, supporters and other members of the Bard community—we all know that any educational endeavor is a family affair. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank YOU for all that you do to support these amazing graduates. Let’s give them a round of applause.
And I want to sincerely congratulate all of the graduates on a job well done, and this community for creating a place of learning that challenges students to rise to the occasion in addressing, head on, our changing world. There is a transition to a clean energy future, a climate crisis, and true equity that need to be embraced by fresh hands and minds, and you are the ones suited to this mission.
But most importantly, never discount the perspective that you bring.
I never thought that the times I spent with my grandfather in his corn field, in the still summer air, irrigating, hoeing weeds, and picking worms off of corn, would mean something to a career in public service—that I never dreamed I would have; until it did.
Your life and your experiences matter greatly, and I wish you all the joy in the world in seeing that value come to fruition in ways you may least expect. I have hope for the future, because you all will lead it.
I know my generation and even past generations haven’t entirely lived up to our end of the deal, otherwise you would be inheriting a country where every individual and every ecosystem is thriving.
I know you all have the intelligence and foresight to move our world in a loving direction of progress, and for that, I thank you.
Thank you all for the tremendous honor of being your Commencement speaker today, and be fierce.
2021: Former OSF President Patrick Gaspard’s Commencement Address
The former president of the Open Society Foundations addressed Bard graduates on May 29, 2021.
Chairman Chambers; Board of Trustees; august faculty and staff; fellow distinguished honorees; the Annandale community; and the graduating class of 2021!
What an overwhelming honor to join you in celebration—and to join you in person!
President Botstein. Thank you, President Botstein, for that too generous an introduction. Thank you for the gifts of your scholarship and the gifts of your friendship. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing President Botstein and spending meaningful time with him, but never in his sanctum sanctorum. Even away from campus and without the trappings of ceremony, President Botstein always seems to be wrapped in the garbs of ritual. That effect is greatly enhanced in academic regalia, which you wear quite well, sir. Hannah Arendt, whose grave lies near to us here on this campus, described friendship as “one of the most active modes of living.” Maestro, you embody that in the personal and in the political, and I see that ethos extends throughout this community.
Please be forewarned, Mr. President, that I have this belief that one should never waste the privilege of a public platform, and my inclination is to provoke and interrogate even at a tea party. Furthermore, while one might look for some practical directives from a commencement speaker, I’m oriented toward the impracticalities of the unapprehended poetry in our midst. I hope I won’t give you occasion to regret your generous introduction and welcome.
Graduates, I have yet one more confession that I want to make here at the start. The address I’m delivering now was crafted late last night, after I completely rejected the arc of my original draft. Commencement addresses are bracketed by such traditional expectations of exhortative language that one tends to bury the desire to express any sincere sentiments that don’t fit neatly in that rubric. There’s a liturgical order to these things. I’m supposed to look out upon you, ordain your absolute greatness, acknowledge your brilliance, lift up the example of a great alumnus, and command you to go forth amidst the uncivilized herd to shine your light. If I were following the traditional pattern, I would pull down some appropriate quotation from the classics—something like Pindar from the Pythian Chronicles. I’d say, “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible,” and I would tell you then to exhaust the limits of the possible. All of this would all have the expectation being punctuated by raucous applause from all of you all. There wouldn’t be much room left for any nagging doubts about your accomplishments or your destinies.
While your parents and loved ones, who paid dearly for the privilege, can trust that I’ll do some version of all of the above, there’s a different sensation and focus that quickens my reflections this afternoon. I want to interrogate the very notion of your exceptionalism and the broader question of our national exceptionalism at this moment when history is balanced on a knife’s edge.
Let me start, though, with a note about the ground that we stand on. Contrary to my wariness about praising exceptionalism, we can all say an amen to the notion that Bard is a special place! Might I get an “Amen!” for that? It is indeed one of the essential spaces for those of us who care about the promotion and the protection of our open society. Graduates, please know this and hold on to that essentiality as you move on from this hamlet. It has been a year of acute struggle and profound isolation as you’ve attempted to endeavor to complete your studies during this pandemic season. I know that the siren song of early summer and the confidence that we all have now because we have vaccines in our arms—all of that compels us to get back to the excitement of worshipping the combustion of matter in motion that comprises contemporary civilization. But graduates, be still, and know that not all movement is toward meaning. Sit in this place. In the beatitude of it. Be present and imbibe the hard-won lessons of this traumatic year, but also take stock in the permanent ownership of the armature that you’ve acquired in this special place. Bard is an institution that we all should defend—fiercely! When I was asked to take up this honor, I didn’t hesitate for one second—first of all, it was because it would give me the opportunity to feel fabulous in a flowing robe. But mostly, because this is a nexus of thought and action that speaks to my core sense of democracy, justice, inclusion.
There are scholars who are joining us today who are graduating through the Bard Prison Initiative, which is one of our great Redemption Songs in higher education, in a society that imprisons people who look like me at disproportionate astronomical rates. As someone who grew up in financial hardship, I will praise-sing a college that opens its doors to a student population that’s 26 percent Pell eligible. And I’m awed by students who managed to not only be resourceful enough to conduct scientific research, artistic performances, and scholarly work under the strain of COVID but also participated in a yearlong President's Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. You asked the hard questions. You didn't accept the usual answers. You demanded positive change, and, critically, you took up the responsibility for the work that comes with change. This college, that has survived on the hustle and audacity of creative administrators, has far outpaced universities with deep endowments on the investments that you all have made on social justice and the building of a more perfect union. And that is deserving of self-applause.
Bard is also essential as an idea because the humanities and not only STEM are vital to remake the world in its broken places. We must learn how to understand, and not only how to have impact, to invest in meaning and not only in harnessing resources. We must be guided by the compass of our soul’s curiosity aligned with the ballast of our reflective moral equilibrium. These are the bricks and mortar of a Bard education, and the tent poles for a society that promotes the rights of the most vulnerable. This is clearly why George Soros, the great champion of open societies, saw fit to place an unprecedented big bet on the ideal of Bard. We should all do the same.
And now, graduates, can we talk a little bit about you?
I have to admit to being slightly intimidated by the notion that I’ve been asked to frame and define your triumph and to impart some vision as you take the next brash steps in your journeys. I feel poorly equipped to do that, mostly owing to the enormous wall that stands between our generations. I like to think of myself as somebody who is still relatively young. Clearly, I have an active imagination. But, in truth, I’m three decades older than you all, and share the same follicle challenge as your much-esteemed president. And, I’m on the verge of being fatigued by experiences that you don’t even have names for yet.
But as I considered what I might have to say to you today I realized that there is some strength and advantage in my infirmities. Now, I’ve always been one to advise that one should be profoundly suspicious of the agendas and the generosities of the previous generation. But please know that, while I might not have an intimacy with your music, your fashion, or with your tech, I do have the ability to look back on the arc of my own journey, which I’ve traveled from the seats you currently occupy right now to this perch at this podium, with this embarrassing notion that titles I’ve worn uneasily or the marbled halls that I’ve accessed somehow grant me some bizarre exceptionalism that compels you to have to suffer through my poor musings. But oddly, my confidence in our kinship grows as I realize—with apologies to your loved ones and these extraordinary educators—how spectacularly ordinary we all are. Yes, I said ordinary. I know it’s customary to extoll your genius on a day like today. But ultimately, the diploma that you’re going to receive on this stage does little to distinguish you from the nearly 117 billion homo sapiens who have devoured oxygen before you. Heck, there are four million students who are receiving some form of college diplomas in the United States this year alone!
All of our beauty, brilliance, essentialness, all of our genius, was all greatly exaggerated. This is true of us all, perhaps with the exception of your honorary recipient Audra McDonald, who is as brilliant and as genius as advertised. There are ways though that you may yet elevate your soul’s highest song and the greatness that your families aspire to for you. But I’ll get there momentarily.
In many ways, I’m still very much the person that I was when I reached your mark. But there are ways that life alters you far beyond your ability to even recognize yourself. I had an Odyssean greed for experience that was set against the very real limitations of economic degradations and the lived challenges of institutionalized racial animus. Those impositions stirred in me an anger that could have been dangerously self-destructive. My salvation came in the form of involvement in movements far greater than myself that pulled down my vanities and channeled whatever few gifts I had. I learned, in my wilderness journey, what President Barack Obama articulated with such precision, that “thinking about only yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”
This poverty of ambition and all-consuming certitude about the significance of one’s own navel extends from the individual to the nation-state—to this nation-state. I’ve been involved in the work of politics my entire life. From solidarity work in my Haitian American diaspora community, to my true awakening in the anti-apartheid era, to my work as an organizer for low-wage workers, to my efforts in electoral politics which culminated in my service in the White House and my foray into diplomacy and international advocacy through philanthropy. You might say that I’ve been in the business of history. And I’ve done it with a religiosity, a faith in functional cooperative behaviors and structures that enable us all to impose our will on history for progressive outcomes. The central notion in my unpacking of it is that history is in all of what we keep. What we choose to preserve. What is in the service of a coherent humanitarianism. And in what advances justice. As an immigrant who had to carve out his own sense of Americanness, I can appreciate the words of Vaclav Havel, who wrote that “he tried to hold in a single thought ‘reality’ and ‘justice.’”
There’s a struggle in that for those of us who are not part of the orthodoxy, who sit outside the traditions of power in this nation. This sense that justice is a transcendent thing that is ever elusive.
Justice has been historically elusive in our nation. And so has truly inclusive representative democracy. I won’t here recite our innumerable challenges and our most recent traumas, though the recent insurrections in our nation’s Capitol and the ensuing lack of national examination remind us that violence and authoritarianism have more enablers than instigators. I raise this here to extend my interrogation of exceptionalism—in this case, American exceptionalism—and to wonder aloud what a recasting of America’s place in the world might mean for this graduating class and your generation, both those who are U.S.-born and based and the 10 percent of your cohort who are international students.
We are emerging from a devastating health and economic crisis greatly exacerbated by the ignorance of ill-equipped leaders who insisted on our exceptionalism in the face of the shocking death tolls, the stunning job loss and resulting hunger and deprivations. The essential nation, essential America, was exposed as a fragile state, despite the resilience of our truly essential workers and the deep pockets of wealth. We suffered from that poverty of ambition—an inability to see ourselves in the world and a failure to count up the cost of isolation and America Firstism.
What might a different ambition look like now? How might we look beyond our own navels?
The great writer Ralph Ellison was an instructor here at Bard in the late 1950s, a time when, surely, he must have been one of the few Black people on this campus. Ellison wrote that “Americans give but a limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us. Ours is the tempo of the motion picture, not that of the still camera, and we waste experience.”
We waste experience. How do we advantage ourselves from the great toll of experiences that we’ve just had? We must begin with a deexceptionalization of the self and the nation. America is of course an overwhelming planetary force. But we need to help repair the world and protect against future calamities by being one of many players in it. We can and we must tackle the great challenges cooperatively, not through a winner-takes-all race to the bottom. Any diplomat will tell you that confrontation alone mostly fails. For instance, we can appreciate that in order to reinvigorate the global human rights movement while also solving for our climate crisis we need to be able to hold the reality of the injustice endured by the Uighur community and confront China, whilst recognizing the enormity of the scale of carbon emissions while we work in partnership with China. We have to appreciate the singularity of the American experience of systemic racism while reaching for the lessons that we might draw from the resistance to police abuse in the favelas in Rio, where there are countless George Floyds every day.
What America does best is lead with the capacity for reinvention. Right now, the world needs the spark of that and not the poverty of an ambitious hegemony.
