Step Up, Rise Up, and Reimagine a Radically Just World
A Commencement Address to the Graduates of Eugene Lang College
Step up. Rise Up. Stand Up. ACT Up. Show Up. Wake Up. Wise Up. Speak Up. The moment we are living in is demanding so much of us: to be present, to listen, to challenge, to act. But how do we respond when everything we stand for is under attack? How do we imagine and work toward the future that we hope for when so much of what we assumed is unsettled, when so much of what we — and those before us — have worked for is pushed back? How do we work together when it is clear that the “we” that was supposed to stand against hate and ignorance, is not what we thought it was? Instead, that line between an us and a them, the deserving, the undeserving, the wealthy and the poor, the native, the settler, the woman, the man, the gender-nonconforming, the here and there; that line is being drawn thicker and deeper. That line forces us to ask who “we” are, what binds us together, and whether and how that “we” can be remade without these binaries.
November 8 crudely revealed all the work that lies ahead in this country, and assured us that the path to get there cannot be the same as it was before. As a Mexican woman, and as part of the generation who lived through the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the rise of the indigenous Zapatista resistance on the day that NAFTA entered into force in 1994, and the ensuing exodus of millions left without opportunities in the name of free trade, it is clear to me that these moments of tectonic shift, in this country as elsewhere, are moments of possibility; that the destruction that leads us to face the ruins and the long work of rebuilding, also opens the door to new solidarities and a revelation of a society endlessly fighting for justice and freedom. Moments of such fundamental change are not just about being louder and bolder, and responding with urgency, but also about the need to pause and reflect about where we are, how we got here, what we learned, and how we want to reimagine and rebuild a future that truly lives up to our ideals.
So I step up to this podium today, deeply honored that I have been asked to do so, with a profound sense of responsibility for what it means to speak up in this moment. A moment that is about you and your families, all the sacrifices made to get you here and all the hopes and fears about what is ahead. A moment that is about our institutions and our communities, what we stand for and how we live up to those ideals every day. And a moment to imagine new possibilities, new vocabularies, new actions, new meanings, new foundations for what we hope to build.
But to do this imagining, to really move forward, we have to know how to look back — in T.S. Eliot’s words, to “consider the future and the past with an equal mind” as “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.”
These recent months I’ve found myself digging through the past. Going back to books I underlined furiously in high school and college. To the music that I played on endless repeat to make sense of where I was. I’ve gone back to notebooks and letters looking for the person I was then, what moved me, and who I wanted to be. To find that even after leaving the country where everything I knew and loved was, after dreaming in another language, after experiencing a whole new self as a teacher, as a mother, the same passion that drove me to learn and explore and fight against the inequalities I saw all around me is still there; it is stronger. But I find that I need to be reminded of that past and how it shapes my present in order to respond and redefine myself in a moment that calls for all my energy and commitment.
So one of my messages for you today is to hold on to what got you here: the friendships, the books that changed your view of yourself and the world, that poem you wrote, that drawing that revealed something new about yourself, that performance, that note that reassured you you were in the right place. It is that passion, those moments of revelation of who you are, and what inspires you, that will carry you forward. That is when you find your voice, and that voice is the one that others will listen to when you stand up, speak up, step up, show up.
And some people will listen but only if they also feel heard. One of the most important things we are reminded of today is that we have not been able to talk across the aisle, whichever side of it we stand on; instead we have discovered that there is a deeper divide than we ever imagined, with intersecting fracture lines that are now more explicit. If those lines of difference that aim to separate an us and a them are ever to be erased, we have to step out of our comfort zones and genuinely engage with those whom we disagree with. Discarding anger and frustration simply as racism or as radicalism shuts down the possibility of dialogue and understanding, and the only chance we have at building a true democracy that is real for everyone. If we just continue to repeat the same messages as before, in the same places as before, with the same people as before, confirming just what we already know, there is no opportunity for transformation.
Opening up a space to listen also means recognizing and understanding our own limitations, and to know that our ideals and commitments need to be constantly examined and renewed to carry us into the future. We cannot assume that these ideals live on their own or speak for themselves. In order to make them real, and make them “new,” to reinterpret them to speak to the current moment, we need to investigate our past with critical eyes. Not just to validate what we want to know, but also to reveal the uncomfortable moments that have challenged these ideas and values, revealed our contradictions and pushed us to generate new ways of thinking and acting.
All of us, in our own ways, have been shaped by and will always carry this institutional identity that is built around the notion of a continuing commitment to reinvent ourselves and to challenge conventions. A new school as an experiment founded in opposition to administrative power and bureaucracy in university spaces; a refuge for liberalism and freedom, for a progressive vision; a space for dissent; a haven; a sanctuary. An academic home that welcomed a diversity of ideas, nationalities and beliefs. A new school, willing to take intellectual and political risks.
