Commencement Address at Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools

Gara LaMarche, Atlantic’s President and CEO addressed the 2010 graduating class at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools in Haley Farm, Knoxville, Tennessee.

I want to start out by saying that I have no recollection of the commencement address when I graduated from St. Bernard’s Boy’s High School in 1972 — when, I am guessing, most of your parents were younger than you are now.  I remember WHO spoke – the Republican congressman from that part of Connecticut. And I remember that he went on and on. But I can’t remember a word he said.

On the other hand, when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, he said that the “world will little note nor long remember” what he said that day.  He turned out to be wrong, of course, but maybe that’s because he spoke for all of three minutes.  They asked me to talk here tonight for 35.  There is an inverse relationship, I believe, between the length of speeches and their memorability, so I am a little worried.

So the smart thing for me to do – please hold your applause – would be to sit down right now.  But of course I just got started.  So at the risk of provoking collective amnesia in all of you, I will go on a bit more.

The question of beginning is a good place to begin, noting that this is called a “commencement” address.  If you are like me, you never thought much about that choice of words, or what is meant by “graduation” itself, but it is worth reflecting on for a minute.  To graduate is to move up.  To commence is to begin.  We usually think of graduation, and the commencement speech that is part of it, as occasions marking the end of something – in this case, your intense and amazing week at the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute.  I was exhausted just looking at your schedule for the week, and the list of authors, professors, organizers, performers and journalists who have been your guides.

But you know that this past week is in fact a beginning, not an end.  You know that it has better prepared you to take your place in the historic, life-changing work of the Freedom Schools, one of the most important initiatives in protecting our very American democracy and its promises of freedom, equality and justice.  And from there to play your part in helping this country live up to its founding promises.

And you know what you do not know, which is the most important outcome of a good education.  Yes, you were informed and inspired by Tavis Smiley and Pedro Noguera and Sondra Samuels and Tommy Watson and Dr. Hairston and Taylor Branch and Hollis Watkins and Dr. Harris-Bracewell and that national treasure we call Marian Wright Edelman.  But they whet your appetite for more.

They made you realize that there are so many stories to be told, so many elders to sit by, so many skills to build, so many strategies to employ and perfect.  It is a lifetime’s work, moving this country and this world toward social justice for all people.

And fortunately, you have a lifetime to do it in, so tonight is a night to celebrate the hard work you have done this week, to dance and pray and sing and cheer, to hug your new friends and savor the phenomenal experience you have all shared. And tomorrow is a day to get busy, because everything we care most about, everything that brings us here, is infused with the fierce urgency of now.

In what I have said so far, I may have given the impression that learning and social justice leadership is something passed down or on to the young from the old – or, for those of us who don’t like to think of themselves as old, from the old-er.  And yes, I believe that we can learn much from the experience of those who came before us, and that in order to change our history we have to be grounded in a knowledge of what came before us.

But I also believe, very deeply, that the young can and must lead the old, that learning is very much a two-way street.

I know this first from my own life. I know what I was capable of when I was your age, and I have never forgotten it in the years since, as I have moved further along the generational spectrum.

Very little in my middle-class Catholic upbringing in a small, virtually all-white town in New England prepared me for the work I do today.  I was a geeky kid with very few friends, who watched TV in every spare moment when I wasn’t hanging around the stacks of the local library.  I was always the last kid picked for teams on the playground.

I found my own power at fourteen, when I entered and won a public speaking contest for freshmen in my new high school.  That came with a spot on the debate team, and in a few years of debate I gained confidence in my writing and speaking, and in something even more valuable – in my ability to see the other side of an argument, to force myself to make the opposing case as strongly as possible so I could eventually prevail against it.

Debate led me to a wider interest in politics, and in civil liberties and rights.  I started with challenging what I believed were unjust policies in my high school, in my church, in my hometown.  This was not popular with my parents, who cringed when they saw my name on letters to the editor in the local newspaper.  It was not popular with the principal.  It was not popular with the pastor.

However old I may seem to you, I was too young for the storied days of the civil rights movement in which the young Marian Wright found her voice and her power.  I was too young for the Viet Nam draft.  But I opposed the war, and the President who cruelly wasted so many young lives, and soon after I arrived at college – the first in my family to get there – I became active in the effort to impeach that President, Richard Nixon.

I walked the streets of New York with fellow students collecting signatures on petitions, spoke out at meetings, and even went on TV.  As Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” But I was energized, and though in college, I learned the most, each day, from my newfound activism.

I paid for most of my tuition and living expenses with loans and by working almost full-time in a day care center near Harlem, and the incredible diversity of the kids, parents and staff – racially, economically, even internationally – was thrilling to me, a template for the world I want to live in and have fought for ever since.

I volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the world’s oldest and most tenacious groups fighting for rights.  I took notes at meetings and did unglamorous grunt work, but over time I came to the attention of leaders there and was hired for an entry-level position a year or so after college.

I became associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the largest state branch, at 24, and at 29 was hired to be director of the Texas state affiliate, spending four years doing battle against the death penalty, police violence, creationists, pro-lifers, and censors and bigots of all varieties.  After that I realized I could do anything.

