Activism for a New World

Commencement Address
California State University at Monterey Bay

19 May 2000
Brenda Laurel

I've done a lot of public speaking in my career, but I've only given talks at two graduations. They were both my own - from high school in 1968 and from college in 1972. Forgive me for being personal, but I have to speak from my own experience.

I went to an all-white suburban high school in Indianapolis. All hell was been breaking loose in Southeast Asia, but in the Indiana burbs, it was still Pleasantville. None of our classmates had gone to Vietnam yet, and the war was not a topic of dinner conversation. Unpleasant thoughts were not expressed. So in 1968, instead of speaking about the war at graduation as any self-respecting 60s liberal would have done, I gave what seemed to me as a very enlightened talk about the poetry of Kahlil Gibran. Sweet.

My college speech four years later wasn't so sweet. The campus boiled with political conflict over the war, student's rights, and civil rights. Out of a student body of 1200, there were exactly nine Black students that year. I worked with African-American Student Union to propose a new admissions program. I knocked on the doors of Hoosier farmers and housewives to talk about ending the war. I had more than one shotgun pointed at me. Rowdy boys shouting antiwar slogans were shot in the knees by local cops. The philosophy department taught an unauthorized course in cultural revolution. The student senate voted to boycott grapes. Anti-war agit-prop was performed on campus green. The ROTC building was torched.

The "authorities" retaliated with a crack-down on "liberalism." They gelded the student government and "let go" of literally every non-tenured liberal faculty member. Their excuse was that the money from those faculty salaries was needed to upgrade the campus street-lights.

At graduation, I talked about the political war that was going on inside my University and how it reflected the political war that was going on in our society as a whole. I broke the rules; I expressed unpleasant thoughts. I questioned authority and called for a new vision of community. The students cheered. The faculty broke ranks. The dean refused to hand me my diploma. My mother cried.

Fast-forward 28 years. Now imagine, if you will, how CSUMB looks to me. You are impossible, but here you are.

In 1972, authoritative white men sneered that ideas like those in CSUMB's vision statement were dope-smoking daydreams. A university devoted to diversity, committed to establishing a multicultural, multilingual community. A student- and society-centered curriculum. A mission, not to silence diverse voices, but to amplify them - through cultural respect, technological mastery, social responsibility, and community service. In other words, a university that would prepare students to be effective activists.

Impossible. But here you are. Here we are.

Regardless of how each of us may fall short, you need to know that from where I sit, your goals and your energy and your successes here are an incandescent source of hope in this dark new millennium.

The world has changed. In many ways, as you know, it's not for the better. Violence and greed are trashing economies and destroying lives on every continent. Values and traditions are winking out like endangered species. Landscapes fall to industrial farms and clear-cut logging and big-box stores and lovely new homesites. Icebergs the size of Delaware are breaking off in Antarctica while the empire of greed steadfastly refuses to let concerns over global warming get in the way of "economic development." Our hot dot- economy has put conscience on hold in the name of a consumerist rampage that burns out of control like the fifty-thousand-acre fire in Los Alamos, devouring everything in its path. America is better at training its children to be good consumers than to be good citizens. A bright young activist doesn't have to look very far to find something to work on.

But just as the world has changed, activism has to change. You who are graduating today have an unprecedented opportunity to redefine how it is done.

Now I'm going to do what you were probably hoping I wouldn't, and that is to give you some advice. I really can't help it. I'm almost fifty, and you're not. Well, most of you aren't. And it IS a graduation address. So here my advice.

Don't whine.

Don't marginalize yourself. This is activist error number one. You are not an outsider. You are not prowling around the edges of society. You are at the center. You are America's heart and its conscience and its hands. You have a moral duty and a legitimate voice.

Be a good communicator. Muddy messaging is activist error number two. What were people thinking at the IMF and World Bank protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C.? Yes, the press reported riots instead of rhetoric. But part of the reason for that is that the activists involved failed to put out a clear message. You have the skills and tools to do that, broadly and relentlessly. Use the force of the internet. Be clear and publish.

Change things from the inside when you can. Engage in the culture you are trying to shape. It's easy to criticize from the outside, but if you want to make a difference, you can't stay on the sidelines. Sometimes you've got to mud-wrestle. If you think you know what an ethical business is, make one. If you think you know what a good government is, get yourself elected. If you think you can make mind-changing art, don't just show it in an obscure alternative gallery - put it in front of a million people. Somebody makes popular culture. It might as well be you.

Live what you believe. Henry David Thoreau put it this way: "Cast your whole vote: not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence." This means not just who you vote for, but also what you buy, what you eat, where you live, how you raise your children, what you put your hand to. New technologies make it feasible to demand accountability from everyone you deal with. Protect this new power and grow it, and make use of it in the way you conduct every aspect of your life.

Be to ready to "get some on you." Standing for something is messy. A lot of you have spent the last sixteen years focused on getting good grades and trying to make your family proud. But activists work for change, and change is always unpopular with somebody. Sometimes activists get beat up, sometimes they go to jail, sometimes they die. Sometimes they make their momma cry. I hope you won't have to do any of these things. But somebody someday somewhere is going to get mad at you for what you believe. Accept it and know that you are doing your best.

That brings me to the most important thing of all. You've gotten your last report card. The rest of your life will not offer you simple external measures of your worth. It's time to bring your judgment of yourself inside your own heart. Speak from your own experience. Honor your own voice. Be your own moral compass. Know your power.

We are all so very proud of you. But today, right here, right now, the most important thing is for you to be proud of yourself. Today, you become the future. Step up and take the torch.

We bless you on your way.

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