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Majora Carter - Knox College Commencement Address

Transcript of remarks to graduating seniors at Knox College, June 4, 2011

June 04, 2011

I don't get another introduction? That was kind of nice!

Oh my goodness. I'm not sure why I'm feeling a little emotional right now. And I don't know if it's the place that I'm in. I think that's got to be it.

Because to be honest, I had never heard of Knox College before being invited to be a Commencement speaker and to receive a very cool honorary doctorate that a lot of really cool people have gotten as well. And so, but when I learned of the history, I'm deeply humbled by it, and I'm deeply humbled by all of you who decided that this is where you wanted to be for four years, because it clearly represented something that you value -- a sense of justice, and peace, and fairness, and power.

And with that, you know, I've got to tell you, I have a little confession I have to make to you all, and bear with me while I make sure stuff doesn't fly away. But my confession is that I have something in common with the Tea Party. I do.

Look, I want a smaller government, too. The way that I want to create a smaller government is by creating jobs for our most expensive citizens.

So who are our most expensive citizens? Our most expensive citizens are folks that are generationally impoverished, or people that end up going in and out of our criminal justice system, or folks that are returning from our oil wars. I heard an awful stat the other day from the Veterans Administration that 18 men or service women coming back from the war commit suicide at the rate of about 18 per day. That's more than die in active battle.

And so, these most expensive citizens, these are the folks that tend to use a disproportionate amount of our social service dollars as a nation. They tend to self-medicate. In many cases, they will use the unemployment or social welfare benefits a lot. We even know that there's higher rates of domestic violence in many of those homes, that their kids tend to do more poorly in school. And that even adds a whole other host of issues going forward as well.

And these people are not necessarily happy with getting the kind of services that they do, as well, but it does cost a lot, and I'm sure there will be people who will argue things like: "Well, no, our most expensive citizens are the big corporations, you know, who have figured out ways to make the most of it."

And that's a whole other story, and another type of expense, but what I'm talking about are the people who would probably rather not be in that situation if there were other opportunities for them.

And so what I want to do is to help figure out ways to create jobs for those folks doing the type of things that we need and value. And I look at those type of things in terms of climate adaptation strategies. We need them. We know that our climate is changing. You know, whether it's tornadoes in Massachusetts, or the type of things that were happening, flood insurance rates going up so extraordinarily high.

But we know that nature has provided a tremendous way for us to deal with that, whether it's through storm water management in terms of, like, green open space. In a place like this, you don't have to worry too, too much about it. But when you're in cities, and we keep pulling up as much green space as possible in order to build higher -- we've got to deal with that stuff.

So things like urban forestry management, or wetland restoration, or green roofing, or learning how to clean up contaminated lands to use them more proactively. These things attract storm water. They also tend to clean the air naturally. They reduce our energy costs. Because, you know, areas that are more green have a tendency to use less energy in the nearby surrounding buildings. So you want to see more of those things.

Well, imagine creating opportunities for people who need that type of work, but also provides a service that all of our municipalities need. It's a way that we can change the way we spend our money -- which we're going to spend anyway -- you know, as a nation, and create and reduce costs in ways that we need it, social services as well as infrastructure costs.

Now I know that there's an enormous amount of uncertainty going out there, in these years, and for the class of 2011 and for lots of other people. I know a lot of you are worried -- just like a lot of other Americans-about the jobs that you don't have, just yet.

But now is the time that demands your creativity. Partially because we don't have a whole lot to lose. I also came into this, you know, when I was in your shoes, you know, that wasn't a great job market back then, either, as well.

But, you know what, the mistakes you make, it's OK, because people aren't really watching, so make as many as you want.

But this, I have to tell you, is a time that literally demands, that demands for people like you, people who have, already, a vision to believe that anything is possible. And while you've been here, doing your part, honing your skills, and wondering what the world has in store for you and how you're going to make your way in it, I've actually been doing something, too.

You know, I've been criss-crossing the nation and having a really good time doing it, and on a speaking, but actually, on mostly a listening tour. And, do you guys know the phrase "Share the burden, it's half the trouble. Share the joy, and the joy is doubled"? You share the burden, it's half the trouble; share the joy, the joy is doubled.

And when I've been -- no matter where I go -- I've been seeing manifestations of that. And so where I go, people are really looking for truly one thing, and it's local solutions to the really big problems of their day.

It's what I like to call "Home Town Security." Not "Home Land Security," because this is not about more money or a wall separating us from Mexico, or disgruntled TSA workers, you know, which are, really, I think, manifestations of our need for security, but they have nothing to do with true security. They're more based on fear.

