In troubled times when our nation seems more divided than ever, how do we ensure democracy flourishes?
“Spoiler alert — the answer is you,” Darren Walker told 700 Oberlin College graduates Monday during commencement exercises.
The stakes are high, said Walker, who heads the nonprofit Ford Foundation. Inequality is increasing. Expressions of hate are on the rise. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported the number of hate groups in the United States grew to 917 after nearly tripling in 2015.
All people deserve to live free of fear, he told the Class of 2017. “But in fact, some people are more persecuted and in more danger than others. So those of us who have the privilege to be free from fear also have a responsibility to act on behalf of people who do not. Because when our neighbors feel less vulnerable, our community becomes less vulnerable and our democracy becomes stronger.”
Freedom of speech implies the responsibility to listen to each other. Freedom from want means we have a responsibility to serve each other. And our freedom of belief means we have a responsibility to accept and understand each other, Walker said.
“So ‘We the people’ means that my freedom depends on your freedom. It means that we keep democracy for one another,” he said.
Our national history is defined by the temptation to organize around otherness instead of our shared humanity. We still fight racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and Islamophobia.
But Walker said that while our nation’s history includes chapters in which we’ve mobilized against each other, there are also chapters in which we’ve mobilized with each other.
“Through the service and sacrifice of each successive generation, the circle of freedom has grown wider and wider — Irish and Italians and Jews, East Asians and West Africans and West Indians, South Asians, South and Central Americans have all come to this land,” he said. “And now the promise has grown and evolved to a point where no matter your color or creed, your sexual orientation or place of origin, your accent, your ability, your age — you should be accepted here in America.”
Oberlin College has been an important part of that progress. The campus, said Walker, has long been home to justice movements.
He asked graduates to put in the time and effort to understand people who see the world differently, regardless of how they might vote. He urged empathy for the pain and anger of people who feel vulnerable or who feel the world has left them behind.
Ours is a nation where ideas have always existed in tension. The same country that declared all men to be equal was founded on slavery. The nation of the Statue of Liberty, which asks for the world’s tired and poor, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is the same nation that may build a wall along its border with Mexico.
It is a nation where Walker grew up black and gay, knowing the hurt of racism and homophobia.
But it is also one where marginalized people have fought to be seen and refused to be silenced.
“This is your moment to keep our republic,” he closed.
Aliyah Abu-Hazeem, president of the Class of 2017, indicated that her classmates are already living up to Walker’s challenge. She said they have given her hope when the world did not.
“I did not know what I was getting myself into when I arrived at Oberlin. I am not only referring to the political or geographical differences, but the ways in which Oberlin would transform my thinking, my interactions with the world around me, my social justice perspective, and my capacity to be positively challenged,” she said.
“I did not know this growth and development was possible four years ago. I certainly got more than I bargained for. I believe that I am a better person than I was four years ago and I am extremely grateful for Oberlin for helping me to discover who I want to be in the world. While I, like many of you, remain terrified about what the world will offer, I do believe Oberlin has prepared us to challenge, confront, and analyze whatever comes our way. That’s half the battle, right?”
Abu-Hazeem double-majored in sociology and law and society at Oberlin College. She has accepted a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame to pursue a doctorate in sociology.
The winds of change are affect not just students, but also administrators.
Clyde McGregor, chairman of the board of trustees, lamented his last year presiding over commencement exercises. He pleaded with graduates to stay involved in the community and help shape a brighter future.
College president Marvin Krislov said the ceremony was emotional for him as well. It is his last in Oberlin as he prepares to take the helm at Pace University in New York.
“In a way, I feel I’m graduating along with you,” he told seniors.
Krislov told students that he hopes they learned to appreciate each other’s differences — there are too many people out there who want to use those differences to drive a wedge in America’s heart.
He urged graduates to always ask questions, seek answers even though they don’t always come easily.
“So, as you go through life, Class of 2017, remember why you care so deeply about this place,” he said. “It’s because this is your home, these are your people, these are your family members. And you can return here in your mind as the years go by and that caring with ripen into abiding love.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.