Sherrilyn Ifill is the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)
Good morning, Class of 2016!! I am so honored to share this day with all of you and your families and friends. I recall that when I was sitting where you are sitting—way back in 1984, I had had just about four hours of sleep the night before and no amount of Tylenol and water seemed to stop the pounding in my head from bonfire festivities during my last night as a Vassar student. So…I won’t be before you long!
I want to thank first and foremost your President Catherine “Cappy” Hill for inviting me to address you today, and to congratulate her on 10 years as President of Vassar. I have no doubt that after her final year at Vassar and hopefully some period of rest, that she will go on to do great things in American higher education.
Also want to thank the board of trustees and especially board chair William Plapinger for inviting me today, who has been so kind and welcoming to me.
But today, graduates, is about you. I’m very excited for you as you stand on the precipice of your adult life. This is an important accomplishment. You are graduating from a great institution of higher learning. This an extraordinary privilege that will set you on a path to success and leadership. A Vassar degree is a real degree—not just words on a paper. And it’s not just the degree. I’m sure that for you, as it was for me, there are so many other seeds that Vassar has planted in you that will bear unique and important and often very sweet fruit in your life.
I’ve thought, especially over the past few months, about those unique and special experiences at Vassar that planted something in me. My father’s tears—he never cried—when he and my sister and stepmother dropped me off that first day. My love for Greek tragedy—which began in high school, was nurtured by a terrific Classics professor here—and remains undiminished to this day. The course I took on South Africa, with the amazing Professor Norman Hodges led to my commitment to the anti-apartheid movement in the ’80s and my lifelong love for that country.
Or the day that my Afro-American Lit Professor Moses Nkondo learned that James Baldwin would be at Yale one afternoon and gamely took another student and me in his car to meet one of the greatest writers and thinkers our country has ever known. Or participating in Vassar’s program with Greenhaven prison, where we worked with men in the pre-release program—decades before the word “reentry” became part of our lexicon—work that led to my commitment to supporting the humanity of those who are incarcerated. Every moment spent in the extraordinary library where, no matter how hard I partied on Saturday night, I could be found all day on Sunday.
I cared deeply about things when I was at Vassar. Great literature, the plight of oppressed people and, I’ll admit just as often, the perfect Long Island Iced Tea. And I found professors, friends, colleagues who shared these passions and helped me develop them.
And I want to talk about passion today. Because whether in love or in work, passion is the essential element to true and lasting commitment. And it is passion that brings a sense of excitement and purpose to our lives. It is passion, in the end, that I have found the most sustaining in my own life as a wife and mother and work as a civil rights lawyer.
And as I survey the state of our country, the world that you are about to enter after today, I believe that we desperately need your passion. We need your passionate commitment to preserving and strengthening the greatest and most threatened asset of this country—our commitment to democratic principles and values.
Because no matter how beautiful and exciting today is, we will all have to confront in the coming months the undeniable fact that our democracy is I in peril. It is in peril because too many of us have come to regard core democratic principles as optional. Too many of us have abandoned the hard work of democracy for the comfort of our feelings. As a nation, we have cut corners on the rule of law, we have denied the reality of inequality because we don’t know how to resolve it, we have deemed ourselves post-racial because we don’t want to confront the hard truth of America’s original sin.
We have returned to the tactics of our darkest days and allowed the creation of barriers to voting for racial minorities. The names Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd are now forever seared into the identity of this nation—and their killing with impunity stands as a powerful condemnation of a justice system we have held up as the best in the world.
We have allowed the resuscitation of arguments that we hoped we long buried in the civil rights movement to assault the dignity of two adults who wish only to love one another free from discrimination; we have allowed the incarceration of over 2 million people within our borders, many of them for non-violent crimes involving drugs.
And in those prisons we have built soulless pods of inhumanity to hold people in the spirit and mind-destroying confines of solitary confinement for years on end. We have called ourselves feminists but ignored poor women whose dreams and ambitions are as valuable as our own. We have participated in the destruction of our environment. We have abandoned or degraded public institutions that are the centerpiece of any healthy democracy—our public schools, our public spaces, our political institutions. Even as we speak we are allowing our Congress to cripple and compromise our Supreme Court.
I do not enjoy reminding you of these things on such a beautiful day. And yes, I agree that there are many good and great things about our country. But I remind you of the threats to our democracy because it is precisely at the moment that we are aware of our greatness, of our potential to do good, it is precisely when our hearts are joyous, when we feel a sense of accomplishment, when the sun shines and when we embrace in love, that we must make the commitment to extend ourselves, to find within ourselves and to fully embrace a passion for justice and equality and democracy.
The work of democracy is not drudgery to be discussed only over stiff drinks in dark bars or in sterile government offices. It is a passion. Bright, burning passion that should occupy the thoughts of each one of us on the best of days. It is not for the nihilist of the cynic. It is for those who are unafraid to be passionate about life. It is for those who have the courage to be hopeful. For those who are brave enough to fight for justice no matter the odds. And it is young people who have this courage, this fearlessness, this hope.