I’ll conclude by returning to the individual. To you all. And to your exceptional opportunity to be great. Now coming out of our long quarantine, it’s easy to slide into a lazy decade of youthful waste, where the health of your generation will be judged by all of what you consume. That would be a poverty of ambition. We need to look up from our navels and look up from our phones and realize at last that service to others is the only leadership that has legacy.
In my pocket and now placed on this podium, I have this treasured photograph of my father from the 1950s. My later father. He’s resplendent in a graduation gown replete with satin flourishes. He matches you in style, President Botstein. In his hand he’s clutching, seemingly for dear life, his law diploma, which he had just received from the finest university in Haiti. The world was very much in front of him, with his exceptionalism assured, but even in that moment this diploma was losing all value as a brutal dictatorship, supported by the United States, was taking hold in that proud island nation and dismantling the very concept of justice. He never got to practice his profession. Our ideals of peace and justice are ephemeral, fragile things without sustainable institutions like Bard and without servant leadership. My father’s degree was printed on stock equal to yours, but what he learned is what you need to learn, that you need to prove the value of that degree every single day. Every day. And you do it with service to others.
That’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn and to take up over and over because sometimes your ego can kind of get in the way. I learned this lesson a few years ago when I was down in Atlanta, Georgia. I had to give an address, not dissimilar to this one, at a conference in Georgia, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. My ego was walking into the door before I arrived, and I was feeling rather exceptional. As I’m wont to do whenever I’m in Atlanta, I went off and visited Dr. King’s old church. And, as I went in there, as I sat in the pews and I looked at the podium that he used to command, there was a loop tape that was playing, and his oceanic voice swept over the room:
He who is greatest among you shall be a servant. Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don't have to have a college degree to serve.
You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You don't have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.
You don't have to know the second theory of thermonuclear dynamics to serve.
All you need is a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
You can be that servant.
My ego was put in check.
Yes, you can be that servant. Service begins with the recognition of the greatness of others and the desire to lift it up. Look at the student that’s sitting next to you. Exalt in their greatness. Forget your accomplishments for a moment. Think about what’s been sacrificed by others to get you to this moment. There’s exceptionalism in those who washed floors to pay for your brilliance. Be present in that goodness. Revel in that greatness. Elevate it. Celebrate it. Be in the service of it and your own brilliance will shine on through. You can be that servant.
Here I’m reminded of the hymn by the Indian poet Tagore:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
Take up the joy of your exceptional service, Class of 2021. We await your greatness!
2020: Musician David Byrne’s Commencement Address
The Talking Heads frontman addressed Bard graduates in a virtual ceremony on August 22, 2020.
Thank you. Congratulations to the brass ensemble. It’s very difficult to play together when you’re distanced. I heard a story from a musician the other day. There was a socially distanced orchestra that was playing, and some of the musicians said, “You have to gesture bigger, we can’t see you.” So, the conductor had to make it bigger than before, so that everybody could see.
This is certainly my first time talking to a live audience … performing, alright, to a live audience in many, many months. It’s kind of strange. It’s kind of wonderful. It’s strange and wonderful to actually be gathered in a group of people this much. I’m encouraged by this institution. I was invited to come here. I have some familiarity with this place. I understand what Bard stands for.
I recently worked with a Bard alumnus named Alex Kalman ’06 on a book. I’ve written about the Bard Prison Initiative, which I think some of you will be familiar with. And, I’ve read some pieces that Mr. Botstein wrote about music.
This place is special. I’ve been here, visited here a few times over the years. I saw an exhibition at the gallery in 2008. The gallery had been turned into a re-creation of the artist Keith Edmier’s parents’ house, with all its extreme ’70s décor. It was like walking into a movie set. And, you know, as you walk into a movie set, you know that it’s all fake, but part of you is still seduced into feeling that you’re in that place. There’s this kind of wonderful tension in something like that where you know it’s fake, but you kind of feel like you’re in the place at the same time, between the real and the artificial. We are in a world that someone has made that is just like this world that this artist made of his parents’ house.
His world, like our world, is unreliable. It’s based on unreliable memory and imagination. We all do this. We make these artificial worlds. The difference is, we have to live in them. A world that’s made like this, it can be a seductive lie, or it can be a revealing truth. On a thing like this, a commencement, I imagine it’s common to ask oneself, “Well, what comes next for me? What comes next for me as I leave this place? Will I be a different person? Will I be a different person than I was a month ago?” Well, I think we’re all different than we were last week. Things are changing incredibly rapidly. And then you ask, “What person am I now, and how should I be as that person? What do I love? What does that entail? What, if any, are the … obligations? Obligations to myself? Obligations to a larger community? How does one reconcile oneself, between one’s personal rights, one’s personal desires, and those of the community and the collective? What have I learned here? Has the world changed? Has the world changed [laughing] since the spring? It probably has. Has it changed into something far different than the world that I knew? Is that a good thing? Is everything I learned here, at this institution, now meaningless?” I don’t think so.
I’m very sorry for the world you inherit. We’ve left you a mess, the one that we made, the world that we made. But, there are reasons to be cheerful. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain, which has revealed both the worst and the best of what and who we are. Arundhati Roy, the writer, referred to this moment as a portal when we have unprecedented opportunity to change things, to cross into another world. In this moment, we have been both cursed and blessed. This is one of those moments that occur once in a while. Ideas that were taken as given, economic ideas, cultural ideas, etc., are being questioned, reconsidered. An era based on a set of biases and assumptions is ending. In a sense, we’re lucky. The portal that she mentions is opened and we have a chance to go through it.
I’m as a guilty as anyone else for waking up in the morning and feeling that nothing really changes very much. I have moments of despair and anger and frustration. No surprise. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” some mornings that feels like an empty platitude when I look at the news that morning. It sometimes feels like, oh, you know, same as it ever was. But that’s not really true. The real constant is change. We often forget or overlook the momentous changes in our thinking that we now accept as obvious, inevitable. But, in truth, nothing was inevitable. The changes that have happened, that we live with now, for better or worse, they’re here because we made them so.
Okay, here’s a few of them: slavery is now universally considered unacceptable. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle thought slavery was natural and necessary, but even then his contemporaries argued that it was unacceptable. These changes don’t happen overnight. Okay, here’s another one: women should be allowed to vote. If I said to anyone now that if you heard someone else say, “No, women shouldn’t be allowed to vote,” you would think that was completely ridiculous. It happened in the United States, state by state, one hundred years ago. In Saudi Arabia it happened five years ago, but it happened. Education, primary and secondary education, I think everyone accepts that it should be free, it’s a right for everyone to have it. This was not always true. Children were considered cheap labor. Eventually, maybe higher education will be considered a right as well. Interracial marriage: I think we all accept this now. We all accept this. It seems like, what’s the big deal? The Supreme Court made a ruling legalizing interracial marriage in 1967—not that long ago. Alabama has some laws on the books that counteracted the Supreme Court ruling, and those were overturned 20 years ago. Okay, gay marriage, we all know that this is now law, this is now legal. When I was a young person, if someone had told me that this would be legal and generally accepted, I would have said, “You’re crazy, this should happen, but it’s going to take forever.” But, just five years ago, in 2015, it was recognized as legal in all 50 states.
I can go on—infrastructure, clean air, clean water, things that don’t exist for us entirely now, but we do think of them as our right, and these ideas that we consider as part of our lives and how it is to live and how it is to be, it didn’t always have to be that way. It wasn’t always that way. This is something new in the world, and the world has changes. These changes weren’t predictable, and they weren’t inevitable. I’m a little older than some of you, and I can say that some of these changes, they weren’t expected. They weren’t expected to happen as soon as they did, and when they did, then they seemed inevitable. People make these changes. Things that seemed impossible have happened, and they will continue to happen. Try and imagine what radical and momentous changes in our thinking might happen next, and they will! We can imagine what they might be.
Okay, make no mistake, things can go wrong, things can go the other way. This country was ever so closely inching towards democracy, but, as in many other countries around the world, there’s been some serious backsliding. There’s no guarantee that change will be good. That part is up to us. And, so I ask myself, “How did these changes happen? Where’s the levers? Where’s the buttons? What’s the process? What can we, as a lone individual or with a little group of people, what can we do to have an effect?” I supposed you might ask yourselves the same questions. “Does my line of work have any wider resonance?” Not that every line of work has to focus directly or solely on social justice. I believe that the meaning of what we do, in our work and our lives, is more subtle than that. I’ll use myself as an example, okay? Most of the time I’m a performer and a musician, and it seems to me that music and performance affects people’s view of the world, not directly, not by me writing a song about climate policy or housing inequities, although I might like to do that. Rather, it works in a less didactic and not kind of text-based ways. It’s kind of a language without words. Music creates community. When I was young, I heard music on a little radio that was about the size of a phone. And, I realized when I heard this music that there was a world out there that was very different and wider than the little suburban town that I lived in. You’ve heard people say things like, “That song saved my life” or “That DJ saved my life,” and these are kind of clichés, but there’s a truth to it. Music can have that kind of effect. It reveals a larger world, and it brings people together because they know that there are other people out there like them. For someone else, it might not be music that has this effect. It might be the visual arts, theater, cooking, dance. It might be ways of thinking in education, sustainability, even economics can touch people about a new idea and it changes their thinking.
I also think that one discipline needs to influence all the others. There needs to be a lot of curiosity about what’s going on in other disciplines, and one discipline can, in surprising ways, affect another one. When I heard the music of James brown, as a young man, I came to realize that here is music where no one part is more important than any other. The melody is not played by one instrument, but it emerges out of the interlocking parts played by all the instruments. The groove is not just played by the drums, but it comes into being as a result of what everyone is doing. I sensed that, unlike traditional Western music, Brown’s music is nonhierarchical. In his musical model, we’re given an audio metaphor. We hear, metaphorically, a model of social organization and cooperation that makes us feel joyous and transported. We’re not kind of intellectually going through all of this, but I feel that we sense it. Here I sense is a social and economic argument made with music, and the transcendent feeling it brings, when you hear and experience it, is more persuasive that language. Music proposes a world. Metaphorically, it gives evidence of that possibility. An economist hearing James Brown might possibly see the world the same way. Of course, my model for cross-disciplinary influences comes from music, but it can go the other way as well.
I’m going to mention the first abstract artist, Hilma af Klint, who was influenced by spiritualism that was prevalent over a hundred years ago, turn of the last century. It had been proposed that one of the reasons for the wide enthusiasm for this spiritualism was because of the scientific discoveries that were happening at that time. The science was showing that there were invisible forces in our world. Electromagnetism, radiation, radio waves, X-rays. The entire world, ourselves included, are affected by these invisible and pervasive forces. Science proposed this world, a world that hadn’t previously existed in our imagination, and this affected how these artists worked. They realized that what we with see with our eyes is only part of what is there, and artists like af Klint and others began to attempt the abstractions to represent this world, a world of energy that go through buildings and go through our bodies. So, with art and science, we conjure worlds, and, over time, we who conjure these worlds, we ourselves change, and then worlds that we conjure, those change as well.
A couple of years ago, after I finished a music tour that lasted almost a year, I decided to go to India. I wanted to catch a traditional music festival in Chennai. It was wonderful. I saw a kid, this young kid in a kind of Elvis outfit playing Carnatic music on a saxophone. I saw singers communicating with drummers with their hands. And, I also went to Kerala, which is another state in the south, and there’s a kind of performance there called Kudiyattam. It’s an ancient form of dance drama. It’s about a thousand years old. In this dance drama, the performer begins the performance by metaphorically dancing into existence and kind of proposing a world. This will be the world that the story will take place in, kind of like Star Wars or Game of Thrones. It’s complete, it has a cosmology, it has a history, every detail. In the dance drama, the world building is not made with sets and props and computers. It’s conjured in the audience’s imagination, via singing and dancing and gesture. Like the actors in this drama, we, in whichever field we endeavor, we also dance a new world into existence—not just in music or theater, every kind of work and activity we engage in proposes a world. In the end of the Kudiyattam performance, the actors dismantle the world that they have made. Likewise, we destroy an old world, a worn-out world, the one we ourselves and others before us have made, so that a new one can be imagined and brought into existence.
