Caucus Graduation Ceremony Speakers Inspire Class of 2017
Affiliate graduation ceremony keynote speakers (left to right): Courtney Cogburn, Shijuade Kadree, Yesika Montoya, and Suki Terada Ports
This year four of the caucuses at Columbia University’s School of Social Work hosted their own affiliate graduation ceremonies, in addition to the school’s ceremony held on May 18 to celebrate the entire class of 2017. Click on the links below to read and be inspired by the remarks delivered by the four keynote speakers:
The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Suki Terada Ports at the Asia Pacific Islander (API) Caucus’s special graduation ceremony, held in Room 311/312 of the Social Work Building on the evening of Tuesday, May 16, 2017.
Good evening, graduates of the class of 2017, your parents and other family members, your professors, your fellow student colleagues here at the Columbia School of Social Work, your partners and friends.
This is the first graduation-related speech I have ever given among countless talks from three minutes to over an hour, from a small group of parents in a basement room of a church in central Harlem; to an auditorium of hundreds in Washington, DC; to a large room in Japan at an international AIDS conference opened by the Crown Prince of Japan and translated into six languages. Yet this talk tonight makes me very nervous because your ceremony tonight is precedent setting. Your program committee has bestowed this honor upon me to be the first speaker at the first Asian and Pacific Islander graduation ceremony here at the School of Social Work*.
How many of you know that this building is right around the corner from where I grew up? It’s also across the street from NYC’s first early childhood school I was proud as a school board member to help get built.
Your school proudly represents many things starting with its bricks and mortar—this building unlike many in NYC was finished before contract deadline and below cost, an uncommon feat accomplished by Dean Takamura, who set that record. But most astoundingly she—a Japanese American woman from Hawaii—is the first woman of Asian ancestry to be a dean in 300 years of Columbia’s history. You recently lost administrator/professor Marianne Yoshioka to my alma mater, the Smith College School of Social Work, where she became the first dean of Japanese Canadian ancestry.
When I graduated from Smith in 1956, I was the only American-born woman of any color in my class of 640. There were two “foreign International” students—one from Korea and one from India. Look around you at your classmates and think of your school as a whole and look at the audience tonight.
You have chosen a profession that has no limits and yet it is misunderstood and people underestimate the possibilities of what you can accomplish. I know some of your families may have secretly hoped you might become their first doctor, lawyer or hedge fund director. What they did not know is that you have chosen a path with many challenges, many difficult decisions, as you strive to advise families within a world that is changing daily by unexpected election results, critical budget cuts, and missiles being launched to a nearby sea or a planet thousands of miles away.
Some of you are Asian Americans who speak only English—yet you will face clients who upon seeing your face will hope you speak their own language so they can share their problems and count on you to understand what they are describing as well as their culture and history. But once again they will feel disappointed, discouraged and alone—especially if they are recent immigrants—because they have been surrounded by English- or Spanish-speaking professionals.
You have spent hours listening to classroom lectures, read many books, journals or other monograph articles, and you have spent hours in clinics or other on-site internships and hopefully also listened in on government hearings, budget-determining sessions and not-for-profit community meetings—if you haven’t, there is still time to participate in this year’s city council budget hearings.
But now comes the hard part—whatever job you end up taking and wherever it takes you, you have a heavy weight to carry. You will be the life line for some families and you will be making decisions where you have to choose between expediency and what in the long run will bring a smile to the heart if not the face of your clients; between what will make your family and friends proud of you now, or in retrospect years from now. Most importantly, what will you see in the mirror when you look at it the day after you have helped a family or an organization you work for make an important decision during a crisis? Can you say, yes, they will be as happy as they can given the situation and yes, they will be able to trust me because they realize I have been as honest and thoughtful as I can be at this particular time? Will your decision be able to stand up to your learning here, and to the standards taught by your family and the many years of tradition set by your culture?
As Asians we are often misunderstood or subject to stereotypes. For example, few public schools and limited independent, private or parochial schools have an extensive and inclusive curriculum about Asian and Pacific Island history, culture, or language. Many Americans, men particularly, have learned about China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines because of war. That is the reason they know where Hawaii and Pearl Harbor are. Some Americans are only learning now why Korea is divided into North and South; yet many of you have had families torn apart in the aftermath of the Korean War, for example.
Among Asian Americans, families are split by different decades of immigration to the United States.
There are commonalities among most of our countries, though the precise traditions may be enacted differently—such as the following:
1) We do not question the decisions of elders and those in authority: we hold a respect for the learning and position held by those in authority.
2) We do not speak of illness or death.
3) We do not speak of disabilities within the family including mental health.
4) We do not speak of sex including using words equivalent to homosexual, lesbian or transgender.
5) We do not recognize drug addiction as a problem though everything from pot to oxycodone might be in the family medicine cabinet.
6) We do not admit to family problems such as domestic violence or money issues.
