I gave this speech at Kleinhans Music Hall on May 18th, 2012 as the Student Commencement Address. I had just completed my Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) at Medaille College and was addressing an audience which included students (and their family members) graduating with degrees in business, education, and mental health. I have posted it now to give context to an article I wrote today (Monday June 8th, 2020) in response to Dahleen Glanton’s challenge to White America in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Good afternoon Dr. Jurasek; Members of the Board of Trustees; our speaker Mr. Poloncarz; members of the Medaille College faculty; distinguished guests; and, of course, the Class of 2012. Thank you for helping us celebrate today the end of one, and the beginning of another important journey.
Although Buffalo is now my home, I am not originally from here, and no, my accent is not Canadian! Concerned that I might embarrass myself this afternoon by not following commencement day etiquette, I did extensive research starting, where I started for all of my academic papers – with You Tube.
I listened to the compelling words of the President and First Lady Obama; I digested the wisdom of intellectual giants like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Ali G; and I took in the advice of social commentators like Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien. The student speeches I found included highlights like Megan Piphus, the valedictorian ventriloquist from Cincinnati and more than one, many more than one, boys throwing down a graduation rap with varying degrees of success.
I also came across an address by a student at Binghamton University titled “Average is the New Exceptional”. His point was that while most of us are just average students, we can still have an effect on the world around us, even if it is a small one. This seemed like a good lead in for the thoughts I wanted to share this afternoon.
In today’s interconnected, indifferent and breathtakingly fast world, it is easy to believe that the humble act of an individual can’t effect real change, particularly in organizations that occupy real estate as large as a Polynesian island; or within the complex machinery of a government which occupies Washington … and more recently Wall Street.
But the stories I have heard from fellow students over the past twenty months or so convince me that this is not the case. Precisely because we are so interconnected, each one of our intentional acts, no matter how small, affects a change in the system. Collectively the simple acts of individuals can bring down tyrannical governments, as they did during the Arab Spring of 2010, or raise millions of dollars riding for a cure as they will do here in Buffalo on June 23rd.
One of the lasting questions I will take from my studies asks… “Are you working ON your organization or just IN it?” This feels like the contemporary equivalent of that cliché about being “…part of the problem or part of the solution”. Some of us will appreciate a different version I found which goes …“If you are not part of the solution, there is good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”
Irony aside, the idea behind this is that we have a choice every day to confront a system that is not serving people or to give in to its machinery, extracting small favors for our own benefit. When our focus is on “beating the system”, or finding ways around frustrating policy in our organizations, we undermine the possibility of real and lasting change.
For those of us graduating with degrees in education consider this sobering statistic about the Buffalo education system.
Next year, every eighth grader in the city of Buffalo who is not selected into a criteria school like City Honors will be going to a school designated as a “failing school” by our government. Against those odds, how will these “average students” have a chance to become exceptional? What are the mental health consequences of this kind of institutionalized failure to educate our young people and what kind of future does this suggest for Buffalo businesses that need creative, entrepreneurial minds to re-establish our place as a thriving economy? As graduates in education, business and mental health, do we see ourselves as working IN these systems or ON them?
Achieving real change in our education system may be our generation’s civil rights issue and it is a problem so complex that it will take the collective action of all of us, wherever we are in the system, to see that everyone has both the right and the ability to meaningfully participate in our economy.
Many of the actions we can take are not difficult – ask Rosa Parks how difficult it was to take a seat on a bus. But it does take tremendous courage to say “no” when everyone else is saying “yes” or worse still … “chill dude”. Although the most celebrated of her generation, Rosa Parks was by no means the only person who sat down in a gesture of defiance against a system that was wrong. Change happened because there were tens of thousands of people across the country willing to take simple, courageous, and individual acts like hers.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Leadership Simulcast at the Amherst campus. Much to my surprise, the most memorable wisdom of the day came from an interview with the Jet’s new backup quarterback, Tim Tebow, who said …The role of leaders is to raise the level of play of those around them and remarked that we should use whatever platform we have to make a difference in the lives of others.
Whether our platform is a science class; a therapeutic conversation; or a report to the board of directors, I believe that our studies have equipped each of us to make that difference.
To close, I would like to share with you a short verse by a German Philosopher from the 19th Century, but before I do, please allow me to acknowledge the love and support that we graduates have received from you, our families and members of our community. Your encouragement and the countless forms of practical help you have offered over the many months of our studies has made the achievement we are celebrating today possible.
The verse is titled … The Decisive Element
I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate; my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse; if we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become all they are capable of becoming.
May we, the class of 2012, thank all of you, families and friends, teachers and other members of our community, for helping us become instruments of inspiration.