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Commencement Address 2019
Ai-jen Poo, LHD; May 19, 2019
Ai-jen Poo—an activist and social innovator whose groundbreaking leadership on domestic workers’ rights and family care advocacy earned her the MacArthur “genius” grant—delivered the address at Smith College’s Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 19, 2019.
Good morning! Congratulations graduates! I cannot tell you how honored I am to be your Commencement speaker. Shout out to all the graduates who have worked so hard to get here. And to all the families, for all the sacrifices you’ve made so that today’s graduates can have this moment. I know many domestic workers who work their whole lives so that their children can have a moment like this. And thanks to my family who is here—including my 8 year-old step-daughter Addie. You all are role models for her.
Just the fact that you made it to this day is a milestone worthy of the ritual and ceremony. And I would be honored to be your commencement speaker, no matter what.
But your graduation is actually different. What’s happening here today—this is special.
And I want you to really take this in...because you are graduating from one of the premiere institutions in the world, that is entirely focused on the potential of women—all women—Black, brown, native, white, gender non-conforming and trans—all women to lead and change the world.
Let me say it again—you are graduating from one of the premiere institutions in the world that is entirely focused on the potential of women—all women—to lead and change the world.
And you are doing so in the middle of the most important moment for our leadership and activism in generations. Culturally, politically and economically—women are the single most powerful force for change in our nation right now.
Women are not only on the front lines of protecting our democracy—women are fighting to change every aspect of life in America for the better—for the long haul.
You are graduating into a world where you are center stage.
But it’s a weird kind of center stage—because we’re powerful...but we’re also not. Well—we’re definitely not in charge. We’re more than half of the electorate (women were 54 percent of the electorate in 2018), more than half of all college graduates...more than 70 percent of the consumer base... we’re powering everything, doing everything, but we’re still overrepresented in positions of vulnerability and abuse, and underrepresented in positions of power.
Gender equality has been a question on my mind ever since I was a kid. I was raised largely by my two grandmothers and my mom—as a toddler I followed my grandmother around her kitchen like a mini shadow. As a child, in the summers I would watch her move around her apartment with focus and clarity—every minute was productive. By day, she worked as a nurse, and by night, she made delicious food with groceries she somehow bought before she went to work in the morning.
She organized the whole family, worked, and always had a perfect perm. Growing up around women like her and my mom, I thought women walked on water—they could do anything—I saw them doing everything. And so, I think I assumed they would also be in charge of everything. I figured they should be. The older I got, the more I realized how far from the truth that was. I think that’s how I became a feminist.
Each generation of women has taken up this question of equality. And we have made real gains through our organizing and activism. We stand on the shoulders of giants—Ella Baker, Wilma Mankiller, Dorothy Bolden, Silvia Rivera, Gloria Steinem, and so many more who have changed our culture and society—we’ve changed the laws, everything from the Violence Against Women Act to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. We have changed the workforce, we are now more than half of the workforce. We are in more positions of political leadership. In fact, we’re now 24 percent of United States Congress. Women have changed the conversation about everything from sexual violence and harassment, to who belongs in the White House.
We have changed things. There’s no denying that.
But we’re still reacting to the dominant culture that we didn’t create. We have changed policy, but we haven’t made the rules by which policy is passed. We have taken up more space—more roles in every sector of society—but it all still sits within the same hierarchy that fundamentally values the lives, work and contributions of men over women. That hierarchy also relies upon rigid gender norms, and a binary between men and women.
We have changed cultural norms, but the dominant beliefs underneath haven’t yet shifted. The hierarchal spine of it all is still intact.
From the perspective of domestic workers—women entering the workforce outside the home never translated into valuing or recognizing the work women did inside the home. Women got jobs in lots of industries, but the work in the home they left behind didn’t get elevated—in fact, it’s lack of value got reinforced. Women of color stayed doing that work. We never changed the way we value caregiving—or care work as a profession. And that has hurt all of us.
We won more opportunity in a context set by men. But we never changed the context itself.
Now...here we are in 2019. And it’s time. It’s our time.
