Deborah Bial's commencement address: You are where our hope lies

Founder of Posse Foundation tells graduates the responsibility to create change lies with them

Hi. This is a great day — and for me, unbelievably emotional as well, really emotional. And my parents are here. The last time that they were here was at my graduation 25 years ago, so that's even more special. I need glasses now. It’s 25 years later.

Thank you President Lawrence, Chairman Sherman, the Brandeis Board of Trustees, the faculty and the graduating class of 2012. Congratulations everybody! And a special congratulations to this year’s Posse graduates, the eleventh liberal arts Posse, and the first Science Posse – I’m so proud of you guys.

This is a moment.

It’s a true honor to share today with you, my fellow honorary degree recipients. I’m just going to take a moment because I want to tell you I was actually worried for a second.  You see, my father, played bassoon for the New York Philharmonic for 38 years. And then I found out that another honorary degree recipient today, Joe Polisi, over here, his father also played bassoon for the New York Philharmonic. They both played bassoon for the New York Philharmonic?! Don’t you think that’s odd? And for a split second I thought — is President Lawrence trying to introduce me to a brother I never knew I had?

I know, just a coincidence.

In all seriousness, it is pretty exciting to be here, 25 years later. You’re sitting where I was sitting and I know how it feels and it is a great moment.

Philip Gallagher, he's a sophomore here at Brandeis, I don't know if any  of you know him, but he recently wrote a story for The Justice. He was talking about this year’s commencement speaker, me. I think a few people here were hoping for Jon Stewart. But Phillip really stood up for me. He really got behind me and I want to thank him. He said that while Debbie Bial is no Jon Stewart -- he mentioned that she's not famous, and he pointed out I wouldn’t be funny and he said I probably wouldn't get big applause — he did mention that I would be reflective.

I know, the pressure, the pressure.

Debbie Banks, Deirdre Abrams -- this is going to make me cry -- Adam Bodner, Hillel Norry. You don’t know these names but they were my friends when I was here at Brandeis. They sat in the seats with me just as you’re sitting here now with Megan McGrath, Melissa Dones, Usman Hameedi, Yakov Israel.

I know. It’s a great feeling — I’m living vicariously through you — I don’t know if you can tell. 

When I was here I lived in a triple in Sheffries — in North.  And then I lived in the Castle. On the top floor. It was like 57 steps up to the top of that turret. Nobody visited me. My friend Debbie lived in East and Deirdre lived in Massell. It’s weird that 25 years have gone by but all these places are all still here. It’s comforting somehow. It's good.

Do you still have the "Screw Your Roommate" dance? Uh-oh. I heard now you have the “less you wear dance.” Or the Liquid Latex dance or dance your clothes off dance.  I won’t even ask what that’s all about. I don’t want to know. I think you now call Bronstein weekend, “Louis Palooza.”  And Chumley’s is now just Chums.

I know a lot has changed. The year I enrolled they were still passing out joints at the dances in Levin ballroom. I’m totally serious. I know they don’t do that anymore.

You’re going to remember so much about Brandeis, studying in what you call now the Green Room; it was Goldfarb for me. Hanging out at the SCC or the Intercultural Center. A Brandeis education is the best you can get.  I've appreciated the quality of the education here and the caliber of the faculty in a way that I can’t begin to express. It would take too long. But you're going to remember your professors, your favorite professors, for the rest of your life, guaranteed.

There’s something just really special about this Brandeis experience and I hope you treasure it forever.
It’s an uncertain world out there. I don’t know what you are going to do next. I’m sure some of you don’t have a clue yet.  I didn’t have a clue. But that’s okay.

Rutgers just came out with a study that said that of all recent college graduates only half are working full time and fewer than half are in jobs that require a college degree.  That’s scary. And the reason is there just aren’t that many jobs out here.  It is worse than I think a lot of people realize. 

Brandeis began as a radical place — built with a deliberate focus on social justice. You had amazing people involved with the beginnings of this great institution. Albert Einstein, Abram Sachar, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein. And from what I understand of this class, you are going to carry that tradition on. There’s some magic in the air and it’s all about you.

We are a nation built on the dreams of people who followed their heart or fought for what’s right or strived for excellence.  Martin Luther King, the Little Rock Nine, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gloria Steinem. People who took a stand for something. 

We can’t deny that the United States has made great progress in terms of Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. This is, in fact, a historic time. 

We have the first African American President of the United States of America. That deserves a moment. 

