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Penn Commencement 2012

May 22, 2012, Volume 58, No. 34

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Penn Commencement Address given Monday, May 14, 2012 by Geoffrey Canada, President and Chief Executive Officer for Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Common Good

Geoffrey CanadaPresident Gutmann; Provost Price, Board of Trustees fellow honorees; and today’s graduates:

I’m honored and grateful for the invitation today. 

I want to address my talk to the class of 2012. I want to acknowledge that this is a great moment for you, and it could be a great moment for our country.  It is a great moment for you because you are graduating from Penn, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country, having demonstrated by your hard work and perseverance, the mastery of a chosen field of study, qualifying you for a baccalaureate or graduate degree. It could be a great moment for our country if you decide to continue your pursuit of truth and enlightenment for the betterment of our society and not solely for the betterment of yourselves. For you are graduating at a time when our country is desperate for highly educated women and men who will fight to see through the veils of pure self-interest and half-truths, to search for what is truly moral and just. 

You have spent your years here preparing and being prepared for the next set of challenges you will face. Indeed it is time to get into the game.  What game? The game of life. A most serious game where the stakes are high. There are important choices to be made, and some people who choose wrong or make the wrong decisions, pay penalties that cripple their chances to succeed and reach their full potential. Some from the very moment of birth have the odds stacked so high against them that they are for all intents and purposes out of the game before they ever get in. But not you. You have met the challenges, overcome the obstacles, played the right hand, and now you are prepared to enter the game. 

While you have been preparing here in Philadelphia, our country continues to grapple unsuccessfully with some very complex issues. And these complex issues hang over our heads today like a giant leaden weight, suspended by poor logic, faulty reasoning, and a degraded sense of ethics and morality.  And I fear this leaden weight will in short order come crashing down on us, crushing all who can’t get out of the way. 

What are these complex issues? One is poverty. As our country has achieved the status of the only remaining superpower on the face of the earth; as we are the richest country by far; we have accelerating rates of poverty in America which shames us as a nation. Today there are almost 45 million Americans on food stamps. There are 46 million Americans living in poverty and, even more frightening, there are there are over 20 million people living in extreme poverty. And poverty is not some benign condition that simply means you live a little worse off. Poverty is a killer.  Researchers at the University of Michigan reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that people who earn $10,000 per year or less die prematurely at three times the rate of those who earn more. 

Another big issue we face is violence. America is a violent nation. We lead the western world in killing one another. None of our cherished institutions are sacrosanct. Today you hear of killings taking place in middle class schools, and even colleges and universities. But the brunt of the violence happens in our poorest inner-cities. A black man in America is six times more likely to be killed than a white. We have more black men and boys killed in America today than all the lynching that happened in the South during slavery.  

There is also the issue I work on every day, education. The only way we can have real equality in America is if we have equal access to quality education. A poor education guarantees that you will be trapped in a life of poverty. And what a trap. The poor fill our jails and prisons. They stumble into our emergency rooms, wheezing, limping, with blood leaking from holes never intended by God or nature. They sit in waiting rooms hoping for a sympathetic ear, which can stave off homelessness, for another month, another week, another night. They stand on lines for food, or clothes, or whatever is being given away for free. Those who are poor in this country have the weight of poverty, violence, and lack of education hanging over their heads, straining to break free and crush them, maybe kill them. And when this weight crashes down, you will not be under it. You have been guaranteed, by the virtue of your education, safe passage. That is not to say that life will be easy, it won’t. Or you won’t have to struggle, you will. It is simply to acknowledge the obvious: those of you sitting here represent some of the best and brightest that our country has to offer. You have proven that you have what it takes to make it. My question to you is, do you care about those who won’t make it without real help?

You have been at Penn preparing to enter the big game of life and I have a most wondrous proposition for you. Come join our team. We’re losing. Yes, that’s right, we’re losing. There was a time when our team was winning. In the early seventies when I was at Bowdoin College, we were engaged in a “War on Poverty.” We fought for civil rights. The women’s liberation movement was the right thing to be involved with. The gay and lesbian rights movement was just beginning. We cared about the “other”: the scorned, the repressed, and the victimized. We were taught regardless if you were rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, we owed it to our community, indeed our country, to strive to improve the life chances for all Americans “In order to form a more perfect union.” 

Today, America is at a scary inflection point. Fear for the self is everywhere. We find it hard to care for the homeless when our mortgages are underwater. Seniors fear they can’t afford to retire, the middle class worry about going on food stamps. The poor have no job security, and too often no job. We divide ourselves by being part of the one percent, or the ninety-nine percent. The poor feel under attack, the middle class feel under attack, even the wealthy feel under attack. 

Our team, the team that rallies us around the common good, that emphasizes self sacrifice and altruism, is losing. Their team, the team that says “every man for himself,” that makes us turn our back on the poor, feel no empathy, that feeds off of our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our personal demons and prejudices, is winning. Their team is winning, our team is losing, and yet I offer you a wondrous opportunity, to join the losing team.  

