Geoffrey Canada's commencement address

Before I go into my prepared remarks, let me just say how happy I am to be here. I will tell you, there is nothing that would have stopped me from addressing this commencement today. So President Lawrence, trustees, faculty, parents and loved ones — I am thrilled to be here today, but I must tell you that my message today is not for you. It is for the Class of 2014.  

Today, you are graduating from one of the most prestigious institutions in this country — that has a reputation so stellar that just by saying you have a degree from Brandeis, people will think you are really smart. And if by some reason you manage to get through here and you are not really smart, please keep that hidden from the public. Your classmates and alma mater will appreciate it.

Thirty-nine years ago, I received my graduate degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and I remember it like yesterday. Armed with that degree that certified to the world how brilliant I was, I couldn’t wait to demonstrate to all who had the misfortune of coming in contact with me how talented I was. My peers were not impressed. I was young and I was convinced that my generation would make this country a better nation than my parents’ generation. I wanted the top spot, and the top spot was held by my mother’s generation. They were called The Greatest Generation. They ended World War II, they defeated the Nazis, they ended the Holocaust and launched the Industrial Revolution. I was determined that my generation would do better. You see, I have always been deeply moved by the sacrifices that others have made to make our country the greatest nation on Earth.

Now, I love the ideal of America, even while grappling with it in perfect reality. I knew right out of college what many people still don’t understand: you don’t become a great nation without individuals making huge and heroic sacrifices. Our country was created, molded and formed by people — men and women — whose moral compass was not moved by the influence of wealth, prestige and notoriety. They believed that America stood as a beacon for the entire world on what true freedom, true democracy, really meant. These leaders became my role models, and I sought them out for inspiration. And I made a promise to myself that I would be like them: I would challenge America to become a better place for its children.

In 1975, when I graduated, it was evident to me that America needed to become a better place. Growing up in the South Bronx in the ’50s, I lived in — I got some homies out there from the South Bronx? Sorry, I didn’t mean to go there for a second. But I saw firsthand what can happen when people are desperately poor: not just financially poor, but poor in spirit and without hope. I saw the crime, the violence, the filth, the drugs, and I made a promise that if God allowed me to escape from that place, I would bring to an end this sad tale of children growing up in places that most Americans wouldn’t be caught dead in.

My first role model which called me to a life of service was Rosa Parks. Her story, known by all, inspired a poor boy to believe that an individual, courageous act could change the world. And the world I grew up in needed changing. While I was still in elementary school, President John F. Kennedy, at his inauguration, challenged our nation to ask not what your nation could do for you, but what you could do for your country. As a young boy, he meant so much to me. He stood up for civil rights, he challenged segregation and Jim Crow: He knew it was an evil practice that, if left unchecked, would destroy America. He sacrificed his life for our country. He was assassinated in 1963, when I was in the sixth grade. His brother, Bobby Kennedy, picked up his mantle. He forced America to see the impact of poverty and continued to challenge the prejudice and racism of this country. Bobby Kennedy knew that his life was in danger, because of the ideals that he stood up for. But he was a great American, and he did what was right. They assassinated him in 1968. The same year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was in the tenth grade.

So just imagine what I was experiencing. I’m in high school, and Americans are going to jail, being cursed and beaten, being killed so that one day I might get a good education, live in a decent home, have a decent job. People with everything to lose — money, fame, loving families — lost it all for the ideals that this country stood for.

Who could not feel obligated to continue their work? To ensure their deaths would not be in vain?

With these men and women as role models, you can see why I felt compelled to make this country a better place. The promise I made as a teen, that I would get a great education and come back to rescue the children trapped in our urban ghettos, is something that I took seriously. And I’ve spent my life trying to keep that promise.

And this is something I want you to really understand. I could never have created the Harlem Children’s Zone by myself. My partner in this is a businessman, Stanley Druckenmiller, and Stan and I have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from other great Americans, from foundations, from businesses in this country. Too often, we think that we can accomplish great things as individuals, but it takes our entire community to do what’s necessary in this country.

