School of Social Work
May 21, 2010
First and foremost, I want to congratulate you, the Class of 2010. You guys, you should be so proud of yourselves and your incredible accomplishments. But let’s not forget all the people who also share in that pride — your moms and dads, and brothers and sisters, your friends, grandparents, mentors — all of whom took this journey with you in ways both seen and unseen. So this is their day, too. So let’s give them another round of applause and thank you.
This is the first time I have worn this robe since I graduated from law school, more years ago than I care to remember. I remember feeling a sense of exhilaration and anxiety, hoping to go out and change the world. For me, the way to do that was through the law. While I was politically active at the time, I did not imagine that within a decade, I would be a member of the General Assembly, affecting change as a part of Government.
Many of you came to VCU’s school of social work also wanting to make a difference. Just reading the school’s mission tells me that:
The mission of the VCU School of Social Work is to prepare professional social workers as practitioners, scholars and leaders; to generate research and scholarship for advancing knowledge and practice; and to contribute to the local, state, national, international and professional communities to improve quality of life. Guided by the principle of promoting social and economic justice in a diverse and multicultural society, our programs focus on service to and empowerment of people who experience oppression or vulnerability due to inadequate or inequitable distribution of personal, social or institutional resources.
Societies need for you is probably greater than at any time in American history. While we have come a long way as a society, the challenges we still face are at times daunting.
America is no longer a united by a common language, religion or culture;
There is an ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor–or even the middle class.
People have become turned-off by the negativity and money in the political system, alienated by negative ads and stories of corruption, and typically, 2008 aside, stay home on election day.
And you, as a generation, have faced many changes: Think about how your generation has come of age……
Just since you were in middle school, you’ve witnessed terrorism touch our soil, you’ve seen the cost of two foreign wars reach into our communities.
You’ve watched unimaginable devastation and suffering in the aftermath of a tsunami; a hurricane; an earthquake.
You’ve felt the wrath of the worst recession since the Great Depression that’s changed your towns and even your families.
You are witnessing, as we speak, one of the worst environmental disasters of our lifetime, which will likely have devastating economic implications.
In the face of all that, no one would have blamed you had you chosen to hunker down and turn inward; if you had simply focused on making sure that your own lives were secure.
But you are here because you intrinsically want to help others. You want to be a social change agent. And now that you are graduating, you have the tools and skills necessary to do just that.
Now, you’re probably wondering if, and how, you can help others and help foster social and economic justice on a grand scale. I’m here to tell you that you can. And you must.
Believe me, I understand how big the world can feel, and how the issues facing our community and our country can feel…..too big for any one person or group of people to handle. There are people who use that sense of insignifigance to withdraw from the public debate, and resign themselves to complaining, but never acting. I’m here today to ask you not to become one of them.
Not long ago, in another commencement speech, First Lady Michelle Obama quoted something President Wilson once said. He said, “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that’s the way I know I’m an American.”
Sometimes, though, you probably wonder if you can keep your idealism intact in today’s society. You have probably been warned to lower your sights; to scale back your ambitions a bit; to settle for something less. You might fear you’re in for a letdown once you realize that it can take years, even decades, for your best efforts to bear fruit.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that wants results right now, and tells us that our lives should be easy; that we can have everything we want without a whole lot of effort.
But the truth is — and you know this — creating anything meaningful takes time. And sometimes, the only thing that happens in an instant is destruction.
Sometimes, what we need is not to give up our idealism, but to balance it with a little realism and patience. I have learned that time, after time, after time.
When I was sitting where you are, I knew I wanted to be a force for change. I came from a family dedicated to service in some form. My Mom & Dad, grandparents, etc.
Now, I got interested in law and politics because I wanted to change the world. I was inspired by the stories of everyday people, many of them young, changing the world in big ways. From the beginnings of our country: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton. FDR, John and Robert Kennedy, Ceasar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker……all in some way made history by changing the world.
So, of the many paths available to me to be a force for change, I chose Government, and effecting change through public policy. While sometimes dramatic changes happen through the public policy realm, more often than not it is a slow, incremental process, tempered by political reality.
Examples: Payday Lending, Communities of Opportunity Tax Credit, the Stalking Bill.
All of you have been called to serve in some capacity. Now, I am calling on you to disregard any fears or doubt you may have over your own importance and take part in the great struggle of our time. Each of you has a role to play, each of us has a chance to move mountains. So please, work hard, and take your place beside all of those people who are working to build a better future for our country.