2019: New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Commencement Address
The mayor of New Orleans addressed Bard graduates on May 25, 2019.
Good afternoon. Thank you. And congratulations!
My heart is so full to be here with you at this time. It is truly an honor and a privilege. I want to begin by thanking, of course, our president, Leon Botstein. To our first lady, Miss Barbara, I cannot miss you or leave you out. The board of trustees. Very important. Faculty, staff, parents, but most importantly, each and everyone of you who are graduates on this afternoon. Thank you so much. We’re proud of you.
First, I would like to begin by describing how my path truly reflects the kind of unconventional leadership that Bard instills and the values of this institution that each and everyone one of you have embraced. To its fullest, you have. Now, as mentioned, I came to New Orleans as an undergraduate student to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. Even at that time with applying to colleges, I did tell a little lie, and I told my people I was applying to schools all over. I only applied to Xavier University. I felt it in my heart an in my soul. Thank God, I was accepted.
You know when I started Xavier, it was on the back of Mother Katharine Drexel. But today, Katharine Drexel is a saint. So, she was looking out for me then. I began working in the Broadmoor community, really in the community as a whole. Because while attending Xavier, I saw the stark differences, the disparities that exist in my city, and the love and the culture of her people. It got me grounded and rooted in the community, but in the City of New Orleans. What I say is that my soul found its home in the city. So, I began to work at the grassroots level. My husband and I bought a home in Broadmoor. Settled there, and you know what, one day woke up and my community was devastated. Eighty percent of the city was under water. The community of Broadmoor has 10 to 12 feet water that sat in our community for over a three-week period. 2,400 homes, all of our civic institutions and facilities, our schools, our library, our churches, you name it, our people, our families. Working on the ground and working with community and the power of community, which led the City of New Orleans to recovery. It did happen. But this led me to become a council member of the city and then later mayor. Non-traditional all the way.
A couple of reasons for things that are associated with being a non-traditional leader. First, as mentioned, being the first female elected as mayor in New Orleans’ 300-year history. And the most gratifying thing about that is knowing that I will not be the last. Considered an outsider, non-native New Orleanian with roots in California. This had not been done, and, quite frankly, the powers that be felt that it just could not even happen. I didn’t come with a background into politics through that legal profession route. It was that grass roots route. But, like many of my peers, that was that path, right, to elected office. But my style was more on the side of civil disobedience, not so much upholding the law, not trying to tear it down, but when you see government telling you “no” every step of the way, you have to find that non-traditional path.
And so like in Broadmoor and me and my residents, like Hal Rourke, who was with me this afternoon, and Lily Rourke and Laurie, who are here. We had a green dot over our community. Our community was being recommended to government not to be rebuilt, not to return. Government was telling us, “no, your public school isn’t coming back; no, your public library isn’t coming back; quite frankly, you’re not coming back.” We did not accept that at all. And, not accepting that as an answer. And, so what you have to do in those situations, you have to create partnerships with non-traditional thinkers like Bard. You change government and the status quo in that process. Bard is an institution that seeks to grow that same non-traditional leader. This is exemplified through a college president who was the youngest ever to serve in this role right here. Through civic engagement programming that empowers young leaders like yourselves who have truly big, big ideas. Also, out of the array of private liberal arts colleges, Bard has been able to advance because of its credibility it has built in the community and not its connections to wealth and privilege and prestige.
This is a parallel truly to my own story of coming into leadership through hard work, through values and tapping into people around me, as opposed to political connections. Also, unconventional leadership means being committed to doing what is right even if it may be politically unpopular. It’s a big deal. Or, even aligned with profit, right? That’s not who we are, it’s not who Bard represents, and it’s certainly not you. Bard established education programs in prisons and set up the first dual-degree program with a Palestinian university. Bard has received criticism and political blowback for these actions, but this hasn’t stopped the College from stepping out and doing what’s right when it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it, in spite of the naysayers. These parallels really do reflect my own story and something that I’ve accomplished as mayor as relates to, I call it, #fairshare. Now as being mayor over the past year, I had to face not only infrastructure challenges, but again with the powers that be to say, no, no we will not rededicate revenue generated from hospitality in the State of Louisiana, but truly the revenue based off of the backs of the hard-working people in the City of New Orleans that drives the economy of the State of Louisiana. But I was faced with our governor even at the time saying, no way that cannot happen. But, the reality has been that although the City of New Orleans absolutely is a world class city, and is a destination city, and drives the economy of the State of Louisiana, the City of New Orleans had no received her fair share based off of that revenue that she’s been generations. So pushing the envelope a little bit further and saying, you know what, it’s time. If we have these issues in the city relative to infrastructure, basic city services, an economy that drives over $200 million and even into the billions into the economy, but only the City of New Orleans receiving less than ten cents on every single dollar that it generates. Educating the public, saying that, you know what, when we do have these big Super Bowls and we have all these great events, the City of New Orleans doesn’t benefit in ways that she deserves.
But, taking on that spirit of Bard, ensuring and not accepting no for an answer. Today, I have to tell you that we claimed a real victory in the City of New Orleans, because, today, it has been passed at the state legislature where the City of New Orleans will now receive a little bit more of what she generates, and that’s because we, collectively, won’t take no for an answer. We can accomplish great things by pushing that envelope and pushing back on government at times even when they’re telling you no. That’s a big deal for the City of New Orleans. It’s a big deal. She will now receive over $50 million up front and some recurring revenue off of the industry of an upward of $28 million a year. Folk said it could not be done, but we did it. You can do it too.
There are so many stories of Bard students who have come down to New Orleans and how they reflect this unconventional leadership. Whether that’s Stephen Tremaine ’07. Absolutely. I met Stephen as an undergraduate student. He was volunteering at First Presbyterian Church in Broadmoor, post-Katrina. He stood up at one of our neighborhood meetings and told Hal and I. He said, “you know, I have students who would love to volunteer. Do you think they can come down for spring break?” And, we were like, “of course!” He organized hundreds of Bard students who came down year after year after year. Stephen is now leading the (Bard) network of early colleges in cities across the U.S. Thank you, Stephen, and thank you to the class of 2007.
Milo Daemgen ’10. He’s another example of non-traditional leadership. We found that Milo was able to tell stories through film. So, he told our community stories, the stories of our recovery that would really lead us to green pastures, meaning, as a community being able to implement the redevelopment plan that we created. But Milo helped us tell our stories. And, then Milo went on to work on my campaign for mayor, and he was able to tell stories, not of my leadership, but it was a real reflection of the people that I was stepping up to lead. And, the stories of the residents and the people of the City of New Orleans were always front and center, but Milo continued to shine and shine New Orleans light forward. And, I want to say thank you, Milo, and thank you to the class of 2010.
Emily Wolff ’10. I remember Emily as a 19-year-old woman when she first came to Broadmoor. She was young and inexperienced, but she was so eager to put her education to work and help us when we needed it most. She organized volunteers after Stephen graduated. Later, she became invaluable as she transitioned into a neighborhood leader as the executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Really, she stepped in my role once I became a councilwoman. She began to lead the Broadmoor Improvement Association. A neighborhood that prides itself in recognizing but also asking for leadership from unconventional sources. Today, this woman, Emily, she serves the City of New Orleans and is now the head of the city’s first office of youth and families, under my leadership. Thank you, Emily, again and the class of 2010.
And I know that Charlie Barnes ’09 is out there somewhere. He was my counterpart as we had to gut our public school, Wilson Public School in Broadmoor. But, that didn’t stop Charlie B. He came on back. A year ago he was teaching our young people coding. And he continues to thrive, and we love you, Charlie, wherever you are. I know you’re here.
But, these stories reflect that building back my community better than before meant turning to places you haven’t turned to before. And, one of the of the places was a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. Bard. I’ve also learned some unconventional things from Bard, I have to say, like using organic deodorant. Now, I have to say, I tried this out. Couldn’t stick with it. I had to go back pH balance and Secret. But, I did try y’all. I used Tom’s. It didn’t work for me. But, regardless, these stories reflect paths that are completely unconventional. But, it was also innovative, and it was necessary.
I want you all to hear three things I want to leave with you. Number one, you will not get there one your own. It just won’t happen. You don’t get there by yourself. You didn’t get this far by yourself. You won’t move forward without the people you surround yourself with. And, you need to ensure that you keep surrounding yourself with people who share your values, who build you up, who don’t tear you down. So, you’re about to take another leap forward into this world. Sometimes it’s kind, and sometimes it’s not. But, if you stay close to people who support you, you will get there. It’s not about an individual accrual of power or going it alone. It’s about the power of many voices, many people rowing in that same direction. This is a healthier and more sustainable way of thinking about leadership versus the idea that any person, any one person, a single president, a mayor, can accomplish great things all alone. It doesn’t happen that way. Bard pushes you. It pushes you to get outside of your own bubble, understanding the experiences of others. It’s very important. It allows you to think differently and understand why people do what they do or think the way that they think. It allows you to be more inclusive, more intentional about everybody and understanding that we truly all matter. This is important.
Bard pushes you again. Getting outside of that bubble, and that spirit of diversity always seems to shine through with the spirit of Bard. This is a bold way of thinking about leadership in this American moment. As college graduates, embarking on your next chapters, continue to be bold. I’m encouraging you to do that.
Number two, be impatient with injustice. As graduates of this prestigious college, I hope that you will be impatient about combatting the injustices that we know exist, and we see them every single day. There are examples of the College being impatient with injustice, like the Trustee Leader Scholar Program, the (Bard) Prison Initiative, and the Early College programs across the country. Eager to lean in in, lean forward and find solutions, but also understand that it’s a marathon, it’s not a spring. You will come up against seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s just inevitable. And, you will need to find a way to go in, around, under, or straight through every single challenge that’s before you. You will inevitably get into a situation where you are like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But, I’m going to tell you about that, my approach to it. I always seem to find myself of damned if I do because I’m going to do, and for Bard students, that’s what you’re all about, and I know it. I know it from experience, from encountering these great relationships that I’ve been able to build with this wonderful, wonderful institution. Bard has shaped you to be doers. Keep doing, despite what the naysayers will say because they will, but who cares. We will always look to solutions, and, literally, who cares. We don’t care. Like I tell my people, “bring it on!” But, understand again, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Perseverance is the key.
Which leads me to the last and, maybe, the most important piece of my advice. Really figure out a way and truly understand what it is that you draw your strength from, and every single time you kind of have to go back to it. Now, for me, and this is me personally, it’s my faith. It really is. I have a little altar in my office, I buy my candles, I light ‘em, sometimes I let those suckers burn all night long. But, it gives me the faith in the power that I need to continue to stand. But, whatever that is for you, whatever that is for you, you continue to lean on it every single day because it will not disappoint, but you have to determine what that is for you, that strength, because it’s there.
