May 23, 2018
Greetings to Dean Williams, President Robinson, faculty, staff, and alumni. And to the Class of 2018, congratulations! Congratulations to our parents, friends, and loved ones, without whom today wouldn’t be as special, as it is a day we all have earned and should cherish together.
How many of you have ever smelled chocolate in a cornfield? This unexpected confectionary charring your lungs is a welcome surprise in such a dry confined space, but I think the best way to describe it is as a home I can’t go back to. In 1909, a successful chocolatier and his wife started a free nonsectrarian school in Pennsylvania for white orphaned boys. The students attended year-round, living in small dormitories called student homes, working on the farm. To this day it remains a free education for our nation’s poorest of any color, religion, gender identity, or family structure.
I remember my first days there very clearly. It was January. I was 7. I had not really been taught how to use utensils, so I preferred to eat with my hands and had the attention span of a puppy. This was similar to my first days here at Harvard.
My first class was in an accelerated course that I mistakenly thought was a part of orientation. On our first day we were given an hour to write and present a speech that tapped into our personal story—something I always dread.
However, through that experience I learned that everyone benefits when people tell their stories—so I would like to tell you a little bit of my story, to make the case for you to break barriers for others.
I am standing here today because of people like Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand from my student home, which was called Englewood. I arrived there with a discipline record that limited my opportunities at the school. But instead of just being disciplinarians, my houseparents said, ‘that isn’t who you are to us.’ They broke barriers for all of their students in many ways. Unconditionally, we were their boys.
I would not be standing here if I had graduated from a different student home. I had houseparents who cared. And, separate from that, as a white man I have also benefited from an unearned privilege, which is not true for everyone.
If we look at education over the past 30 years, students who are not white or male have been increasingly denied or discouraged from the academic track, unfairly disciplined, and their schools deliberately under-resourced. Growing up I saw how barriers like zero tolerance policies destroyed the lives of people I cared about. Segregation is not just an issue in education, but I believe it is the public health issue of our time. It is a large part as to why Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water. Worldwide, we also find the same inequitable pattern of power and powerlessness in which people are denied access to fundamental rights and resources on the basis of race, ethnicity, caste, gender, and religion.
I came to Harvard for the same reason you did—to learn how to change the world. Today is as much a celebration of our accomplishments as it is an affirmation of our commitment to serving others. In this it is as much about those of us who are here as it is about those who are not. We didn’t come here to aid and abet the status quo, but to become leaders who will stand up, speak up, and help empower people who have been denied a platform; people whose absence shapes our discussions and lives. Imagine all the brilliant ideas that we have never heard, due to barriers that aim to segregate us, like the school to prison pipeline.
We graduating students of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are privileged to leave here with a set of tools that can aid us in changing the world. So I leave you with a question: How are you going to break down barriers to serve others and create a healthier world?
photo: Kent Dayton
At Harvard Chan School Convocation, a call for collaboration
Convocation 2018 photo gallery
Commencement 2018 photo gallery
Commencement 2018 slide show
Commencement and Convocation 2018 videos
Commencement 2018: Award winners
Commencement 2018 Awards photo gallery
Dean Michelle Williams address
Former President of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson address
Alumni Council President M. Rashad Massoud address