We present the text of the address delivered by Dr. Martha B. Peláez, former regional advisor on aging to the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, to the Columbia School of Social Work’s 2015 graduates, at the ceremony held at the Beacon Theatre, May 20, 2015.

Thank you, Dean Takamura, faculty, administrators, family members and friends, and the Class of 2015.

Commencement ceremonies capture in a short moment lots of emotions—but what unites faculty, families and graduates today is a shared feeling of pride.  You have worked hard (at least most of you); you have accomplished a lot, and the journey will reveal itself in the years ahead to have been one of the most important journeys you will have taken.  So the pride, joy, and hope of great things to come are appropriate. They are well deserved.

To me, hope is the greatest virtue. I feel great hope as I witness the commencement of more than 400 graduates of the Columbia School of Social Work. I have read in the code of ethics of your profession that you are dedicated to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.”

Your profession has never been more relevant than it is today.

As science and technology have created a wonder world of gadgets and technical capabilities, social relations and the lived environment are becoming ever more frail and vulnerable. As mathematical geniuses of today envision ways of transforming the way we communicate, work and play; your profession is called upon to understand the “changing social context for human success” and create evidence-based social innovations to re-build a humane society for all—regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

The United States today is more diverse than ever. You live and breathe diversity at Columbia University—more so than the majority of universities across this nation and the world; and this is a good thing. A multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society enriches our lives, deepens our understanding of what it means to be human, and helps us grow with fewer prejudices.

But, are we, as a society, ready for an overwhelmingly multi-racial reality?

Demographers point out that in 2011 the US reached an important milestone:

“For the first time in the history of the country, more minority infants than white infants were born in a year.”

Today, we are re-inventing the classic American society. Many social scientists, economists, and policymakers see this new social reality as cause for a stronger, more vital economy in the US.

More importantly, they foresee increased multiracial Americans, Hispanics and Asians working together with older minorities and white Americans to foster greater creativity towards improved social environments and communities. According to U.S. Census Projections, by 2027 white Americans will become the “minority” in the age group of 18 to 29 year olds. Our families will look and be different and along the way to our new American society, we can expect social challenges and calls for profound investments in social innovations.

Columbia School of Social Work has been about your development of a career as a social innovator, professionals who will innovate and help to move the dial forward in the area of diversity, for example. The education you have received both in the classroom as well as in everyday interactions around the emergence of this new society has probably not been easy because race and ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences have divided us for thousands of years. But your education has taught you the importance of wedding science and values to lead in the development, testing, and implementation of just solutions so that we can all enjoy improved health and better social conditions as a human right.

My generation and your parent’s generation have not done so well in making the U.S. exceptional with regard to health and social indicators. The United States is failing—losing its competitive edge in health and social measures—when compared to other high-income countries. Research has shown that

U.S. mortality and health status ranks as one of the worst among high-income nations. And, mortality and health status disparities by race, income, and education….remain invariant or have increased during the last decades.

The Affordable Care Act, whether you like it or not, is giving us an opportunity to bend the health and social disparities curve by changing the way we think about health and provide and use health care. Your role as social work professionals can transform behavioral health, primary care, and community health across the life span. It can enable us to:

  • Decrease infant and child mortality in the U.S. (some third world countries have lower child mortality rates than we do in the USA)
  • Increase the number of young adults who feel supported by strong communities and will then be able to avoid the culture of gun violence and addiction.
  • Transform environments and change behaviors that increase mortality risks in people with multiple chronic conditions.

None of these challenges will be met with high medical technology or medication alone.

Your profession is positioned today to lead in developing innovative solutions in population health and cross-sector collaborations on behalf of those discriminated against by race/ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation; immigrants; and those living in poverty—most often women who are single and live alone.   All of you will find yourself involved in social and political advocacy or research because in order to build a better society, you will need to use the best knowledge, the best data, and speak truth to power in your best voice. Your profession has never been more relevant.

Before you lies the opportunity to bend the curve in a better direction–for all of humankind—and to move things forward. Rarely does any generational cohort achieve the sort of transformational change hoped for in a lifetime—change is a multi-generational process. But I am confident that your generation will re-direct the process of social change and successfully pointing the way to a more humane world.

As we recognize that poverty is increasing in our nation, we also recognize the relationship between poverty, where we live or “place”, and health.   ”Many say: “How we live, where we live, and the economic forces in our community can have dramatic effects on health”.

According to population health experts, medical and health care contributes only about 20 percent to health outcomes.  One’s health behaviors contribute 30 percent. Social and economic factors contribute 40 percent. The physical environment contributes 10 percent to health. This means that social work professionals can make a huge difference—you can affect 80 percent of health outcomes and more. I repeat: Your profession has never been more relevant than it is today.

In closing, I want to share with you a thought from a Nicaraguan writer, Gioconda Belli. She writes: “I continue to be another of the many citizens of this world who are passionately convinced that our planet will only survive if we eliminate the gross inequalities that divide its people.” With Gioconda, I hope you also, will continue to work in the best of your abilities and chosen field to eliminate the gross inequalities that divide us.

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