And with Home Town Security, it's the exact opposite of that. It's knowing that we can solve the big problems of our day with truly local solutions, and it's an understanding that we are the key to our own recovery. Not the really gross, you know, "OK, I'm going to take care of what I got, and I'm going to dump on somebody else."

No, that's not what I'm talking about.

Because it's about taking real responsibility and doing exactly, all that you can to create the kind of safe, holistic space for people with jobs and the type of air and the type of humanity that everybody wants in their own place.

It's knowing that you don't have to hurt somebody else in order to get your own needs met.

And so I've been going around the country and meeting people who absolutely epitomize so much of this. So I'm going to just go, let's go to Los Angeles.

A man named Andy Lipkis started -- figured out a way to do a cost-benefit-analysis where he talked to the Los Angeles school district and discovered that they were about to spend nearly $2 billion fixing the Los Angeles school district, and he discovered that a whole 10 percent of that budget was only for air conditioning and asphalt.

And he was able to convince them that if you unearth that asphalt, actually do a lot more green infrastructure, planting, you can create jobs doing that, you can lower your air conditioning costs because that type of green infrastructure was naturally cooling to the communities around it.

You created jobs, you had better opportunities for the kids in those areas, who, if you saw more green space, their test scores went up, and they were able to reduce costs for that district just by doing that little act-creating local jobs, local health, and local vitality for that district.

Closer to here, over in North Lawndale in Chicago, a woman named Brenda Palms Barber was tasked with the job of figuring out how do you create a job readiness program for ex-offenders.

And, you know, these are folks that had, actually, a lot of skills in a lot of ways, but not necessarily in the legitimate economy. Many of them had very successful businesses -- but they didn't really show up well on a resume.

So, she had to figure out a way to get them that. So she figured out, came up with a very obvious solution, which was, teach them beekeeping and turn the honey into a skincare product that people would spend a lot of money on. And so, so these folks ended up taking care of the bees, harvesting the honey, manufacturing the skincare product -- or products, a whole line of them -- and they were later sold at the local Whole Foods and also at major hotel chains within the city of Chicago.

And guess what, the regular recidivism rate in this country is something along the lines of 65 percent. And it costs, actually, nearly twice as much as your education here to send one person in this country to jail for one year. It's about $65,000 a year. And, so, yeah, it's a lot of your tax dollars at work and not necessarily good. More than a Harvard education, actually.

But Brenda's recidivism rate: less than 4 percent. OK, that's what I'm talking about.

And let's go to, actually not too far from here also, northern Minnesota.

A lot of folks have heard of Winona LaDuke when she ran for vice president along with Ralph Nader. A lot of folks don't often necessarily know the kind of lifestyle that many Native Americans live in this country, that on the reservation, many of them have one of the highest rates of diabetes because of the type of food that is actually on that land. This is a people who've lived on the land for as long as they did. So food sovereignty is a huge issue there. And also energy sovereignty as well.

And so, they have figured out ways to create windsmithing, they're literally trying to power much of their reservation with wind power and have been working really hard at that.

They created farm-to-table programs, to-school programs, specifically to support people -- both the farmers as well the people, as well as the students in these communities who are actually getting some of the worst food that our federal government had to offer.

And let's move all the way further East at this point and we'll go to coal country, down in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia.

Judy Bonds, who was a coal miner's daughter, and also a coal miner's granddaughter. Actually, seven generations of her family did coal mining.

And she, however, discovered that there was wind up in those hills. And if you kept the mountains intact, instead of chopping them off via mountaintop removal, just for a very awful process that creates huge amounts of toxins in the air and in the water table there. But also, only for a few years coal, a few years' worth of coal, and only specifically for the maybe two dozen worth of people that work for the land and work for the ... energy company or whoever it is. And the mountain never comes back.

When Judy and her teams discovered that there was wind, and you could create wind power in those areas, they worked to do just that. And they created all sorts of business plans to support that. Now the problem is -- (train whistles) hi there -- is that Judy was also a product of her environment, and (train whistles) -- I'm going to let this go because this is important.

Good, I get to wipe my sweaty brow while we're waiting, because man, oh Manischewitz, it is hot up in here!

OK, good.

So, but Judy, again, she was a product of her environment. From growing up in the hollows, you know, of the hills, and realizing the potential that they had to support her communities for a really long time and through endless wind power.

She died at the beginning of this year as a result of lung cancer that moved to her bones and to her brain. But Judy did leave a business plan. One that is designed by nature to protect the people that live in her community and provide for them the kind of local jobs that stay and dollars circulating and staying in her community as well.

And the reason why I was attracted to so many of those people is because, you know, I kind of got my start in a place like that.

I come from a community, it's very different from many of the places I told you about before, but you know, it was a poor, Latino and black community in New York City. And it was environmentally and economically challenged.