And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Children have been put in cages and separated from their families. Whole categories of Americans are being erased and banned. Women who seek abortions are being criminalized and the doctors assisting them are facing 99 years in prison for providing basic women’s health care. White nationalism is on the rise. Gun violence is an epidemic in our children’s schools. Our right to vote and be counted is being stolen.
The very institutions and moral fabric of our democracy are under threat.
We have been first responders in this time of crisis—marching, voting, organizing, donating, running for office and winning at unprecedented rates. We are organizing and taking action. We are rising to the challenge. We have awakened to our responsibility for the future and we are showing up.
Because it’s our time.
And this time—together, we have the power to not only change the country...but to lead it. And change it all.
That is what is before you now. You’re stepping into the opportunity of generations to change the fundamentals of how things work in America. We can change the logic of power in our country—to fundamentally disrupt the hierarchy of human value that defines our culture, our politics, and our economy. To not just change things—but run them.
You’re probably asking—how? Well—I’m an organizer so I believe we have to organize. I know many of you already are—in your communities and also right here on campus—from the housekeepers to the students. I see you and the important demands you are making. I was you as a student organizer—and need you to know your organizing matters.
And my question for all of us is—do you want to change things or run them? And as leaders and organizers—are we leading differently?
Because we don’t want to run things for the sake of running them. We want to run things because we’re going to do things differently.
What does it look like? Well, it looks a lot of different ways. But I do know what it feels like. There's a famous Maya Angelou quote—“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I will never forget how I felt on January 21, 2017.
I stood on the stage in Washington D.C. for the first Women’s March and all I could see was a sea of people and pink—as far as the eye could see—in every single direction. I saw women of every race, religion, age, gender identity and ability—women who had gotten off buses (including a ton of domestic workers)—from Ohio and Louisiana and every place you can take a bus from. And they carried homemade, brilliant and hilarious signs about every issue under the sun—from health care to immigrant rights and climate change. There was room for all of it. There was no issue that was more important than another. We praised each other’s signage. We helped one another navigate the port-o-potties. We made space in line. We shared snacks.
I would say the dominant feeling was...joy. Yes we were afraid and nervous and angry and the range of emotions. But the overwhelming feeling was both powerful and joyful—joyful to be together—that we could create space for each other—support and protect each other no matter what happened.
Even though we don’t see it in our dominant culture, we know in our gut that it’s possible. Power doesn’t have to be abusive, extractive or divisive.
For me to have power doesn’t mean that you can’t. For me to be seen doesn’t mean you won’t.
It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.
In creating a place of honor for every issue, and every experience, we create a different form of power that is rooted in the whole truth of who we are.
In the words of my friend and mentor, and Smith College class of 1956 graduate Gloria Steinem, “Imagine we are linked not ranked.”
We’re going to organize and lead like we’re linked and not ranked.
We want power and leadership not for the sake of having it—but to redefine leadership itself. And create something new.
And I believe we have everything we need to do it.
We’re going to make every single campus and community and workplace safe—because we’re survivors.
We’re going to make every job a job that pays a family sustaining wage, because as women we’ve been working too hard for too little for too long. We know what’s at stake.
We’re going to take care of our caregivers, because we are caregivers, and we need care too! We’re going to support the leadership of trans women and gender non-conforming people because these gender norms have oppressed us all.
We’re going to follow Black women, Native women and immigrant women, because we know a hopeful future for our democracy must be driven by the people it has hurt the longest.
And we’re going to listen. Because there’s so much we don’t know about one another’s stories—rural women, urban and suburban women, we each hold key pieces of the story of who we are and who we can become.
We are going to be bold in our solutions—because we will have to be in order to build a nation that holds us all up and keeps us together, rather than pits us against each other.
We have everything we need to set this transformation in motion. There’s one special ingredient in particular that we have—that is essential.
I’ll tell you a story about the last couple of weeks. Right after the first women’s march the main question I got from reporters is-- is this just a moment? Will it last? Here we are more than two years later. A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a group of amazing women organizers who launched a new home for women’s activism called Supermajority.
Within a week of the launch, more than 80,000 people signed up as members. More than 50,000 have filled out an in-depth form about their experiences and their interests so we could get to know them better.
One question we asked—what is your superpower?
The most popular answer? Empathy.
This is why I believe we will win. Empathy is our superpower.