So, in closing, when you step out, you will be looking for those future Broadmoors, I’m hoping. Whatever, wherever they may be, I know for a fact that you truly can make a difference. I want you to make a difference. I want you to take advantage of those opportunities that you create, that you find. We have a changing world, and we need dynamic, unconventional leadership every step of the way. You’ve been equipped with all the tools that you need in your toolbox. Now, it’s simply time to use each and every one of them. But, you have been built to last. You are a tough piece of leather that’s well put together, and it’s because of all the support that’s around you this afternoon. So, you keep on standing, and you stand tall, and you be unconventional because that’s what we’re called to do. So, God bless you, each and every one of you. God bless Bard College. God Bless the United States of America, and, more importantly, this entire world that we live in. And, this world needs you. We need you. We need your unconventional leadership that I know you possess. So, thank you so much for what you mean to me, what you mean to the City of New Orleans, and what you mean to this world. God bless you.
2018: Entrepreneur Megan J. Smith’s Commencement Address
The award-winning tech entrepreneur addressed Bard graduates on May 26, 2018.
Hello, it’s so incredible to be here with all of you. Thank you, President Botstein, and also Chairman Chambers.
I first just want to say welcome to all of you, the parents and family and friends and everybody who supported this incredible class; to you, the faculty who have worked with them; and of course to all of you, the incredible class from Bard 2018. Congratulations.
Bard is just this incredible, extraordinary learning community. You’re a group of doers. Yesterday, I got to sit with a group of students and learn about their Senior Projects. This is an active learning community, a global community. We’re joined by not only your core group but also high schoolers who got to go early, who were ready; those who were stuck in incarceration, who were ready; those who are former refugees now living in new places, who were ready. Bard is a place that welcomes everybody. And, it’s an extraordinary thing to come to this community. I’m proud of all of you, and I’m happy to be here in the right kind of place for social justice because I want to talk to you about is, there is nothing that’s more powerful than all of us together.
So, sometimes if I talk about technology, you kind of feel like—remember back in third grade, some people got pulled into technology and some people thought that what you’re teaching me is making me really bored and really intimidated? So how is it that we can use these power tools, these tools of Hogwarts per se, to make extraordinary things happen and reduce what is going on now—some weaponization, right, that happened this past year or two.
The chief technology officer is a new job that President Obama added into our government. The job is to help the president and their team harness the power of data, innovation, and technology on behalf of the American people. We as a country and as a world have always used science and technology, and, in fact, they say that President Washington was the first one to begin this as he started what became the Army Corps of Engineers. So, we have a long tradition of science and technology, but this new idea that the digital age, as we move from the Industrial Age into the digital age, which you are entering and you are a big part of, was very important to the president to add that capability to our government. And so we began to work together. And, I just note across the time that you have been in school, from high school and college, if you think back, just a vignette, Secretary Foxx was a secretary of transportation with us. During his committee hearings with Congress, during the confirmation hearings, there was no mention in detail of technology. And yet, by the time Secretary Foxx finished, we had worked together with him on all of the policy for UAV flying; all of the policy for smart cities and a smart-city competition that saw hundreds of cities across our country working together; the next generation of air traffic control; self-driving cars—you name it. Really, the Department of Transportation is a technology department. And, in fact, every agency of our government turns out to be a technology department, and every organization has technology in it. And so my hope for you is to think very broadly about tech.
Also, when I came to the government, I had the chance to sit with President Obama at first as we were figuring out the agenda, and I had brought him a present. For me, sometimes the oldest technology is the most profound. And I had brought a sailcloth, something from Hawaii, I don’t know if there’s anyone here from Hawaii, but the Hōkūle‘a is an extraordinary sailing vessel, and if you’ve seen the movie Moana, you know about Polynesian sailing. What I’m here to tell you is that the Hawaiians and the Polynesians are actually able to do that. And so I’m going to talk today a little bit about artificial intelligence and very advanced technologies, and yet sometimes the oldest technologies are the most profound. And, I had brought a sailcloth from the Hōkūle‘a to President Obama, who is from Hawaii, as a gift because, as his chief technology officer, of course we look to the future, but really sometimes these old technologies are the most significant. And what I love about the Hōkūle‘ais that what the people of Hawaii did, is that they sailed around our planet in a small Polynesian canoe using zero instruments. No compass. Nothing. Can you imagine, just the front row, we’ll all go on this boat in the middle of the Pacific, and which way shall we go? Right, imagine that. And we humans—humans did that. So think about how incredible each of you are, and what you’ll bring. So it’s not about technology; it’s about you. And, it’s about what you would manifest using these tools of the world.
So, I want to touch on three things, three things in my hopes to encourage you, all people, to think about using technology for what you would want to engage with—not what agenda someone else already has, what they’re interested in, but what would you do with these tools? And the first point is about the internet. The internet is not technology, it’s just really us. It’s just us, connected, right? Humanity connected and the extraordinary things that we can do, and let’s talk about the opportunity. We’re connected across people, we’re connected across data, we’re connected amongst machines. The whole world has this interconnection that is happening, so we’re able to do things that were not possible before, and the democratization of tools—for example 3D printing, the Internet of Things, CRISPR, synthetic biology—all these tools that none of us could have ever dreamed of having, these are tools, you know, millions and billions of dollars of lab equipment, now available to a sixth grader. That’s an extraordinary thing. What would we make? And how do we think about human values in that context? There’s an idea that I have always about scouting and scaling and looking for what’s out there, and so I might bring forward just a couple of technologies just to have in mind with all of you.
When we were with the president and the end of his administration, we had a conference in Pittsburgh, and we talked about human frontiers, and we chose five to look at, and I’ll just touch on them quickly.
The first one: personal frontiers. Personalized medicine, brain research, personalized learning—all the things that could come to help each of us individually with our health, with our lives, with our learning.
Local frontiers. How could we not only have smart cities and deal with logistics and utilities and those things but also wise communities and more just societies in the spirit of Ida B. Wells? One of American’s greatest data scientists, Wells used data and journalism to stop us from lynching people. What might we do to use data science in our communities to help those who would not go hungry if we did that, to help those be in a more just place, to help those out of poverty with data science?
We looked at national frontiers, and, for us, we looked at artificial intelligence and how we were working together with our natural systems. And, on a global level, we looked at climate change, at the move to green energy, at the move to green chemistry. Why can’t we have a thriving ecosystem and think about healthy designs? It’s interesting. I mentioned Hawaii and the Hōkūle‘a. Today, they pull a tanker of oil to Honolulu every two days and burn it. And yet they are so abundant with sun and wind, and so they’re working together today on global change and becoming a green island, a green set of places. They also have geothermal.
And then interplanetary was the last one, and the Rodenberry family opened that [?]. So think of SpaceX, Blue Origin—you are the Mars generation. People in this class will be working on those missions, and some of you will probably leave this planet and live in other places. What an extraordinary thing to think about.
So as we think about this, how is it that we can use all of these technologies for opportunities, not just for the agenda that we currently see—self-driving cars, precision medicine—but for poverty and for justice and those areas? One of the things we got to work on in the administration was that we looked around for who had already solved things. When you’re in Silicon Valley working with that venture capital community, the VCs and the funders don’t make the companies; they find extraordinary entrepreneurs. So, who are the Clara Barton, the Henry Ford, the George Washington Carver, the Gandhi of today that we might come up underneath and support? Some of the ones we encountered were people like Beno Juarez, who was from the Amazon. He grew up there until he was nine, and then he left and became an expert in advanced manufacturing. Now, he’s back home, and he’s actually doing advance manufacturing, floating makerspace FabLabs in the Amazon. So, instead of having a job of cutting down trees, you can bring your indigenous knowledge forward and have the same kind of advanced manufacturing you might find in Boston, or in Silicon Valley, or in a top lab, but floating in a river right next to you—so, this democratization of technology.
We started doing a thing called the Tech Jobs Tour that my friend Leanne started, who’s married to Pia here, who’s a graduate. We went 25 places all over the country—Memphis, Mississippi, Cheyenne, across Appalachia—and we found doers and innovators everywhere, so people are getting it done and solving problems in their communities.
But the second thing I want to talk to you about is not just this opportunity and encouraging you to think of what you are passionate about working on, how you can solve issues using these tools, but also how they can be weaponized. So, technology is not good or bad. We are, right? When we go on the internet, if the internet is just us, then we bring our racism, we bring our sexism, we bring our bullying, we bring all of that with us. And people would use these technologies in very terrible ways. For trafficking of people. At the height of the fight on ISIL, imagine what kind of media company they had created to propagandize youth and attract them to join in their mission, not unlike the Hitler Youth and the propaganda of those days. And so how can we fight against that and how can we be vigilant? And so technology is good and bad, and I encourage you to think very hard about the incredible education that Bard has brought you and your colleagues sitting right next to you. So maybe there’s someone from the humanities, and just behind you, someone from social sciences, and a friend from computer science, and a friend from the sciences, someone who’s a dancer, someone who’s an artist. It’s in the nexus of all of that conversation that the answers are and in our history.
A lot of times, there’re many hidden figures, but one I would bring to the stage is a poet-mathematician from the 1800s. Her name was Ada Lovelace, and she was Lord Byron’s daughter. She was a poet-mathematician, and she is the first human to ever think of the idea of algorithms. And she really became the first computer scientist. She wrote a paper at the same time as Darwin, but women, of course, weren’t allowed to write in those days, so her 55-page paper is just an attachment with just her initials, but it is the fundamental paper for computer science. And, she said … , as a poet-mathematician, she said, “I hope to bequeath to the generations a calculus of the nervous system.” That’s AI. And see, we know that our founder is this incredible woman. And so she was doing this work, and later Alan Turing, who fought the Nazis, in the Imitation Game—you may have seen that movie—but they used coding and computer science to fight and break the codes. They saved 11 million lives and shortened the war by two years, using mathematics, working together. That team was two-thirds women. So knowing the true history but knowing that we can do this work—so I encourage you to work together around ethics.
When you think about this, the level of complexity we are entering is extraordinary. And so it’s not okay to just be kind to individuals, but you have to think in systems. Sister Helen Prejean has one of my favorite tweets, which says, “It took me a long time to understand how systems can inflict pain and hardship in people’s lives, and to learn that being kind in an unjust system is not enough.” And that’s why I’m pushing you: don’t leave this part of the orchestra out. Include your technical colleagues and work together with them because it can make you move faster. You know, there’re as many open STEM jobs as people in prison, and what I love about Bard is that you’re reaching into prison and pulling those people into not only STEM, STEAM, any kinds of other jobs, because sometimes the resource is right in front of you and the teammates are right in front of you and they face great injustice. Burning Man, which is in the desert, and is a really fun place, is the same size and budget as the Zaatari refuge camp, and we use totally different systems of governance for each. So how might you use this technology and apply it in new ways?
I encourage you: play the whole orchestra and be eternally vigilant. President Washington actually, in his first State of the Union, said something interesting. He said to Congress, there’s nothing which better deserves your patronage than science and literature. Science and literature. So, combining these things. And then he said knowledge, in every country, is the surest form of public happiness. Knowledge. Fake News. Knowledge. Fake News. Right, so what is it that we can do to fight against the weaponization of these? And the thing that I guess that I am happy about is that Cambridge Analytica is out of business. So there’s some hope. There’s hope for the ethics of engineering. You know, the Canadians, when they graduate from engineering school, they get a ring, and the ring is from a bridge that’s fallen down. So, like the doctors, what is the Hippocratic oath that we would write together for the use of data science and technology so that we’re using it for love and not for hate? I also think about the colleagues that I left in Silicon Valley and some of the cultural challenges. We continue to see racism, and sexism, and disinclusion, intellectual-combat culture, and a bro culture, and we really need to see you guys step in and make those changes we want to see in the world.
