In 2019 Graduation Keynote, Alumna Sheila Oliver Urges Graduates to Be a Voice for the Voiceless
The following is the text of the keynote delivered by alumna Sheila Oliver, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor, at the School of Social Work’s 2019 graduation ceremony, held at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, May 22. You can watch the entire graduation ceremony here.
Good afternoon everyone, to Dean Garfinkel, and to the faculty and administrators of the Columbia University School of Social Work, and to our doctoral candidates, and to you, the 550 graduates of the class of 2019. As I listened to Dean Garfinkel, all I could do is nod my head in agreement with everything that he said. When I arrived today, I thought — and I don’t want anyone to do any quick math — but I graduated in 1976 and I stand before you as a graduate from 43 years ago, 43 years ago.
It all began for me in the 8th grade when I read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. You know it opens up and it says, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Poor people had no bread, they stormed the castle. Marie Antoinette told the court, “Well if they have no bread, let them eat cake.” That began my career as an activist and an advocate.
Subsequently, living in Newark, I’d say that I came of age in the 60s, and I know many of you are from the Generation Xers and you are the millennials. But let me tell you, being a baby boomer, and having the opportunity to come to Columbia, elevated my advocacy, my capabilities and my skill set. And what I want to say to each one of you as a graduate of the Columbia University School of Social Work, you can do absolutely anything.
So I had a real abhorrence for injustice and unfairness, and just problems that couldn’t be solved. And after I read that book in 8th grade, I had the opportunity to have a column in the fifth- grade newspaper, and it was called “Tell it to Sheila.” There was a shoebox in the front of the classroom, you could put your note in, and I’d read them at the end of the week, and then I would give an answer in the school newspaper. I’m sharing that with you so that you will understand as a social worker that is what we want to do, we want to help people.
Now I chose not to go into direct practice, I wanted to work on the systems that influenced inequality. I wanted to have influence over the educational system, the economic system, the criminal justice system. And having interest in all of societal challenges as a social worker, as Dean Garfinkel said, I was equipped with a very different perspective. I always loved the challenge of jumping in for the fight, and you know if you’re going to be prepared to jump into a fight, you want to be prepared to win it.
So I’d like to impart a bit of advice to you: “Always be prepared.” Now those of you who were in the Girl Scouts, we learned that in the Girl Scout troop. But being prepared as you enter your profession, or as you rise up and elevate in the profession or occupation you may now be holding, that is what you are going to have the opportunity to do.
About two weeks ago in the Sunday New York Times, there was an article from someone who had a great deal of influence on the Columbia University School of Social Work, she and her husband both, Frances Fox Piven and her husband, Richard Cloward. When I was a student here, we were closely examining and discussing and doing an analysis of the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Frances Fox Piven in the New York Times article defines herself as an 82-year-old progressive radical, and she always was that, and why I chose the community organizing route was because I knew that while direct practice was important, what was more important was challenging the structures and the bureaucracies, and the barriers, and the impediments to everyone in this country having the opportunity to live a superior quality of life, because that’s what this country was built on.
It is important for you, as you take the reins of leadership all around this country and within our profession, know that you have an obligation to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. That’s your job.
Some of you may decide to go into the field of gerontology, others want to do social policy, others want to work with those with special needs, others of you may want to join my ranks and come into the realm of politics and government. But what I want you to know about myself as a social worker: I never set out to get involved in politics, but I knew that politics could transform lives. So I got into that, and I served at a county level as a county freeholder – that’s what we call them in Jersey, in New York, or where you come from you call them county commissioners. I did that and then a friend was running for state senate, needed to round out his ticket, and he asked me to run on his ticket with him. Now I was just, you know, window dressing to help with the campaign. The night of the election, he lost and I won. And that began my career as a state legislator. When I came to the legislature in ‘04, the speaker at the time asked me what I wanted to specialize in, he said everyone tends to take up an area of specialization. I responded to the speaker, “I don’t want to specialize in one thing, I want to be involved in everything in the state legislature.” And lo and behold, six years later I became the speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
In New Jersey, we must have a cabinet position, mine is the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and it’s one of the largest departments in our state. It deals with affordable housing creation, first-time home buying initiatives, a lot of programs for subsidized housing. We are the administrators of about 40,000 Section 8 vouchers in New Jersey. I also have responsibility for the Office of Homelessness Prevention. Main street development. I have attached to my department the New Jersey Urban Development Corporation and the New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency. Codes and standards, I also have a crew that goes out and inspects hotels in multi-dwellings in New Jersey, and a lot of other things as well.
But as I close, I want to describe that work to you to say that 13 miles from where we are today is a social worker who not only sets policy for community affairs and urban development in the state of New Jersey, but also serves as second-in-command, the lieutenant governor. As a social worker.
What I bring to that position, and the sphere of influence I am able to wield, has placed me in a position with the social work background from the Columbia University School of Social Work. That background has equipped me to be in the room when major policy decisions are being made, and I learned as speaker if your voice isn’t the room, you’re going to have a problem, because as we say in politics, “If you’re not at the table, then you are on the menu.”
So I challenge you as the class of 2019 to make certain that you are not, within your respective professional areas, “on the menu.” You have to stand up, you have to speak up, and on occasion, you have to do what I call, “show out.” On occasion you got to show out.
As we pass the torch on to the next generation within our profession, you are well equipped to change the course and direction of this country and of this world. Do not carry the responsibility lightly, you came here in the tradition of the Columbia School of Social Work to emerge as thought leaders in this country.
I have nothing but faith and confidence that all of you are going to do well. Don’t be afraid to go out into uncharted waters. I am going to close with my favorite, favorite shero, the Late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm had so many witty phrases, but the one I love most, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.”