“When I was asked by a member of the CUPA family to present this year’s student speech, I was overwhelmed with excitement to speak at a momentous occasion as this is today. I was also overcome with the thought of what is appropriate to impress upon a graduating class that already embodies so much experience in their respective fields of study and those that are already rising to be agents of change. So, instead of presenting a cliché speech that is bookended in motivational quotes that are supposed to bestow you with inspiration, I decided that I should be honest with you all.
We have a lot of work to do.
I represent a very privileged and powerful position in society. As an educated, cisgender, white, gay male, I have been afforded the opportunity to remain silent on current affairs and issues that do not impact my long-term success or immediate safety. And that is why I want to take a moment before you walk across this stage and claim the degree that you have earned to speak with you about some of the responsibilities you have moving forward along your selected paths.
The decision to remain silent, especially on the part of white people, too often permeates into the mainstream of policy and politics. The existence of silence among privileged communities has served as a catalyst to perpetuate the continual disenfranchisement of underrepresented communities and as a bulwark against progress.
In 2014, I graduated from Portland State with my Bachelor’s and took a job in the Delta of Mississippi as a High School Teacher at a school that never desegregated after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. For more than 60 years, black students in Cleveland, Mississippi remained in segregation because of the silence of the rest of the nation.
Democracy does not work in the presence of silence. Yet, in 2016, 6.1 million people could not have their voices heard as a consequence of felon disenfranchisement laws. That is larger than the vote difference between the two presidential candidates by over 3 million. In addition, African Americans are impacted disproportionally at 1 of 13 not being able to vote, compared to 1 of 56 non-Black voters.
Here in Portland, Blacks/African Americans make up 24% of the homeless population of Multnomah County despite only being 7% of the total population.
We live in a country that likes to hide its problems. Every year millions of people are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses and instead of providing these individuals with the care they need, we relocate them out of the mind of the citizenry.
This is the story of politics and policy within the United States- difficult issues become issues of silence. Either we have a silent majority allowing these issues to persist or we relegate an underrepresented community to silence.
As we graduate, we are embarking on odysseys to the margins of justice. Throughout the United States there are communities and causes that are shrouded in silence because they have been marginalized through policy. The issues that we have written of in our essays are now animated by continued inaction. We are no longer responsible for earning grades but rather enhancing the human dignity of those that have been forgotten and disregarded.
In the Spring Term of 2016, I was in Dr. Rachel Sanders course on Ethics and Public Policy when she presented my class with an intractable problem relating to a policy’s disproportionate negative impact on people of color and those in poverty. Her follow-up question asked students to envisage a policy strategy that would solve the seemingly endless cycle of such policy outcomes. She waited patiently for a response that didn’t come from her class. Prior to ending the course, she made a final statement that I hold as a reminder of my responsibilities as a policy professional and as a privileged white man. She told my class that we are the ones responsible for finding solutions to the impossible and, in fact, the ones entrusted to do so.
As I walk across this stage, I refuse to be silent at the margins of justice. How about you class of 2017?”
Link to full speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DM5eLiv__7w&feature=youtu.be