Given these cultural limitations, how do you advise your clients on necessary services and explain to them the social worker’s role? How do you communicate when there is no common language? New York State is beginning to recognize seven languages—only several of which are Asian; so translation is a crucial part of providing real help. The quality of translation is part of the problem but even recognizing that need is slowly becoming recognized. Written materials in English (sometimes with Spanish translations) limits the effectiveness of disease prevention and options for care. Emergency room care, too, is limited by language accessibility.
A major issue is the contrast between Asian immigrants with an education and those with limited education and skills—the term “model minority” means the latter, the less educated, tend to be neglected if not invisible.
Asians are the first and thus far the only race in America to have been subject to laws based upon their race, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan and the limitation of being able to own land or property in the US.
World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans is the second example of rounding up people based on race after Native Americans who were rounded up into reservations or killed. When the suggestion of rounding up Muslims was made, the Japanese community said no, never again. It is now necessary for those of us who are social workers to advocate for civil rights and justice: we can no longer stand back as silent or impartial professionals.
Unionism is another example. Asian communities include people who are both pro or against, with nuances of class being raised.
Being of Asian ancestry carries responsibilities and you have a lot to carry upon your shoulders—but carry those responsibilities with pride, carry them with the knowledge that your clients can place their life issues in your hands because they know they can trust you based upon the traditions of your family, based upon your Asian heritage, and now, based upon your Columbia School of Social Work degree, indicating you have had the best education. Good luck and whenever something seems impossible, pull out not your crying hanky but a smile and the ability to laugh!
*In 2006, a graduation reception and recognition ceremony was held by the then Asian Caucus.
The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Professor Courtney Cogburn at the Black Caucus’s special graduation ceremony, held at Harlem Stage on the evening of Tuesday, May 16, 2017. She called it “A Love Letter to the CSSW Black Caucus.”
Thank you to the Black Caucus for the invitation to speak with you today. I am honored to share in this celebration of your accomplishments.
Before I begin I would like for us to connect with each other and this space. If you’ll indulge me for just a moment, we’re going to do a little call and response. Listen to the words, feel the call, feel the response:
If you are not graduating today (non-graduates), you’ll be starting with the call: “I see you.” If you are graduating today, you’ll respond: “I am here.”
Graduates—if you’re comfortable doing so—join hands and close your eyes:
Non-graduates: I see you.
Graduates: I am here.
Non-graduates: I see you.
Graduates: I am here.
Whenever my Uncle Son would hear someone lament about growing a year older, he’d say “Everybody don’t make it.” And this is true… everybody don’t make it. But you have—and you do—in a million ways, every day, in ways that many could never understand, will never see and under a weight that most could never carry.
I understand. And I see you. [I am here]
Far too often, your Blackness is filled with worry, anxiety, anger and disappointment. For many of you, the elation of beginning your journey as a graduate student at Columbia was very quickly met with doubt—of your choices, your belief in social work and social workers, your future, in whether you’d make it to this seat today. But this letter is not about your pain and it is not to encourage you to keep up the fight—or to resist. In part because I know you will: your very existence—waking, walking and breathing—is resistance.
So in my address to you today, I will not focus on burdens or resistance. Today is about joy. And this is my love letter to you.
Dear Black Caucus,
So uh—“hey girl.” I see you—hair done, nails done, everything did (or not—because some days it’s just enough that you got out of bed… but you still cute though. I’ve heard your laughter fill the hallways, your smiles greeting me in the elevator, and I’ve seen your shared knowing side-eyes in my class. Did you notice my side-eye too? “We’re here.” Oh, the joy of a little well-timed side-eye. I’ve seen your trust grow—in yourself, your limits, your strengths. I’ve heard your voice grow louder—stronger—I’ve seen you learning that comfort can’t always be found in silence and that thriving can be just as hard as surviving—so you might as well thrive. I’ve seen you find comfort in someone like me standing at the front of your classroom. I hope you saw me too—finding as much comfort in you sitting before me. I’m not reducing you to your looks—the symbol of you. I know you’re deeper than that—more complex and versatile than I’ll really ever have the pleasure of knowing.
But here’s what I do know… some people find your joy confusing. And that’s not your problem to solve. Leave them wondering where you secret lies. Because your joy is not for public consumption. It’s not for assessment, judgment or understanding. It is yours. Laugh loudly, flow seamlessly in and out of accents, language, ways of knowing, ways of being, your Jordans, your Birkenstocks, your locks, your blowout, your fade, your kinky indifference, Bid Whist, Spades, or musical theater references in charades, Dr. Who and Real Housewives, Fetty Wap and Adele—your need to Google “popular rappers” while still firmly gripping your Black card (because you don’t know my life), firmly gripping the full range of your Black joy. This is your joy. For you. By you.
Here’s what I know…we gon’ be alright—we already are—we have always been. This does not deny our pain or struggle but rejects being defined by it. Remember. Remember when you were unsure of the way forward and took the next step anyway. Remember when it didn’t seem things could get any worse and they did, and you took the next step anyway. You said “might don’t make it”—but you did.
