Be the change you wish to see: Speech delivered in 2009

Be the change you wish to see

President and Mrs. Machtley, Vice Presidents, Deans, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, sisters and brothers, friends, and of course, students whom we celebrate today. Before I begin my remarks this evening, I want to recognize the leadership of President Machtley and the larger Bryant community in bringing students like you to our campus. It is the president who imagines what a campus should be—what sorts of students should join our community and what sorts of educations we will afford them. To me, Bryant University is community of scholars where we all teach and we all learn from each other. Everyday students like you bless me with an education that is fuller and richer than one I could obtain elsewhere. I think we cheat ourselves of a great education unless we embrace lessons that students like you teach us. So, at the beginning, let me thank you the students for contributing to the education and betterment of the Bryant community.

I bring you greetings from faculty and staff.

In Swahili, Professor Kwesiga says,

Na Mungi awabaraki

In Italian from Professor Misuraca


From Professor Jiang in Chinese

Gung xi ni men

In Spanish from Professor Gomez

Buena suerta para el future

In Portuguese from Dee Viera


And in Sanskrit from Professor Beldona


In these greetings, we congratulate you and wish you well. If I have inadvertently asked, “Please, Mister, could you bring me my horse?” I apologize. As many of you know, it is a challenge and great advantage to speak in a tongue other than one’s own. I wish I had more of those gifts.

You do me a great honor in asking that I share remarks with you this evening. Your accomplishments are impressive; they are hard won. Only you truly know what sacrifices you have made, what challenges you have overcome to be here this evening. What I believe defines our best students is a curiosity about the world, ready to meet its challenges and eager to learn how to equip themselves to meet circumstances and opportunities that we at this moment can hardly imagine. We are here tonight because many people have come before us, leading the way, sacrificing their lives in some cases, deferring their own dreams so that we might have better opportunities. We should recognize that our achievements are as much to their credit as they are to our own hard work.

I will keep my comments brief tonight and aim to connect them directly to theme of this celebration, Be the Change you wish to see, a quotation attributed to Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi, the man who gave to the world a powerful social movement, that claim that change could come through nonviolent means. This proposition suggests that all of us have a role and a calling to change the world for the better.

Change is one of those cover words that we employ as if we all understood what it meant but we may not. The change I want to talk about is not change that we ache for because we are bored. And it is not change that aims to alter the leadership of an organization or community expected that if we change the leader that everything else will change. But, it is a delusion to believe that if we change the captain, the direction of the ship will change. It may not. Real positive change doesn’t work that way. It takes more than one leader. It takes all of us.

The change we are alluding to this evening is change that we can dream about and work to create. Change that makes the world a better place for more of its citizens. Change that evens out the chances for more us to have a run at the good things in life. I don’t mean here just a nice home, a fancy car, the latest iPod and the newest cell phone with all the coolest features. I mean change that liberates more of us, that means freedom from hunger and from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from neglect and freedom from needless suffering. The change we wish to see is change that reflects all that is good and honorable in human nature. The change that makes us kinder to one another. The change that makes us curious about how the way we live affects other people, maybe those halfway around the planet, maybe in that poor community down the street. The change that starts with me and with us, connects us with others, and allows us to be inspired and to inspire others with our combined dreams, our shared hopes and the blessings of our talents and our virtues.

When I was in your age, just graduating from college, we faced a world in turmoil. Three years before I graduated Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Robert Kennedy met the same fate just two months after King. Nelson Mandela was in prison. The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. We were fighting a contentious war in Southeast. The population of the world stood at 3.7 billion people. We hadn’t heard of global warming. The personal computer hadn’t been invented. Fast forward to this moment a few decades later and we have elected our first Black president. We are concerned with climate change. In the time it takes me to complete this sentence, we will have welcomed one new American baby, four Chinese babies and five Indian babies to our planet joining a population already close to seven billion people. If that sounds hard to wrap your mind around, someone suggested that it is easy. Just think of yourself, your dreams, how much your life means to you and the people who love you, and multiply that by seven billion. Got it? We have emerging economies where the next generation of innovation and invention will most likely arise. And now, we find ourselves in an increasingly interconnected complicated world where ideas, people and products race around our planet with accelerating speed. One billion Google searches a day. Researchers are wondering how if we lived our lives, B.G. before Google. To whom did we address all these questions? You students may wonder how we lived our lives without cell phones, without the Internet, without text messaging and without 24-hour entertainment. Trust me. Trust your parents. It was not that hard and, in some ways, life was quieter and less packed with distractions. These distractions can take us way off course.