The third area, beyond weaponization and changing into playing the whole orchestra on these hard problems, is really thinking about how to unlock talent and field the whole team. How do we think about all of us together and how do we feel all of us? In the area of artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, the way you can think about that is like a toddler learns. The algorithms learn from what we do. They learn from the data that we have. For example, Translate It: so you give it all kinds of translated works, and the algorithm can learn, oh, this word in French means this word in Spanish, means this word in Greek—and so it learns. So it’s learning from us, but our systems are racist, sexist, ageist, etc., so we have to do a lot of work on how we’re going to put human values into AI. And yet 1 percent of the global population is actually working on the design side of AI. That’s why it’s so important that you come into this, because we need seven billion colleagues working on what we want the world to be—colleagues, not some kind of market with a small number of people who would create a surveillance world.
So we’re laying the foundation in these decades for structures that will last for millennia, and we want to work together and make sure everybody is at the table. So, I always look to what I call the Star Trek future. I love technology. I’m an engineer, right, so I love beaming and universal translators and all the stuff from that world. But I also love what was happening on that bridge, because on the bridge of Star Trek—even though it’s a 1968 version—everybody was on it. We were all included, men and women, people from different parts of the world, people of different races working together. And so I’ll speak for a minute about some of the hidden figures.
Place matters. We’re here on the Hudson, extraordinary industrial history to build upon. Robert Livingston, from just two towns up, was this amazing journalist who was part of writing the Declaration of Independence, but he also was one of the first successful steamboat creators. He cocreated that with Fulton. So these very intersectional people were from here. Eliza Hamilton comes from this region. Eliza—we don’t know that much about her, but if you read her Wikipedia page, you can see that she’s a strong character, a tomboy. And one of the things people don’t know is that she went with Benjamin Franklin to meet with the Iroquois. So this idea of the Federalist Papers, and federalism that comes from the Iroquois is something significant from this place, and I encourage you to know about that. Sojourner Truth, just across the river—an incredible voice. So we have to know about these lost histories.
I walked into the Oval Office to do coding with President Obama, and, interestingly, Prince William had just stepped out. They had just had a meeting. I said to President Obama, "You know, what you and I are about to do is related to Prince William," and he said, "How’s that?" Well, the Prince’s wife Kate, her mother and grandmother were code breakers at Bletchley Park, where they cracked the Nazi Enigma codes. So we had a conversation about not knowing that history. Two-thirds of the people at Bletchley were women, and yet we don’t always hear that story. Today, it’s 25-to-1 boy visitors to girl visitors to the museum in the UK, because computers are for boys, right? Not. So, we need to know our true history, and we need to make sure that we take care.
About 12 hours before the State of the Union address, I noticed that we were celebrating American inventors, and my wonderful colleagues who write speeches had written about Edison and the Wright Brothers. And I thought, but there’re more Americans who have done extraordinary things. So I used my voice, and I encourage you to use your voice. I said, why can’t we add some other people? So that night, President Obama said not just that we’re Edison and the Wright Brothers. He said we’re Edison, the Wright Brothers, and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson, and Sally Ride.
So I’ll tell you that there’re extraordinary people who have gone before you, like Ida with data science, or Jane Adams with inventing social work, using technology in these ways. I want you to have confidence in all of this, in what you’ve learned here in your Senior Projects. Just start trying something, work together, know that it’s an apprentice journey, a mastery journey when you’re doing things, and you being somewhere. And just because people told you when you were younger that science and math weren’t for you, they really are for everybody. The universe does not separate the subjects by ringing bells between them. So, please take hold of your Bard education, think about your colleagues, and look deeply inside of yourself. What is it that you want to manifest in this world? You are all so talented, and you don’t have to comply to the style of the rules. You’ve gone to Bard. You can do the way that you want to do it. And, right next to you, sit colleagues that also need your help and need your encouragement. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome out there. So, what is it that not only would you manifest in the world, but how would you team up with your classmates and those you encounter on your journey in the world, on this adventure that we are on, and how will you help each other make the world what we all deserve, which is the extraordinary planet thriving, vibrant, healthy, and including everyone? So, thank you and congratulations, and I’m looking forward to seeing the extraordinary things you’re going to do.
2017: U.S. Representative John Lewis’s Commencement Address
U.S. Representative and Medal of Freedom Award winner addressed Bard graduates on May 27, 2017.
Thank you, Mr. President; members of the board of trustees; Mr. Chairman; deans; inspired faculty; proud parents, family and friends; and to you, the class of 2017. I’m honored to be here, to see each and every one of you. You look good. You look beautiful, handsome, smart and ready to take on the world. Mr. president, thank you for those kind words, thank you. To each and every one of you receiving a diploma today, I say a congratulations. This is your day. Enjoy it. Take a long deep breath, and take it all in. But tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place.
You heard it said that I grew up in rural Alabama. That is true. I grew up 50 miles from Montgomery, outside of a little place called Troy. My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. But back in 1944 when I was four years old, and I do remember when I was four, my father had saved $300 dollars, and a man sold him 110 acres of land. My family still owns that land today. On that farm, we raised cotton, corn, peanuts, hogs, cows, and chickens. On the farm, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens. I fell in love raising chickens. Now I know as graduates, as smart, gifted students, you don’t know anything about raising chickens. Do we have anyone here that knows anything about raising chickens? Well, why don’t we compare notes? When a setting hen was set, we had to take the fresh eggs, mark ‘em with a pencil, place them under the setting hen and wait for three long weeks for the little chicks to hatch. Some of you may be saying, “Now, John Lewis, why do you mark those fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen?” Well, from time to time, another hen would get on that same nest, and there would be some more fresh eggs, and (we had to tear) the fresh eggs from the eggs already under the setting hen. Do you follow me? No, you don’t follow me. That’s okay. So when these little chicks were hatched, I would fool these setting hens, I would cheat on these setting hens, I would take these little chicks and give them to another hen and put them in a box with a lantern and raise them on their own, get some more fresh eggs, mark ‘em with a pencil, place them under the setting hen, and encourage the setting hen to stay on the next for another three weeks. When I look back on it, I kept on fooling these setting hens and cheating on these setting hens. It was not the right thing to do. It was not the moral thing to do, not the most loving thing to do, not the most non-violent thing to do. It was not the most democratic thing to do, but I was never quite able to save $18.98 to order the most inexpensive incubator… from the Sears Roebuck store. We used to get the Sears Roebuck catalog. As graduates, as young people, you’ve never seen one of these catalogs. It’s a big book, it’s a heavy book, it’s a thick book. We call it a wish book: “I wish I had this; I wish I had that.”
As a little boy about eight or nine years old, I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach the gospel. So, with help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens together in the chicken yard, like you are gathered here today, and we would have church. And I would start speaking or preaching, when I look back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said amen, but I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to during the forties and the fifties, tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in Congress. And some of those chickens were just a little more productive. At least they produced eggs. But that’s enough of that.
When we would visit the little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham, I saw these signs that said “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” “colored women,” “white waiting,” “colored waiting.” To go down town on a Saturday afternoon to the theater, to see a movie, all of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony. All the little white children when downstairs to the first floor. I kept asking my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents: Why? They would say “that’s the way it is. That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But one day, in 1955, 15 years old, in the tenth grade, I heard about Rosa Parks, I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio during the Montgomery bus boycott. And the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of Rosa Park inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way, I got in trouble, but I call it good trouble, necessary trouble. I say to you, the graduates of the class of 2017, you must go out and get in trouble, necessary trouble that helps make our country and our world a better place. You must do it.
When you see something that is not right, something that in not fair, something that is not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up, and speak out. Those of us who live on this little planet we call Earth, we have a right to know what is in the food we drink. We have a right to know what is in the water we drink. We have a right to know what is in the air we breathe.
So I say to you, my young friends, it is left up to you. You must do your part, and when you leave this great college, go out there, get in the way, make a little noise, be bold, be brave, be courageous. Use your education and your training to redeem the soul of our nation and maybe help make our world a better place for all human beings. Our world, our little world, our little planet is dependent on you, so, please, don’t let us down.
You know during the sixties, as (President Botstein) told you, I was arrested a few times, 40 times, beaten, left bloody, unconscious. I thought I was going to die on that bridge in Selma. Since I’ve been in Congress five more times (arrested), and I’ll probably get arrested again for something. But on that bridge, I thought I saw death, but I lived. You will live to tell the story. You can do it. As you go out there, do your work. Never become bitter or hostile. Never get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith, keep your eyes on the prize, and never hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
During the sixties, I met a man by the name A. Philip Randolph. He was the dean of black leadership who helped plan the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This man was born in Jacksonville, Florida. He moved to New York City. He became a champion of civil rights, human rights, and labor rights. From time to time, as we were planning to march on Washington, he would say, “maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we all in the same boat now, and we must look out for each other.” So it doesn’t matter whether you black or white, Latino, Asian-American, or Native-American. We’re one people. We’re one family. We all live in the same house. Not just the American house, but the world’s house. So, we must learn to live together. And never give up, never give in, dream dreams, and make those dreams real. I wish you well. So, with faith, hope, peace, and with love, thank you very much.
2016: Professor Randall Kennedy’s Commencement Address
The Harvard law professor and author addressed Bard graduates on May 28, 2016.
Being invited to be the commencement speaker at Bard College is a great honor. It is also a daunting assignment. Bard is an extraordinary institution. So, I’ve done my homework. I’ve been watching commencement talks and discerned a familiar form. There are usually a few jokes, and then a lots of personal stories, often about the speaker’s difficult childhood—perhaps an indifferent parent—and then, after some failures, eventual triumph. If the speaker is black, the formula often includes an up-from-slavery scenario, involving references to the suffering of the speaker’s parents under the Jim Crow regime. Well, y’all ain’t getting that from me. At least not today.
What I am going to do here instead is celebrate what Bard does that is singular. Bard is led by an evangelist for the humanities and the fine arts who insists that the kind of education offered here is the most USEFUL education in the world. In his words, “It’s the kind of education that actually allows you to live with yourself over time.” President Leon Botstein is an eminent scholar, who insists on teaching freshman seminar. He is also an internationally recognized conductor, who rehearses with student musicians into the wee hours. He is an orchestra unto himself.
Then, there are the Bard students. Their energy, your energy, sophistication, and off-beat adventurousness is legendary. A couple of days ago at my home institution, Harvard Law School, there was a Bard student who graduated. I knew him quite well. He was in my contracts class. Daniel Severson (’10). Wonderful student. One of the best students I’ve encountered in many years—a Bard student. Then in just the past 24 hours, while I’ve been here socializing with people, I’ve heard in casual conversations about students, and I’m going to mention quickly just a couple. Angie Del Arca (’16), who is going to be on a Humanity in Action Fellowship, who is going to study human rights in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Sarajevo, and Warsaw. Tamzin Elliott (’16), who is going to leave her harp and her Conservatory training behind for a while to learn Georgian chant in Tbilisi. Then I heard about David Bull (’16), who is going to do lighting design on Broadway. And there were others and others and others just doing extraordinarily interesting things.
Bard is based here in Annandale-on-Hudson, but it spreads its vision all over the world, on its campuses in Berlin, St Petersburg, Vilnius, Bishkek, and Jerusalem, including the first dual-degree program between American and Palestinian institutions of higher education. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities convenes major symposia. The Clemente Course in the Humanities, which was recognized by President Obama, provides impoverished participants with accredited-level instruction in a variety of disciplines at no cost. The Bard Early College Initiative, which has far-flung outposts across the country, offers high schoolers a rigorous, tuition-free college course of study. All of these programs reflect the distinctive spirit of Bard. One that does so with a special vividness is the Bard Prison Initiative. The Bard Prison Initiative, the BPI. Started by a bard student while still in college here, the BPI enacts Bard's uncompromising attachment to intellectuality and creativity conjoined with passionate attentiveness to social justice.
