Evergreen Commencement Speech

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On June 12, 2015, I gave the Commencement Speech for Evergreen College’s 44th graduating class.


Dear graduates, students, faculty, family, and friends,

Sisters and brothers,

It is an honor to share this day with you, a day that will always remain memorable to you, and to those who love you.

A commencement ceremony is often a time when speakers focus on individual paths available for new graduates. Commencement speakers will often highlight the opportunities that lie ahead for yourselves – and how to advance yourselves professionally – while having a charitable disposition towards those in need.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I will share with you what I wish I had heard when I graduated. As an engineering college student, and later as a graduate student in economics, I did not desire personal career advancement. I was looking for answers. A logical explanation of why poverty and inequality and stunning misery plagued the vast global society even though the world was awash in riches and resources – riches and resources that were accessible to the few. I hope, today, that I am speaking to that same desire for answers in each of you.

There is no doubt that, wherever life takes you from Evergreen, hard work will be essential. But the real question is “to what end should our lives be directed?”

You have chosen as your graduation theme a quote from Albert Einstein.

Einstein of course is remembered for revolutionizing the science of physics. Some may know that he was also a radical civil rights and anti-war activist. Perhaps fewer know that Albert Einstein was a also socialist.

Sixty five years ago, Einstein wrote an essay called “Why Socialism?” He said, “The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil.” He went on to say, “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy.”

Einstein lived through the Great Depression and the slaughters of the two World Wars instigated by the ruling elite competing for the world’s spoils. He lived in the United States at a time of the awakening of a powerful labor movement – the American labor movement – the sit down strikes where millions of workers occupied factories, fighting the owners of capital to create a middle class for the first time in the nation for two generations. And he saw the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. He passed away just before the turning tide of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

What will happen in your lifetime? How will the world change you? And more importantly, how will you work to change the world?

We are heading, I think, into another era of dynamic social change. The Black Lives Matter Movement, the fast food workers strikes, the courageous activism to fight climate change – against the Keystone XL, and locally against the Shell Oil drilling rig – and of course the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage: These are just a beginning, a bellwether. They are signs of things to come.

In Seattle, our movement won the $15 minimum wage. This is important, in lifting the wages of a hundred thousand low-wage workers, but it is even more important as an example, as a pointer towards far greater struggles and victories. Already, it has inspired movements throughout the country.

Most recently, eight hundred thousand low-wage workers in Los Angeles have built on the victory in Seattle, and have won their fight for 15. The debate is heating up in Chicago and New York City, and elsewhere, even globally.

These are embryonic steps in a global fightback against inequality and poverty, violence and the dehumanization of the poor – and against the gross social injustices engendered by the system of capitalism.

After being beaten down for decades, workers and young people are again beginning to see that we can fight back – that when we organize, we can win. That when we build our collective strength, we can beat back the seemingly inexorable tide of society that has been subjecting more and more millions to suffering.

That is how change happens. Movements inspire and learn from each other. Just as the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy Movement in America. Just as, in the era in which this college was founded, the Civil Rights movement helped inspire the movement to end the war in Vietnam.

Evergreen faculty, students, and staff have always been at the forefront of questioning the status quo.

Evergreen gave us Rachel Corrie.

More recently, many of you young people have stood up against racism and police brutality. You joined in solidarity with striking Student Service workers. I thank you.

You are not alone. When the University of Washington in Seattle announced earlier this year that Seattle’s minimum wage of 15 didn’t apply to them, students and workers on campus fought in solidarity and forced the administration to back down. At Seattle University, adjunct faculty – faculty like myself – are unionizing, and their students are supporting them. They rallied together on April 15th, as the biggest demonstrations happened, as tens of thousands of people rallied around the country for a living wage.

Like Einstein did in his time, we live in a world in turmoil. The times we live in call on all of us to take up the responsibility that history has given us. But it falls on you, especially on you. You must lead the way.

We are witnessing the worst crisis of global capitalism since the Great Depression. What recovery we have seen has been a recovery for the super wealthy, with stagnating wages and unemployment for the rest of us. Ninety five percent of the gains since the formal end of the recession have gone to the top one percent.

