“Society needs you and more people like you”: Maria Echaveste Delivers Rousing 2016 Graduation Address

June 1, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

May 16, 2016

Thank you, Dean Takamura, for inviting me to speak to Columbia University’s School of Social Work, Class of 2016! I am humbled and honored to be before you the graduates, your families, your faculty and feeling the pressure as so many commencement speakers have—is there something I can say that is actually worth saying at this moment? More importantly, I need to remind myself that I am not teaching a class—no 50-minute lecture—I am sure you are relieved.

As noted, I am a lawyer by training. As I’m sure you’ve learned through your courses and experiences, the law plays a significant role in shaping the duties and responsibilities not just of institutions and organizations, but also your own life. I happen to have a sister who is a social worker in Los Angeles County working with the foster care system and often called to testify in court. So I take no offense when she starts railing against the arrogance of the lawyers who think they know more than she does—she’s the person who actually talked to the parents and children, she’s the one trying to make a recommendation based on everything she has learned with the one goal of trying to keep that child safe, to help that family in crisis and to set that family on a more positive road.

As she has shared her experiences with me, I have come to realize that lawyers and social workers actually have a lot in common. Lawyers are like general contractors—figuring out what the problems are, identifying the resources to address the problems and working towards solutions. The important work you will be doing as graduates of the Columbia School of Social Work goes beyond being a general contractor—you are actually the first responders to children, adults, families and communities in crisis. You have to figure out what the problems are, what resources can be deployed, what solutions are within reach and how hard to fight for those just beyond reach. Too few people, whether in Washington or state capitols, understand the importance or your work and your training.

Let’s be clear: You chose this profession, this training. That means you wanted to do something with your talents and skills that went beyond making money (much to the chagrin of some of your parents). But your parents and families have supported you emotionally and, yes, financially as well, because they understand what important work you can and will do. You will be making a difference in lives damaged by poverty, by substance abuse, by emotional and mental issues, and by tragedies we have not yet imagined. Some of you will choose paths that focus on individuals—on one-on-one interventions; others of you will focus on more systemic challenges and responses; some of you will return to your countries with new ideas for how to build or transform organizations or bureaucracies to better serve the needs of citizens. You will determine how and in what ways you make the degree you received today impactful and meaningful.

But make no mistake—society needs you and more people like you trained to identify issues and seek solutions. To intervene in thoughtful and appropriate ways to ensure a child, an adult or a family—and yes, a community—has every opportunity to prosper and flourish.

Particularly today with the type of rhetoric we are hearing in this election year, there is a palpable sense of anxiety. Here’s what we do know: modern life is stressful. Changing roles of women and men; changes in the economy, the interconnectedness of our world for good and bad, the instability in regions across the globe, climate change, you name it—lots of stress. Yet also tremendous optimism as technology brings opportunity to the least of us, as people both here in this country and around the globe connect and organize to make change in their lives and their communities. There is cause for optimism. Every day we see examples of children, adults, families and communities demonstrating resiliency in the face of obstacles. That resiliency is what a society needs to nurture and encourage. That is why the profession you’ve chosen is so important.

We are recognizing more and more that there are no silver bullets for the critical issues facing individuals, communities, and countries. For example, much has been learned about health disparities among various racial and economic groups. We are learning that you can treat the physical problem in the hospital, but if that adult is going home to stress regarding employment or housing, that stress will continue to impact his health. Or when a third-grader comes to school not just hungry but traumatized by the domestic violence in a home, she is not going to be very receptive to an English or math lesson. We certainly should not expect our physicians or teachers to solve all problems, but increasingly hospitals and school are recognizing that they need the help of your profession to do their job better. So yes, you are first responders and general contractors, essential to helping individuals—be they children or adults—maximize their potential.

Now, you’ve probably noticed that I have mentioned children quite a bit. Why? When families are under stress, children often don’t flourish. And those children are our country’s, our world’s future. Children do not choose the families they are born into. They don’t get to choose their color, their race, their gender, or their zip code. And yet, a child—whether born here in the USA or across the sea or south of the border, has a potential, waiting to blossom. And those children become adults and, depending on the combination of nature and nurture, we will see cause for optimism or anxiety.

I say this as the daughter of farm workers, of parents who migrated from Mexico with no education, working in the Texas and California fields and orchards—cotton, strawberries, peaches, or my least favorite, tomatoes. So yes, I know what it was like to work those backbreaking jobs. As the eldest of seven, I knew one thing more—I was not going to stay in the fields. I will say I didn’t quite imagine that in one generation, I would go from working those fields to working in the White House, but here I am. And here’s what I want to share with you. Too many people in our country look at my story and many others like it to say: “See, it just takes hard work and determination.” I am here to tell you that this is an oversimplification and serves an ideological purpose. I remember too many of my schoolmates in those fields and in the housing projects to stand before you to be able to say that I did it all by myself, and it’s their fault that they made bad decisions and didn’t go to college, or ended up with substance abuse problems or worse, prison.

Perhaps they did not have the very strict father that I had, so I had no choice but to escape in books. But what does society owe a child who is born into a situation where education and income is limited and stresses are many? Is it that child’s fault if he or she makes some bad decisions along the way? What kind of a society decides that it will leave to chance to determine who succeeds and who does not?

And there are so many people in our country and yes, in the world, who have talents, who have ambition, who have drive, and shouldn’t our societies seek to harness that energy?

Now, I’ve raised immigration and you all know it is a very controversial subject. In many ways, those railing against broken borders are often really reacting to changing demographics. Let’s be clear: every nation has a right to determine who enters and on what conditions. But let’s also acknowledge there’s a complicity in our immigration policy by business and others who seek cheap labor—when, for instance, a poultry farm in Arkansas or North Carolina prefers to hire undocumented workers from south of the border rather than the poor black and white workers in their town. Americans won’t do those jobs for those wages. It’s not racism for those American workers to ask why they aren’t getting those jobs.

Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the hiring practices of those businesses, those unemployed workers find it easier to target their anger toward the immigrant, especially if there are leaders pointing them in that direction.

I have worked on immigration issues for more than 15 years, and I can tell you that the human spirit will not give up. We may build walls, we may seek to deport, but as you watch what Europe is facing now with the migrant flow—that is the human spirit.

Having had a front row seat on conflicts around the world when I worked in the White House, whether being in Northern Ireland with the Peace Accords in 1998, or flying into Gaza airport for that brief moment when we thought things might change in the Middle East, I came to the conclusion that the differences among us are easily exploited, and it takes real work to see our common humanity.

I have realized that as human beings we are instinctually tribal (more and more research is revealing how the brain works and makes decisions, and that, in fact, so much of what we do is at the subconscious level). We so easily decide who is part of our group and who is not; we use differences like race, like religion, like nationality to see the other as the enemy.

We instinctively put people in boxes, because we would not get through our day if we had to think consciously about each and every decision we make. It’s how we organize our world. We need to be more conscious of those boxes we put others in, and remember that no one is just one thing. I am not just a woman. I am not just a Latina. I love science fiction. I love to knit. Does that fit the box of a Latina?

So, our country and yes, the world, is confronting the diversity of peoples, culture and language, and it is become a village. We are faced with real challenges of learning to see each other as human beings, but also to recognize that diversity. And it starts with being civil to each other. And to tone down our language so that we might actually harness the energy that comes from our country’s and yes, our world’s, diversity.

Now, let me close with this thought. You may think I am a Pollyanna who believes in the goodness of humanity. No, what I believe in is that individuals who make up a society can make a difference, but only if we are not bystanders to life. And you, the class of 2016, have chosen not to be bystanders. I am so happy that our country and our world has your commitment to making change in years ahead as you shape your lives. Congratulations! Welcome to the fight.