“Social worker graduates, we need you now more than ever”: Alumnus Dr. Jared Bernstein Has Fiery Words for Class of 2017

May 22, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

The following is the text of the graduation keynote delivered by Dr. Jared Bernstein at the special graduation ceremony held by Columbia University’s School of Social Work for its 2017 graduates, at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, on Wednesday, May 17.

I come to you from Washington, DC, which is a relevant fact given some of the other facts I plan to share with over the next few minutes.

For example, my staff has just informed me that there are 1.7 million people at this commencement today, making it the largest, most awesome commencement ever. That makes this year’s turnout—let me see—carry the 1—divide by…3,000 times larger than any other turnout anywhere ever.

So thank you for that. I mean, I’m not saying that’s just about me. But I guess it probably mostly is.

Turning from alternative to real facts, I have but two messages I want to impart to you class of 2017.

My first message is this, and let me first say that I’m sorry if it sounds rash, or too forward, or too corny, or too unprofessional, or too personal. But here it is: Columbia School of Social Work class of 2017, I love you! I can’t help it. I just love all of you, and you, and you…

Let me explain.

When you love someone, you want to be with them. I can think of no place I’d rather be on this earth today than with you, right here, right now.

When you love someone, you feel brighter in their presence. You’re inspired by who they are, by the choices they’ve made, by their values, by what and who they stand for, by how hot they are…

OK, not that last bit, but you take all that other stuff to the bank.

I especially love and respect you TODAY. I don’t mean this day, I mean this era.

Social worker graduates, we need you now than ever.

Evil and greed are upon the land in ways I’ve not seen for many years. The forces of discrimination, of vast inequalities, of immobility, of exclusion, racism, sexism, ignorance—these forces are flexing their muscles, sinews greased with the ill-gotten gains of an investor class that increasing buys the politicians and the policies to protect and promote their power and privilege.

But guess what? They forgot about something. The did not count on you, class of 2017. While they were consolidating their minions, you were learning the history of social welfare policy from Barbara Simon, the fine points of policy analysis from John Robertson. You learned crucial areas of contemporary policies, like health care policy from Heidi Allen, and immigration policy from Neeraj Kaushal. To build your globalization cred, you learned about the Chinese social welfare system from Qin Gao.

You too can and must flex your muscles, class of 2017. And what muscles I see out there—look around—appreciate those massive pecs, those deltoids, those biceps of steel—you realize I’m speaking figuratively, right.

Let me tell you why your intellectual strength is so important right now. In my studies of the economic model, I learned of the importance of human and physical capital, of labor and product markets, finance, the roll of the central bank, and so on. But in all those years, in all those papers, in all those models, I don’t recall one that even mentioned a variable that I believe locates at the center of the true social model. And that is POWER.

Political power, economic power, financial power…these are the powers that support the destructive forces I ticked off above, that gin up fear of “the other,” that push the fairy dust of trickle-down tax cuts, that endlessly argue, against empirical evidence, that we grow our economy by giving more money to rich people and taking more benefits away from poor people.

What power have you, class of 2017, to fight those forces?

You have the moral power of righteousness, the power of social justice, the power of fact-based analysis, the power of “we’re in this together.”

Their power accumulates wealth. Your power gives children a chance to realize their potential. Their power erects barriers to opportunities. Your power tears those barriers down. Their power divides people. Your power unites them.

All of which brings to me the second message I wish to impart to you today.

You know I love you, right? Because now I gotta deliver a little dose of tough love.

Class of 2017: By the powers vested in me by the faculty and administration of CUSSW, I declare that from this day forward, from this moment hence, you do not take any crap from anybody!

Again, let me explain.

Of course, I’m not saying you don’t have to admit you’re wrong when you make a mistake.

What I’m saying is that I—and much more importantly, your professors and the teachings you’ve absorbed from them—empower you to not be the slightest bit intimidated by those who try to block you from helping the people you serve.

If there’s one thing I wish someone had told me when I sat where you sit today, it is that: have faith in your strength, your teachings, your values, and bring that faith to bear against those who try to hold you and your clients back.

I’ve sat in the Oval Office in the White House and argued against those who explained why we couldn’t do the right thing because it thwarted the free hand of the market, even though we all know that sometimes the free hand is all thumbs.

I lost way more than I won, but I’m still proud to have taken those stands. If anything, I should have done so way sooner in my life, which is why I’m giving you the power to do so from here on in.

So, class of 2017, those are my two simple messages. First, I love you and am honored to be with you today. Second, when it comes to plying what you’ve learned here, take no crap from anyone. Or, if you prefer the words from the old spiritual, don’t you let nobody hold you down.

Speaking of music, I think Bob Dylan beautifully expressed everything I’ve been trying to impart to you today in his song “When the Ship Comes In.” Can I share a stanza or two of that with you, before I take your leave? You know, it’s hard to say goodbye to people you love.

Oh, and can you help me? When I get to the line: “But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered”—you say the “your days are numbered” part with me.

Oh, the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins
The hour that the ship comes in

And the words that are used
to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And be buried at the bottom of the ocean

Oh, the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in

Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow [ALL TOGETHER] your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drowned in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered

Thank you, Class of 2017, and good luck.