Graduates are faced with student debt that has crossed an aggregate of one trillion dollars in the United States. Tuition hikes, cuts to financial aid, and attacks on teacher unions have become standard. A majority of young workers, despite higher education, enter a low-wage job market. Graduates of Evergreen, it was recently reported, make on average of just over thirty thousand dollars a year one year after their graduation.

Some of the most important jobs in our society, like social worker jobs that require degrees, like teachers, jobs that shape lives and literally save lives, are paid little more than minimum wage.

We have seen how the crisis of capitalism is pushing more and more people onto the edge of financial collapse. More people are becoming homeless as low wages and job losses proliferate. Housing and health care costs skyrocket. Poverty is rising at stunning, horrific rates. And the black community has endured decades of targeted and systematic brutalization. All this, in the wealthiest country in the history of humanity.

The average CEO salary in the U.S. is now $7,000 an hour. Globally, as Oxfam recently reported, the 85 richest people of this world own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world – in other words, the number of people who can fit in a double decker bus own as much as three and a half billion people.

And yet – yet – there is the power in all of us here to effect change. There is the enormous potential, the power of young people and the working class, and this power, my sisters and brothers, knows no bounds.

In your lifetime, the environmental movement will grow and challenge climate change and the system that creates it. It will fight against racism, sexism, and homophobia, and the brutality of war.

We can end these things, these evils of the capitalist system, as Einstein said, but, to do so, it will require enormous sacrifice. Our sacrifice.

It is imperative that those who object to injustice make fighting against it a commitment in their lives. That we take that commitment seriously, that we learn from each other. That we not repeat the mistakes of the past.

And one of history’s lessons is that our power has to be collective. We will not change the world by our shopping choices or by writing letters to congress people. We need political struggle. Another lesson is that working people, the 99%, need our own organizations, we need them as tools to succeed in this struggle.

We will not win change at the ballot box by choosing between one of the two corporate parties. We need to build our own political party.

What we have won in Seattle has been won not because of the Democratic Party establishment, but in spite of it. It was won against the opposition of the Democratic Party establishment, and against the resistance of big business that has relied on the Democratic establishment to maintain the status quo.

One of history’s lessons to us is that those who control the agendas in the Democratic and Republican Parties are bought and sold by big business, by the financial oligarchy, and by Big Oil.

We need a party for the 99%. And we need to begin building it. We need a party that will work to build mass movements, to build collective power, not work against it.

The Democratic Party establishment has historically served as the graveyard of social movements. As young people and working people raise their sights, again and again, they are brought crashing down. As the Iraq anti-war movement did a few years ago. As the Occupy movement’s energy was lost in the 2012 presidential campaign.

We need a party that is completely independent of big business, of corporate money and influence.

This is one of the most essential tasks of our time. This is our task.

And this task can only be accomplished if we build mass movements around the burning questions of our times – on economic justice, social justice, racial justice, and environmental and climate justice. These movements have to rely on their own strength, not on the insidious forces of corporate politics that seek to co-opt the integrity of our movements, and ultimately to paralyze them.

But how do our movements become successful? The successful movements of every era, be it the fight for the eight-hour workday or the Civil Rights movement, or the struggle for LGBTQ rights, would not have come into existence, let alone have been won, without tens of thousands of activists who made these struggles the central focus of their lives.

I appeal to you. I appeal to you to join the movements of your time. I appeal to you to participate in the shaping of history.

History is calling on you.

Today you are graduating from one of the finest schools in the country. I congratulate you, and I wish you well. Congratulations to your faculty who have guided you thus far, and to all staff whose work makes this campus run. Congratulations to those faculty who are retiring after a lifetime of service to this college. Congratulations, especially, to your President Les Purce and Professor Larry Mosqueda.

As I have said before, you are graduating at a pivotal moment. I hope that the compassion, dedication, and personal sacrifice you have displayed in your education up to this point will continue after this day. And I hope you will combine that with a sense of urgency.

I hope that you will take this urgency into working towards the deeper, lasting change that our world in crisis so desperately needs.