Last weekend I delivered this speech at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Class of 2017 Commencement Ceremony. CIPA students had elected me to speak on behalf of the faculty. I have been teaching at CIPA since Fall 2015 and it has been an eventful, rewarding year of my life.
Graduates, Faculty, and Friends.
It is a matter of privilege that I have been asked to be here. A year ago, I had no idea that I would be speaking at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA). My own journey to CIPA has been a long and somewhat accidental one. For a year now, I have felt as if I were back at school, and I have enjoyed every moment of it.
I am thankful to Cornell and CIPA for this experience, as it has been one of the most rewarding years of my life.
A key pillar of Cornell’s mission is to engage with the needs of modern societies – as both a means of learning and a means of effecting relevant change. Nowhere is this better articulated than here at CIPA, for apart from being a place of learning it is also an academic space that engages with the world, celebrates diversity, and encourages dissent for social change – inside and outside of the United States.
Human history is a testament to the truth of ideas shaping and altering societies. It is the power of ideas that is perhaps your greatest takeaway as you venture into the real, deeply flawed world. There is certainly a great need for public leaders like yourselves to advance public interest and make this world a better place. The place we all know it has the potential to be.
Once you are done with the immediate worries of job-hunting, moving, and getting out of the Ithaca bubble, you will realize that the readings, classroom discussions, and problem-solving taught at CIPA are among your greatest assets. As you will look back, Ithaca and Cornell will not seem like a bubble but a fountainhead where you found knowledge, networks, and ideas to steer ahead in life! I ask you, all of you, to apply them with integrity, vision, and a large dose of courage.
Nothing at all changes in the public sphere without passion and profound engagement with issues, ideas, and of course, people.
The world we live in today is marked by spectacular contradictions. We are likely to live longer, digitally communicate more often, and have greater access to information than ever before, yet we are also likely to be more alone. We are less likely to reach out and touch someone else and we are not necessarily wiser for our wealth of knowledge.
We also live on a planet where at least 3 billion people live in abject poverty and millions are uprooted, displaced, or threatened, and yet the most grotesque displays of consumption are also part of our everyday experiences. One cannot overlook climate change either, as if it is not handled by sound policy choices, this could be the one thing that beats the bomb in ravaging the planet.
Of all these challenges, the most immediate – regardless of where you end up living and working – is global inequality. It is shameful that the world’s richest eight billionaires possess the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the human family. The richest quintile of humanity takes home about 70% of global income compared with just 2% by the poorest fifth. This is the challenge of our times, and it must therefore be at the core of public policy at national, regional, and global levels.
This is why CIPA values matter. Policies, institutions, and their ideas matter. Since all of you may elect to pursue careers focusing on public affairs, let me remind you that equitable distribution of resources and social justice are central to progress and development. This has to be non-negotiable.
That it hitherto isn’t, remains one of the reasons we are witnessing the rise of fascist ideologies across the globe just at a time when we all thought that fascism had been buried alongside the twentieth century. The troubled discourse around Muslims, people of colour, and the marginalized is alarming. We all have to do our bit – in our personal lives, our professional engagements, and through our commitment to securing a better world. A better future.
Dear graduates: Wherever you end up, you will be a global citizen.
Our common futures are dependent on how we tackle the environment, global incomes, and the notion that all of us are equal regardless of our colour, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. This is what CIPA has enabled me to weave into my classroom work –– the recurring pursuit for progress borne of equality and justice.
There are 65 million displaced people in the world today — the greatest number since the end of World War Two. Yet the anger towards refugees is an affront to such values.
For instance, the current moves in the United States to ban Muslims and the paranoia about migrants threatens the very fabric of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious United States of America. The ideals of inclusion and diversity are what have made America great. Many of you will work in America, and if you are in public affairs – these issues will confront you every day.
There is a formidable legacy to build upon: The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that liberated African-Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency and the expansion of the National Park System are but a few examples. These represent models for many developing countries, too. But sadly, these stand challenged today. In this climate of uncertainty your clarity of purpose will help. Every voice – every act of compassion – will help.
Why is the current state of play important for the world? For almost a century, the United States has acted as a global leader. If a journalist is targeted in America, it provides a credible example for autocratic leaders in the South to emulate. If the EPA website removes or hides references to climate change, it would be a perfect opportunity for other denialist governments to throw the climate agenda out the window. If black teens continue to be killed on the streets of America and the police are not reformed, authoritarian regimes the world over will feel further empowered.
Therefore, the quality of democracy, public policy choices, and justice in the United States and Europe matters for all the right reasons, as well as all perverse reasons. I am the last person to advocate the benevolence of the Euro-Atlantic hegemony, but in this world of instant communication what happens here has a ripple effect that is felt worldwide. The tax-cuts for big sharks, the ascendancy of unaccountable, unregulated corporations that span the globe, the revival of the business of war – all of it – is deeply worrying.
And it must be resisted.
But the most heartening of my experiences here has been to witness and occasionally participate in the civic movements standing against these societal ills. In the Black Lives Matter movement, Refugees are Welcome, the resistance to the Muslim Ban, and ACLU’s effective advocacy we are shown the way forward. Effective institutions, civil society, the media, and civic movements matter, and so do responsible public servants and public leaders.
This is why you and I were at CIPA for all the right reasons. We have been fortunate enough to interact with new ideas, learn from a world-class faculty, and immerse ourselves into applied forms of knowledge.
All that said, my message to you is that ultimately it is love and human connection that make us happy. Engage with the world, but not at the cost of happiness. Happy humans make better humans. Love someone, cherish someone, and embrace someone. Live your life to the fullest and help others live theirs. CIPA has given you the skill set to do that.
On this important day, you embody hope.
Congratulations and best of luck.
Images via CIPA Facebook Page