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Geoffrey Canada's commencement speech

By Tim O'Keeffe on May 19, 2009

(Note: The following is the transcribed remarks of Geoffrey Canada, CEO and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who delivered the commencement address on May 17, 2009.)
Thank you Madame President, the trustees, the distinguished faculty, the administration, the parents. Let me say how excited I am to join my other awardees in receiving this honorary doctorate from such a distinguished university.


I know Colgate well. I know the challenges you all have faced in graduating from this school. I know how terrific this faculty is. Having gone to Bowdoin and spent 15 years on the board there, we spent most of our time comparing ourselves to Colgate at every opportunity and so I know this institution quite well. I am somewhat jealous, but I won’t get into that today.
There would be nothing that I would change about the wonderful institution and the wonderful education that you all have received. Well, there is one thing I would change. I think you could work on compassion a little bit more, having not let Bowdoin win a football game in all the years that I have been there. I just think it’s a small thing you could work on in the future.
For the faculty, the administration and parents, you all will forgive me because my message today is for the graduates of the Class of 2009, and I want to address you because I want to acknowledge that this is a great moment for you. And it could be a great moment for our country. It is a great moment for you because you will graduate from Colgate University, a most prestigious institution of higher learning, having demonstrated, through your hard work and perseverance, the mastery of a chosen field of study and qualifying you for a baccalaureate degree.
It could be a great moment for our country if you decide to continue your pursuit of truth and enlightenment for the betterment of society, and not solely for the betterment of yourselves. For you are living in a time when our country is in desperate need for highly educated women and men who will fight to see through the veils of self-interest and half-truths to search for what is truly moral and just.
You have spent time preparing and being prepared for the next set of challenges you will face. Indeed it is time to get into the game. What game? The game of life. The most serious game where the stakes are high. There are important choices to be made and some people who choose wrong or make the wrong decisions pay penalties that cripple their chances to succeed and reach their full potential. From the very moment of birth, some have odds stacked so high against them that they are for all intents and purposes out of the game before they ever get in.
But you, you have met the challenges, overcome the obstacles, played the right hand and now you are prepared to enter the game. While you have been preparing here in Hamilton, our country continues to grapple unsuccessfully with some complex issues. And these complex issues hang over our heads today like a giant, leaden weight suspended by poor logic, faulty reasoning and a degraded sense of ethics and morality. And I feel this leaden weight will in short order come crashing down on us, crushing all who won’t be able to get out of the way.
What are these complex issues? One is poverty. As our country has achieved the status as the only remaining superpower on the face of the earth, and as we are the richest country by far, we continue to have rates of poverty in America which shames us as a nation. And poverty is not some benign condition that simply means you live a little worse off. Poverty is a killer. Researchers at the University of Michigan reported in the journal of the American Association that people who earn ten thousand dollars per year or less die prematurely at three times the rate of those who earn more.
Another big issue we face is violence. America is a violent nation. We lead the western world in beating and killing our wives and spouses. We kill our own children at record numbers. We not only physically abuse them, we neglect them. In New York City alone, there are more than seventeen thousand children in foster care.
And then there is youth violence. Our latest data show that in 2005, three thousand and six children and teens died from gunfire here in the United States. That is eight children a day, 58 children a week. Think about that when you hear about the casualties in the war in Iraq this evening on the news. We are fighting a war overseas and our children are being killed in larger numbers right here in the United States. And we are silent.
Our country is rightly focused on the war overseas where brave American soldiers are making the ultimate sacrifice. The Congress is concerned; the president is concerned. Everyone is saying that terrorism is their number one priority. But what about those poor children here who will be killed tonight? Tomorrow? Next week? Where is the concern? Where is the outrage? Where is the debate? Those who are poor in this country have the weight of poverty and violence and discrimination hanging over their heads straining to break free and crush them, maybe kill them.
And when this great weight crashes down, you will not be under it. You have been guaranteed by the virtue of your education safe passage. That is not to say that life will be easy. It won’t. Or that you won’t have to struggle. You will. It is simply to acknowledge the obvious: those of you sitting here represent some of the best and brightest that our country has to offer. You have proven that you have what it takes to make it.
My question to you is: do you care about those who won’t make it without your help? You have prepared to enter the big game of life, and I have a most wondrous proposition for you: come join our team. We’re losing. Yes, that’s right, we’re losing. There was a time when our team was winning. In the early 70′s, when I was in college, we were engaged in a war on poverty. We fought for civil rights. The women’s liberation movement was the right thing to be involved with. Gay and lesbian rights movements were just beginning.
Our team was winning, and it felt great.
But today, poor people are out, civil rights, been there, done that. Today, money is in, caring about the poor is just part of a laundry list of things that the well-off are expected to write a check for. Citizens are taught they don’t have to get involved, shape policy, or fight political battles. Just check off this space on your Visa, MasterCard, or American Express. Their team is winning; our team is losing. And yet I offer you a wondrous opportunity to join the losing team.
Now don’t all rush up here at once. I know this offer sounds too good to be true. Yes, you can join the losing side, but not quite yet. You see, it’s not easy being on the losing side. You have to be careful, if you are not properly prepared, you will become a loser. We don’t want losers. We want winners who are not afraid to play on the losing side. It’s tougher than you think on this side.
There is evil out there. I’m not talking about some mystical, theoretical, hypothetical construct. I’m talking about the real thing: pain and suffering, despair, and death. So our team needs you. The other team offers you money and power, houses and cars, vacation homes, stock options. Our team offers you challenges and struggles, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guiding beacon and a good night’s sleep. Well, to be totally honest, the other side offers a good night’s sleep also, but our side seems a little weak on the benefits so I thought I would throw that in there for you.
