Editorial: Commencement theme a call to service

Published: 05-23-2017 11:49 AM

A sense of urgency reflecting the nation’s political climate fuels a call to service delivered by college commencement speakers here this month.

Graduates of the local private colleges and University of Massachusetts Amherst were urged to engage in public service that helps better the lives of many in their communities, particularly the most vulnerable — whether the goal is to improve access to education, eliminate racism or fight for workers’ rights.

Four women whose lives of activism have made a difference nationally and globally — Elizabeth Warren, Oprah Winfrey, Dolores Huerta and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor — told graduates that they too can make a difference and find fulfillment by including service in their lives.

Huerta, a union organizer and advocate for the working poor, women and children, told Mount Holyoke graduates that the greatest challenge facing the United States, if not the world, is to “erase the ignorance we have in our society right now that creates the racism, the bigotry, the homophobia, the misogyny you know that we have now that exists in our society.

“Always be of service to others. Think, what can I do with my education that will help the people that don’t have an education? Because remember those people that I talked about, that work with their hands? They are really the ones that built the wealth of the country. So your job is to go out there and to serve those people, and to see how many leaders that you can create.

“You want to leave a legacy of justice — so that your children and your grandchildren will remember what you did to make the world a better place, not how much wealth you were able to accumulate.”

At Smith College, Winfrey referred to the power of service as “the secret to my success.” She told graduates to ask themselves the question, “How can I use my art, my painting, my music, my medical skills in service to that which is greater to myself?

“The understanding that there is an alignment between who you are and what you do is the real, true empowerment,” Winfrey said. “Shift the paradigm to service and the rewards will come.”

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Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, and the author of “From#Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation” took direct aim at President Donald Trump in her address at Hampshire College.

“The president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist megalomaniac. It is not a benign observation, but has meant tragic consequences for many people in our country — from terror-inducing raids in the communities of undocumented immigrants to his disparaging of refugees in search of freedom and respite.”

Taylor said it is up to “regular people” to respond. “History reminds us that regular people — not the elites, the wealthy or well-connected, but the regular people — have won against more trying odds than we face today. History reminds us that every important reform from the end of slavery, to the eight-hour workday, to the right to vote and beyond has come from the struggles of normal people.”

Warren, a U.S. senator since 2013, urged UMass graduates “to get more involved in our democracy. … Our country — our democracy — is not a machine that will run on its own. It needs you out there fighting for what you believe in.

“The list of possible issues that move you is long. … the cost of college, free speech, animal rescue, nuclear weapons, access to voting, … criminal justice reform, military veterans, clean water, national parks, homelessness, hunger, bullying, prenatal care.

“Find a group that is engaged on the issues that you care about,” Warren added. “A group makes a difference. More good ideas. More information. More ways to get your voice heard. One voice is powerful, but two voices are more than twice as powerful, and 10 or 10,000 voices created a force to be reckoned with.”

This year, in particular, we hope that powerful call to service resonates with a significant number of graduates.

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