But, for a moment, let’s go back to a time that characterized most of our lives as humans on this planet. Historically, parents could pass on what they knew about the world to their children because the world changed much more slowly than it does now. We remained in our communities from our births through our deaths; we encountered less difference than we do now; we knew less about the larger world; parents could hand down their professions and their crafts to their children and expect that that those skills could last them for a lifetime.

But all this has changed. The Department of Labor reports that the jobs that will be in greatest demand in 2010, next year, didn’t even exist in 2004. They also observe that we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist—using technologies that haven’t yet been invented—to address problems—challenges and opportunities that we don’t yet know exist. In a world of such rapid and accelerating change, how are we to find and make our way? How do we find an anchor in this running torrent of transition and dislocation? I believe that values and character and courage must serve as our compass.

My father passed away unexpectedly when I was just fourteen years old. Maybe, some of you have been similarly robbed of an anchor in your life. By that time, he had passed on to me mainly through example his kind and gentle way of encountering the world. All my life I have come back to the lessons that he and my mother and my teachers have blessed me with—caring for the world, wondering if I was doing enough, trying to develop and apply my talents to the work in front of me and most importantly, to find important and meaningful work to do.

I think that is the task ahead of you. Finding important work to do, and having a dream that sustains you. I urge you to embrace a dream that embraces others.

In his address to one quarter of a million people on the Lincoln Mall, delivered more than forty years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King did not deliver The I Have a Complaint Speech. Nor did he deliver the I Have a Suggestion speech. Neither was his speech entitled the Please May I have some of what you have for me and my children? No, as you all know, he presented to the nation and the world his I Have a Dream Speech. A Dream that was momentous and ambitious, a dream that challenges all of us to be judged by the content of our character, a dream that lifts up all of us, no matter where we come from and who we are or what privileges or deprivations characterize our backgrounds.

What does it mean to be judged by the content of our character?

To understand this, I would like to propose an analogy. Today, we hear a great deal about our carbon footprint. This is a measure of the impact that we have on the planet. It helps us to understand how we are all connected to each other, to appreciate the burdens of our lifestyles on the planet we all inhabit.

I would like to propose that we also consider developing a Character Footprint—a measure of the impact of our character on the planet. Do we see the world full of problems or full of opportunity? Do we see the world as one of diminishing chances or a world where the opportunities to make a positive change have never been greater nor more important? Do we believe we have a responsibility to make the world a better place or we are content to assume that this work is someone else’s job? Do we clearly understand and appreciate the impact we are having on the world? On those who come from communities that seem remote from us but whose lives are intriguingly connected to our own? And on those whose generations will follow ours?

At every turn, we need to remember that we are part of a long march of history. We are here because our parents, and their parents, and social reformers, and soldiers have paved the way.   Our responsibility then becomes to bring others along, people like us, and those not so like us but just as deserving.

In closing, I would like to leave you with two quotations. The first is from Adlai Stevenson whom you may not know; the second from Nelson Mandela, a hero to many of you. Speaking at a college commencement, Stevenson said the following.

The privilege and the penalty of your education and the position you hold in your community is that over the coming decades, as in the past, you will be the pacesetters for political and social thought in your community. You may not accept this responsibility but it makes no difference, it is inescapable. If you decide to set no pace, to forward no dreams, and to have no vision, you will still be the pace setters. You will simply have decided there is no pace.

 Mandela’s advice is more personal but no less important.

There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

 Thank you for your kind attention and now on to the most important part of our event, the reason we are gathered here tonight–to recognize our students!

Delivered at the Senior Awards Banquet organized by the Intercultural Center at Bryant University, April 4, 2009.


About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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