Now wait a minute, don’t all rush up here at once to sign up. I know this opportunity sounds too good to be true. Yes, you can join the losing team, but not quite yet. You might need more seasoning. You see, it’s not easy to be on the losing team, you have to be careful. If you are not properly prepared, you will become a loser. We don’t want losers. We want winners who aren’t afraid to play on the losing team. I dare say that your preparation here is a good beginning, but you need more experience. It’s tougher than you think out here. There is evil out here. I’m not talking about some mystical, theoretical, hypothetical construct. I’m talking about the real thing: pain and suffering, despair and death. 

So our team needs you. The other team offers you money, power, luxury cars, vacation homes and stock options. Our team offers you challenge and struggle, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guiding beacon and a good night’s sleep. Well to be honest their team offers a good night’s sleep also, but I just wanted to put it on our side. We seemed a little light on benefits. 

But do you know why I offer you this opportunity to play on the losing side? Because in the end we are going to win. Because we are right. There is no way that our great democracy will continue to be a beacon to the free world if the rich hate the poor and the poor hate the rich. If our middle class becomes a thing that your children will read about in their history books because it no longer exists, our country will decline. If we continue to have neighborhoods that the affluent are dying to get into, and the poor live in neighborhoods where they are just dying, we will have lost the promise of America. So you see, I know an enlightened, educated group of men and women would not tolerate their country drifting towards this calamity. So in the end we will win. 

I invite you to get in some practice and some seasoning, then come join our team. And please hurry because some of us have been in the game too long and we are weary. And yes, I must admit, even I get a little tired sometimes. After 30 years I’ve seen real progress in Harlem. We have over 700 of our students in college, and we are sending more than 350 high school seniors off to college this year.  But in our own high school, Promise Academy, three of our students were shot. Thank God none of them were killed and they are all on their way to college, but still, why should any child in our country have to dodge bullets to get an education?

Yes, even I get weary. I have shed too many tears at too many funerals over the years. As my career winds down, I often look in the mirror and say “Why are my children so vulnerable? What more could I have done?” And in my most private times I must admit, once or twice I felt a little sorry for myself, but it passed. You know why? Because of you. I believe in you.  In the end I believe when you see the truth, you will know it and act on it.  You are a wiser, a better generation. 

Let me share something with you. I have this fantasy that plays out in my head. It’s based on something that occasionally happened when I was a young boy in the South Bronx. I loved playing basketball and I was fearless. I just wasn’t very good. However, I would convince my team that we could win no matter how talented the opponents were. And we would travel all over the South Bronx challenging other teams, invariably losing.  But I had a brother named John, who was a great basketball player. John was just a year older than me but his skills in basketball put him in a class by himself.  At 13 he was so good that he always played with the adults. Every now and then I would be playing and sweating under the sun on some blacktop court in some strange neighborhood in the South Bronx, my team would be losing, and lo and behold, I would see a most glorious sight; this tall, thin figure loping towards the court, coming from a game somewhere else where the competition was stiffer. And my heart would soar. And I would yell “Time out! Time out!” 

This was always a tricky thing to do in a pickup game in the South Bronx. We didn’t have many rules and no one ever called time out. When questioned why I wanted a time out, I would answer, “I want to make a substitution.” This was unheard of, and there would always be arguing back and forth. What usually convinced the other team to allow the substitution was their finding out that I wanted to put my brother in. After seeing the way I played they figured, “Sure let his brother play, who cares.” And there would be jokes at my expense, and smirks and smiles.  And John would come in, take over the game, and the smiles would disappear, and we would win. 

My brother died in 1972 at the age of 21 during my sophomore year at Bowdoin College. There have been many times in my life that I have fought for the right cause, but a losing cause, and I have seen the smirks, and heard the snickers, and oh how I wished I could look up and see that tall, thin, frame walking to my rescue. 

So I have been at this since 1975 and I’ve given as well as I’ve taken.  But I can’t help but notice that the accumulated pain that I’ve experienced in this work has taken its toll on me. I’m not the man I was 20 years ago. I don’t know how long I can last on the front lines, but I know I won’t give up. I don’t feel sorry for myself, with my team, we’ve made real progress.  But I’m a realist. One day, my time will have passed. I’ll go down fighting with my team because that is what we have decided to do. 

But here’s my fantasy. One day, not too long from now, my team and I will be doing battle with the forces of darkness. They will be trying to reverse our progress, hurt our children, and destroy their souls. And it will suddenly hit me that I can do no more. The forces arrayed against us are too powerful, too mighty, defeat is at hand. I will not be afraid. I won’t bow my head. I’ll look my team right in the eye and say “If this be the last time, let’s go down fighting!” And suddenly from behind me, I will hear a mighty roar. I’ll turn around and see a most glorious sight; an army of better prepared, smarter, more powerful young warriors. They swarm past me headlong into the battle. The enemies of truth, of fairness, of liberty and equality, are overmatched and begin to retreat. And I grab several of those young warriors and I ask “Who are you?  Where did you come from?”  And they say, “Don’t you remember us, we are from Penn, Class of 2012.”  And as I move to the back to let the next generation do what I could not, I realize that all is not lost. We will win. God bless the Penn graduating Class of 2012, and Godspeed.


Almanac - May 22, 2012, Volume 58, No. 34