Joy is not an outcome, it’s an assessment—a world view. It’s a decision about how to see the world and your unique place in it. It is not always evident in the details, the day-to-day but in broad strokes of survival, getting by, elation, thriving, surprise—and in acceptance.
This letter is here to remind you that you are powerful, vibrant and beautifully forged through fires that raged long before your physical existence—fires that you stoke and that will continue long after you. Mother Maya lets us know that joy is in the fire in your eyes, the flash of your teeth, the sun of your smile, the grace of your style. This letter is here to remind you of your joy. Unapologetic, beautiful—Black joy.
This letter is here to remind you that you not only matter… but that you are admired, necessary and loved. And your joy is my joy. Congratulations, graduates—and I see you.
The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Yesika Montoya, at the Latinx Caucus‘s special graduation ceremony, held at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2017. Ms. Montoya is a clinical social worker and psychologist who works at CSSW both as an associate director in the advising office and as an adjunct lecturer.
It is a privilege and an honor for me to speak tonight at the Columbia University School of Social Work’s (CSSW) Latinx Graduation Ceremony. I celebrate with you, your families, and friends for this incredible achievement. I particularly want to recognize the love, support, and effort from your parents, family members and loved ones, for they have accompanied you during this amazing journey.
Es un honor y un privilegio para mí poder hablar ante ustedes en la Ceremonia de Graduación Latinx de la Universidad de Columbia – Facultad de Trabajo Social. Hoy celebro con ustedes graduandos, sus familiares y amigos por este logro tan maravilloso. Particularmente quiero reconocer el amor, apoyo y esfuerzo de sus padres, familiares y las personas significativas de sus vidas quienes los han acompañado en esta trayectoria.
There are many areas that I want to share with you tonight, know that I promise you that I will not take too long and I will try to be brief.
According to the report Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino, without regard to race, had the lowest educational attainment. Most importantly, less than 12 percent of the total population in the U.S. completes a Master’s degree and only 3 percent attain a Ph.D., a doctoral degree. So let me highlight this huge accomplishment: you are part of the 12 percent of the population who have attained this level of education, having successfully completed a Master of Science degree at a university that is recognized internationally.
I know there were many nights where you had to stay up, many papers that you had to write, lots of pressure and even tears. But I hope that all of you can say that it was worth it!
Son muchas las cosas que me gustaría compartir con ustedes esta noche, pero les prometo que voy a intentar no tomar mucho tiempo y seré breve.
De acuerdo a la Oficina del Censo y el reporte del 2014 acerca del Acceso y Nivel de Educación en los Estados Unidos las personas que se identifican como Hispanos o Latinos, tienen el nivel más bajo de logros académicos. Adicionalmente, menos del 12 de toda la población en los Estados Unidos (incluyendo todas las razas) tienen acceso a nivel de educación de Maestría y solo 3% de la población tiene acceso a nivel de Doctorado. Así que quiero nuevamente resaltar, este gran triunfo. Ustedes hacen parte del 12% de la población que tuvo acceso y exitosamente completo su Maestría en Ciencias de Trabajo Social de una Universidad reconocida internacionalmente.
Yo se que hubo muchas trasnochadas, muchos ensayos escritos, presión e incluso lagrimas. Pero espero que todos ustedes hoy puedan decir que valió la pena.
These statistics about the level of education are not random; they are a reflection of the dynamics of power, race, oppression and privilege present in our society. Sadly at this time, discrimination against Latinos and other groups in the United States has risen and the political climate has facilitated it. Many groups of people have been targeted, discriminated against and oppressed. This is not new, but to so many degrees it is more intense. So you may ask, what do we do now? Know that you were born to deal with a time like this. You are equipped to make a difference.
Paulo Freire, a Brazilian organizer and educator, in his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says that “the oppressed can change their circumstances through praxis—reflection and action, where a balance between theory and practice is achieved—directed at the structures to be transformed; and that in order to do that, they have to learn to analyze their lives and to “throw aside internalized oppression.” It is like developing critical awareness of their (own) condition, and, with their allies, they must “struggle for liberation.”
Estas estadísticas no son gratuitas. Ellas son el reflejo de las dinámicas de raza, opresión, privilegio y poder las cuales están presentes en nuestra sociedad. Desafortunadamente, la discriminación en contra de la población latina y otros grupos en los Estados Unidos se han incrementado y el clima político actual lo ha facilitado. Estos patrones de discriminación no son nuevos, pero en este momento son expresados más intensamente.
?Y entonces qué hacemos?
Yo creo que ustedes nacieron específicamente para vivir en este momento. Ustedes están equipados para cambiar ambientes y ser la diferencia.
Paulo Freire, un organizador y educador brasilero, escribió en su libro Pedagogía del Oprimido, que el oprimido puede cambiar sus circunstancias a través de Praxis – refección y acción (hacia las estructuras que necesitan ser transformadas) – y para que las personas puedan hacer esto necesita aprender a analizar sus vidas y hacer a un lado esa opresión internalizada, y desarrollar una consciencia crítica con sus aliados para poder luchar por su liberación.