But do you know why I offer you this opportunity? To play on the losing side? Because in the end we are going to win. Because we are right. There is no way you can rationalize the fact that we are the richest nation on earth and yet so many of our children live in poverty so devastating that for them this could be a third world country. That our children live in a country so violent that while 53 law enforcement officers were killed in 2005, 69 preschoolers were killed by firearms. Our country is a place where it is more dangerous to be a 4-year old than to be a law enforcement officer. So, you see, I know educated, enlightened men and women like yourselves will not tolerate these kinds of living conditions for our children. And so, in the end, we will win.
So I invite you to come join our team and please hurry. Because some of us have been in this game too long and we are getting weary. Yes, even I get a little tired sometimes. When you fight in this battle, if you do it on the front lines, there are things that get to you.
You know what it was for me? David Chen Joseph. He was a special person to me. He joined my martial arts class when he was a young boy. Two years after joining my class, his mother and father passed away, leaving he and his brothers and sisters with no parent to care for them. The oldest brother dropped out of school and went to work and we helped as best we could at the Harlem Children’s Zone.
And I watched David Chen Joseph grow into a fine young man and I adopted David Chen. Not in a formal way, but in a way we do when we tell a child who has no parent “think of me as your father” and he does and then you begin to think of that child as your own child. That’s how it was with David Chen and me. David Chen was a boy who went to church and sang in the choir and, oh, what a wonderful voice he had. He was one of our Harlem Peacemakers and spent his summers at Bowdoin helping poor children from Harlem learn how to negotiate for peace.
Several years ago they shot and killed my son in a park in New York City. And then there was the question “what can you do?” That was the question all of my children asked of me. Those who loved him wanted that question answered. What could I do? They can kill the best of us: the ones who play by the rules; the ones who were devotedly religious; who worked hard and went to college. If he isn’t safe, then who is? And in the end, if I couldn’t save David Chen, then who could I save? And really, what could I do? In the end, I couldn’t save David Chen.
But I gave him what he loved and what he wanted. It wasn’t what you might expect. It had been given as a gift from my instructor when I passed my third degree black belt in tae kwon do: a wonderful black belt with my name and school embroidered in gold thread. We all coveted that belt. It’s a silly thing to covet, but I did. The day we buried David Chen, I promoted him to black belt and I gave him my belt, my own. I knew it was a silly thing to do. It was too late for David Chen, but not too late for us. And my children gained hope from the act, and they did not give up and therefore neither did I.
I must admit that just for a minute I felt a little sorry for myself. But it passed. You know why? Because of you. I believe in you. You may not know it, but you are about to join a rare and select group of men and women from Colgate University who are unafraid to take on the toughest issues facing this country. You’re unafraid to fight to change our world. In the end, I believe that when a Colgate graduate sees the truth, they will know it.
And then I have this fantasy which plays out in my head. It’s something that occasionally happened when I was growing up as a young boy in the south Bronx.
I loved playing basketball, and I was fearless. I just wasn’t very good, but I could convince my team we could beat anyone. And we would go out, playing all over the Bronx and invariably lose. And my brother John, who was a year older than me, was a great athlete. He was so good that at 13, when I was playing with the young kids in the Bronx, he was playing with the adults.
Every now and then, this most incredible thing would happen. We would be sweating on some blacktop in some foreign neighborhood in South Bronx and losing. There I would see this wonderful vision of this tall, long looping stride from my brother John as he finished playing with the big kids somewhere. And then, in the middle of the game, I would do something that was very nontraditional in a basketball pick-up game in the south Bronx. I would call for a time out.
Now this was a tricky thing because no one called for a time out in the south Bronx. And after a back and forth, they would say “What…?” and I’d say, “Look, I want to do a substitution.” Now this was unheard of! You don’t do substitutions in the middle of a pick-up.
There would be lots of debate and they’d say “Well, who do you want to put in?” And I would say, “My brother.” And they would chuckle. And they would say “Well, we see your game, so this runs in the family. Sure, bring the guy in. What do we care?” And John would enter the game. And the smirks would disappear and the chuckling would stop and invariably we would win that game. So then in the middle of my sophomore year, my brother John died.
There were many times in my life when I have been facing crises and complex problems trying to fight for the good where I have seen the smirks. I have heard the chuckles of folks who say it can’t be done; it will never happen. And I wish I could call for time out. I just wish I could call for time out and bring some hero, some heroine in to save the day.
Well, I have another fantasy. That one day, not far from now, my team will be doing battle with the forces of darkness. They will be trying to reverse our progress and hurt our children, to kill their souls. And it will suddenly hit me that I can do no more because I’ve been in this game too long, and I have grown weary. But I won’t bow my head, and I won’t feel sorry for myself. I will know suddenly my time has passed and I can do no more.
The forces that are arrayed against us are too powerful, too mighty. Defeat is at hand but I will not be afraid, I won’t bow my head. I’ll look at my team and say one last time, “Let’s go down fighting.”
And suddenly from behind me I will hear a mighty roar, and I will see a most wondrous sight: a group of warriors, stronger, smarter, braver. And they will come charging down to meet the enemy and I will move to the back and look at my team and say “Who are those heroes?” And as the battle is joined and I realize all we have fought for will not be lost. I will grab a few of those young warriors for justice and say “Who are you? Where did you come from?” And they will say to me “Don’t you remember us? We’re from Colgate University Class of 2009.” And I’ll know that my time has past and better men and women than me will continue our struggle.
God bless you Colgate Class of 2009 and Godspeed.

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1 Comment



  • Ian '04 said:

    The speech seemed inspiring. Nice to see such a positive message for the outgoing 2009 class. I hope some will listen. Although I wasn’t there to hear it sure beats the address given by former Gov. Spitzer a few years back. Good choice this year ‘Gate. good luck ’09.