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Published:

May 22, 2016
 
Tagged: Commencement

Marian Wright Edelman 2016 Commencement Speech

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I’m going to be short and to the point.

I am delighted and honored to be here with your trustees, with your president, with your faculty and administration, with all of your students. But most importantly with what I am sure is the best graduating class of Adelphi in your history!

An anonymous sage once said that everything you need to know in life you can learn from Noah’s Ark, and lesson one is don’t miss the boat! And the United States is going to miss the boat to lead and compete in our globalizing world because we are not preparing a majority of all of our children and all of our races, and particularly non white and poor children for the future.

The greatest threat to America’s national and economic security does not rest from any external enemy. It’s our failure to invest in healthy, educated children who have to become our future workforce in this country! And yet every day, every day, every nine seconds of every school day a child drops out of school. Every 34 seconds a baby is born into poverty. It’s disgraceful that children are the poorest age group in America. A majority of all children and 80% of our non white, our black and Latino children. 81% of black children, and 80% of Hispanic children cannot read or compute at grade level in fourth or eighth grade. And we know what the drop out rates are. What is a child going to do in this globalizing, competitive economy if they cannot read or write? This is our great security danger. And we’ve got to stand up and do something. Any nation that fails to prepare most of its children for productive work in life must correct course now. And all of us must be a part of the solution as parents and educators, community, business, faith, and political leaders. We have got to have a new movement. And it has to be about giving every child a healthy and safe and educated passage to adulthood.

We have a policy in this country that seems to favor incarceration over education. States are spending on average three times more per prisoner than public pupil. That’s about the dumbest investment policy we could make.

And I hope that everybody here will determine that we’re going to reverse those absolutely wrong headed priorities. The second lesson from Noah’s Ark is that we are all in the same boat. We may not like or think we have any self interest in assuring a fair playing field for other people’s children, especially poor and non white children, but they’re going to whether we like it or not constitute a majority of our child population in the future, in a very few years. They’re already in our early ages, in our early childhood years. Isn’t it better to have them supporting strong Social Security and Medicare systems for all of us getting older? And ensuring a competitive and productive workforce? And for us to be supporting them in ineffective prisons and in dependency systems? We’ve got to change course, because we are all in the same boat.

The third lesson is to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. I’m sure many people thought he was crazy. But we have to recognize that tomorrow is today. And children only have one childhood, and providing all of them a good start should be the top priority of any sensible and caring nation. You cannot build a strong house without a strong foundation. And I hope that every one of you are going to join us in making it absolutely essential that every political leader invest in a high quality early childhood system to get every child ready for school. It will save money, and it will provide all of us the basis for educated children that we need.

The fourth lesson from Noah’s Ark is don’t pay any attention for critics and naysayers. Anybody can talk about why something can’t be done. Just get on with what needs to be done. To educate and prepare our children for the future. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say anything, don’t do anything, and don’t be anything. But you won’t build a strong nation and a strong family that way.

The fifth lesson for goodness’ sake is recognize that lone individuals don’t get a lot done. Noah said travel in pairs. I say we got to travel in bigger than pairs, in communities. We got to learn how to work together and break down our silos and to remember it’s not about us. It’s about something that’s far bigger than us.

And my favorite, and I’m not giving you all the lessons, is remember that the ark was building by amateurs. And that the Titanic was built by professionals. We are looking for people from the top of government, from corporations to come in and solve our problems. That’s not the way movements happen! That’s not the way transformation happens! And we need a new movement now with a sense of urgency. When one corporate executive can make more in one year than oh my goodness. The numbers are so shocking, I never get used to them. Than 5900. It may be 5700. Or 59 in my head. Childcare workers can make in a year. Something is wrong with that picture. And we have to reverse the undefensible wealth and income inequality and put some of that money in our children. I don’t begrudge anybody their first or second or third million if we have no hungry children, if we have no uneducated children, and if we are not making sure that every child is educated. We have got to get our priorities straight in America, and we have got to build that movement together. And we can’t wait around for somebody else to do it. A lot of people think and say oh my goodness, I hope we’re going to see that next Dr. King pretty soon. Dr. King is not coming back. We keep looking for one individual to come and save us. Movements aren’t started by single individuals. They bubble up over time from lots of seeds. Dr. King never started a single movement. He responded to the impulses and the cries and the actions of local people who just got sick of the way things were going in the South.

Mrs. Parks wasn’t an accident. People in Montgomery were waiting for a long time to challenge the unjust discrimination in the Montgomery buses. There was a woman named Joann Robinson, whom I hope you’ll hear about. Our Freedom School children know about her and all the other local people that are unheard of, but who have been the grist of movement building. But she was the one. Dr. King was out of town. The lawyers were out of town. But when Mrs. Parks sat down one day and she hadn’t planned to do it. She ran off those memorygraph machine papers and told and called the boycott. It’s ordinary people of grace who get mad and one day say they have enough and get out there and do it. And Dr. King could encapsulate our dreams, but he didn’t start movements. He could embody them.

And it’s time for all of us to begin to take responsibility for building that next movement that we have got to have to end the violence of child poverty. To end the violence of gun violence, which is taking a child’s life and injuring a child every half hour. It’s crazy that will we are having our children unable to walk down the streets or go to school and not be safe. Let’s stand up and just say we’re not going to have it anymore. And let’s determine that we’re going to use our votes and our voices to do it. And not wait around for politicians or somebody from the top to tell us what to do to transform America and to build a nation that’s fit for our children. Let me just end with my two role models, because it’s hard work trying to change things for voteless, voiceless children, which is why I always come to beg people’s help. It’s you who is the key.

And every day I think I’m having a bad day or the congress is cutting something they should not be cutting, I think about the two ladies I wear around my neck. They were two illiterate slave women:  Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. And Harriet Tubman could not read. Both of them were illiterate women, but they were brilliant. And Harriet Tubman couldn’t read or write, but she could read the North star and find her way to freedom. But what was more important about Harriet Tubman is when she got to freedom and got her good degree and her good job, she remembered that there were other people who had not. She went back countless times to brings others with her. She boasted that she never lost a passage on her Underground railroad. I don’t know any airline that could make that kind of claim. But she used the gifts to achieve freedom for lots of people. And I’m delighted that she’s been voted now to be on our currency.

The second role model is Sojourner Truth who could not stand second class treatment for either women or for blacks. She was the first person to sue to get her child back while she was in slavery. But my favorite Sojourner story came one day, which I think about because we all know we have to have big differences in our country. We have to transform our priorities and make sure that we hand down a world better than we inherited. But my occurrence with Sojourner occurred one day when she was speaking out against slavery and an old white man stood up in the audience and heckled her. And said old slave woman, I don’t care anymore about your anti slavery talk than for an old flea bite. She said that’s all right. The lord willing, I’m going to keep you scratching. Most of us want to make differences. What we all need to do is to be strategic fleas that bite. Even the biggest dog is moved by enough fleas working on him. So I just hope that what you will remember here as you go out is we are going to build a movement by being fleas for justice, by really biting for children and people mistreating them. And we can end gun violence. And we can end child poverty. And I will just assume you will bite with your votes and don’t you vote for anybody that does not vote for children. And so let’s get out there and build that movement. God bless you as you go out to change the world!

 
Tagged: Commencement
 
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