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Commencement Speeches 2021

[Jim Bruce, today’s author, is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim can be reached at [email protected].]
In every year, except for this and last year, I can remember that near the end of May and continuing into early June, a flurry of ritual activity began at most of this country’s educational institutions as they prepared to celebrate their annual graduation exercises. One of the key features of these celebrations is a featured speaker who offers nuggets of wisdom they hope will be helpful to graduates as they embark on the next stage of their life’s journey, no matter where that journey may lead.
If there is a theme to this year’s commencement addresses, it is that while this year’s class, and the world for that matter, has been dealt a really raw deal, the world must expect this class of graduates, and by inference all of us, to step up to the challenges of these real issues. Graduates are called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, energy and hope than ever before. The quotations that follow, are a set of “golden nuggets” that should be helpful as we each take stock of where we are on our own journey and look forward.
Ruth Simmons gave Harvard University’s principal Commencement address this year. Dr. Simmons, the president of Prairie View University (and former president of both Smith College and Brown University), drew on the story of her segregated upbringing in Houston and called on Harvard and its graduates “to be a force for inclusion.” She said, “I call on all of you to declare that you will not give sanction to discriminatory actions that hold some groups back to the advantage of others, …  I call on you to be a force for inclusion by not choosing enclaves of wealth, privilege, and tribalism such that you abandon the lessons you learned from your Harvard experience of diversity…  Will your actions point us in a more uplifting direction? … For, just as we recount the moral bankruptcy of those who cruelly enslaved others, we also tell the story of those who were equally guilty because they refused to challenge the practice of slavery… Will your actions point us in a more uplifting direction?”
Towards the end of her speech, Simmons asked graduates what they “are prepared to do to acknowledge and address the historic biases and inequities that so many continue to experience… Just as I ask Harvard to use its voice on behalf of minority institutions that have been unfairly treated across time, I ask you to add your voice to the cause of justice wherever you go.”
John Legend, singer, actor, producer and philanthropist, speaking at the Duke University Commencement, told graduates that “Your class lost a lot: some lost job offers, some lost loved ones, and all of you lost a whole year of those little moments that make college so special. I feel your pain. You’ve lost something that you won’t get back. I won’t sugarcoat that. It sucks.”
 “The fact that you’re here today, graduates of one of the world’s greatest universities means that you’ve had to approach life with a certain competitiveness… But over the past year, you were forced to pause, to see yourselves not just in competition with one another, but in community with each other. Anyone getting sick was a risk to everyone. We all had to slow down, social distance, cover our faces, stop filling our days with maximum productivity and simply keep each other safe, keep each other alive, care for one another. And this perspective you gained will serve us all, because while that competitive drive that got you here can be an incredible gift, it can get in the way, too.”
“America’s story has always been marred by efforts to exclude, to dominate, to subjugate, to keep certain groups of people with no voice, no power and no opportunity — workers, women, indigenous people, Black people, immigrants, the LGBTQ community. All because of a fear that if those people did better, somebody else would have to lose,” he said. “But the miracle of our story is that as we expanded opportunity, in our best moments, we proved that those fears were unfounded. When more people made more money, rich business owners didn’t suffer, they got more customers. Prosperity increased for everybody.”
Christina Paxson, President of Brown University noted early in her remarks that “it feels inappropriate to do the predictable thing in a year that was anything but predictable.  … This was a year when all of the scripts that we use to guide our lives just … flew out the window… The truth is, it’s frightening when we don’t have a script — when our world shifts unexpectedly and all of the usual patterns and ways of doing things are upended. When this happens, it’s natural to want to go back to what’s familiar and safe. It’s normal to yearn for ’normal.’”
“Over the past 14 months you have lived with incredible uncertainty—not only about how the pandemic would play out, but also about basic aspects of your daily lives: Where you’d be living, how you’d be learning, and how to ensure the safety of your families.”
“And so, without a script, you adapted. You shifted your perspectives… I’m so impressed by how you have navigated the past 14 months. You had to abruptly leave campus last March and shift to remote courses, and you continued to learn. You supported your friends. You followed new public health rules to keep our community … safe. You advocated for what you needed. You stood up for equity and justice.”
“And, without a script to follow, you’ve been forced to know yourself better, understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and hone your values. When you’ve had to make decisions with little information to go on, instead of asking yourself, ‘What am I expected to do,’ you’ve had to ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”
“This is far from the last time you’ll be uncomfortable. You will face uncertainty in the future… The truth is that, in the decades ahead, you will continuously write and rewrite the scripts of your own lives. And it’s important to remember that this is yours and yours alone to do. Never let anyone impose a plan on you that’s not of your own making. Never let some pre-conceived notion of what you are expected to do drive your decisions.”
“And you’ve got this! You are so well-prepared to write your own scripts, in the most glorious way possible … you’ve learned how to learn … you’ve further honed the qualities of character and compassion that will serve you so well in the future.”
“I can say with confidence that you are ready to graduate and take on the world.”
Bryan Stevenson ‑ Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer acclaimed for his work confronting bias against the poor and people of color in the U.S., delivered the address for MIT’s 2021 Commencement. Early in his remarks he said, “I want to talk about what is in your heart, because I’m persuaded that what’s in your heart is the necessary thing to change the world.”
“You should not underestimate the power you have to affirm the dignity and the humanity of every human being… Just as in science, the way you make progress, the way you make breakthroughs, is by understanding in an intimate way the nature of the problem… Pointing to the looming problems we face from affirming the dignity and humanity of every living person to those such as climate change and food insecurity, he said “there’s fear, there’s division — and I believe we can make a difference. I believe we have an obligation to not just celebrate the education we’ve received, but to commit to changing the world.”
He urged graduates to “get proximate to those who suffer. Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, the neglected, the marginalized.” When we do this “we hear things we won’t otherwise hear, we see things we won’t otherwise see” Proximity is essential if we are going to change the world.
“You should not underestimate the power you have to affirm the dignity and humanity of every human being. … If we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger, we’ll tolerate things we should never tolerate, we’ll accept things we should never accept.”
So, here you have a small sampling of four of the over 4,000 commencement speeches given at this year’s degree granting institutions in the U.S. Ruth Simmons called us each to add our voice to the cause of justice wherever you go. John Legend called us to see yourselves not just in competition with one another, but in community with each other. In that community there is expanded opportunity for all. Christina Paxton told us that we learned how to live and function without a script and that has forced us to know ourselves better, to understand our own strengths and weaknesses, and to hone our values. And, Bryan Stevenson has encouraged us to get proximate to the marginalized noting that when we do “we hear things we won’t otherwise hear, we see things we won’t otherwise see” and “we honor all of the hope, all of that vision that has led so many of you here. And, I want to celebrate that and encourage you to do exactly what your heart tells you, you must do to change the world. “
Let me encourage each of you reading this essay to stop for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a graduate, and examine which of these challenges is something you should face today.
I do hope that you will make it a good week for you and your team.  .  .  jim