You are not the first generation to be called to repair our democracy under threat. It happened to many of your great grandparents, who were younger than you when they were called to serve in World War II. Or to your grandparents who rose up on our college campuses and law schools and even primary schools to demand that our country live up to its commitment to equality and justice during the Civil Rights Movement. It was teenagers like John Lewis and college students like Diane Nash and law students like Eleanor Holmes Norton, who accepted the call to right the ship of our democracy and became fighters for justice during the Civil Rights Movement.
And so it is today when young people stand on the front lines in the fight for climate change, or demand transparency in our government and an end to the killing of unarmed civilians by law enforcement. When an uncompromising young woman, driven by passion has the courage to climb a flag pole and peacefully and with dignity remove a symbol hate. When you speak into a political system that has forgotten you—you are following the call that must be taken up by young people in a democracy.
Whether you become a teacher, a dancer, an engineer, a lawyer, an investment banker, a scientist, a painter—you too must find time and keep alive the passion to strengthen our democracy. You must march and protest and vote. And vote. And vote. Not only for President, but for school boards and district attorneys, and judges and county commissions and sheriffs. And you must serve—whether in elected office, or appointed office, or the on community boards, or those of non-profits. You must volunteer and be true and full citizens of this democracy.
But you must also listen and extend yourself and engage in real dialogue. Even with those who disagree with you. Because our nation is also threatened by crippling incivility and by a stunning lack of empathy. And by disconnection from our shared journey as human beings.
And this is why you are uniquely suited to serve at this moment. Because you have been here on this campus—Black and white, poor and rich, straight and gay, immigrant and seventh generation, Republican and Democrat, from the East Coast and the West Coast—art history majors and chemistry majors. You have had tough days of struggle with one another. But somehow, you made it and you sit here all together today. Whatever and how ever strong your differences you have managed to live together—to argue, to fight and to challenge—but ultimately to live together. To find a way to respect the humanity of one another.
We desperately need this skill set out in the world you are about to engage. Our nation as you know, is deeply fractured. Sixty-two years ago a band of lawyers at the organization I now lead led by one of the greatest American lawyers Thurgood Marshall, litigated and won the Brown v. Board of Education case in the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was premised on a bold vision of America, on a demand that this country must honor the words of its founding documents.
In that case we argued that segregation powerfully harms Black children and powerfully harms White children. And this is still true. Today our nation remains deeply segregated—by race and by wealth—perhaps especially in New York City where many of you will live. And this separation from one another is threatening our future as a great nation.
I am a civil rights lawyer, and so bridging that divide is my life’s work. But bridging that divide must be an imperative for every citizen and institution in this country. Vassar, as an institution, also has a critical role to play. As an institution Vassar (trustees, faculty and staff) you will have to model for students the value of diversity and inclusion—not cosmetic diversity, but real diversity—and ensure that your campus is a place where students with different backgrounds, ideas and experiences can learn the critical skills of problem-solving, leading and working in a diverse environment. This will be among the most important skills for leadership in our pluralistic and increasingly diverse democracy.
I had the great privilege of meeting and talking with many students yesterday during the AAAVC kente cloth ceremony and I must say I am fully confident that the Class of 2016 is ready to begin this leadership.
So before I take my seat let me just say one thing about love. Because passion is not just about work and commitment. It is also about love. And I cannot pretend that Vassar is just the place where I was educated for four years. It is also the place where I was married. Just a few yards away from where I am standing today, 28 years ago to the day yesterday. I married the love of my life—that man I met on the Vassar-Wesleyan program in Madrid. That day, the day we married remains the happiest day of my life—surrounded by family, friends, all my best Vassar girlfriends. Together we have had three wonderful children and now our first grandchild.
Our wedding day here was a day of pure joy.
It was a day in which the hearts of all of my friends and family members in attendance were filled with love. We are all still knit together by the joy we experienced together that day. The memory of that day and many other wonderful days with friends and family over the years have sustained me through every challenge in my life.
And this is important because a life of passion is different than a life of zealotry. Passion is shared and enjoyed with those around you. It is not solitary. Joy and laughter and love are the most subversive and powerful tools in our arsenal. They sustain us and ensure that we can wake up each morning, ready once again to do the work of democracy building, to pursue justice and to fight for peace.
And so, I want to encourage all of you always to leave space in your life to enjoy the love of family and friends.
Because when you consistently and unrelentingly stand for justice and equality and transparency and peace, you can be sure that you will face loneliness, perhaps even moments of despair. And it will be love of those closest to you—your parents, your siblings, your dearest friends—who will remind you of the capacity for joy, who will tell you you’re great, even when you’re just good, who will encourage you to continue the work. They will see the intention of your heart and love you for it. But first you must love them—with your heart open and with the belief that whatever separates you today will not last forever.
So, Class of 2016, it’s your time now. Time for fun and brunch and drinks and hopefully lots of gifts. But soon thereafter, it will be time for you turn your attention to creating your life of passion. Passion for your family, for your work, but I hope passion for our democracy and the role you must play in keeping it vibrant and strong.
Congratulations, Class of 2016.
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