Anita Hill, University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University and a faculty member of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis, delivered the 2018 Commencement address on May 27.
In 1991, Hill’s name became indelibly stamped on the national consciousness when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment while he was her supervisor. Her courage in speaking out and her dignity in the face of vituperative attacks remain inspirational, and over the years she has provided frequent commentary in the national media on gender and race issues. She recently was selected to head the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, intended to address sexual abuse and harassment in the media and entertainment industries. She also served as chair of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association.
Her commencement address follows:
Good morning. It really is a great pleasure to be here. I want to thank the Board of Trustees, President Roth, and the faculty and staff of Wesleyan who have made this singular recognition possible. I proudly accept this honorary degree and the privilege of addressing the Class of 2018.
Class of 2018, so far you have been fairly reserved and quiet. And I suspect that at some point, maybe right now, you want to make some noise.
I want to say to my fellow honoree, Dr. Boger, you’re now my new model for how to do well in the world and also to do great works.
So now we’re all classmates. And you have done exactly what you set out to do just a few short years ago. You’re ready to exit Wesleyan with your degree in hand. So congratulations.
I have about 10 minutes to speak to you on this day and a few things on my mind, so I want to get started.
The first thing I want to do is to salute this class. The Class of 2018, during your time here, you have seen at neighboring universities campus violence that we have never seen before. You’ve also experienced great social and political turmoil and I would call this time uncertain. And let me just say what I mean by that turmoil, that social and political turmoil. Specifically, I want to talk about the fact that in your time on campus we’ve seen the legalization of same-sex marriage and at the same time—it’s almost like a flipside—we’ve seen the rise in hate crimes and passage of “bathroom bills” in this country. It is indeed a time of uncertainty. But you have stayed the course, at times when the events of the world outside of this college challenged your concentration and maybe your own commitment.
And there were personal struggles as well. Those tested your resolve. You supported classmates and they in turn supported you through rough times. You looked to mentors here on campus to help you get through the hard decisions. Many of you may have had concerns about your parents who may have been ailing, or grandparents. That sick grandmother story that we teachers hear often is sometimes true.
Yes, and some of you had your own children to worry about. Whether it was their illness or their daycare, you had to make choices. And some of the tough choices had to get done really in ways that most of us don’t care to think about. You had to decide sometimes whether to buy books or to buy food. Whether to quit and save money to get your education or to continue as a struggling student.
You had relationships that concerned you. Relationships gone bad; required courses that you absolutely hated but had to have to graduate. And all of those things lead to great tensions, whether they’re world affairs or personal and private affairs.
As a teacher I often hear the term “snowflake” in reference to students. Snowflakes? Not at all. What I have witnessed is tenaciousness. What I have witnessed in my students and what I see in your faces is resilience. You have stood the course and you deserve applause. I’ve also seen, today, the joy in accomplishment—the joy in learning, in getting to this day. And I hope you will relish that with me. And I wish you could just see from my point of view how I see you. I look out and I see the future.
Each year that I teach I am reminded of what a privilege it is to be a member of a university community. And I want to thank you for reminding me and giving me that joy again today. So to the Class of 2018, thank you and congratulations. You all are winners today, and I know that you’re going to carry forth your knowledge that you have received here and make a better world.
Second, I want to tribute to survivors and activists. Now, I have a lot to say about survivors and activists. But I want to start out telling you that as a teenager, I adopted Harriet Tubman as my #hero (before we had hashtags, of course). Why not? She was an underground railroad conductor, a nurse in the army, and in her later years, she was an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage. The things that I cared about, she believed in, she stood up for. I realized that I could never really be as fearless as Harriet Tubman was in her time. But in 1991 I did my best to honor her and the bravery of so many women who came before me when I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And I have tried to do so every day since then. To remember what it means to be fearless and to recognize that courage is not something that is measured in one deed, one act (even if it is before the Senate), but it is measured in how we live our lives.
Harriet Tubman remains my model for what I call “sheroism” today. And she deserves to have her face on that $20 bill, to remind all of us that hers is the true face of what courage looks like and what belief in freedom and equality should mean to all of us.
In 2018 I have new heroes—heroes and sheroes—all of whom represent courageousness. And some of whom, sit right here in this audience today. You have shared the truth about sexual assault and harassment, privately and publicly. Throughout the country, women and men have demanded that universities and workplaces take action to end sexual violence. Even today, however, silence breakers face backlash. Often delivered instantly, harshly, and anonymously, with the click of a mouse. But speaking out, despite the hardship, can be self-liberating and can empower others. Because you have persisted on campuses, campuses will be safer for the next generation of students. And we know that we can make our campus safe, safer against sexual assault, and sexual violence, and sexual harassment. Safe for everyone through processes that involve protections of everyone’s rights. That is the only way that we are going to proceed with this issue. And we know that. The writer Marge Piercy tells us that, “Strong is what we make each other … [u]ntil we are all strong together.” You have been examples of strength and courage. You should look in the mirror every day and celebrate that strength and that courageousness. And you should also know, that another generation will come behind you on these campuses and finish the work that you started during your time here.