But the progress that we've made has been too slow. This country is forgetting its way. Where are the leaders?  Whose passion and commitment and intelligence and insight are inspiring you to act or to care or to fight?  The issues are right in front of us, they’re stark, obvious, maybe even mocking.  If the issues could speak they might say, “How far can we push them before they do something?”  Pretty far, it seems. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Did you know that by the year 2050 — when you will be 70 years old — the American population will have increased by close to 130 million people? That’s over 400 million people who will live here, right here in the United States.  By that time, whites will no longer be the majority.  In fact, you may have seen in the New York Times the Census Bureau just made it official, white births are now in the minority in this country.

I’m guessing you know that the fastest growing population in the US is the Latino population, yet they have the lowest college going and completion rates.

Today blacks and Latinos make up about 30 percent of the population, but they represent only about 12 percent of the student body at our top colleges and universities – schools like Brandeis.

To be frank, we are not thinking about, or preparing nearly enough, for the future.

Did you know, if you took a moment, that 97 percent of the United States Senate is white? Why? Why? It’s the year 2012.

We’re still engaged in war with Afghanistan. Why?  Do you know why? We’ve been in wars for more than 10 years and we now have close to 2.5 million veterans just from Iraq and Afghanistan living here in this country.  Many of them are missing limbs, they have post-traumatic stress disorder.  Seventeen percent of them are unemployed – that’s more than double the national average.

You may have read that the richest 10 percent of Americans control more than 90 percent of this country’s wealth.

Come on.

Women still earn less than men — 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.  And that number is even less for African American women and Latinas.  Why?

Did you know that 50 million people in this country are poor?  And another 50 million are what we call “near poor.”  That’s nearly one third of the American population.  One third! We should be ashamed of ourselves. 

And one out of every three black children lives in poverty in the United States.  Why?

Americans make up just five percent of the world’s population but we consume almost 30 percent of its resources.  And some estimates show that every individual American will produce about 100,000 pounds of garbage by the time she’s 75 years old.  

Our system of government sometimes seems so broken that we seem incapable of effectively addressing any of these challenges.

Whatever we’re talking about, our collective experience is being affected everyday — and I heard some of your saying it — by racism, bias, misogyny, greed, phobia.

These are the just some of the challenges that face you. And how did it happen? Well, the people who have come before you, we made a mess of things. 

The responsibility to do something now lies with you,  whether it’s fair or not. 

We can’t let ourselves become part of a system that promotes stratification and exclusion. We have to figure out a way to be a national community, to revive this country’s core value of meritocracy. We all need you.

But I want to show you something.

If you — I’m talking to the graduates— If you have ever felt affected by a challenge related to race or class or gender or religion or even fitting in, RAISE YOUR HAND.

If, during your time at Brandeis, you became involved in a cause, or joined a campus organization to address or discuss or work on a social or political challenge, or traveled to another country to help another community, or wrote a paper on an issue that you feel passionately about, or helped a friend or classmate go through a really hard time, I WANT YOU TO STAND UP.



THIS IS AN ARMY!  You are where our hope lies. Look at the more than 800 of you in this graduating class who care. 

You will become, you have to become, the leaders we so desperately need.

Think about your class. Who's in your class? Who's sitting next to you right now.  There are people in this room today who will find a cure or invent or win office or write history or produce a film that will be entered in the Cannes Film Festival.  There are people in this room who will become CEOs and doctors and lawyers and high school principals.  There are people in this room who will make the world so much better that we will talk about them with our children and our grandchildren. 

These people might be Kristina Yepez or Chang Lu or Herbie Rosen. They might be Amy Eisenberg or Kate Alexander or Ethan Geringer-Sameth. They might be Ipyani Grant.

What are you going to do when you go out there?  You’re going to take the passion that got started here at Brandeis, you're going to take it out to the world and I want you to make it big. 

My hero is here tonight in the room, my husband, Bob Herbert.

But, he’s more cynical than I am even. He says the American Dream is on life support.  But you know what? You are going to prove him wrong.

Today is your rite of passage for all the hard work you put into getting here. People say that we are forgetting how to be in the moment. That we spend all our time texting, and looking down and never seeing what’s going on around us.

Well I think the technology can make us better, more connected, but we all need to prove that technology is not co-opting our ability to develop relationships and pay close attention to what’s happening all around us. 

So just remember: let yourself be with the world.  And when you get ready to walk across this stage to get your diploma, be in the moment.  Pay attention to the weight of your robes, to the stairs you have to climb to get up there, to the moment when that diploma touches your hand.  You will have several thousand people cheering for you. Enjoy it.  This only happens this once.

Thank you.

Categories: Alumni, General, Student Life

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage