Caucus Graduation Ceremony Speakers Inspire Class of 2019

June 5 @ 4:54 pm

Each year, several student caucuses at the Columbia School of Social Work host affiliate graduation ceremonies in addition to the school-wide ceremony that celebrates the entire class. This year, the Queer Caucus hosted the Lavender Graduation, and three student caucuses—including the LatinX Caucus, the Black Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus—joined together to hold the first People of Color Graduation at the school.

Click on the links below to read and be inspired by the remarks delivered by the two keynote speakers:


Lavender Graduation

The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Professor Desmond Patton at the Queer Caucus’ special graduation ceremony.

“I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share, not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival because survival is not just walking through the rain.” -Audre Lorde

I’ve been struggling with what to say to you because I want you to leave this room, this institution feeling inspired, encouraged… that these last two years and thousands of dollars were all worth it.

I want you to feel that you are the most prepared social workers in the country. And I know that’s true because a lot of you were taught by me.

However, my own reality and deep pragmatism calls for a more complex graduation speech.

Ten years ago I couldn’t fathom giving a speech at a Lavender graduation.

Being Black in America, I have always been acutely aware of my race and, as such, it has always been my primary identity. Growing up in the South, being Black consumed my everyday… who I hung out with, the spaces and places I had access to, my educational experiences, and healthcare.

Even when the kids on the blacktop said I talked like a girl or told me to stop acting like a fag, their common use of the N-word seemed to always take precedence. I just didn’t have the luxury of being gay, too.

So as you might imagine, coming out of the closet seemed like something I would never be brave enough to do. I was already black, why add anything else? In college I came out to myself, which allowed me to date and at least accept my attraction to men.

On a crisp fall night my senior year of college, I decided I was going to come out to my closest friends from home, three African American women whom I had known practically all of my life and who attended different colleges in North Carolina.

We had a weekly Instant Messenger chat session. My screen name was Pirseig Dez because my real name was taken and I was clever and just used a random letter. We used this weekly check in to gossip, share our hatred for long papers, and talk romance.

I decided it was time to come out and I was terrified and yet somehow my fingers starting moving and I started writing, “Ladies, I want to tell you something… I’m…”

The three of them wrote back with lightning speed. “Desmond, we know you’re gay. Have you studied for your Anthro exam?”

If only you could’ve seen my face behind the screen. I was relieved, elated, and also annoyed that they knew my T…. the shade of it all.

The following year I went of to graduate school at the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s in social work. I have to say, it was easy to be gay at Michigan. For the first time I met people who were out… and proud. In 2004, talking about the experience of being gay was a regular thing in my classes. I also learned about different types of folks in my new community: twinks, and bears, queens, folks who identified as transgender or bi or folks who simply called themselves queer.

It was an exciting time because I finally felt like I fit in…. until I realized being gay was political. I was quickly thrust into discussions about rights. Rights to marriage, bathrooms, who lives where, who sleeps with whom. I also realized everyone in my community wasn’t my friend and that we all didn’t agree on the issues. The connections between gender, race, age, body type, and sexuality were woefully lacking and it became abundantly clear that this new community I found and wanted to be a part of wasn’t quite ready for deeper discussions around intersectionality.

It was fitting that I would learn these lessons in social work school. It’s within these deep rooted tensions around identity, place, and belonging I found myself, I found my identity as a social worker. While I appreciated learning how to conduct assessments or produce logic models, what made the biggest impact was getting comfortable with difficult conversations, moving beyond simple answers to complex problems, and working each and every day to be brave even when I didn’t exactly know how.

Now, fast forward 13 years and two advanced degrees later, some things have gotten better. There was the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and a landmark Supreme Court case that allows me to marry my fiancé Jeffrey in about three weeks.

But since you’ve been in graduate school at CSSW, the tides have changed and you’ve endured a lot:

Here are a few things that have happened under the current administration:

July 26, 2017: President Trump announced, via Twitter, that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

September 7, 2017: The Justice Department filed a legal brief on behalf of the United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing for a constitutional right for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and, implicitly, gender identity.

December 14, 2017: Staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were instructed not to use the words “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in official documents.