As social workers, you are designed to be thermostats and not only thermometers. A thermometer tells you the temperature in the room. A thermostat regulates the temperature. Through different situations in your life, you will have the freedom to respond instead of react.
Therefore, create spaces where you and others are celebrated, not where you or others are tolerated. I believe that you are carriers of loaded weapons that will help you to transform environments and people around you: love, honor and encouragement.
Ustedes como trabajadores sociales ya están diseñados para ser termostatos y no solamente termómetros. Un termómetro, es guiado por las circunstancias a su alrededor y no tiene la capacidad de controlar su propia temperatura, sino que depende de otros factores le indiquen si debe subir o bajar. Un termostato influencia lo que lo rodea. A diferencia del termómetro, el termostato determina la temperatura, ya sea calor o frio, el termostato es quien dicta el ambiente. A través de muchas situaciones en sus vidas, ustedes tendrán la liberta de escoger si quieren reaccionar o responder ante ellas.
Por lo tanto creen espacios donde ustedes y las personas que lo rodean sean celebradas y no solamente toleradas. Yo creo que ustedes ya están equipados con armas súper poderosas que van a ayudarlos a transformar situaciones y las personas alrededor suyo: Amor, Honor, y Motivación.
You are love, full of compassion for others. Love like crazy, even when you feel that people do not deserve it. It will mean that they need it the most. Here is a common definition of love (from 1 Corinthians 13):
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the trespass
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.
Ustedes son amor, y están llenos de compasión por las otras personas. Amen ilimitadamente, incluso amen mas cuando sientan que una persona no se lo merece. Esto significa que este individual lo necesita aún más. Ustedes se sorprenderán de los resultados.
Usare una definición de amor que de pronto muchos de ustedes ya han escuchado:
El amor es paciente, es bondadoso. El amor no es envidioso ni jactancioso ni orgulloso. 5 No se comporta con rudeza, no es egoísta, no se enoja fácilmente, no guarda rencor. 6 El amor no se deleita en la maldad, sino que se regocija con la verdad. 7 Todo lo disculpa, todo lo cree, todo lo espera, todo lo soporta. 8 El amor nunca muere o jamás se extingue.
Honor people. You are celebrating the fact that they are unique and special. Honor is a noun and a verb with different meanings: as a verb it is to regard with great respect. Believe in others and their potential as you will want people to believe in you. It is a transformative power. Always assume people’s best intentions and look for the best qualities to highlight.
Honren a las personas. Honrar es un verbo transitivo: es mostrar respeto y consideración hacia una persona o realizar una prueba pública de respeto, admiración y estima. Honrar para ustedes es algo innato, es la celebración de alguien que es único e inigualable un ser en el mundo. (No hay dos personas que sean iguales). Crean en el potencial de las personas alrededor suyo. El honrar transforma. Siempre asuman la mejor intención de parte de otros individuos y busquen cuáles son sus mejores cualidades por resaltar.
Finally, I want to invite you to motivate people around you to be the best that they can be. Remind them of the good qualities that they have. Bring life to them by partnership with their dreams. Believe in them how, perhaps someone, believed in you. You will create space only for growth and fully manifest the best human beings that they can be.
You are world changers and I do not have any doubt that you will be leaders that will have a significant impact in the communities where you will be a participant.
It is my honor to call you colleagues, and I look forward to following your professional life and success.
Finalmente, quiero invitarlos a que motiven a las personas que los rodean, para que ellos sean lo mejor que ellos pueden ser. Recuérdenles acerca de las buenas cualidades y alimenten sus sueños. Crean en ellos como alguna vez alguien creyó en usted. De esta forma, solo abra un espacio para que produzca crecimiento en sus vidas y haya una manifestación completa versión mejorada de estos seres humanos.
Ustedes son cambiadores del mundo y no tengo duda alguna que van a ser líderes creando un impacto significativo en las comunidades donde van a estar viviendo- creciendo y desarrollándose.
Es un orgullo poder llamarlos colegas y seguiré con emoción sus carreras y éxitos profesionales.
The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Shijuade Kadree at the Queer Caucus’s special graduation ceremony, held in Lerner Hall on the Morningside Campus the afternoon of Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Ms. Kadree is the Senior Director of Government Programs and Affairs at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Notably, this was the first-ever Lavender Ceremony the School of Social Work has sponsored.
Thank you all for the distinct pleasure of being your keynote at this inaugural graduation ceremony for the Queer Caucus of the Columbia School of Social Work. It was the most pleasant surprise to receive the initial invitation and I’m so happy that I am here today. So to the president of the caucus, the faculty and staff of the social work program, and to you, student members of this powerful group, I thank you for the honor of spending this day with you.
To the parents, partners, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, all the chosen family and friends who stood by this class, cheered them on, helped them get here today—this is your day too. You deserve a big round of applause, as well.
