WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08) delivered the following commencement address to 2023 graduating class of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work.
Dean Postmus, Distinguished Faculty, Moms and Dads and siblings and grandparents, and to the 2023 graduating class of the University of Maryland School of Social Work:
It’s an honor to address one of the nation’s great schools of Social Work. You have an illustrious and storied past, and every time I hear your name it makes me proud of our state.
?Graduates, you enter an extraordinary profession. It has been central to the development of the major civilizing movements and social reforms of the last century in America. And the history of social work has been profoundly intertwined with the history of feminism and women’s political participation.
Our first female cabinet member, the great Frances Perkins, who served in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet, was a social worker and a Democrat. She played an instrumental role in the creation of Social Security and the passage of the federal minimum wage, and placed the ethic of social solidarity and mutual support at the center of the New Deal.
The first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin from Montana in 1916, was a social worker and a Republican. She was a passionate campaigner for womens’ suffrage and, after being elected to Congress from a state that enfranchised women, she fought for the 19th Amendment for all women which was ratified four years after she went to the House. She was a crusader for social reform, voting rights and election reform, and a passionate anti-war activist who voted against U.S. participation in the first World War.
Barbara Mikulski, the first woman ever elected to the United States Senate in Maryland, a Democrat , and the longest-serving Senator in our state’s history, was—and still is—a committed social worker.
And she of course went to this great school and talks about it all the time as a formative influence in her professional and political life. She said that holding public office was “social work with power,” and she never abandoned the sense of social mission and public purpose she learned right here.
So I know you launch your careers with a spirit of great pride in the past and deep affection for this remarkable institution.
But I don’t need to tell you that we are sending you off to do nearly impossible work under conditions of sharp political polarization and dramatic economic inequality and that you will almost certainly be underpaid for your indispensable and intricate service to our communities.
And, yet, I cannot think of anyone in America in a better position to help our society and shape a positive American future than the members of your graduating class.
And because I am allotted just ten minutes and have foolishly already used three of them telling you things you undoubtedly already knew, I want to give you seven reasons before I leave for you to be feeling tremendous optimism about your work and hope for the American future.
So it’s seven reasons in seven minutes, one reason for hope and courage enclosed in each remaining minute.
1. You Can Make the Impossible Inevitable
The first reason I bring you is from my own political career. When I first got into politics, I ran for the Maryland State Senate against a 32-year incumbent who was President Pro Tem of the Senate and the boss of our local political machine. And when I announced, the Montgomery Journal quoted a pundit who said “Raskin’s chances of victory are considered impossible.” Nine months later, we got 67% of the vote and the Washington Post had an article quoting a pundit who said Raskin’s victory was “inevitable.”
So I went from impossible to inevitable in nine months because the pundits are never wrong, but I like to tell the young people in our Democracy Summer program that in politics nothing is impossible and nothing is inevitable, it’s all only possible through the democratic arts of education, organizing and mobilizing people for change. And anything that seems inevitable was once considered impossible. So you, in your careers, by your creativity and courage and compassion, will regularly make the impossible inevitable for other citizens and their families.
2. You Can Operate from the Moral Center
The second reason for hope comes from that same campaign in 2006. During my kickoff speech in subfreezing January weather, I laid out all the impossible things we wanted to do in Annapolis—like abolish the death penalty, pass marriage equality, ban military-style assault weapons in the state, adopt a National Popular Vote plan for electing the president, enact a medical marijuana plan—and a woman came up to me and said, “Great speech, Jamie, loved your speech, but one thing—take out all that stuff in there about gay marriage. It’s not going to happen, it’s never going to happen, even the gay candidates don’t talk about it, and it makes you sound like you’re really extreme, like you’re not in the political center.”
And I had to swallow hard because I didn’t have too many attendees with me at that kickoff, and I didn't want to offend her, but my three kids were right there watching and I remember so much my 11-year-old son Tommy being there and looking right at me.
And so I said: “Thanks so much for telling me that because it makes me realize it’s not my ambition to be in the political center. It’s my ambition to be in the moral center. And that’s why I call myself a progressive. The heart of that word is progress and we can make progress towards morality. Our job is to find the moral center the best we can and bring the political center to us.”
Well, the reason I’m telling you this story is because Maryland became the first state in the Union to pass marriage equality without a judicial ruling compelling us to do so and the first state in the Union where the voters upheld marriage equality at the polls, although in fairness that’s just because the polls closed an hour earlier in Maryland than they did in Maine that night.
But we also abolished the death penalty after centuries of having it. We legalized medical marijuana. We banned the sale of military-style assault weapons. We passed the first National Popular Vote plan in America, which fifteen states and the District of Columbia have now adopted. We made the impossible inevitable by operating from the moral, not the political center. And you can do that too every single day. I have seen politics and government and public policy work in Maryland.
3. You Don’t Have to be Perfect to do Good
The third reason for hope I offer you comes from a two-minute conversation I had with Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Rwanda and the subject of the movie Hotel Rwanda about the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1994. When Hutu military forces unleashed a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Tutsis, Rusesabagina, who is Hutu, allowed more than 1,000 Tutsi refugees to secretly take shelter in his hotel, saving their lives.
And when I saw him speak more than a decade later, I asked him this simple question: “You risked your life and everything you had to save other people’s lives. What made you so different from so many others who failed to act?”
And he gave me the most amazing answer: “A lot of people walk around with guilt and shame about something they have done in the past, and that makes them feel that they cannot act to do good in the present. It paralyzes them. But I realized, although I had done things I was not proud of in my life, that I could still act to help a lot of people now. You do not have to be perfect to do good in the world.”
So that’s a reason for great hope which you can carry with you in the world—you do not have to be perfect to do good and to be good. My friend Kate Bennis tells me this will be key to your success as a social worker.
You may have been in bad trouble, like Malcolm X was before he went to prison, but you can make good trouble later on, as my late colleague and friend John Lewis called it. You can always go from bad trouble to good trouble.
4. Most Negative Messages about Human Nature are Propaganda and Disinformation
My fourth reason for hope is that most of the common negative messages we receive about human nature are just propaganda and disinformation, and the vast majority of people do good the vast majority of the time. I can’t prove this to you in one minute but there is a great book by Rutger Bregman, called Humankind, which can prove it to you and would make a great graduation gift for anybody still trying to find one.
Bregman debunks almost all of the key negative messages we carry around in our heads about the depravity of our species. William Golding won a Nobel Prize in Literature because of his novel Lord of the Flies, which has sold tens of millions of copies and which we all read and were traumatized by in junior high school. But as Bregman explains, the Lord of the Flies is completely demolished as a thesis about human nature by the evidence of a real-world shipwreck of Tongan schoolboys in 1965 who found themselves stranded on a desert island and created a functioning democratic community with fairness and rules and absolute decency. The boys formed bonds of lifelong friendship and became men of real character and conscience. Meantime, the author of Lord of the Flies was a depressed misanthrope who, as a teacher, once divided his students into gangs and incited them to fight one another. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding said, “because I am of that sort by nature.”
The Lord of the Flies is not a reflection in the mirror of human nature but a reflection in the mirror of its author.
Bregman similarly demolishes the other major cultural proofs of human depravity we carry around with us, like the Milgram experiments undertaken in the early 1960s at Yale by a social psychology professor, who purported to show that people were willing to administer painful shocks to experimental subjects if they were told to do so by someone in authority. Bregman shows the totally dubious methodology of this study and debunks it all as something verging on a fraud.
The point is that so much of what we have internalized about the alleged evil of our own species is just false. The evidence is that, while undoubtedly there have been a lot of fanatical and pathological leaders who have come to power—Vladimir Putin comes quickly to mind—most people end up rejecting them as tyrants and monsters. For every Putin there is a Zelensky and most people reject the bullies and dictators.
Your job is to help translate the ordinary moral sentiments and intuitions of most people into effective public action and change.
5. We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants, People Who Succeeded Against Far Greater Odds than We Face
My fifth reason.
Whenever things look grim, if you feel surrounded by insurrection, corruption and indifference, remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants who overcame far greater odds than we face.
Frederick Douglass was born enslaved not even an hour away from here at the Wye House Plantation on the Eastern Shore. He escaped from the violence and oppression of slavery to become America’s leading abolitionist and freedom-fighter, a leader through the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Harriet Tubman was also born into slavery in Maryland and became a leading abolitionist and freedom-fighter who rescued and liberated at least 70 enslaved people from the Eastern Shore.
Douglass said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress…The struggle may be moral or physical, or moral and physical, but there must be struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
If Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman can conquer slavery in their time with the entire southern establishment arrayed against them, we can conquer climate change with scientific evidence on our side.
6. New Generations of Americans Reject the False Idols of the Past and are Confronting the Real Problems of our Time
The sixth reason for hope I offer you is that so many individuals belonging to the new generations of Americans—Generations Y and Z and whatever comes after that—are way beyond racism, sexism, homophobia, immigrant-bashing and the other false idols that have held America down in the past. (They are also somewhat beyond grammar, too, but that is a separate problem.) The young are committed to addressing the climate crisis and environmental racism, and they are serious about defending freedom and expanding equality. Our future is a pro-democracy, pro-human rights future.
There is a reason that reactionary forces in America are trying to shut down college student voting and disenfranchise young people.
But it will be impossible to disenfranchise entire new generations of Americans. The real threat to their empowerment is the crisis in mental and emotional health. If we can keep their spirits up, safeguard their health and teach them how to organize, democracy will win.
7. “When Everything Looks Hopeless, You are the Hope.”
My seventh and final reason comes from my father, Marcus Raskin, a political philosopher who used to say to us: “When everything looks hopeless, you are the hope.”
Yeah, I know this is a lot of pressure and guilt to impose on your graduation day, but when I look out at this magnificent and shockingly young class of 230 graduating students, all I can see is hope, great hope, in the future. You are the hope indeed, and you will be the hope for countless people in the future.
So those are my seven reasons—I could give you hundreds more but, like all Commencement Speakers, I have fast run out of time. The rest is up to you.
Godspeed and may fortune love you.