Celebrating the Graduates of the Green Institute Class of 2014 Posted: December 6, 2014
Keynote Speech At Commencement Ceremonies For the 3rd
Class of the Center for Neighborhood’s Green Institute
November 4, 2014
I want to begin by thanking Ben, the Center for Neighborhoods, and each of you graduates, for allowing me to be a part of this very special evening.
For the last thirty-one years I have directed the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and strategic assistance to low-income individuals, community groups, and local governments on air, water, waste, land use, energy and utility policy matters. People come to KRC because they are in crisis - those things they value most – home, family, health, have been put at risk through someone’s indifference. On a good day, we are able to stop someone from hurting another, and only on our very best days, and they are few and far between, we can use the law to craft a crude approximation of justice.
You have been embarked on a three-month long journey together to learn and share those skills and resources needed to improve the environmental, social and economic resilience of your communities. It is remarkable that each of you has devoted twelve weeks to becoming better advocates for community-building and community reclamation. You each have different stories and different challenges that brought you to this place, but you share some things in common.
You each understand and value the importance of each person, and you understand that durable change and progress comes from dialogue and shared learning.
You understand that what diminishes one, diminishes all, and that justice in its myriad facets – environmental, economic, social, generational – is a birthright of all.
You understand that, in answer to Cain’s question, we ARE our brothers and sisters’ keepers, each ultimately accountable to each other and to our children and the children seven generations out for what we contribute to the common good – towards building and sustaining community in a way that is sustainable, healthy, and ennobling.
You understand that the day belongs to those who show up, and keep showing up, and that by showing up, by speaking truth to power on behalf of your own and your classmates’ neighborhoods, you can balance the scales that are now tipped so heavily towards monied interests that relentlessly push the edge of planning, zoning, development, and pollution envelopes to maximize private profit and to socialize the costs.
You understand that systems and processes, social, political, and economic, develop and endure not because they are necessarily the best or the most just and efficient, but because we follow ingrained patterns and exhibit behaviors that respond to the past, and because people are afraid of change in a rapidly changing world. We embrace the dysfunctional systems we know and fear change, even change for the better. We surround ourselves with distractions because grappling with the daunting questions, such as climate change, poverty, homelessness, and income inequality, frighten us.
Now, you move forward to the next stage of your civic vocation, as graduates of the 2014 Green Institute class.
It is customary at commencement exercises that the speaker attempt to convey useless advice to the captive graduates and their guests, and tonight is no exception. I have distilled unwanted advice from 43 years of advocacy, and will share it with you now.
Don’t ever despair that you don’t have the ability to effect change. Change occurs incrementally, sometimes in dramatic but more often in subtle ways, as Mother Teresa said, “one soul at a time.”
You will face apathy, criticism (sometimes harsh and personal), and barriers built of indifference or the insular agendas of some in power. Remember what Frederick Douglass wrote in his treatise on West India Emancipation that “If there is not struggle there is no progress.”
Anthropologist Margaret Mead was right when she observed:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
You ARE such a group of thoughtful committed citizens, and through the efforts of organizations like the Center for Neighborhoods and their Neighborhood Institute, you, the third class of the Green Institute, enter into a remarkable group of alumni that includes others who came together to envision positive change in their community. The Center for Neighborhoods has been instrumental in creating a network of informed and effective community advocates, and as the third graduating class of the Green Institute, you have set the bar high for those classes that follow!
Remember to use the full array of tools that you have – as a voter, a citizen, a mentor, a student, a consumer, a neighbor, a parent, a child.
Move beyond merely reacting to crises and look to transforming the institutions and politics that allow neighborhoods and families to be put at risk. Become more focused on the institutions, on the environmental, energy, and economic policies, on bridging the gulf between our political systems and what we profess to value and believe.
You’ve already taken the first step – you’ve gotten a full immersion Baptism into civic activism.
What more can you do?
* Build and expand your network. Work with other neighborhoods, progressive church, civic and volunteer groups, to create a broad base of community support for change.
* Connect the dots and work for reform in governance and campaign financing.
* Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office. When I listened to former Governor Ned Breathitt and William T. Young address a group of young leaders at a Shakertown conference some years back, the one thing that Mr. Young regretted in a life full of success and of giving, was that he had not “stood” for office. He considered that a failing – that he had not offered himself as a public servant.
* Hold elected officials accountable. Justice in all of its many facets – racial, economic, environmental, generational, should always be the defining issues for your votes.
* Teach, and learn. Margaret Mead was right when she said “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.” Think about the behaviors you pattern, and sit at the feet of those who came before you, just as you mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future.
* Be creatively intolerant of mediocrity. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in governance never made an indifferent politician more caring.
* Approach problem-solving with an open mind, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, in the crucible of diverse ideas and perspectives that we arrive at just solutions.
Let me close with a prayer written by one of my heroes, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She wrote:
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
YOU are catalysts for good, and this community and your neighborhoods will be all the better for your efforts at building a more just, a more liveable, and a healthier community. You are that “smart grid” that will plug in and share the energy needed to make our community and each of its residents thrive and bloom where they are planted.
Green Institute Graduating Class of 2014, congratulations. Let us go forward together and face our challenges with hope and humility, and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and the legacy we will leave to our children’s children.