I imagine some of you are surprised you’ve made it to this moment. Leadership activities, papers, externships, classes, missing credits, professors, office hours, juggling jobs, relationships, life in New York City, endless train delays—but you got here. And you’ve all worked hard to reach this day. You studied, volunteered, you interned. You’ve made lifelong friends and discovered exactly what you’re made of. Even if you probably had a moment or two at 3:00 a.m. wondering why in the world you wanted to go to grad school in the first place. With two graduate degrees myself, I can truly empathize with what you may have experienced. But guess what—you’re here now, and I am here to congratulate you and join this momentous celebration!
Now, enough of the ego stroking and on to the speech! Tiffany asked me to speak on resiliency today, and as I prepared for my speech, I contemplated the ways this conversation could go. Should I be a light and discuss my daily resilience in not eating insomnia cookies everyday? This is not a joke—ask my wife, who is sitting in the back. Or perhaps do I take an approach with more gravitas, such as how to resist against the daily bombardment of seemingly catastrophic news from around the world.
And as I sat one evening thinking this through, I looked up at my son playing in front of me. You see, I have the most beautiful 15-month-old, inside and out. And I don’t need you to validate this, because I am confident that he is indeed, the most amazing person I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He is amazing for many reasons, but for one, he is constantly teaching me about myself, by simply being himself. He is learning to walk right now, and falls down—and, in some cases, chooses to stop. Yet he is not discouraged by the falls, or by realizing he might need to take a break, to literally pause and figure out how he wants to approach his next step. Sometimes he even squats mid-walk to take a break, carefully straightens up, stands tall, and takes a few more steps. I am humbled by his comfort with failure and concurrently inspired by his resilience: his ability to recover quickly from apparent challenge and to work steadily towards his goal—in this case, walking.
It got me thinking about the time and place in history we are in right now, and my own ability to resist and to persist steadily toward my own goals. Admittedly, I woke up on November 9th upset and discouraged like I imagine many of you did. I started immediately with the drama—the “woe is me, we are all going to die in a nuclear war”; but then I moved to the opposite end of the spectrum, into the “Well… many have suffered before me so no use in complaining… just take it.” And for several weeks, I went back and forth… back and forth… like a pendulum, trying to decide whether I wanted to remain optimistic, fatalistic or… honestly, just eat oreos all day and shut out all of the noise.
But then I took a note from son and took a step back, stopped talking about the outside world and became more intentionally introspective to figure out what I wanted my own resistance story to be. I’m a queer, black woman, first-generation American daughter of Nigerian and Trinidadian parents, in an interracial marriage, with, as I mentioned, a beautiful son. And I’m doing the work I want to be doing at the second largest LGBT Center in the world, walking relatively carefree, wherever I please in this massive city every day. If I had to pick a point in history in which to live, my goodness, it’s today! Why? Why not?! I am allowed to live out loud and in some cases have my identities acknowledged and celebrated; and, where I confront challenges in doing so, I wake up with the privilege of being able to do something about the areas where there are still significant lags in progress.
As social workers, you too have the privilege of effecting meaningful change… and to whom much is given, much is expected. You are a special breed. The international definition of social work provides that social justice and human rights are fundamental tenets of your chosen profession. As a result, social workers are powerful voices in any activist movement. You are uniquely focused on identifying opportunities for growth, supporting and guiding individuals, families, organizations and workplaces through these challenges. And most importantly for today’s world, like my son learning to walk, you don’t give up simply because your first attempt at problem solving is unsuccessful. I would venture that social workers—no matter where your personal and professional life takes you—are crucial to shaping and maintaining the social fabric of society. So I commend you all for choosing this career pathway and successfully navigating the last few years of graduate coursework at one of the top universities in the world, which is no small feat! But now it’s time to take what you’ve learned and put it into action.
With all that is going on in our world today—especially for the younger generations, who seem to have forgotten that time existed before Apple watches and Snapchat—it is easy to get mired down in the narrative that we’re the only ones… the only ones who have experienced such harms, that there has never been a more terrible national leader, a more ferocious partisan split in congress, that there has never been another time in history when we have treated each other with such callous disregard. But by opening a history book, you know that’s not true. Generations have struggled and have persevered to do better for the next generation. You understand that because you are sitting here today in an effort to persevere and figure out what your contribution to history will be. You have already made a commitment to seeking equity and justice for all by choosing to study at Columbia, which has a robust history of social justice initiatives and alumni who have settled around the world and executed brilliant activism. Well, change requires more than strong academics, righteous outrage, a hashtag, or mere awareness; it requires a strategy. How you do that… how you meet these challenges… how you bring about change will ultimately be up to you, but I am here to share my suggestions on how the simple act of listening can serve as the cornerstone of your strategy for change.
To get things moving, I’m going to ask everyone to raise their arm up and form this “ok” symbol with your hands. Everyone doing it? Ok! Now, place this symbol on your chin [Shijuade Kadre moves okay gesture to her cheek, not her chin.]
