The prepared remarks of Convocation Speaker Deborah Bial:
Dean Long, what an honor to be here upon your completion of your first year as Dean. Congratulations. The Ed School is lucky to have you. Thank you for inviting me. And thank you to this distinguished faculty, HGSE staff and alumni – thank you for including me in this year’s convocation activities. It is an honor and a privilege to be here with the class of 2019 and extra special to speak at my alma mater. This is a distinguished group of teachers, principals, superintendents, policymakers, entrepreneurs and other educational leaders. As such, we all have a special responsibility, don’t we? We need to be extra- super- hyper-aware of the political and social issues that affect our lives today and of course affect our futures because we teach and guide and nurture and advise and build context and infrastructure for young people. They rely on us.
You all remember what it was like being little right? We each had our own dreams and anxieties. I grew up in a suburb of New York City — in a white house, with a red door and a white picket fence. Teaneck, New Jersey. There was a lot of it that was kind of stereotypically middle class.
I remember playing on the block where my house was with other kids. I didn’t wander too far from my house. In fact, I would periodically run back to my mom to hug her legs. She called it “refueling.”And then on the first day of kindergarten I didn’t want my mom to leave me there in Ms. Garfunkel’s class. I cried. I had separation anxiety.
I also had separation anxiety when I left home for college. I cried. I didn’t want to leave my mom and dad, and sister. I didn’t want to leave Winthrop Road.
But I always had a little separation anxiety. Separating made me nervous. Leaving made me immediately romanticize what I was leaving behind. I worried a lot. What might I be losing?
Something similar happens on a societal level. We, as adults, have a kind of separation anxiety if something challenges our traditional ways of life. We worry about separating from things that make us comfortable — and not just from moms or dads, houses, and beds. Not just from streets and towns. But from ideas and habits. The problem is, some of our ideas and habits are not good.
It’s easy to think about those special, familial, homey things we don’t want to leave behind. We even work hard to replicate them when we build our own families. Advertisers capitalize on this. I grew up using Crest toothpaste, but my husband used Colgate. Now we have a tube of each in our bathroom. Change is not only hard, we sometimes just refuse it.
Some things however need to be changed.
There are habits and situations and circumstances that need to change. And in order to make those necessary changes, we need to take a step back, separate ourselves from the things we have become accustomed to. I am especially talking about the need to separate from some of the inexcusable societal routines we’ve got so used to — from racism and misogyny, from the psychic numbing that allows us to casually walk past a person with a "feed me" sign on the street.
We need to make a conscious effort to look at our society in a reasonably objective way to determine for ourselves what is worth keeping and what is harmful and destructive. It is our job, especially as educators, as people who work with children, to separate ourselves from what has become routine: a world of unfairness and inequality that can get reinforced in our classrooms and then in our board rooms. As a society, we have become impervious, desensitized, numb. We must change this. If we do not, we stand to lose everything.
We have become impervious to the warnings of scientists all over the world about global warming. As Bill McKibben writes in a recent New Yorker article. We have killed off 60 percent of the world’s wildlife since 1970 by destroying their habitats. And watched as 100 million trees died in fires in California in just 10 years because of drought. Will we stand by as a United States president uses the power of his presidency to assemble a panel to undermine the research on climate change and global warming?
We have become desensitized.
On our college campuses around the country we are facing expressions of hatred and bigotry. There are, for example, swastikas on bathroom walls, anti-Muslim slurs on dorm room doors, the N word written in common spaces. You may all know of an African American female student who was elected student president at her university (the first black female student government president at her school) and later students woke to find bananas hanging from nooses around campus.
We have become numb.
Almost one-third of all Americans are living in poverty or what we call “near poverty.” That’s 100 million people. This should be a crisis of epic proportions and our hearts should ache that a country of such wealth could have so many experiencing such suffering.
The truth is, my generation is handing a mess to young people. We got complacent. Impervious. Desensitized. Numb. The reasons why are complicated, but I believe that a big part of it was that we didn’t take a step back to truly assess and then decide in the most uncompromising way, definitively, to not just separate but sever ourselves from that which we know is wrong. In a society that operates in triple time and consumes soundbites and video-bites like they’re m and m’s, we just forgot to stop and pay attention to the mess.
We must change. Really change.
There is no shortage of issues we can point to.
In our field alone, we struggle with teacher pay, bullying, overcrowded classrooms and funding. In a country where we can’t agree to restrict access to guns, we end up putting metal detectors and actual police in our schools; we can’t agree to restrict guns! So we schedule drills to protect kids in the event of an active shooter. We grapple with the abuses of privilege, with the admissions scandal, and wonder if an adversity score will help address the monstrous challenges of access and equity in higher education.