It was the place, one of the top three places in New York City that was used as a repository for all the waste facilities, and power plants, and sewage sludge pelletizing plants that wealthier, and usually whiter, communities could afford to avoid.

And, so I got my start figuring out how do you link environmental remediation and job creation so that people, not just the folks, you know, in my local community, because, yes, they also really desperately needed jobs, but also people from the outside. Our policy makers could realize this was also in their best benefit to think about it this way as well.

And now I'm focusing on urban micro agribusiness, and also creating ways to really fix our very broken food system so that we can have more local foods and really augment the regional produce that happens in our communities.

And I'm also working on mixed-use and mixed-income real estate development that supports people in terms of job creation but also the kind of communities that people want to move into and stay into as well. And a lot of folks talk about climate mitigation. You know, that's more renewable energy and things of that nature.

But I really tend to focus more on climate adaptation, because again, I'm as excited as I am to be thinking about, you know, ex-auto workers going out and getting jobs, you know, as we start making windmills, which I hope happens at some point. But I'm also really terrified about the fact that we have a system that has created our most expensive citizens and often doesn't provide real meaningful opportunities and jobs with dignity for them to move out of it.

So jobs in climate adaptation, urban forestry management, things of that nature are the kind of things that we know we actually need to have in our local communities and around the city to help us deal with the changing climate as we also work to figure out what else do we need to do around climate mitigation as well.

And so our -- but it's so interesting because in so many ways I feel like our generation really has failed yours in so many ways.

You know, the legacy of the civil rights movement did not extend to environmental equality. Because if we had placed our power generation, our agricultural, you know, mega-agricultural processes, waste facilities, and all those things in wealthier communities as easily and as quickly as we did in poor ones, we would have had a clean and green economy a long time ago.

But we didn't.

And now the air and the soil and the water for America's poor has gotten worse in the last 30 years. After the Clean Water Act and all that, it's gotten worse for our poor Americans. And now we've noticed because that neglect has added up into global climate-changing problems.

You know, all the great progress in this great nation, and, I would actually argue, in the world, you know, has come from when struggle for equality was at its core. Whether it was the American Revolution or Emancipation or women's rights or to vote or civil rights, all of them -- that equality was at its core.

And I hope you will actually think about and let environmental equality guide you as you make the decisions on how we can adapt to a changing climate going forward to create a smaller government for our most expensive citizens, who desperately are waiting and willing to be a part of creating the kind of productive society that everybody wants to be in.

You know, I'm often asked, a lot -- these couple of questions just came from the other night -- given all that you've been through and all that I've seen, how could I possibly be so hopeful?

You know, you watched your neighborhood burn down.

You know, nothing is going to bring back your brother, who got a bullet in his head.

You know, how does it feel to know that despite what you know now, there were years and years in which you didn't know that there were opportunities to support the people who were left behind and whose lives were compromised, if not lost, as a result of so much of the things that we haven't been doing?

And I can say with full confidence it's because I've actually seen what it's like when an ex-offender suddenly sees his liberation tied up in a vocation, that's not just a vocation but one that is designed by nature to support the people in his own community and communities like it.

I've seen a wasteland by a river, by a forgotten river, that became such a beautiful symbol for what could be that I got married in it.

I've seen people in both blue and red states embrace me as a sister because we seek a common vision for success of what our great nation can be when we just stop and think for a moment and remind ourselves of the power to create the kinds of communities, the kind of nation that we want to live in, that will support human needs, is actually already here.

When you turn off the radio and turn off the TV and turn off those voices inside of your head that tell you: Don't bother, because you know, hope is lost anyway, so why bother? We can turn off those voices, you know, because I know -- I know -- that it's scary out there -- but you're looking at someone who - it took me more than a decade to figure out my path.

I mean, for the love of God, in my late 20s I had to move back in with my parents. And you can imagine what a defeat that was for me and also being the youngest of 10, how thrilled my mother was to have me move back home. But that's OK.

But I have to tell you, I wouldn't take anything for the journey that I've been on. Would, yeah, I wish it had been easier? OK. Would I have done a couple, few things differently? Just a couple, few things -- not most, actually.

But the thing that was most amazing about it was that I knew that somewhere, despite all that outside forces might have been telling me, I knew that I had the power, and the compassion, and the talent, to -- and at the risk of absolutely sounding ridiculous, the love -- to know that I could take responsibility to do something amazing just like all the people that I told you about before.

And the best part, and the truly best part about all this is that I know that none of the incredible things that I've witnessed over these years are going to compare to the truly great things that all of you are going to do after today.

You know, I thank your ancestors for bringing you forward into this world. And God bless you all, and God bless America, and God bless the Knox College Class of 2011.

You guys will rock! Thank you so much.

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Printed on Sunday, January 20, 2019