I moved into international human rights work, and eventually into philanthropy – that is, giving away other people’s money.  I have been privileged to use these posts to stand in solidarity with the most courageous people in the world, with students and parents from Oakland to Baltimore working for better schools, with rural South African mothers desperate for access to AIDS drugs, with hardworking immigrants in Arizona or Tennessee seeking full inclusion as citizens – with women and men, young people and old, gay people and straight, black people and brown people and white people fighting for their lives.  I learn from them every day.

We all have stories which form us, and that, in short form, is mine.  But we are also formed and inspired by the stories of others.  And young people like you are everywhere I look taking charge of their own lives and refusing to be patient.

I’m inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges, born a week after I was in the same year, a great year, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared unanimously that segregation in public schools was illegal and unconstitutional.  At six, Ruby became the first African-American child to desegregate an elementary school.  Although she lived only a few blocks away from that school, marshals had to escort her every day past angry racist mobs, and since white parents pulled their children from school in protest, for an entire year she was the only student in her class.  What kind of fortitude does that take?

I am inspired by the fact that the very first civil rights sit-in was undertaken by students in high school and younger.  Clara Luper and twelve other members of the NAACP Youth Council, aged six to 17, screwed up their courage walked into the Katz Drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered 13 Coca-Colas.  I won’t repeat here the vile racist epithets they endured, but thanks to the persistence of those thirteen and others like them, in time all lunch counters at the 38 Katz stores in the Midwest were desegregated.

We don’t have to look that far back.  We can see 18-year old peace activist Ava Lowery who endured death threats after her website featured a moving montage of photos of wounded children in Iraq.

We can see Jose Luis Marantes of Miami, an immigrant rights activist who grew up with his grandparents, refugees from Cuba, leaving his evangelical church because he had too many unanswered questions.  I can identify with that.  Working with Students Working for Equal Rights, Jose started organizing on community college campuses on behalf of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students.  Another immigrant activist, Tam Tran, whose family fled Viet Nam by boat at the end of the war, bravely testified before Congress about the Dream Act, only to see immigration agents stage a pre-dawn raid on her family’s California home the next day, taking her brother and parents into custody.

She worked hard to get them released, but what was her response to that experience?  It was to tell a colleague, “My family is one of the lucky ones.  Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration groups, and just disappear.”  Tragically, Tam Tran was killed by a drunk driver in Maine last month, but her work inspires us and lives on.

We can see Cheyenne Hughes, who grew up on the east side of Denver, Colorado, whose passion was lit in school by a paper she researched on the Nat Turner Rebellion, and now, through the Colorado Progressive Coalition, leads campaigns on payday lending and police stops of young people of color.

The organizations these young people are forming, from Equal Education in the black townships of South Africa, which documents evidence of poor performing schools like delinquent teachers and broken windows, and stages actions to force change, to COCO, in South Central Los Angeles, which has used the same youth-led strategies in successful campaigns for access to college prep courses, less crowded classrooms, and more student counselors, are on the cutting edge of social change and equity at this moment.  They give me so much hope for the future.

We need that hope, because there is so much to do.  You take your place in a world where women of color have one penny of wealth for every dollar of their male counterparts and a fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth that white women have.  Where on the average all women make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes.

You take your place in a world where the faces of brown children are erased from a mural in an Arizona school, not long after a new law makes anyone whose skin is dark or who speaks with an accent subject to police stops and interrogation.

You take your place in a world where white children in Appalachia try to learn in dilapidated schools where the roof leaks when it rains and the furnace breaks down when it is freezing.

You take your place in a world where men and women in prisons and on death rows all across this country pay for a justice system in which black and brown people are failed by their schools, targeted by the police, and processed in what we call a justice system in which the quality of your legal representation has all too much to do with the color of your skin and the size of your bank account.

You take your place in a world where schools and community clinics and hospitals and senior centers and day care centers close or face crippling cutbacks in every community in this country while banks and insurance companies and oil companies that have ripped poor families off, denied medical treatment to desperately sick people, and poisoned the waters escape accountability for their actions.

There is so much to do, but together we can do it.  A generation ago in Virginia, in a case taken by the ACLU, where I first worked, the home of a black woman and a white man was raided by police because their marriage violated that state’s racist laws.  But today the son of such a union leads the free world from a house, the White House, built by slaves.  The world can change, and it was changed by people like Dr. King – just 25 when he came to public prominence, by Marian Wright Edelman, by people just like you.

Two very different people died on the same day, one Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, when I was a nine-year old boy watching the clock in my Catholic school classroom, desperate for the weekend to start.  One was the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The other was the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley.  Both have something to say to you, and to all of us, and I will close with their words, which have so much resonance with the experience you have had during this past week.

President Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

Aldous Huxley said, “Experience is not what happens to you.  It is what you do with what happens to you.”

I know you will go out and do something world-changing with what happens to you.  And I feel privileged not just to have this time with you here tonight, but to live in a world that will be a more just and free and equal place because of what every single one of you will do.