These issues directly affecting our work in education are not the only ones we must focus on. The inequities all around us — in our world at large — affect how we teach, how we set policy, how we make administrative decisions and how we support the healthy development of young people.
We are living in the most diverse United States in our history. Non-Hispanic Whites will no longer be the majority in the next few decades. This is already the case in our biggest cities. And yet we don’t see that diversity reflected in leadership positions in the workforce.
How is it that today, in 2019, the United States Senate is 90 percent white and just 25 percent women? These are our representatives. Eighty-three percent of the presidents of four-year colleges are white. Only 30 percent are women. And education is a field dominated by women! Of the 500 people who are CEOs of our biggest companies, less than 5 percent are women.
I once went to a CEO conference. I was sitting in a session and the leader asked us to go around the table and introduce ourselves. I was the only woman there. They passed the microphone. The mic came around to the man next to me on my right. He introduced himself and then passed the mic — around me — to the man sitting on my left.
We as a society must change.
We must change so that electing a black president, a woman president, a differently abled president, an openly gay president is nothing special/not radical. Change so that we don’t confuse fearmongering with patriotism, walls with safety, manipulators with leaders.
If distancing, if separating, if severing ourselves from these things is radical, then it is time for us to be radical.
Give yourself perspective.
Static routines and habits are ill-suited for the ever-changing environments we live in and the new challenges they present. We need to find comfort not in what’s routine, or habitual but in the idea of change as opportunity for something better — because it is the idea that we can change that should give us hope.
You are graduating into a world with tremendous challenges. But I know that you already have a higher set of expectations – or you wouldn’t be here. You are going to hold us all accountable. I thank you for that. And, frankly, that gives me hope.
You are a talented, sparkling group of individuals who has now benefited from having met one another, and from having studied with Bob Peterkin and Nancy Hill, with Eleanor Duckworth and Josephine Kim, with Roberto Gonsalez and Dick Elmore. The list of good brains here is long. For me it made an enormous difference.
Gary Orfield taught me about how to think in current times about integration and civil rights. Derek Bok helped me define merit as much more than a test score and to stand up to anti-affirmative action rhetoric. Judy McLaughlin helped me think about leadership in education and how college and university presidents can most effectively do their jobs. I constantly refer to Jim Honan’s lectures and materials on organizational structure and nonprofit management. Julie Reuben gave me the background to understand how student engagement and student protests over history have influenced where we are today and what is possible for tomorrow.
We are students of education. Now, what we do with that is what matters most. We need inspired leadership and bravery. We are now all out there together. And we must do what’s right.
From now on, you will all be part of one another’s network. Today or tomorrow or ten years from tomorrow, you can pick up the phone and contact anyone of the people who graduated from this special place and they will take your call. That’s pretty powerful.
It sometimes feels impossible to know how to make a difference. You need to care. You need to vote. You need do what feels radical sometimes. And that might mean standing up for just one person who is marginalized, victimized, or underrepresented.
I’ll tell you one story about something you can do that, if each and every one of you does this, can change the world.
You need to become a table pounder.
Not that long ago I was in a room with 50 Posse alumni and the recent, former CEO of Deloitte, Cathy Englebert. One Posse alumna raised her hand and asked Cathy, you’re a woman, how did you get to be CEO? Cathy said, I’ll tell you how. You have to work hard. You have to find the right mentors. And there has to be someone who will pound the table for you. Let me tell you what I mean by that. I worked hard. I found good mentors. But there was also an executive who, when the door was closed, would pound the table and say, “Have you thought about Cathy?” “Have you considered Cathy?” Cathy is someone to think about … Cathy, Cathy, Cathy. And Cathy became the CEO of her company.
You should all work hard and find mentors.
Maybe there was someone who pounded the table for you. But each of you, with this HGSE degree in your hand, and this incredible network around you, can pound the table for someone else.
If each of you becomes a table pounder for someone else — for just one person — that will make all the difference. We are in a field that gives us a kind of power — a power to influence how people understand the world. We can help young people see the absurdities of bigotry and we can inspire them to lead differently when they grow up. They can and should be leaders who understand that they are better, stronger, more effective when they consider race and gender, class and privilege in every single decision that gets made — from hiring, to project assignments. It all matters.
We must fight for that which we believe to be fair and just. And that means, we must fight for one another.
You must challenge yourself to never feel too comfortable. You must sit on the edge of that seat. Ready to stand up for someone else. Ready to take a leap yourself.
It might cause a little anxiety. But you are the person, the people to do it. And together you represent an army. With the power of your convictions, the ability to stand back and assess, and then to act decisively, you can change the world.