There’s one last disclosure to make—which is that I’m a cryer. My mom gave it to me. She’s a cryer too. You’re probably too young to remember these movies but Beaches...Terms of Endearment...Steel Magnolias... I literally remember those movies from my childhood, distinctly because both my mom and I cried so hard we couldn’t breathe, and our eyes were swollen for days afterward.
To this day I often cry at events. I can’t help it—especially at ceremonies...like this one. Weddings, baby showers, funerals...anything where anyone is being celebrated, or appreciated, when someone’s unique contributions or humanity is seen or recognized. I sobbed through every episode of the last season of Queer Eye.
But for years I lived in fear of crying in public—especially in meetings. Especially when I’m facilitating or leading the meeting. I felt like, especially as a woman of color, to be taken seriously as a leader, I had to project a steely kind of confidence and crying would not fit that image. I believed that vulnerability is not something you wear on your sleeve when you want people to see you as a credible leader. I still struggle with it. I mean I still cry, because I can’t help it. But I still feel a lot of shame around it, no matter how many times people tell me it’s okay.
In the last year alone—I cried during my TED Talk. I cried on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival as I told the story of being in McAllen, Texas, seeing the children who had been separated from their parents literally being carted off in buses. I cried at the National Domestic Workers Alliance membership assembly when I told my story of surviving sexual assault.
And each time—the most amazing thing happened.
I became a magnet for other women who wanted to organize—women who wanted to be both powerful and human...together.
It helped us find each other.
Each of us will have our things—our reminders of how the old paradigm has shaped us. And the thing to remember is that the thing we may have been trying to suppress in the old paradigm may be the exact superpower we need to lead for the future.
Empathy is especially critical in this time in history. Being woke often means being mad a lot of the time. I think that’s important and healthy. But it’s also important to remember this is a nation of humans and we’ve all been through a lot as country.
My dear friend Heather McGhee, the former president of an organization called Demos, has a really wise insight. She calls our country the most ambitious experiment in democracy in the entire world. Because if you think about it—we had the indigenous peoples—the first nations of this land, and then the first migrants came from Europe to colonize, and then a group of people were brought here forcibly as part of the transatlantic slave trade, and then you had generation upon generation of migration, from every country, culture, religion in the world...
And then you tell us we are one...It’s a really challenging idea!!! Ambitious to say the least.
The idea that we are both many and one is both the source of so much pain and conflict and precisely what makes us so unique and extraordinary as a nation.
It is also the greatest organizing challenge in the history of the world.
That is why we need you. As you commence—into the rest of your life. Because you are graduating, from one the premiere institutions focused on the leadership and power of women in the world—and you are graduating onto center stage amidst one of the most difficult times in the most ambitious experiment in democracy in the world—and when women are assembling into the most important force for positive change for this country—we’re asking more of you.
We are asking you to lead.
And to organize.
We need you to take responsibility now—not just for yourself, your community, or even just the people who share your values. We need you to take responsibility for the whole—for the whole entire project of taking this vision of a democracy into the the future—and running it all. And doing it differently. Doing it together. With a whole lot of empathy.
Ours is a new paradigm of power where we are linked—not ranked—and we are connected. In our logic of power—there is room for the whole of who we each are—in all of our imperfections and our brilliance. Black, white brown, native, rural, urban, suburban, across the spectrum of gender identity, ability, age and class—all of these experiences together are what will make our organizing and leadership powerful.
Our ability to model being powerful together—to be linked—is what this country needs to see to know that it is possible.
When I was in college, I discovered Audre Lorde. Her poem “A Litany for Survival” was profound to me. It felt like a love poem to all of us who felt we couldn’t be our true selves and free in the existing paradigm. I believe she wrote it to help us know that we are not alone. Her stunning poem closes with a call to action—
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
She reminds us that we are living in a paradigm that was set up to fail us. So we should speak our truths.
What’s on the table right now—for all of you—for us—is the chance to lead in the service of a new paradigm. To create a new future, where we not only survive—but we thrive.
And so—to the beloved Smith College Class of 2019—I would offer a twist on Audre Lorde’s words—
It is better to lead
you have the power to change everything.
I believe in you. We all believe in you. We are so proud of you.