The BPI offers college instruction to men and women in six prisons in New York. It enrolls about 300 participants yearly and offers some 60 courses per semester. Since 2001, it has awarded several hundred associate or bachelor’s degrees. The inspiration for similar programs at other colleges and universities, including Wesleyan, Grinnell, Goucher, and Notre Dame, Bard’s program remains the largest in the country.
The BPI is a response to the linked disasters of mass incarceration, ruinous conditions inside of prisons, and vindictive policies that brand and marginalize the formerly incarcerated. The National Research Council of the National Academies informs us that in 1972 the United States incarceration rate, the number of inmates in prisons and jails per 100,000 people, stood at 161. That is, for every 100,000 people in America, 161 were incarcerated. By 2012 the incarceration rate had jumped to 707 per 100,000, an increase of over 300 percent, a rate five to ten times higher than rates in other advanced industrialized democracies. Although the United States, contains about five percent of the world’s population, it cages close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners: over two million.
This unprecedented uptick in incarceration arose as a consequence of public revulsion against criminality and politicians’ efforts to address, channel, and exploit that popular anger to “wars” on drugs, crime, and disorder. Those campaigns brought, in their wake, longer prison terms and mandatory minimum sentences. At its best, the incarceration binge was a well-intentioned but mistaken effort to obtain increased safety through massive doses of incapacitation and deterrence. At its worst the incarceration binge was a disguised reaction against the social advances of the 1960s, a pernicious way of stigmatizing, marginalizing, and controlling populations perceived to be threatening, especially populations of young, poor, men of color.
The BPI brings into the dismal environs of the penitentiary the enthralling possibilities of higher education. It holds the inmates to high standards. To be eligible for admission, one must have earned a high school degree or its equivalent. Bard, moreover, accepts only about one in ten applicants, just as it does here on the Annandale Campus. Those who enroll take courses of the same depth and difficulty offered here to the regular students.
The results have been striking. No commencement exercises anywhere are more moving than the BPI commencement exercises held at the Eastern, Woodbourne, Fishkill, Green Haven, Coxsackie, and Taconic Correctional facilities. You can see excerpts on the Bard website. They are absolutely riveting. They reveal men and women who have bested prison’s mind-numbing, time-slowing, soul-sapping boredom, who have overcome countless discouraging inconveniences, who have defeated the self-betraying suspicion that they are no good and can never become better.
In February of this year, the New York Times lauded the BPI, noting that the recidivism rate for inmates who participated in the program was four percent, while those who earned degrees was 2.5 percent. By contrast, the recidivism rate for the general population of inmates is about 40 percent. Lowering recidivism rates saves the public money. Imprisoning people is expensive. New Yorkers pay about $60,000 per inmate per year. The fiscal effects of decreasing rates of recidivism are thus quite substantial. The Times reported that for every dollar spent on prison education, the public saves four to five dollars on re-imprisonment costs.
The BPI and kindred programs, however, face opposition. The most politically influential line of criticism goes like this: it is wrong for felons to receive excellent college instruction at no financial cost to themselves while law-abiding people have to pay, or, even worse, go without higher education. The potency of this attack is evident. In 1994, the federal government eliminated all state and federal inmate eligibility for Pell Grants. States have also cut back on resources that made higher education accessible to inmates. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed setting aside a mere one million dollars to finance inmate college education in a state prison budget of 2.8 billion dollars. He withdrew his proposal when it was attacked as a “slap in the face” to taxpayers.
In online responses to articles about the BPI, one finds numerous iterations of this sentiment. As one reader remarked: “[I]t is very hard to sell a free college education for prisoners when such is anything but free for those who have committed no crimes.”
How should we at Bard, believers in the education of the soul, respond? First, we need to argue that it is a bad state of affairs for any applicant to college to be prevented from attending merely because of his or her household’s financial incapacity. That is an affront to our society’s professed aspiration to equal opportunity. It contradicts our claimed repudiation of aristocracy.
We should say to the detractors that they are wrong in using the plight of needy non-incarcerated people to stymie efforts to provide relief to those who are incarcerated. Some who do this never voice any concern about needy people except when they are attacking social generosity.
Another response has to do with what the BPI offers to Bard. The BPI offers proof that there is real joy in learning for learning’s sake. A few days ago, I was talking with a Bard professor about the BPI. This gentleman is a tough cookie, a hard-boiled realist, an intense, exacting intellectual. He told me that when he has taught behind the locked iron gates of prison he has had “no better feeling” as an academic. BPI, in other words, involves an exchange: teachers give to students, but students give to teachers as well. Bard is helping those prisoners. But those prisoners are helping Bard, too, infusing it with ideas and motivations and experiences and perspectives that would otherwise be missing. Outside of prison, in the free world, purveyors of higher education talk about the glories of non-instrumental intellectual engagement. But the omnipresence of the market, the lure of vocational ambition, the pervasiveness of desires for upward mobility put into question the sincerity of professed commitments to liberal education. Prison clarifies matters. The person facing years behind bars after graduation, who nonetheless seeks to learn German for the thrill of reading Kant in German, is a person whose actions and circumstances bespeak a bracing commitment to learning for the sake of learning.
Educating prisoners is a cost-effective method of reducing recidivism. This is an important consideration. Diminishing rates of reimprisonment not only benefits public budgets; it also saves past offenders from further misery behind bars. As we have seen, though, the recidivism point is not the only argument to make.
Graduates, you are lucky to have been able to attend Bard. Your president is a visionary; your deans are accomplished computer scientists, cellists, and philosophers. You have been taught by devoted professors. You have been wonderfully prepared to pursue all sorts of endeavors. You will be artists, scientists, teachers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and all sorts of other things. I hope that you will engage yourselves in activities that allow you to continue to conjoin intellectuality and the pursuit of social justice. Max Kenner has. He is the former Bard student who founded the BPI and now directs the project. Stephen Tremaine has. He is the former Bard student, who founded a Bard Early College program in New Orleans.
I hope that you will be blessed to find work that is similarly noble and sustaining. I look forward very much to reading about your contributions in the months, years, decades to come.
Class of 2016—congratulations and good luck! Thank you.
2015: Sherrilyn Ifill’s Commencement Address
The president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. addressed Bard graduates on May 23, 2015.
Good afternoon, what a beautiful day. Thank you, President Botstein, Leon, my friend; faculty and students and parents and award recipients. Congratulations to all of you. I’m humbled to be in such esteemed company and to have the opportunity to say a few words to you today. Graduation days are filled with promise and excitement and accomplishment. They are days of true and pure celebration, and so I won’t speak long because I know that you wish to enjoy this wonderful day with your families.
In fact, I wondered what to say to Bard graduates as you launch into the world. I am, as you know, a civil rights lawyer, and so I regard it as my duty to encourage you to put your brilliant minds to work on issues of justice and equality and human dignity. But you are graduates of Bard, and this means that you are already committed to social justice, already individual thinkers. You are intellectually curious and courageous, and you’ve charted your own path. What can I say to you when the institution that has shaped you reaches into our prisons and recognizes the humanity, the intellectual potential, and the dignity of the incarcerated by You cannot imagine what it means to us in Baltimore, in these troubled times, to have an institution like Bard invest in the future of our young people in a way that speaks to the urgency of the condition of their lives. offering the opportunity to earn a four-year Bard College degree. What can I say when your institution is led by a brilliant visionary who is reimagining what high school and college can look like for young people in some of our most challenged and under-resourced communities.
You have been surrounded by a dedication to excellence, the highest appreciation for art in all its forms and a full-on embrace of the humanities. But perhaps precisely because you have been nurtured in such an extraordinary environment; perhaps, because you are hard-wired to believe that art and music are essential for the human spirit; because you are committed to education and research, to intellectual debate, and civil discourse; because you believe that facts matter and that science is not arrogance; perhaps, because you are so wonderfully-shaped by the environment at Bard, you will need even more fortification as you face the challenges waiting out there for you beyond today’s celebration. Because the challenges we face in our country today, the fundamental questions on the table are ones that go to the very heart of our democracy. They call on us today to decide not only who we are, but who we will be as a nation and as a community for successive generations. And, you, Bard graduates, are desperately needed to help us sort through these challenges.
We live in a great country with tremendous opportunities, and the future is bright for you without question, but to be a responsible member of the community to which you belong, to exercise true citizenship, you will be obligated to help our nation grapple with its most vexing and starkest contradictions. You are called to help us determine whether we are truly committed to equality, dignity, fairness, second chances, reason, justice, and peace. Because it is not after all just that we incarcerate two million people, more people than any other nation in the world, it is that we have made a culture of imprisoning our fellow citizens, and, in creating this culture, we have demeaned ourselves, we have created television programs and forms of humor that focus on violence in prison, and we have condoned the practice of assigning prisoners to months, years, and, in some instances, even decades of solitary confinement with the full knowledge that this will strip them of their sanity.
And we have not even begun to research, to understand, and to prepare ourselves for the shifts in our society and culture that have resulted from these decisions we have made. We do not yet know the long-term effect on our democracy of the trauma of mass incarceration. It is not just that we have allowed states to enact repressive voting rights laws. It is not just that the state of Texas has decided that students in that state can no longer use their university ID to vote. It is that instead they have decided you may use a concealed gun-carry permit as identification to vote. It is not just that we have starved our children of access to arts and music education in our public schools, it’s that we have shifted the whole narrative about art and music to one in which the value is seen only through the lens of whether it may improve test scores. It is not only that the flaws in our justice system have been horrifyingly revealed as we watched the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island or saw Walter Scott running for his life in South Carolina before he was shot like prey by police officers. It is not just that we have seen, in glaring Technicolor, the racial injustices in our criminal justice system. It is that we now also know that law enforcement has in places like Ferguson, Missouri, been turned into a means of income-generation for municipal government, a practice so grotesque, so demeaning to the dignity of both law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, and so corrosive that the legitimacy of the rule of law in a democracy that we, you, must re-imagine the very structure of local governments and law enforcement in communities across this country. It is not only that we live in a time of staggering income inequality beyond which we have ever experienced in this country. It is that during this precise period of growing inequality, we have deliberately starved the infrastructure that supports our communities and the critical institutions of public life—the institutions that allowed my parents, two immigrants with little formal education, to raise 10 children in New York City in the 1960s and that allowed me and my siblings to become nurses and doctors and lawyers and teachers and to learn trades and to live that elusive thing called the American Dream.
These are big and complex problems. It will require more engagement, more creativity, more commitment, more investment than we have ever conceived to right the ship of our democracy at this moment. But we can do it, and the burden and the privilege of doing this important work will fall to you. You will need to bring all that you have learned during your time here at Bard to the work of engaging these issues, and whatever your chosen field—whether it is art or law or medicine or science or academia—you must take up the work of grappling with these tough, complex problems. How will you do this? You will do this with all the courage, curiosity, rigor, critical thinking, and passion you’ve brought to your education here at Bard. You can do it because you are not afraid of tough questions and hard answers. You can do it because you have been trained to value experimentation and to be unafraid of that necessary ingredient to all true experimentation: failure. You can do it because you believe in debate and dissent and civil discourse. And you will take those skills and values and apply them, I hope, beyond New York City or New York State, to places where my clients live, like Shelby County, Alabama, Paris County, Texas, and Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana.