Look around. Consider the placement of your own hand. Were your actions different than my message? Did you place your hand on your cheek like I did or on your chin as I directed? Did you decide to do what’s expected by following the trusted leader, or are you really listening and doing what you believe is right, even though it may go against your observation of what everyone else is doing?
This was a simple exercise in listening, but for me, it’s a significant metaphor in how you will choose to engage in your own activism and resistance to leave your mark on the social fabric of today’s society.
At the LGBT Center, we have a famed bathroom featuring a mural by renowned, gay and HIV-positive artist Keith Haring. It provides bold and empowering depictions of gay, male sexuality. It was commissioned—along with several other pieces of art—in 1989 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. It’s the most visited room in the entire center. During one of my tours with a youth group, I was explaining the background of the room when one young person saw the date of the art and exclaimed “1989?! There were gay people back then?!” And then another young person said: “Wow. I’d never met another LGBT person until I came to the center. I thought I was the only one.” I was amused by their naïveté, but also a little concerned about their lack of context. So to make sure we are in the same about the resistance in LGBTQ community, I want to provide some context.
Let’s start with some quick and dirty facts pertaining to LGBTQ civil rights. I’m a lawyer—so first, let me offer a disclaimer that this is by no means a comprehensive or substantively representative rundown of our history. But let me offer a few “highlights” shall we say from the last two hundred or so years:
-1814: The term “crime against nature” is first added to the U.S. criminal code.
-1953: President Dwight Eisenhower issues an executive order banning LGBTQ individuals from working for the federal government.
-1973: Maryland becomes the first state to codify a ban on same-sex marriage.
-1978: Celebrated LGBTQ activist Harvey Milk is murdered in his San Francisco office, alongside then mayor Greg Moscone, by Dan White.
-1992: AIDS is the number-one cause of death for men ages 25–42 in the United States. I want to repeat that for you. AIDS is the number one cause of death for men ages 25–42 in the United States. Literally, a generation of men lost to the disease.
-1993: President Bill Clinton signs a military policy directive that we now know as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
-1998: A college student is kidnapped, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence and left in a field. Matthew Shepard subsequently dies from this brutal hate crime, bringing national attention to the visceral hatred for LGBTQ people and to the need for legislative and community protection.
-2017: There are nine reported homicides of transgender women of color—note, I said “reported” because we all know that reporting on the suffering of marginalized groups does not make the media.
-2017: In legislative sessions around the country, over 50 bills have been introduced that will have direct impacts on the civil rights of LGBTQ individuals and their families.
One would think that with this kind of suffering, these consistent losses, the LGBTQ community would want to give up. But have we done that? No, not at all! We have persisted in our fight for equity in the eyes of the law, of our peers and of our families. Even when it felt like all was lost, we have resisted. How have we done so?
-in the founding of organizations to acknowledge and celebrate our identity. The first formally established organization for gay rights was the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago in 1924. It flourished briefly before dying off, and it was almost 25 years before another LGBTQ-focused organization would make its mark on history. In 1950, the Mattachine Society was founded in Los Angeles with a focus on gay civil rights, followed shortly thereafter by the Daughters of Bilitis. The DOB was founded in San Francisco in 1955 and focused exclusively on lesbian civil rights.
-in the courtroom to protect our freedom to express our identity. Many of these early groups had secret publications—secret not only to protect the identity of the authors and publishers, but because publishing any content on the subject of homosexuality was considered obscene content at the time. But through persistent litigation on the topic, the law changed in a 1958 supreme court case—One, inc. v. Olesen. In other words, writing about topics pertaining specifically to sexual orientation was considered obscene, warranting of arrest and incarceration less than 60 years ago, until our forebearers in history fought against it.
-in academic settings, to spread knowledge of identity. As often happens in a revolution, the youth make their voices heard, starting right here at Columbia University. As I’m sure you all know, the first gay rights student organization on a campus was founded at Columbia in 1967 and called the Student Homophile League, now known as the Columbia Queer Alliance.
-by ensuring that our chosen homes were kept safe. There is brewing frustration over unjust treatment for queer folks. Fueled by Vietnam War protests and civil rights movements for black, Latino and Asian communities nationally, it all really began to come to a head in the late 1960s. In the summer of ’69—no, not the Bryan Adams song—a little event at a small bar in the West Village took place, an event that is largely responsible for why we can all sit here comfortably today, authentic in our identities to celebrate this rite of passage. Where names like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera became immortalized in our civil rights history. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll save you the Google search on your phone—I’m talking about the Stonewall riots, which are seen as one of the catalysts of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. Do you realize the significance of that uprising? Stonewall is just not a place to get drinks today, where the community gathers to celebrate or mourn events that impact us. Prior to the Stonewall riots, almost everything about being an LGBTQ person was prohibited by law, from women wearing “men’s” pants—yes, that’s what I said, wearing men’s pants—to engaging in intimate acts with someone of the same sex.