January 23, 2019: The Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights granted an exemption to adoption and foster care agencies in South Carolina, allowing religiously-affiliated services to discriminate against current and aspiring LGBTQ caregivers.

March 13, 2019: The Department of Defense laid out its plans for implementing its ban on transgender troops, giving an official implementation date of April 12.

And that’s just from the federal government. Listen folks, life ain’t been no crystal staircase for us, but this is what I know:

1. There is power in authenticity and vulnerability. Work each and every day to be your fullest self.

2. You are a blessing to the world. Every single part of you.

3. You are an expert on survival. You have the tools to weather the storm.

4. You are now endowed with powerful tools to dismantle hate, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequity, and the like.

5. You are now a part of a network of social workers from one of the best social work programs in the country. USE YOUR NETWORK. Trust me, you will need them 10 years from now.

Most of you know I’m a social media researcher, so I crowdsourced my talk and asked folks in my social media networks to give you some words of wisdom:

Thank You.


People of Color Graduation

The following is the text of the keynote delivered by Associate Director of Field Education Ericka Echavarria at the People of Color special graduation ceremony.

I would like to thank the LatinX Caucus, the Black Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Caucus for giving me the honor to speak today. I would also like to thank CSSW for supporting this event over the last several years. Before I begin, I would like to take a moment of silence to honor our African and indigenous ancestors whose shoulders we stand on, whose legacy we are walking in, and whose resilience has paved the path for us for, those who came before us, and those who could not be here today. A moment of silence please.

Les quiero dar las gracias a Latin X Black Caucus and API Caucus y a CSSW. Tambien quiero honrar a mis antecedentes Africanos e indigenos, y los que están representado en todos ustedes. Igual a nuestros padres, abuelos, y bisabuelos ellos nos han dado vida, fuerza, y resistencia para sobrevivir los obstáculos de la vida. Les quiero ofrecer un momento de silencio a todos ellos, y a los que hoy no están aqui con nosotros.

Lessons from A Woman of Color who is in the struggle and building her resilience

Congratulations Class of 2019! Many blessings and accolades to you and your families for the hard work and sacrifices you made to be here today. I know many of you, and there are many more I wish I had the chance to know. For those of you who don’t know me, I am an associate director of field education. I graduated from CSSW in 2008, have served as a field instructor, an advisor, and as adjunct faculty. I also obtained a law degree in 2002 from Albany School and provide mitigation consulting on behalf of incarcerated folks involved in capital and other serious federal offenses. I also am interested in creating more healing and restorative spaces for POC in predominantly white spaces. The following are some things I thought might help as you move forward and are ways I often manage the anger and sadness I feel when thinking about ways I am unseen or unheard:

Be kind to yourself. Understand you are a work in progress. The messages we have received about our worth and value are simply not true. We are great. We come from a long history of people who have overcome the most difficult challenges in the world—slavery, colonization, violence, exploitation—and we have survived. We can do ANYTHING we want to. These messages are not changed overnight. Be kind to yourself in the process and be kind to others who, like you, may be unlearning the same messages.

Cultivate joy and gratitude. Wake up every day expressing gratitude for three things in your life. Take a moment and be still every morning before you brush your teeth. Think of three things you are grateful for. Make this an everyday practice. It could be anything. It could be for the sun, the weather, a good night’s sleep, a cup of good coffee. Then do something that day that brings you joy. Whatever it is. Spend time with a loved one, your pet, journaling, or having a great cup of coffee. When the moment comes in your day where you begin to feel sorry for yourself or wish things in your life were different, think about what you are grateful for. Look forward to what it is or remember what you did that brought you joy.

Speak YOUR truth and do no harm (especially to other POC). Even in the midst of advocacy you can stand up for yourself and others, and use your voice without disrespecting, dishonoring, or directing your anger to the oppressor. You can be kind, tell the truth and what is necessary without causing harm to others. Hold yourself accountable before you ask the same of others. Think about your intention—why do I need to say this, take this action, at this time, is it necessary or can it wait until a better time? How can I say it without insulting or tearing someone apart? What is my goal—desired outcome—how do I stay in a relationship with someone I don’t like or who has hurt me in order to make this goal happen. Try to see yourself in that person, their pain, and their insecurity. Connect to that and you will be able to stay grounded, speak your truth and not do harm.

