Commencement 2021: Bryan Stevenson urges graduates to challenge narratives of hate and fear

Collage. Top: Ron Liebowitz, Bryan Stevenson. Bottom: Image of students tossing caps in air; image of students posing with Brandeis statue; image of student receiving diploma.

Top left: President Ron Liebowitz speaks from Levin Ballroom during Commencement. Top Right: Attorney Bryan Stevenson delivers his keynote speech. Bottom: Members of the Class of 2021 celebrate Commencement.

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Full Commencement 2021 Coverage 

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Watch: Celebrating our 2021 Honorary Degree Recipients

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Jainaba Gaye, MA'21: 'The feeling of unpreparedness should never stop you from taking leaps'

President Liebowitz: 'You've become experts at navigating the ever escalating challenges of this era'

Watch: Brandeis Chamber Singers and University Chorus perform Alma Mater

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The long road to Commencement for 2021 international scholars

Kwesi Jones '21 to deliver undergraduate Commencement speech

Jainaba Gaye, Heller MA'21: Meet the 2021 graduate Commencement speaker

From studying Reconstruction to pursuing racial justice

Brandeis Phi Beta Kappa chapter elects 87 new members

Alert hometown media about your graduation from Brandeis

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Acclaimed public-interest attorney Bryan Stevenson called on the Class of 2021 to combat narratives of fear and hate, avoid indifference, and embrace truth during his keynote speech at Brandeis University’s 70th Commencement Exercises on May 23.

“In too many places, we’ve allowed narratives to emerge that have caused us to be indifferent to injustice … the promise I hope you'll make is that you'll commit yourself to changing narratives that sustain inequality, that sustain injustice, that sustain mistreatment and bigotry,” said Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that combats mass incarceration and represents men and women sentenced to death, and children and adults facing long prison sentences.

Stevenson, a champion of abolishing the death penalty, also founded the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which chronicle the history of slavery, lynching and racial segregation, as well as their links to contemporary issues of mass incarceration and racism. 

His celebrated memoir, “Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption,” examines his experiences with injustice in the American legal system and was made into a film starring Michael B. Jordan in 2019.

For the second consecutive year, Brandeis celebrated its graduating class with a virtual Commencement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The university also organized diploma ceremonies by major to take place virtually from May 21-25 so graduating students could be recognized by their faculty mentors for their academic achiements.

As part of in-person celebrations, graduates also attended "Walk the Stage" in Levin Ballroom on the Brandeis campus from May 4-6. Attendees arrived in full regalia and took photos with a diploma on a decorated Commencement stage, where a senior university administrator congratulated and greeted students.

The live Commencement ceremony on May 23 was also headquartered at Levin Ballroom, with music professor Neil Hampton serving as master of ceremonies.  

Stevenson delivered his Commencement speech from his home in Montgomery, Alabama.

Drawing on the examples of the Holocaust, South African apartheid and the ongoing racial reckoning in America, Stevenson said many societal challenges and inequities around the world are caused by hate and powerful leaders stoking anger.

Citing the disproportionate number of incarcerated Blacks and a reluctance by many to confront the legacies of slavery and the Confederacy, Stevenson called for a more substantive dialogue about racism in the U.S.

“We have to change the narrative about race in this country. I don’t think we’re free in America. I think we’re burdened by a long history of racial injustice. I think it’s contaminated the atmosphere.”

A descendant of slaves, Stevenson used part of his speech to credit his family, particularly his grandmother, for teaching him to view all people with dignity and respect. He called on graduates to do the same as they start their careers and engage with challenges, policies and points of view that promote inequality.

“Reject the politics of fear and anger,” Stevenson said. “Change that narrative and embrace the narrative of the people who loved me … that narrative is rooted in affirming the humanity and dignity of every person.”

“I promise that I will be cheering you on as you make your journey, as you do the great things that I know you can do, as you stand against narratives of fear and anger, as you change narratives, as you stay hopeful, and as you do uncomfortable and inconvenient things in service of a better world — a more just world.”

For his life’s work combating racism and inequality, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz conferred upon Stevenson an Honorary Degree in Law, the university’s highest honor. 

Brandeis also awarded Honorary Degrees to Ellen Gordon ’65, the president and CEO of Tootsie Roll Industries; the late Herman Hemingway ’53, an attorney and human rights activist; Lynn Schusterman, co-founder and chair emerita of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies; and Robert J. Zimmer ’68, president of the University of Chicago.

In his address opening Commencement, Liebowitz acknowledged the challenges graduates faced in the past year and a-half.

"In the face of adversity and loss, in a time marked by pandemic and social upheaval, you have pursued your education with zeal, curiosity, and intelligence," he said. "You can—and should—take great pride in the determination and resilience you have shown throughout your time at Brandeis, particularly during the pandemic."

Liebowitz noted the corrosive power of hate in society, and the need for Brandeis' newest alumni to work to defeat hate in all its forms.

"Your generation has the incredible opportunity to turn the doom and gloom narrative into one of positivity and success," he said. "I look forward to the day when your creativity, discoveries, innovations, and leadership across many fields and roles in society have a noticeable impact on our world, and I believe that will be sooner rather than later."

A total of 945 undergraduate members of the Class of 2021 earned diplomas, along with 265 from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management; 279 from the Brandeis International Business School; 263 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; 108 from the Rabb School of Graduate and Professional Studies; and 22 who pursued joint Heller and GSAS degrees.

Describing his peers metaphorically as gardeners, undergraduate Commencement speaker Kwesi Jones ’21 said their experience at Brandeis has prepared them to plant seeds of positive change in society.

“We all have dreams and goals and aspirations of what the grand work of our lives will be once we leave Brandeis, but I ask you to join me as I take up my new profession as a gardener,” said Jones, an African and African American Studies and Film, Television and Interactive Media double-major.

“Let’s walk into the scorched fields of the world we knew and replace the brittle dirt of society with the fresh soil of possibility and imagination,” he said. “Let’s pull back our sleeves of inhibition and fear and plant deep within the earth seeds borne from our collective ingenuity: seeds of knowledge and truth; seeds of community and love; seeds of change.”

In the graduate student address, Jainaba Gaye, Heller MA’21, who completed a degree in the Heller School’s Conflict Resolution and Coexistence Program, encouraged her classmates to take risks.

“Never underestimate what you can do, whose lives you can impact, and never question your belonging,” Gaye said. “Life is not accidental. You are where you are for a reason, you came to Brandeis for a reason, and every person that you crossed paths with was there for a reason. 

“The fuel you need to succeed is already within you, and today could not be a much clearer manifestation of that," she continued. "So, as you move on to the next stages of your life, if there is anything I would want you to hold on to, is to be willing to take risks.”

In welcoming the Class of 2021 into the alumni family, Brandeis Alumni Association President Lewis Brooks ’80, P’16, congratulated graduates on completing their degrees despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, and urged them to maintain ties with their alma mater.

“As we continue to return to normal and you travel or relocate, wherever you go in this world, you will likely meet someone from Brandeis,” Brooks said. “I can tell you there are Brandeisians everywhere. In over 160 countries, we all share something special: A unique bond that is Brandeis.” 

Brandeis Board of Trustees Chair Meyer Koplow ’72, P’02, P’05, also expressed confidence in the new graduates in his remarks.

“You are headed into a time of unprecedented challenges and complexities,” Koplow said. ”I have no doubt that you — like all Brandeis alumni — will courageously and compassionately do all that you can to improve the lives of others and make the kind of difference that is greatly needed in the world today.”

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