Finally, I wish to share one other thing. You may know that I was a passenger on Amtrak train 188 that derailed and crashed last Tuesday night. I entered the train in Baltimore City, focused, as I always am, on work, planning to send an important e-mail to my office as soon as I settled in my seat, but nothing seemed to go right. When I checked my ticket as the train rolled into Baltimore Penn Station, I saw that I didn’t have my usual business class seat, and I was annoyed. Then I realized I didn’t have my portable Wi-Fi aircard, so I would be left to the uncertainty of Amtrak’s dubious Wi-Fi. These are the only reasons I was not sitting in the business class car that suffered the worst damage and the highest fatalities and why I was not working on my laptop when the crash happened. Instead, I was on the phone talking with my beloved sister. And, when I came to, walking on the tracks, I was still clutching that phone. Thus, unlike so many others, I was able to contact my closest family members and friends, those listed among the favorites on my phone, within minutes of the crash. And they, some of whom are here, this magical circle of family and friends, through this phone, surrounded me with care and comfort from hundreds of miles away.
I emerged from this awful accident with a broken collarbone, a concussion, and some emotional scars to be sure, but I’m grateful to be alive and relatively unhurt. And, while I’m still processing much of what happened and trying to understand what I should make of this extraordinary experience, I do know this much: committing your life to making meaningful art, or teaching the disadvantaged, or to, as I have, racial, gender, or LGBT justice issues; devoting yourself to ending religious intolerance, or to protecting the resources of our precious planet, to finding the cure for a terrible disease, to inventing some life-changing device or code, to composing transcendent pieces of music, does not exempt you from what I believe is the ultimate command of the universe, the ultimate command in my faith of God: to live and to love. Not just to go through the motions, not to work relentlessly until the very joy of life is stripped away, as I was in peril of doing before this accident, not to forget to breathe country air deeply, not to say you have no time for long walks or long hugs or long goodbyes. We are called first and foremost to live, and to nurture that magic circle of what I call favorites—that tight group of family and friends to who you will instinctively reach out when calamity happens and who will surround you with their love and get you back on your feet to face the challenges and work ahead. This to, the nurturing of this group is a kind of work and you must take it as seriously and apply yourself to it as diligently as you will to the work of responsible citizenship that your community and your country demands of you.
So, class of 2015, I am excited to know that you will be leading our community, our country, and what we will become. I have confidence that you are prepared and committed, engaged and unafraid to do this great work.
2014: Nancy Pelosi's Commencement Address
The House Democratic Leader addressed Bard graduates on May 24, 2014.
Thank you, President Leon Botstein, for your kind introduction. Thank you for being such a strong, creative force, and such a bold leader, in the field of higher education. Sometimes it seems as if you’re everywhere – conducting symphonies around the world, teaching classes here on campus. Your accessibility to students, your vision and values, have helped build Bard College into an extraordinary institution over the past 40 years. And you do all this with a sense of humor – as everyone knows who saw you star on the Colbert Report not once, but twice. That is no easy task.
To the parents, grandparents, families and friends of the graduates: your love and support, your hard work and sacrifice, have helped make this day a reality. Let us acknowledge you for supporting and inspiring today’s graduates.
To the graduates: this is your day, your achievement, your success. Congratulations, Bard College class of 2014! It is a distinct privilege to join you today as a fellow graduate with my honorary degree – though, luckily for me, no one asked me to turn in a “senior project” before I could get this degree.
To Chairman Charles Stevenson; to my friend, trustee, Sally Hambrecht, and the entire Board of Trustees; to the students, faculty and staff of Bard College: thank you for the honorary Doctorate of Laws. I am especially honored to be receiving it along with such distinguished honorees: Anne Bogart, Jacob Neusner, Jacqueline Novogratz, Henry Rosovsky, Darren Walker. Thank you for the invitation to participate in this special day.
Standing on this campus, surrounded by the beauty of the Hudson Valley and your performing arts center, seeing you – the students, the creative forces behind this college – I am reminded of the words of the great poet Shelley: “The greatest instrument of moral good is imagination.”
When Shelley said this, he could have been speaking of the students and graduates of Bard College – where imagination is cultivated and encouraged. Bard has provided you with “a place to think.” Bard has offered you a place to learn, to explore, to imagine. Imagination inspires creativity. Imagination enables empathy: to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to understand, to solve problems. Indeed, imagination is the heart of Bard College.
Your initiatives are well-known when it comes to education. You have used your imagination to address pressing challenges – with a network of “Early Colleges” to ensure that underserved high school students can seek and find a path to success. You have applied your imagination around the world – building partnerships and investing resources on campuses from Berlin to St. Petersburg to the Middle East.
You have directed your imagination toward improving public policy and people’s lives – most notably, with the Bard Prison Initiative, once a “senior project”; now a model for educating incarcerated youth statewide. Recently, I had the pleasure to meet Erica Mateo, an alum of the Bard Prison Initiative. She has taken her Bard education – her second chance – to give back to her community in Brooklyn. You are all representatives of that great tradition: where you use imagination to ensure that Bard will always stand as a small school with a big impact.
At this time in our nation’s history, your imagination gives me hope – because today, our country has important choices to make. In his study of civilizations, the great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, found that, over time, societies faced some of the same challenges we are facing today. He wrote that, at the beginning of a hopeful country, the political leadership formed a “creative minority” that inspired and led the flowering of a civilization.
He also wrote that, in some nations, leaders became a “dominant minority” of “exploiters,” focused on their own wealth and power. Toynbee suggests that these competing mindsets and motivations create “schisms in the body social” and “schisms in the soul” of the body politic. Toynbee clearly recognized that the fate of each civilization is determined by its response to the challenges it faced. And now, as in centuries past, overcoming the challenges society faces depends on imagination.
Imagination is required to address growing income disparity, to close the opportunity gap, to build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. As Aristotle once wrote, “It is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class…in which the middle class is large and stronger than all of the other classes.” In the United States, the middle class is the backbone of our democracy. So let’s build ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard, take responsibility, and play by the rules – to achieve the American Dream and strengthen the middle class. Thank you for imagining a fairer economic future – and for acting in your own backyard, to secure equal pay and benefits for Bard staff members and grounds workers.
To do even more, we must unleash the power of women in our economy – because, as President Obama has reminded us, when women succeed, America succeeds. Another boost to our economy and our country is the invigoration and imagination of newcomers to America. So let’s embrace that tradition, that essential character of our country, by passing comprehensive immigration reform. To make real progress, we must reduce the role of money and increase the level of civility in our politics. Then we will elect more young people, more women, more minorities, more LGBT Americans – and all Americans will be better for it.
This is especially necessary as we confront the climate crisis. We are faced with cynics who deny science and reject the evidence of climate change. But the facts are clear and indisputable. Again, thank you for the leadership of Bard students for your initiatives to protect our planet. You have imagined and implemented solutions to preserve our planet – with an office dedicated to sustainability and energy efficiency, with solar power, with compost efforts initiated by students, for students. We must keep America number one in new green technologies and research; in embracing science to reverse climate change once and for all.
Imagination is not only central to finding solutions, as we all know, it is central to creativity and the arts. President Kennedy once told us that “the life of the arts…is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose.” Bard is well-recognized as a leader in the arts – Thank you for ensuring that the arts remain at the center of our nation’s purpose.
Imagination and innovation and creativity: these are the qualities you brought to Bard as freshmen, that grew stronger with every year here. As you leave today as Bard graduates, be confident in the knowledge that Bard has empowered you to use your imagination for the sake of progress and justice – as an instrument for moral good. You may not know what opportunities await you.
But when those opportunities present themselves, be ready. When I left college, I was idealistic; I could never have imagined that one day, I would go from the kitchen to the Congress, from homemaker to House Speaker. But I was ready. My wish for you today is that you know your power to imagine, to inspire, to shape the future with your ideals and your optimism. And my wish is that you enjoy every minute of it.
As we mark Memorial Day weekend, let us remember our men and women in uniform, and let us build a future worthy of their sacrifice. I am honored to be a part of the Bard College class of 2014 and to receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws today. I am proud to join you in saying: “We’re all Bardians.”
Congratulations to you, to your families, to Bard College. Enjoy this day. May God bless you all. May God always bless the United States of America.
2013: Gabrielle Giffords’s and Mark Kelly’s Commencement Address
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired space shuttle commander Mark Kelly, addressed Bard graduates on May 25, 2013.
Good morning, everybody. Thank you, Leon. I actually think we look similar enough where I think you would look great in this uniform. Esteemed faculty, board members, students—especially those receiving your degree today—and parents, thank you. Thank you for inviting Gabby and me here today. And thank you for welcoming Gabby into your Bard College community with an honorary degree. You know, it’s a pleasure to be here with you on this beautiful campus—despite the little cold and a little bit or rain for you guys out there not under the tent—as spring turns to summer, we hope, and as you all consider what’s next for you.
You know, Gabby and I have come to know Bard through our good friend and colleague, and your fellow alum, Pia Carusone ’03. She has been an instrumental part of our lives for over four years now and through our time together, we have learned a lot about Bard College and your bold and courageous endeavors. You know, Bard is leading on the critical issues of our time and for that all of you should be really proud of the degrees you are about to receive.
It is an exciting time, when you have the opportunity to celebrate all that you’ve accomplished. You are all at a crossroads, where your destiny has not yet been decided and you are free to set some really ambitious goals. However, having gotten through four years of a grueling education at Bard and grinding out the finishing touches on your Senior Project, maybe you feel like you should pass on ambition for a while. Maybe you’re tired of trying. Maybe you’re scared that you’ll fail and end up living with your parents for the next 10 years. Wouldn’t that suck? Maybe you’re thinking of settling instead of aiming to succeed.
So, for the next few minutes or so, forget all about that. Today, I want you to set your sights high, and I want to tell you a little bit about how Gabby and I ended up where we are today. I want you to think about determination and courage. And I want you to think about second chances.
Now I almost didn’t make it to where you’re sitting today. Unlike my wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whom you’ll hear from shortly, I didn’t really excel at school from the very beginning. I grew up not more than a few hours away from here, in a place called West Orange, New Jersey. People from West Orange here? My mom and dad were cops, police officers. My twin brother Scott, who also ended up becoming an astronaut, and I are not what you would describe as model students. I don’t think I would have gotten into Bard. In fact, sometimes all I could do was to try to stay in school.
My dad did not want us to become police officers. But he didn’t see us going to college, either—and who could really blame him? We didn’t act like we were thinking much about our futures! And so my dad did what seemed was best to him and that was, instead of college, and instead of the police force, my dad recommended that my brother and I become welders. And, he even offered to get us into the ironworkers union.
So, you know often we hear these stories, almost fables about astronauts. The golden boys, the whiz kids, the chosen ones. Well, my brother Scott and I? We weren’t that. But my dad had to show me that he thought the future might hold something better for us, and that we needed to choose our own path. So, I worked hard my last years of high school, and, finally, I did make it to college.
While I was at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, determination really set in for me, and I did set some pretty bold and ambitious goals. I set my sights on becoming an astronaut, and I set my sights on being the first person to walk on the planet Mars. Well, I didn’t get there. You know I did not technically reach that very goal, but I did make it into space four times. Now if any of you think that’s impressive, making it into space four times, just think of how impressed the aliens were. When I told them that I have been to the planet Earth five times, they were quite impressed. So how did I get there?