So why the history lesson as we talk about LGBTQ resistance today? Because of sankofa. From the Twi language of Ghana, it literally translates to “go back and get it”—but it’s full meaning embraces this notion that to know where we are going, we must know where we have come from. You are the stewards of our history. You are responsible for telling that youth in the Keith Haring bathroom that, yes, there were LGBTQ folks in 1989 and that we have been around since the beginning of time!
So my first suggestion in your strategic plan for change is to listen to the voices and stories of the past to know where you have come from, but with one caveat… don’t let these stories dictate where you must go next. If those pioneers of LGBTQ civil rights had let the past failures for progress dictate how the future would look, we would not be sitting here today. Like learning to walk, they had to fail many times before they were successful.
However, we don’t get to create change alone, without allies. You can only create change by fostering ally-ship and building coalitions with your supposed opponents. When we think about resisting against a harm, challenge or other destructive force, we naturally first turn to those individuals who are “like” us—same ideologies, identities, politics, upbringing, education and so on. It makes sense—from a young age this is what we are taught and it’s easy to listen to those voices. It feels good to be with friends! Well, it’s time to advance that elementary idea and realize that differences are opportunities for growth and celebration, rather than a means to destruction. You need to build diverse coalitions and campaigns. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—one of the earliest and most powerful civil rights organizations for African Americans—once said: “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.”
So, my second suggestion is to encourage you to… listen to your opponents. I was a public defender in Brooklyn for several years before moving into the policy arena. I loved being in the courtroom fighting with all the legal savvy I could muster and fighting zealously for my clients. And folks, I was good at my job….I mean really good. If you know anything about public defense, it’s not about how many cases you literally win, but about how you influence the court to provide your client with the due process they are are entitled to and to resist against any preconceived notions that your client has instantly attached to them once they enter the courtroom. Part of my success was simply listening to opposing counsel. Of course they had a goal—successfully prosecuting a case, wrapping it up quickly. Guess what, I had a goal too, getting the best outcome for my client and… quickly.
So often upon first interaction, my opposing counsel expected me to just fight them on every aspect of my case because we were adversaries in the courtroom. And don’t get me wrong, I wanted to because some of them are frustrating, vile and condescending, ha! But I chose a different tactic. Tell me what you want and I’ll let you know what I’m willing to concede; you can do the same and if we can’t find some common ground, be prepared for me to present the most passionate advocacy I can. But these initial conversations were crucial to my success. I was direct and honest about my intentions with opposing counsel; but listening to them and knowing their motives better informed my trial strategy. Listening to their witnesses on the stand, knowing the prosecution’s theory, fine-tuned my ear to catch inconsistencies in testimony and amplify them to my client’s favor. My opposing counsels over time began appreciating working with me, even if they knew it would be hard, because they knew I would be willing to listen to them. And they often made favorable, unsolicited offers that were good for settling or ending my client’s cases. As a result, I was highly successful and respected by my clients and opposing counsel alike in a system that was designed to be destructive towards my primarily black and brown clients.
Let me give you another example. I represent the interests of the LGBTQ community at the local, state and federal levels, through the lenses of the thousands of clients and visitors that the LGBT Center sees each year. As the second largest LGBTQ community center in the world, we, for years, have based our policy and funding advocacy on an approach that required us to reach out to like-minded allies who understand the needs of our community and would be willing to do what’s needed for us. That may work for the city which tends to be more progressive, but in the state and federal government, we have more opponents than proponents. We worked so hard to distinguish the LGBTQ community as unique and needing specialized care, that if an individual was not supportive of or does not otherwise relate to us, we were immediately dismissive of them. Especially post-marriage equality in 2012, which has left the most vulnerable LGBTQ New Yorkers—youth, immigrants, TGNC [Transgender/Gender Non-Conforming] and people of color—in the lurch. So, for my advocacy to elected officials this past year, I decided to change my approach, pitch, the tone and tenor. Instead of going to the usually progressive government officials and saying “Hey, please give us some policy and funding support because we’re queer, you support us, it’s all good!” I reached across the table to unlikely partners, and worked on the notion of reminding these partners that LGBTQ people are just people too.
Do you care about youth homelessness? Guess what, approximately 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Do you want to see a decrease of state support for low income individuals? Well we do too, which is why we created economic opportunities programming to support our low-income LGBTQ-identified clients get the requisite job skills they need to have stable careers. Hate youth spending long periods of time in foster care, moving from home to home? Well, me too, especially since roughly 20 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ and constitute a demographic that gets re-homed at higher rates than their heterosexual peers. To get to this place, I had to listen to my political opponents in order to understand what they wanted and how to get them to see that we actually wanted the same thing.
As a result of listening to what my opponents had to say, I was able to win cases and positive outcomes for my clients, and for the first time in almost ten years, raise hundred of thousands of dollars for the LGBTQ Center from the state—from moderate and conservative politicians.
You need allies for any change in a democracy, and when you listen, both sides of the issue can win. And I’m not trying to offer you some hokey, kumbayah advice. I am sharing what I have learned from my own experiences and, from close observation over time, from the experiences of others.