We can select the parts of our history and our current make-up that reflect these values, but we also need to know (as Julia Foulkes has reminded us ) that we have not always done so. We need to know that our university was once willing to put up a curtain to cover the Orozco murals in our 12th St building because the depiction of the Russian Revolution was criticized as subversive and un-American in the midst of the Cold War, while the administration left uncovered the section on the Mexican revolution because it would insult Mexico, which it considered “a well-run, orderly republic.” We need to know that there was a time when our administration accepted the New York state government’s request to ask every faculty to take an oath of allegiance to the American and state constitutions. That was also a time when members of our institution were worried that we might lose endowments or funding if we were seen as defiant or subversive by a government that had unleashed an apparatus of surveillance and repression against anything that was not American enough.
So what are we willing to risk today, when everything we stand for as a liberal and progressive institution is again under threat? When we are supposed to subscribe to a limited vision of what makes America “great”? Will we put up a curtain to cover the peace table in the Orozco room because it aspires to a world where people of color have an equal place at shaping our institutions? Will we cover the “all gender” signs on our own bathroom doors? Or will we stand up to reclaim the university space as a sanctuary for freedom of speech and ideas, and a refuge for those under attack? How will we step up to create a space for true diversity and inclusion within and beyond our university? How do we stand for social justice when our students face barriers within our own institution in their choice to unionize? How do we reconcile the fact that next to our original commitment to provide low-cost education opportunities to rich and poor, we are complicit in a whole system built upon the collection of interest on more than a trillion dollars of student debt?
And while we have to face those contradictions in our history and in our present, we also have to know that we live in a country where speaking openly and freely is still possible; and we enjoy the tremendous privilege of an education and a university space that offers the tools to challenge and imagine new answers to these questions.
With that freedom and that privilege, these past few months some of us have taken the streets, Washington Square, Union Square, Foley Square, 5 th Avenue, Battery Park, JFK airport… These spaces take on new meanings when we act upon them, when we redefine their purpose and their use. And just as we call these streets our streets, beyond the moment of protest, we need to continuously participate in building our communities, that “we” that makes our institutions our institutions.
This means taking a stance, recalling the founding moments and facing the present reality of our institutions to reclaim and redefine terms such as sanctuary to resist a discourse that criminalizes and divides. While some today will challenge and say that such a stance promises too much, that it will make us a target, that it will risk more than it will offer, resistance means stepping up and defending our commitments to equality and freedom, true to our history, which, in our case, includes a University in Exile, true to our present and to the future we want to be a part of as “an intellectual and creative haven that never has — and never will — settle for the status quo,” as our website promises. But taking a stance against injustice does not mean overlooking the limitations, contradictions and consequences of our actions. It may be that declaring that we are a sanctuary today (as we were before) is read as a limited framework to move forward if it focuses merely on temporary protection rather than on larger claims for structural change — but it is up to us to ask those difficult questions and to fill such concepts and actions with meaning. It is up to us to make a new “we.” It is up to us to keep finding ways to explain that the women’s march is not just about women’s rights; that, as Martin Luther King said, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And that means that when we make a claim for the university and other spaces as sanctuary we are not just thinking about erasing the lines that divide citizens from non-citizens, the migrant and the refugee; in the words of the women’s march Pledge of Liberation , we are fighting against “attacks on queer and trans people, on disabled people, on Black, brown, and Indigenous people, on poor people, on Muslim, [Latinx] and Jewish people, attacks on health care and the environment, and the rendering of violence against women as a pre-existing condition”…”these are all one assault on our fundamental rights to live with dignity, autonomy, and liberty.”
If we listen, if we can see through the wreckage and the noise that follows each of the daily tremors that remind us the kind of change that is taking place and what is at stake, it is clear that we can only build long-lasting ties of solidarity if we recognize that a future with justice cannot exist if our neighbor cannot look ahead and think about the next day or even the next hour because their lives are threatened at every turn with the possibility of deportation; or when the color of your skin puts you in danger at the hands of the police; or when your religion or your name makes you a suspect; or when you have to work around the clock in order to survive; or when your land is stolen and polluted by an oil pipeline; or when you can’t drink the water because it is poisoned with lead; or when you cannot afford to go to the doctor; when sexual assault or domestic violence are preconditions that cannot be covered by insurance; or when your only option to stay alive is to cross a desert or put your whole family on a makeshift boat to get to another country. And while it may seem like optimism and hope are intangible in the face of such challenges, I take James Baldwin’s courage and vision to say: “I cannot be a pessimist, because I am alive.”
This optimism is necessarily a result of my everyday experiences in this institution, of my encounters with my colleagues, your professors, of having met many of you, those before you and those who are coming next. It is the result of seeing your creativity and your passion and being challenged by your questions. But I will not say that the future is in your hands, that you are our only hope for what is ahead. Because just as this work requires the courage to examine our contradictions, challenge our assumptions and rebuild anew, collaboratively and in solidarity across issues, it also requires a vision that brings together past, present and future, which entails work across generations, and across borders. It requires us to look within and also beyond, knowing that the lines of inequality and injustice that we are trying to erase in our everyday lives in this particular time and place, are tied to the lives of others in places near and far; in a history we share and a future we have yet to create.
So, class of 2017, today we move forward, we look back, we face the ruins, we listen, we share, we speak up, stand up, step up, rise up, wake up, show up, with the one certainty that we don’t know each other but we need each other  to build a new, radically just world.