I would love to say to you that my generation has accomplished my dream of being a better generation than my parents. Alas, we have not. While my generation has done real good and made real progress, we have also left you a mess. We denied climate change until we have damaged our world environment. We have child poverty rates that are staggering, with more than 16 million children being poor in America. Thirty-eight percent of all black children are poor in this country. And over 46 million Americans are on food stamps. Children who are poor in this country still cannot get a quality education, and their chances of graduating from a prestigious institution like Brandeis is compromised by the lousy education so many poor children get.  Our country has locked up more people per capita than any place on the face of the Earth. If that wasn’t bad enough, when you look at the leadership in this country, you see politicians so indebted to special interests that even the death of 20 five- and six-year-olds in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut couldn’t convince our Congress to pass even really weak handgun legislation.

So I wish I could stand before you today and say that my generation is leaving you a country that is better than the one we inherited from our parents. It’s not like we haven’t done any good: We eradicated polio, created technology that’s revolutionary. We’ve improved civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights. But we haven’t kept my promise to eliminate those places where our children don’t have a chance. America’s children are more in peril than ever.

But I am not worried about my promise, because let me tell you one other thing that my role models taught me: the best of America is yet to come. The work we don’t complete that attempts to make this a better country — the next generation finishes it.  

In 1900, when Susan B. Anthony, another one of my role models, who courageously fought to end slavery and then worked very hard to lead the women’s suffrage movement, was asked when women would get the right to vote. She said, “It will come, but I shall not see it. It’s inevitable. We can no more deny forever the right of self-government to one-half of our people than we could keep the Negro forever in bondage. It will not be wrought by the same disrupting forces that freed the slave, but come it will, and, I believe, within a generation.” Fourteen years after her death, the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed.

People believe Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was his greatest. I don’t agree. I always was the most moved by the speech Doctor King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, right before he was assassinated. The speech was later called “The Mountaintop Speech.” In that speech, Dr. King confirmed what I believe today: The work of making this country better is often started by someone but left to others to complete. In that speech, Dr. King said: “And then I got into Memphis, and some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out — what would happen to me from some of my sick white brothers. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I have been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I have looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you, but I know tonight, we as a people will get to the Promised Land. I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

They assassinated Dr. King the next morning at the Lorraine Motel.

We named our school “Promise Academy” because I promised our children and parents that I would fulfill Dr. King’s dream. I promised that we would be there from birth through college. My problem today is that my 12,000 children actually believe me.  You see, to my children, I am eight feet tall and a superstar.  My children know I must be a star because I’ve been on Oprah, many times. When I walk around my schools, my children point and yell with enthusiasm, “It’s Mr. Canada! It’s Mr. Canada!” They want to shake my hand or give me a hug. It’s really the cutest thing. My children love me, and I love them. By saving these children, I hope I can set an example to America about how to save all children.

There’s one problem, though: I’m 62. My seven-year-olds think I will be there when they graduate high school and they sit here, like you, graduating from prestigious colleges and graduate schools. But I will not. My time is coming to an end. After 31 years, I’m retiring this June. Others will finish this work.  Someone else will have to pick up the mantle and say, “No matter what I end up doing as a career — if I’m a doctor or a lawyer or a businesswoman or businessman — I will make sure I leave my country a better place than was left to me.” I promised my kids that we would do that. Now I need for you to promise me.

You see, I’ve had a great career: Today I have more recognition than I am comfortable with. I have celebrity friends and get A-list invitations. It’s quite a distraction — but a distraction, nevertheless. I keep my eyes on the prize: that Promised Land for my children that is America’s future.

My time is running out, and there is so much to do. I’m at a place now where that famous poem by Robert Frost takes on new meaning: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  

Fifteen years from now, when I’m puttering around my garden and playing with my grandchildren, I know I will be constantly smiling, and I know my wife, who knows how serious I am about all things, will say to me, “Well, why are you so happy?” And I’ll say, “Because I know my children will be saved.” And she’ll say, “But how do you know that? You haven’t been to work in years.” And I’ll say, “Because those kids were so smart. They were so talented. They’re the best we have. And they promised.  They could do anything they wanted with their lives: They graduated from Brandeis University, and they promised. My promise to my kids will be kept. I know it.” And I’ll look at my wife, Yvonne, and I’ll say, “I think they might be the greatest generation yet.”

God bless and Godspeed the Class of 2014. God bless you.

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