A Call for Social Justice: Remarks at Commencement

A Call for Social Justice

Remarks to the Graduating Class of 2011

by President Patricia McGuire ’74

Trinity flourishes in a world full of challenge and turmoil. For the Class of 2011, your college days have carried the burdens of economic recession, war and terrorism, but also the promise of rapid technological innovation, the hope of improved health care for all and the potential for real political change at home and abroad.

The Trinity degrees you take into the world today come with large expectations for the work you will do in the future to advance the common good, to make justice your tireless cause, to be forces for truth and charity in every community you inhabit.

All around us, these fundamental virtues of the good society are in grave danger.

Today, the very idea of social justice is often mocked, in some quarters, by some people – some of them even claiming to be people of faith – who preach a perverse gospel that denies our essential responsibility to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need. As a Catholic institution rooted in the faith tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Trinity stands in opposition to the cynical, selfish view of rights as only accruing to the strong, the privileged, the politically and economically powerful, or only those with the right papers. As a matter of faith, Trinity stands for social justice for everyone as the pillar of the good secular society and the essential moral community.

Social justice demands that we, the graduates of Trinity, use the many gifts we have received here in service to others. I think of the words of the great Marian Wright Edelman, honorary Trinity alumna, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who said that, “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is not something to do in your spare time; it is the very purpose of life.”

Trinity expects her graduates to pursue this purpose in the very specific service of justice for the human community, upholding the dignity of human life through the entire cycle of existence, being champions of civil and human rights, standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need, taking the option for the poor, advocating economic justice for all, and caring for God’s creation.

Trinity expects all of us, her graduates, to hear the call to stand for justice wherever and whenever the human community needs our affirming response.

Justice cannot stand idly by when the carnival of prejudice rolls into town, with its sideshows of sick hatred and ringmasters of repressive greed.

Justice cannot be silent when the engines of legislation and public policy shift into a hard reverse, throttling way back on fundamental rights once assumed to be settled for all.

Justice must not look away from the movement to deny the birthright of full citizenship for children born in this nation to immigrant parents.

Justice cannot turn away from the shameful spectacle of privileged people, whose families, themselves, fled to this nation to escape deprivation elsewhere, building ever-higher walls against the desperate dash to freedom by people who have known only poverty and oppression.

Justice must call out the shame of schools that deepen impoverishment and despair. And that same justice cannot allow itself to collude with those who deny the insidious effects of poverty and violence and hunger and homelessness on the ability to children to learn. Justice cannot allow public leaders to ignore the gruesome conditions of life in the most desperate corners of our cities while those same leaders systematically destroy the reputations and livelihoods of the very people who are often the only ones trying to bring some relief to those children and families, the teachers who dare to go to work each day in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

But justice must do even more. The Prophet Amos got it right: “Justice must roll down like the river, its righteousness flooding the fields” of hatred and discrimination and oppression.

You, today’s graduates of Trinity, with the commission inherent in these degrees, you now board that barque of justice rolling down the river, joining thousands of Trinity alumnae and alumni before you. As they have done through the last century, you will put the gifts of this Trinity education to use for the causes of justice and peace, charity and hope in a world where such virtues are scarce.

You will teach the children who will lead the world into the 22nd century. How well you teach them will influence the fate of generations.

We get daily reminders of how awesomely difficult this task is especially for the teachers in our troubled city schools. Just this past Friday afternoon, on the daily email message I get from the Washington Post with notable topics of the day, two headlines appeared one after the other that summed up the entire problem of educational justice in this region. One headline announced that, in Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, the high schools in Fairfax and Prince William counties send more high school students to the nation’s military academies than any other jurisdiction in the nation. The second headline told the sad tale of a melee at D.C.’s Coolidge High School not far from this ceremony today. After all of the rhetoric about educational reform, all of the theories about teachers and recriminations over firings and relentless cycles of high stakes tests, it still comes down to this: the children of one neighborhood get to go on to college, the children of another neighborhood face the prospect of jail. That’s not the fault of the teachers.

Justice must beware of reformers who know all the answers while silencing questions.

You will make justice a reality in the shape of the law and policy of this nation and the world through the roles you will play as lawyers and elected officials, staff experts and public interest advocates, civic activists and voters. Full participation in the political process is an expectation of social justice and a serious obligation of the education you have received.

You will make life healthier and more bearable as nurses and health care professionals delivering critical care at each life stage. You will be part of some of life’s most difficult conversations about the type and amount of health care your patients will receive, and in the way you minister to their need, you will be powerful agents of justice, hope and charity.

You will be agents of justice in the corporations you will manage and lead, both for-profit and nonprofit, ensuring equity and fairness for human capital while protecting consumer interests and ensuring environmental stewardship.

You will goad your neighbors to action to help your communities thrive, and you will have the courage to confront those same neighbors when they say, “Not in my back yard” when people who are not like them seek nearby residence.

You will remember the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Thucydides who said that, “Justice will not come until those who are not injured feel just as hurt as those who are.”

And in serving the ends of justice, you will make it possible for the human community to have the hope that, someday, we will finally know true peace.

You will do all of this with the power, wisdom and love of the Trinity as the whisper in your ear and the wind at your back along the pathways of your lives. When you hear the voice of Trinity, when you feel her gentle tap upon your shoulder, you will remember that wherever you go from this day forward, you will not be alone. Trinity will be with you, and you will be in our hearts, all the days of your lives.