With the same conviction that characterizes his work as a passionate advocate for education and social-services reform, Geoffrey Canada urged members of Colgate’s Class of 2009 to continue the “pursuit of truth and enlightenment for the betterment of society and not solely for the betterment of yourselves.”
“I believe in you. You are about to join a select group who must be unafraid to take on the toughest issues,” said Canada during his address in Sanford Field House for the university’s 188th commencement ceremony.
As graduates embark on their future endeavors and join what Canada called the game of life, he challenged them to become “warriors of justice” by joining the team fighting poverty.
“Do you care about those who won’t make it without your help?”
“I offer you the wondrous opportunity to join the losing side,” Canada said to laughter. “We may not win the fight,” he said, “but as long as you are here, we will never stop fighting.”
During his powerful speech, he described the almost unbearable weight of poverty and violence that the underprivileged must carry.
“Poverty is not some benign condition … poverty is a killer. Children are too often the victims.”
He also recalled his own experiences as a child raised by a single mother in the South Bronx and now as a crusader helping children who grew up in conditions similar to those faced by his own family.
Canada is nationally recognized for his work as CEO and president of Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit that offers educational and social services to low-income families in a 100-block section of Harlem, with the aim of guiding poor children from birth to college.
“There will be a day when I grow weary in this game against poverty. But, suddenly from behind me, I will see the most wondrous sight of a group of warriors charging down to meet the enemies,” he said.
“I will grab a few of those young warriors and ask, ‘Who are you and where did you come from?’ They will say to me, ‘Don’t you remember us? We are from Colgate University Class of 2009.’ ”
Prior to Canada’s address, Colgate President Rebecca S. Chopp told graduates that their education is truly just beginning.
“Your education is not something behind you but something in front of you, something you will live forward for yourself and with others,” Chopp said.
She went on to highlight the many ways this year’s graduates left their mark, noting class members helped Colgate make real strides to become a more environmentally sound campus and invested in the university’s future by contributing to the senior class gift, an endowment to support programming in the recently renovated Donovan’s Pub.
Chopp charged the seniors to use the values acquired at Colgate — including profound determination, love of friendships, and respect for difference — to navigate their lives.
“Your values will guide you through the accelerated changes ahead and will give great pleasure to your life.”
Chopp, who will leave the university later this month to become president of Swarthmore College, also received an honorary degree during the commencement ceremony.
Along with Chopp, honorary degrees were awarded to Canada, Melvyn Klein ’63, and Lonnie Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson.
Klein, a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, is an entrepreneur, attorney, philanthropist, investor, and writer. Thompson and Mosley-Thompson are among the world’s leading researchers on climate change.