Dr. Cheryl Dorsey, L.H.D. '16
President, Echoing Green
May 15, 2016
Members of the Board of Trustees, including the Chair of the Board Maureen Collins Zupan, Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan, Provost and Dean of Faculty Titi Ufomata, Dean of Hobart College Eugen Baer, Dean of William Smith College Catherine Gallouet, faculty and staff, families, friends and graduates.
It’s my pleasure to be addressing the Hobart and William Smith Colleges graduating class of 2016. I also want to take a moment and thank all the parents, families, spouses, and friends who are here. I know that it is your guidance, love, and support that helped these graduates get to this day.
Most importantly, congratulations to you, the graduating class of 2016. You did it! I’m so proud and honored to be your commencement speaker today in part because you are affiliated with an important institution that truly values undergraduate education, promotes your role as global citizens through study abroad opportunities, and prioritizes community service as a key part of your growth and development as future leaders. I was blown away to learn that nearly every HWS student participates in some form of community service and that annually you, as students, generate more than 80,000 hours of service.
Community service teaches you to not only look beyond yourself and understand the role you can play in your community and beyond but also, if done well, it helps you to question the larger issues involved in the work at hand. Some have talked about how volunteering helps strengthen our various citizen muscles. There’s the personal responsibility muscle—helping individuals you know (like your friends) and individuals you don’t know (like when you donate blood, for eg). There’s also the participation muscle. Participatory citizens are active in community projects. You are trying to make your community better and building social capital at the same time. Then there’s the justice muscle. Having participated in community service should also have developed some of you as justice-oriented citizens, those who examine the causes and possible solutions for society’s challenges and ills.
It is my sincerest hope that through your experiences here at HWS, you’ve developed all three of these muscles and are prepared to flex them as you begin the next phase your journeys. Because you’re going to need all the strength, endurance, and agility you can muster to take on what awaits you! The world is pretty funky at the moment.
The ILO estimates that more than 61 million jobs have been lost since the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, leaving more than 200 million people unemployed globally. The Earth’s average land temperature has warmed nearly 1°C in the past 50 years as a result of human activity, global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by nearly 80% since 1970, and atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse gases are at their highest level in 800,000 years. From the European refugee crisis to the Flint water crisis to the governance crisis in Brazil, our political structures like so many other systems are buckling.
Don’t take my word for how bad things feel, especially here in the US. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the country’s future as we approach the 2016 elections. 7 in 10 Americans still believe we are in an economic recession. And nearly two-thirds believe that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life. But before you start pelting me with tomatoes and booing me off the stage for being such a downer on your big day, let me say that, in my estimation, this is precisely the moment for you to go and get your life. You all are on the cusp of a new day—a new way.
The historian Chester Star noted that for new ideas to have a chance, the old systems have to be so turbulently shaken that they lose their dominance. Do you feel the ground shaking beneath you? This is a phenomenon we also see in nature. Biologist Elisabet Sahtouris described how the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly follows a similar change pattern. In metamorphosis, small cells known as imaginal discs begin to appear in the body of the caterpillar. Since they are not recognized by the caterpillar's immune system, they are immediately wiped out. But as they grow in number and begin to link up, they ultimately overwhelm the caterpillar's immune system. Its body then goes into meltdown and the imaginal discs build the butterfly from the spent materials of the caterpillar. This is how paradigms shift. This is how social movements tip beliefs, norms and laws.
These imaginal discs can be likened to the courageous voices of Black Lives Matter and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness or the fearless ones who don’t believe you have to sacrifice people and planet for profits and are leveraging the capital markets to help solve social and environmental problems at scale. This is a moment of creative destruction which is the very definition of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurship is one of the most disruptive forces of the status quo. And this should really matter to you because entrepreneurship not only breaks the grip of the old way of doing things but it also helps create a new path forward. Some of you here today will be the architects of these new paths to be forged. But all of you will experience this new way.
My view of tomorrow is actually quite lovely and clear and I can’t wait for you to get on your way. So why am I so confident and excited for you? In part, it’s because the young people I have the privilege to work with at Echoing Green have already begun to forge these new paths and are thriving. For over 28 years, Echoing Green has been an accelerator for emerging leaders with big ideas to meet social needs, ideas that are attacking a range of problems that existing structures and policies have found it impossible to crack.
Their examples preview not only what it will mean to live in new ways or relate to one another in new ways or to work in new ways but also the many ways you will seek to live lives of consequence.
First, our planet is under pressure and the necessary push towards sustainability will require each of you to take on responsibilities as planetary stewards. Some of you will make it your life’s work. Like Echoing Green social entrepreneur, Brendan Coffey, who co-founded GreenWave, which has developed a 3 dimensional ocean farming model to address overfishing, mitigate climate change, restore marine ecosystems and provide jobs for fishermen.
Second, how you lend your voice to the public square will matter because an informed and engaged citizenry is foundational for a healthy democracy. One of the most positive aspects of American culture is that we not only focus on what is possible today but also on how high people are able to rise regardless of how humble their beginnings. Voices across our society are getting louder and more urgent about the need for equity—that is, when people in a society have equal chances to reach their full potential and are no more likely to encounter life’s burdens or benefits just because of the color of their skin, gender identity, class, etc. Our failure to address inequity undermines not only our democracy but also our economy and our standing in the world. Echoing Green has been proud to support social innovators like Christopher Daley and Dylan Vade, co-founders of The Transgender Law Center, California’s first fully staffed, state-wide transgender legal organization and an important civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities. It connects transgender people and their families to technically sound and culturally competent legal services, increases acceptance and enforcement of laws and policies that support California's transgender communities, and works to change laws and systems that fail to incorporate the needs and experiences of transgender people.
And third, as for work, 94% of you, millennials that is, report that you want to use your skills for good. Millennials would take a pay cut to do work that is more meaningful. For 6 in 10 millennials, a sense of purpose is part of the reason that they chose to work for their current employers.
And companies are paying attention to this. Employees with a strong sense of purpose are at least 4 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. And if employees feel they are working toward a good cause, it increased productivity by 30%. In fact, purpose-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times between the years 1996 and 2011.
After working with hundreds of social entrepreneurs at Echoing Green, we’ve come to understand that these purpose driven leaders have figured out how to align their head (meaning their smarts), their heart (meaning what they care about) and their hustle (meaning their unique talents and strengths). At the end of the day, it’s all about finding what’s right for you and good for the world.
That’s what Echoing Green social innovator Toni Blackman did. After college, she founded Freestyle Union, one of the first comprehensive, structured lyrical development programs in the world. The mission of Freestyle Union is to not only use hip hop as a form of artistic expression, but to promote positive images within the rap community, to encourage activism and to inspire artists and young people. Her talent and this work put Toni on the map as an award-winning artist and activist sharing the stage with the likes of the Roots, Sheryl Crow and Wu Tang Clan but also led her to be selected by the US Department of State as a Cultural Specialist, the first time ever that honor has been bestowed on a hip hop artist. Did you know that hip hop diplomacy could be a career?
Management guru, Peter Drucker, once said, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." So, as you head into your careers and the rest of your lives, I want you to take that and your school’s motto with you. Because you are prepared to live lives of consequence.
You all have the ability to create a future that is beyond our imaginations. When I look out at all of you, I see and I feel the power of the collective—agents of change in our society. And it is beautiful and exciting to behold.
As you leave here, remember that the choices you make and the path you tread will have consequences. You will leave a mark on this world, and it’s up to you to decide whether that mark is one that makes the world a better place or not. Now is the time to take all you’ve learned… all of your preparation… and put it into action every day, in many ways. And I know that you will crush it.
Congratulations and again, good luck.