In a democracy, change requires compromise, even when you’re sure you are right because—no surprise here—the other side believes they are right too. When you ignore the voices that are in opposition to you, you give them a platform, a reason to feel martyred and to garner attention. Look at what happened in the November elections. Over and over again we’ve heard that those who voted for Trump felt marginalized or simply excluded from the the progressive voices at table; that there voices weren’t heard, their ongoing challenges did not count. And look where that got us.
So rather than shutting your opponents out, I ask you to dig deeper and to extend your version of an olive branch. And it is not easy. When you have someone who challenges the very core of your beliefs, it is sometimes nothing short of an act of god to keep your composure. But one of the most important things I have learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself. By osmosis, some of your ideas start to resonate with them and vice versa. Over time, you may realize that you are not as diametrically opposed as once thought. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. Look for the lowest common denominator and begin building your case from there.
But how do you know when to engage the folks on the other side of the table? Well, that question brings me to my third suggestion: listen… to you inner guidance.
In my opinion, it’s the most important, but likely most difficult, suggestion for strategic change. To listen to yourself, your inner guidance. It’s your gut feeling, a hunch, the little voice in your head that seems to pop up right before you take a big step. The one that has propelled you forward to be sitting here with me today. I know, it’s hard to listen to something that, by definition, lacks concrete evidence. It seems unreasonable to rely on something seemingly so indistinct when making decisions, because we inherently mistrust ideas without evidence to support them. And to make matters worse, when presented with concrete “evidence” that contradicts one’s instinct, you’re easily swayed.
But I want to not just encourage you, but really task with you using these refined listening skills from your studies and work, and apply them inward. Think. And think things through. Feel. And respect what you feel. Be intuitive—listen to you inner guidance, and let that be your guiding light through these dark tunnels of history. Research has continually validated this notion that your instincts are usually right…so how do you learn to trust yourself more?
Great leaders in history and people we hold in esteem today are not people who used spreadsheets to convince a skeptical audience of their views. Do you think that when Marsha P. Johnson threw that rock into the Stonewall Inn, to finally say to the police, “Enough is enough!” that she paused to check in with folks around her that this was good decision? Of course not, and thank goodness she didn’t or we may not be standing here together today. If she made a decision based on history, on evidence, she would know that resisting the police is futile and would likely result in harm to herself. The raids on Stonewall and other queer bars would continue and result in arrests. She should have known this would be the same. But something else told her it would be different, that this fight was going to be worth it… she followed her instinct and it worked.
So how do you learn to listen to your instinct? Like any skill, it can be studied and mastered. Take the time to be quiet and reflect, and in so doing, listen and label to your feelings. Engaging in emotional labeling allows you to get in touch with what your inner guidance might be saying to you. Also, list every time your instinct served you well, as well as times when you ignored it and the consequences of doing so. Finally, give yourself constraints. When presented with an opportunity or dilemma, give yourself a time constraint, say 30 minutes, and see where you land—those initial stirrings are your gut leading you somewhere. As you practice this, you will see that you’re able to refine this instinct, your intuition, to help guide you.
I assure you, there will be times ahead, when it’s your time to be fearless, your time to make history and by listening to your inner guidance, you will be able to do so and feel harmonious in those actions. And let me be clear, I don’t mean that you will make history by being in the news, winning elected office or “solving” some world ill. Well, maybe some of you will and I hope you cite this speech as being the turning point in your career! But truly, what I mean is that you will make a difference in the lives you touch, some differences that are seen, some that are not, many that will be thankless, but significant differences nonetheless. From my own varied experiences, the changes that have felt most impactful have been those that have been supported by this inner guidance, even if it didn’t seem right at the time.
Remember that exercise at the beginning of our time together. What did you do with your hand? Why did you place it where you did? What did you learn about yourself after I explained the exercise? I know the world’s problems are not as simple as figuring out where to put your hand, but I want you to learn to trust yourself so that when those real challenges arise, you feel equipped to take them on. And don’t take the small moments or successes for granted. Most of us are able to walk today, but when you watch someone learning to do it for the first time, you realize what a feat it really is. You can do this firmly believe that you are each more than capable of doing something great beyond yourself. The real test will be if you are willing to do it when the time is right.
In conclusion, during our time together, I’ve charged you with listening to your history, listening to your opponents and most importantly, listening to yourself. As I described with my son walking, it’s okay to fall, take a step back and then stand up tall and try again. You see, there is no easy road to freedom…and every loss is an opportunity for recalibration, an opportunity to listen anew, and to confidently take strides forward to your goal. As James Baldwin once wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
So listen to the voices calling you now to face those challenges to create change—to the guidance directing you to what is right, timely and necessary in this time of resistance for all. And when you start to feel discouraged, tired of listening to the noise, I want you to remember this Shel Silverstein poem for motivation:
LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the shouldn’ts
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be
It is also possible to watch Shijuade Kadree deliver her remarks in the following video. Please note that her live remarks include an anecdote about meeting Hillary Clinton.