KEEP DREAMING! I never stop! I have unlimited hope. Every time I see one of you, I see myself. I see my struggles, I see my accomplishments. I see my strengths, and I see areas for growth. I see the potential. You break the mold, you set your own standards, and you are brave! This degree is not the bar. There is more that you can accomplish beyond this degree. Change IS possible, with hope, faith, and lots of work. Soul Work. Inner work. Work on you, then work on the world… are you doing all of the above? Are you being kind to yourself? Are you cultivating joy and gratitude every day? Do you speak your truth in a way that does not harm others? Are you thinking outside the box? Work on you! Then work on the world!

Felicidades Clase de 2019. Muchas bendiciones para ustedes y sus familias. Se que todos han hecho muchos sacrificios para estar aquí hoy. Conozco a mucho de ustedes, y apenas he conocido los demás. Para los que no me conocen soy una administradora aquí en la universidad de social Work. Me gradue en 2008, y he supervisado estudiantes en la pasantía, he sido consejera, y he ensenado en la universidad. Además termine la escuela de derecho de Albany Law School en el 2002 y trabajado como especialista de mitigación en casos federales con la posibilidad de pena de muerte. En este momento me interesa crear más espacios de sanación y restauración para la gente de color. Hoy quisiera compartir con ustedes algunas cosas que me han ayudado lidiar con el dolor y tristeza que muchos de nosotros sufrimos cuando no nos valoran en espacios donde la mayoría de la gente son blancos:

Sea amable con uno mismo. El mensaje que hemos recibido de nuestro valor en la sociedad simplemente no es cierto, no expresa la verdad. Nosotros venimos con una larga historia de esclavitud, colonización, violencia, y explotación …Y HEMOS SOBREVIVIDO. Nosotros podemos hacer cualquiera cosa que desesamos. Estos mensajes no cambian de noche a la mañana. Sea amable con uno mismo, y sea amable y bondadoso con otras personas de color que al igual están pasando por el mismo proceso.

Cultivar la alegría y la gratitud. Despierte cada día expresando gratitud por tres cosas de tu vida Tomar un momento que sea todavía temprano, antes de cepillar tus dientes. Pensar en tres cosas que te hagan sentir alegría y bienestar. Repite y practica esto como una orden para cada día. Dedícalo a lo que tu quieras o tu creas, a ti mismo, al sol, a la luna, a las estrellas, al tiempo, a un dormir de toda la noche reposada, descansada que haga repuesto tus energías agotadas del trabajo del día anterior. Mira siempre adelante y ve lo que la vida te a traido.

Di tu VERDAD, sin hacerle daño a los demás. Especialmente a otras personas de color. Aun en el medio de las dificultades que la vida les trae a los que representamos o que nos suele traer, nunca debemos tratar a los demás con falta de respeto. Aunque sea para dirigirnos al opresor, debemos siempre pensar, por que debo tomar una u otra acción o actitud en este momento. Cuales son mis metas. Que intento resolver. Como sigo en relación con alguien que ma ha faltado el respeto para poder alcanzar mis metas. Trata de ver el dolor y la inseguridad del otro. Es ahí donde empieza la relación. Es ahí donde podrás mantener tus valores y alcanzar tus metas.

Sigan Sonando. Nunca paro de sonar. No le pongo limites a mis sueños. Cada vez que los veo , me veo a mi misma en todos ustedes. Veo mis éxitos y al igual mis dificultades. Veo mis fuerzas, y lugares donde puedo seguir desarallonadame. Ustedes son valientes! Ustedes pueden lograr cualquier cosa. Me inspiran con sus palabras, sus hechos, y sus corazones. El sueño no para aquí. Todo es posible. El cambio siempre viene, con fe, esperanza, y mucho esfuerzo. Hay que desarrollarse primero, reflexionando sobre si mismo. Has hecho las cosas que te he sugerido. Ha sido amable con ti mismo, has cultivado la alegría y gratitud en tu vida, has dicho la verdad en una manera responsable sin hacerle daño a los demás, estas pensado en que lo que es posible. Exactamente. Siguen ahí.


Related Link: VIDEO: Graduation Ceremony, Columbia School of Social Work, Lincoln Center, May 22, 2019