We present the text of the address delivered by Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, to the Columbia School of Social Work’s 2014 graduates, at the ceremony held at the Beacon Theatre, May 21, 2014.

lilliamThank you, Dean Takamura. It is an honor to be have been asked to speak at this graduation ceremony. This is an important day for you and your families, but more importantly, it is the beginning of your “life after school”. You are done, you have finished your education, and now the real challenge begins. Can you translate all that you have learned into a life of action, a life that seeks to transform the lives of others and in doing so, transform the society that you live in into a better place?

I think that it is safe to say that you chose to study social work because you wanted to make a difference in the world. At some point you decided that what really mattered to you was not to make money or to acquire power, but to work with the most vulnerable among us and change their lives and their futures for the better.

* * *

We live in an exciting and challenging time in New York City. I work for a Mayor that was elected because he talked about income inequality, about the tale of two cities. He talked about a New York that is vibrant, filled with affluent citizens that enjoy the wonderful cultural life that the City offers, the incredible restaurants and unique stores, and a New York in which 50% of its children are born in poverty, a New York that sees 53,000 homeless people being sheltered every night, 23,000 of them children, a New York in which 47% of its citizens live in poverty and in which too many people use more than 50% of their income to cover their rent, leaving them very little money to buy food and other necessary things, where too many people are hungry, where too many people have little access to quality health care.

We are also emerging from 20 years in which the programs that were meant to help poor people had become exceedingly punitive; where the predominant view was that people that are poor or homeless had made the choice to be in that condition, and that if only they would decide to get a job and behave like the rest of us, everything would be okay.  Of course, this view ignored the fact that 29% of the families that are currently living in shelter work full time, or that 70% of the people currently on public assistance are deemed too disabled to hold a full time job, or are working and their income is so low that they qualify for a grant.

So this is the challenge. Yours and mine.

We have to change the perception of poverty, why it exists, and how it diminishes all of us, but more importantly, we have to change the conditions that create poverty itself.

You have to begin to believe that poverty and income inequality can and must be changed. That they are not the “normal state of things”, and that a more just society is possible and achievable. Lyndon Johnson believed it when he created the Great Society Programs; Martin Luther King believed it when he dreamed of economic justice.

So you too have to believe that this is a New York that you can change for the better, a New York that is waiting for you to come and use your skills to build that better, more just society.  This means a society in which nobody lacks the things are absolutely necessary to live a life of dignity and opportunity:  enough food, healthcare, a home of your own, a good education and the possibility to dream and to believe that you can be whatever you want to be regardless of where and to whom you were born, the color of your skin, or your gender.

I know that many of you are not from New York and that many of you will go back to your home town and bring with you the tools to address your own issues, your own inequalities, your own tale of two cities. Because unfortunately, New York is not unique.

This inequality, this invisible divide between those who have much and those who lack almost everything, exists all over the world.

* * *

Somehow, you chose to be social workers. You chose to follow in the footsteps of Lillian Wald, and you chose a profession that defines itself as being on the side of the poor, the vulnerable, those who live at the margins of mainstream society. You chose to stand for justice, fairness, opportunity for all.

What a wonderful thing in an age in which we seem to pay more attention to Facebook than to the face in front of us; in an age in which we text instead of talk, in which we take selfies instead of pictures of others. You are indeed remarkable and I salute you.

Albert Camus, one of my favorite authors, said the following in his book The Stranger:

In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.

This is what your social work education has given you. The vision to dream of a better, a more just world. The knowledge of how to make the difference, and the strength that comes from knowing that you are doing the right thing and that in the end a meaningful life is defined by what you did to help others, not by how many toys you accumulated.

Go forth and set the world on fire!

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