Well, I graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1986. That was the year that the movie Top Gun came out. And, I headed off to flight school at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Well, I kind of embarrassed to say this, but, literally, as I drove the gate of Naval Air Station, Pensacola, I had that cheesy music from the movie playing on the tape deck. I think it was the “Danger Zone” song. And get this, I get there and I start flying, and I very quickly realized that I am not “Maverick.” I’m not a particularly good pilot. I really struggled for a long period of time. I could barely figure out how to land the airplane on a runway. And, after about a year, I had to go out and land on an aircraft carrier for the first time. Now, when the Navy sends you to land on a ship for the first time, there’s no one who’s dumb enough to go with you. It’s just you, all by yourself, whatever skills you’ve been able to put together from a lot of practice—in my case it wasn’t all that much. On a morning much like today in Florida, I had to fly off of Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida, to find the USS
Forrestal, aircraft carrier. And it seemed like we were going out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—we were really only about 50 miles off shore. Eventually, I come across this ship, and it looked like a tiny little postage stamp, bobbing in the ocean. I do my first two what’s called touch-and-go landings, where I just touch the deck and take off again. Then I put the tailhook down, the arresting hook, land in the wires, come to a complete stop. At that point, the entire experience was just a blur. I barely remember any of it. But, I do these arrested landings, and, between each one, I have to go to catapult, get shot off from 0 to 150 knots in a couple of seconds. And, I do these four landings and then I go back to the shore that night, and, eventually, that evening, I get debriefed by the instructor pilot who had been watching me from the back of the ship. And, you know the first thing he says to me is, “Are you sure this career is for you?” He says, “You are not a particularly good pilot.” You know, I really did bad; I actually think Tom Cruise would have been better—and I don’t mean the character from the movie, I mean the actor. Tom Cruise probably would have been better at that then me.
But, you know what, I didn’t give up, and the guys that did really well that day did not go on to become test pilots or astronauts. How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become. I’m a prime example of somebody who was able to overcome a lack of aptitude with determination, persistence, and the drive to never, ever, ever give up.
Many of you have probably experienced some version of this yourself at Bard. Imagine the guts you needed, just a few years ago, when you had to stand up in front of that Moderation board (I think you call it that) and argue your case to your professors about why you belonged in the history department, or the biology department. You were not the person you are today; today you’re more knowledgeable, more refined, more experienced. But back then, you didn’t let your inexperience stop you. The old you could actually see the potential of the future you. And that vision gave you the determination and the will to make it happen. You made a decision to achieve instead of settle. Just like my vision of myself as an astronaut is what got me through flight school being a pretty lousy pilot.
So, as you embark on the next phase of your own lives and start new careers and new endeavors, please remember that I started out struggling in the beginning of my career and ended up commanding a rocket ship into space. So, today I am here to encourage to set some crazy and ambitious goals for yourselves. Like me, you may never exactly achieve those goals. I haven’t made it to Mars and I probably never will, but the journey was certainly worth the effort. And, I promise, the journey will be worth it for you as well.
Along the way, there will be bumps in the road. So prepare yourself as best you can. And while I like to think of myself as generally a prepared and level-headed person—I know firsthand, there are no flight plans for life. This is where courage and second chances have to come in.
Two years ago, Gabby’s chief of staff and Bard alum Pia Carusone called me at home in Houston, Texas. Until recently, Gabby and I had one of those commuter marriages. I lived in Houston; she lived in Tucson and went to Washington, D.C., for work, to represent her constituents. We would catch up with each other on weekends either in Washington, Tucson, or Houston, and we often accompanied each other on work trips. Well, Pia called with life-changing news. Very simply, she said, “Mark, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gabby’s been shot.” I knew she was at this routine meet-and-greet on the north side of Tucson, and Gabby’d had been hit, along with several other people. That was all Pia knew. Shortly after, we talked again and we found out that people had died, including her colleague Gabe Zimmerman, and a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green. And we also found out that Gabby had been shot in the head.
Try to imagine that phone call. Pia was an experienced and accomplished congressional chief of staff and I had spent my career learning how to manage crises that we hope would never come at NASA—but nothing in either of our careers could have prepared us for that moment. Nothing could have prepared us for what was about to come next.
Know this: know that though I hope your life will be free of tragedy, I can assure you that it will bring you some unexpected and unpredictable moments, and it’s going to challenge you beyond what you can currently imagine. In those moments, when that happens, I encourage you to think about my wife, Gabby.
Gabby has always been an adventurer. After her graduation from Scripps College, she headed down to Chihuahua, Mexico, and lived with a Mennonite family as a Fulbright Scholar without any electricity or running water. Later, when her family needed her, she left this fancy job in New York City working in a skyscraper and drove her truck back home to Tucson, where she took over running the family’s tire business, which was a big risk, both personally and professionally, and one that she ultimately steered to success.
And Gabby had an equally ambitious and adventurous career in politics. She was elected six times, three to the Arizona State Legislature, and three to the Congress, and she represented her constituents in a similarly daring and authentic personal style. Gabby holds the titles of youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate and also Arizona’s first Jewish Congresswoman.
And Gabby was brave. In moments where the politics of her Republican-leaning district became hot and angry, Gabby stood by her principles. She never backed away from her commitment to women’s equality, finding a smarter energy policy, protecting our men and women in uniform, or many of the other issues that she fought so passionately for. When tough votes came, like the vote on health care reform, Gabby made them according to her values and what she truly believed was right for her constituents. And she listened. She took the stories of ranchers in her district, who were angry about the federal government, and brought those stories back to Washington. That’s why she was elected three times to a historically Republican district as a Democrat. That’s why she and Gabe Zimmerman, her outreach director who was killed on the day Gabby was shot, were in the parking lot that day.
You may have all seen dramatic moments from Gabby’s life on TV and in the newspapers, but trust me, there were even more brave moments that occurred privately.
After she was shot, Gabby had to rebuild. She had to grieve the lives that were lost and also come to terms with her new limitations. She had to learn to walk again, to eat, to type with her left hand, and to do those things that we all take for granted every single day, like even speaking. You can’t imagine the struggle of knowing exactly what you want to say, having all of your words on the tip of your tongue, and not being able to get them out. It is frustrating. I didn’t know courage and bravery until I saw what my wife went through. And it’s not over. Her determination is as strong today as it was in the moments after she was shot. Gabby can’t ride her motorcycle anymore, she can’t hike her favorite trails. She decided to step down from her congressional seat, so that she could focus full time on her recovery. None of this was easy.
But I always new that Gabby would reenter public life. It was just a matter of time before she would be moved to take action. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school last December, Gabby said what many of us said, “Enough!” What has been lacking is someone with the courage to not choose sides on this issue but to choose a new path, to add a new dimension to a debate that is flat and tired, somebody with the determination to see it through. Gabby is the moderate and determined voice that the movement for sensible gun legislation needs.
So we are doing what we think will be most impactful. And we are taking advantage of our second chance at service. Our new organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, stands for sensible and pragmatic steps that will keep our communities safer, but also protect our Second Amendment rights. We are gun owners. Gabby is a Westerner. In her core, she is a Westerner. She grew up near the border, in the dusty and wild desert, climbing those rugged mountains, and representing a district that includes Tombstone, Arizona, the town too tough to die. My folks were cops, and I served in the military for over 25 years. I flew in combat over Iraq and Kuwait. We have a strong tradition of guns, not in our pasts, but even in our lives now.
The conversation we stepped into is a conversation between extremes on either side. What we represent is something different—a huge majority of Americans, like us, believe in sensible solutions to this problem, like background checks, that will keep us safer but do not infringe on anybody’s right, like yours, to own a gun if you want to.
Gabby’s challenge now is to lead us forward and to bring as many people as possible with her. The gun lobby has years on us. The NRA’s been around for 150 years. They’ve forgotten what they used to stand for, which is gun safety and a tradition of hunting, and now they mostly stand for the gun manufacturers. And they make a LOT of money doing it.
We are the counterbalance to the professional gun lobby, a truly citizen-based, people-driven movement to reclaim this debate and find, in the great tradition of our democracy, moderate and pragmatic solutions that respect our American values of the right to bear arms and the right to safety—the right, to quote President (Franklin) Roosevelt, who grew up not far from here, I think, who said we all have the right to “freedom from fear.”
Gabby’s bravery shines bright. And it has been tested before. For me, she is literally redefining how I think about the word “courage.” She has set her sights on a distant horizon—a country that’s dramatically safer from gun violence, and she works hard to get there every single day. She does physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and even some yoga to make sure she’s in shape to get us there. It is as bold a dream as me landing on Mars, but she has a specific path.
And there are many doubters. Many who think the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby is simply too powerful. Many on the left who think that our deep and patriotic support of the Second Amendment, our belief that we can find common purpose between those who own guns and those who do not, will prevent us from making progress. Many who saw the failure of the United States Senate to pass background checks a few weeks ago, many of those people have thrown up their hands in anger and disgust.
Our friend and my hero, Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, remembers being amazed in 1961 when he heard President Kennedy say that we would get to the moon. Jim says he thought that was impossible. This is in 1961. Jim Lovell thought it would be impossible. Then, as some of you know, he went to the moon twice.
Jim says: “There are three types of people. There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful, you’ve got to be a person who makes things happen.”
Well, Gabby’s a person who makes things happen. And the Bard Class of 2013, all of you, I know will be people who will make things happen.
Like your classmate Raed Al-Abbasee, an Iraqi refugee and an already-published biochemist who has broken new ground since arriving from Baghdad.
Or Lauren Blaxter, a human rights major and leader of the Bard Palestine Youth Initiative, who is heading back to Palestine this summer to help construct a youth center.
Or Alexis Roe, the first member of the first class of graduating POSSE scholars who plans to teach English as a second language in China.
Or Deron Mack, who earned his Bard degree on the Eastern and Woodbourne prison campuses and will be walking across this stage with all of you today. What an accomplishment!
All of you have accomplished so much already. And as you move on to your life after Bard, I encourage you to be that person who makes things happen. Make incredible scientific discoveries. Make art that takes our breath away. Make music that transforms. Cook and create a community like Alice Waters. Make some apps that my daughter is going to have to explain to me. Make innovations in business that will change the world. Or maybe become Bard’s first astronaut and be that very first person who walks on the planet Mars because we all know it’s not going to be me.
You have invested a tremendous effort in getting this education. There are certainly schools that are easier than Bard, that don’t push you as hard, that coddle and care for you more. Now, one of our good friends and your Senator, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is giving the commencement address at Vassar this weekend…
As a graduate of Bard, as an educated and thoughtful person, you are expected to continue Bard’s tradition of service. You know this crazy world we live in needs your help. Our big problems crave bold solutions. We need more leaders in every walk of life that are determined to be exceptional, that have the courage to try, and fail, and then try again. And to have the morale courage to make the right choices, even when they are not popular choices. You know who that is? That is you!
And Gabby and I are living proof that the most bold thing you can think of—flying to outer space, or being elected to Congress—you all can achieve as well.
Now I know that some day soon, Gabby will be giving these speeches in their entirety. After all, it’s Gabby who is being welcomed as an honorary member of the Bard community and receiving an honorary degree, when I think that I’m just getting a T-shirt. If it were up to her, she would have you here all afternoon. She got that name Gabby for a reason. She is so excited to celebrate with you and to honor your hard work and your bright futures.
So now, on this day of possibility, a day when you celebrate everything you’ve accomplished, and on a day when you dream the big dreams, let me introduce you to the most determined and courageous person I know. A person who does not fear or even acknowledge failure, who takes joy in the pursuit of personal and political challenges, who speaks with extraordinary bravery, and who inspires me every single day: my lovely wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Thank you for honoring me here today, and thank you for this honor. Graduates, your future shines bright. Find your purpose and go for it. Starting tomorrow, you can change the world. The nation’s counting on you to create, to lead, to innovate. But today we celebrate you. Be bold, be creative, be your best. Thank you very much. Thank you.