I want to call out other activism of this graduating class that has taken place, in support of people, both on the campus and outside of this campus. Earlier President Roth mentioned the group called SEMI—Students for Ending Mass Incarceration. In addition I’ve heard of your #sanctuarycampus movement to make campuses safer for everyone, regardless of immigration status; your campaign on behalf of farm workers, to get Ben & Jerry’s to sign on to the “milk with dignity” program.
And I cannot say enough about students of color and their allies from all over the country, including here on this campus, but from Columbia, Missouri; to Charlottesville, Virginia; to Brandeis, who have demanded the removal of relics—physical and intellectual—that symbolize our country’s racist history. They should be commended along with their allies.
Now some of you will chalk up this bravery of energy to Twitter or Instagram. For me, those are only the platforms. I attribute today’s campus engagement to an enduring desire for community, whether it is community within or community outside of your campus walls. I include in that community, those of you who have disagreed with the activism of the groups that I’ve applauded. I salute you who have engaged in civil discourse despite differences. Because it takes courage to have peaceful and productive disagreements in a time of uncertainty.
All together you are breathing new life into the words that Dr. Martin Luther King wrote when he was in a Birmingham jail. He talked about our need to embrace others as the only way to receive and to achieve solutions to our social problems. He reminded us that If we are all “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Class of 2018, for four years, you have been bound together in a garment of destiny but you have reached out across lines, across differences. And you have reached out to others who are outside Wesleyan as well.
I applaud you for rejecting the calls for division that come from outside and choosing instead to look outward to address some of our nation’s thorny social ills, and demanding that our institution do so as well. Demands not only of Wesleyan University, but our political institutions and our workplaces.
So keep up that drive, keep up that energy. Keep up and continue to embrace community over division. Through sharing your experiences—through protests, through teach-ins—you have spoken truth to power and you have given voice to the voiceless in our society.
And then you have done something that is the hardest thing to do of all: You have sat back and relinquished the platform and listened.
Now listening is sometimes hard to do when you are used to having a megaphone. I know because I’m a teacher. And those of you who have previously been excluded understand how hard it is to get others to listen to you.
But if you have learned only one lesson from your activism it should be learning to hear others. Hearing others is what brings about community, and what will ultimately bring about change.
Now I know that you haven’t won all of the fights that you took on. Trust me, I know that feeling. But believe me, you have left your mark on this institution and its leaders in your time here. Am I right, President Roth?
And, you and your generation have left a mark on the world, a path for others to follow. You’ve also learned that change takes a long time and a long-term commitment. So what happens next? Who knows? The world is an uncertain place. I already talked to you about that. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. But we also know that if we don’t stand up and continue to stand up for what we believe, the world becomes even more uncertain.
I graduated from college in 1977. And when I left college, from Oklahoma State University, having grown up on a subsistence farm in Lone Tree, Oklahoma, I would never ever have predicted that I would be here, in Middletown, Connecticut, speaking about a new day for social justice. But that’s where we are, and this is where I am. Today you’re going to leave here with a diploma in your hand. And it’s going to look like many of the other diplomas that you see. Except this one is going to have your name on it. It’s not just a piece of paper that you can hang up on the wall. That diploma symbolizes the tools and the resources you have to achieve your goals and your aspirations. So when you leave here and you take that paper with you, please, think of it always as something of that parachute. Not because it’s a physical parachute, but it is symbolic, in the sense that it will, if you remember your time here, get you through more rocky times and more hard challenges.
Now, a final word about social justice. Most of you are not going to use that degree to go into careers in social justice. And sadly, because of student loans, many people will not be able to afford to go into a social justice career. However, I would tell you that even though social justice may not be your vocation—your job title may not include “social justice crusader of the world”—social justice can guide how you live and work every day. It can guide you in terms of how you treat your colleagues at work. Whether you are truly open to inclusion or just simply paying lip service because the environment is entirely too competitive for you to want to be inclusive. Social justice can guide how you spend your spare time. Whether you continue to embrace the communities that you live in and do great works for the people who are less privileged than you are.
As I said, many things are uncertain, but you really are the future. You can choose to make the world a bit more certain. For all that you’ve seen and done in the past few years, for all that we have all seen throughout the world, we can never be the same. We can’t go backwards, and we cannot deny that inequality hurts all of us. And the times demand that we do everything in our power to eliminate the social and structural inequalities that have held too many back from being where you are today. We cannot go backwards.
So Class of 2018, friends, family, supporters, all of you who have helped us to get to this day, everyone in the Wesleyan community, I submit that the only way is forward, with an unwavering and a boundless commitment to a more just and inclusive society, for today and forever. And I ask you to join me in committing to that just society that will undoubtedly come, if we band together and we prove that we are the change that makes America great. Thank you.