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Ai-jen Poo: ‘Changing the Logic of Power’

Campus Life

Commencement speaker

Published May 19, 2019

In her Smith College Commencement address, activist and social innovator Ai-jen Poo urged members of Smith College’s class of 2019 to transform the look of leadership.

“Together, we have the power to not only change the country,” Poo said. “We can run the country, too. 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.”

A leader in domestic workers rights and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Poo noted that although women have made progress, they have not yet seen transformative change.

“We won more opportunity in a context set by men,” the Supermajority co-founder said. “But we never changed the values underneath the context.”

Poo invoked her mentor, Gloria Steinem, who graduated from Smith in 1956, and urged graduates to imagine a new paradigm of power -- one in which women are “linked, not ranked.”

And Poo urged graduates 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 democracy into the future -- running it all. And doing it differently. Doing it together. With a whole lot of empathy.”

At Smith’s 141st Commencement, the college awarded 685 degrees: 623 undergraduate degrees, and 62 advanced degrees. This year’s graduates came to Smith from 40 states and 31 countries around the globe.

The college awarded honorary degrees to Poo and four other remarkable women leaders in higher education, the arts and public service:

  • Elizabeth Alexander, poet, scholar, educator, memoirist, and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation;
  • Drew Gilpin Faust, president emerita and Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University;
  • Yvonne Freccero, advocate for people who are homeless in Hampshire County;
  • Nicola “Niki” Sauvage Tsongas ’68, former congresswoman representing the 3rd District of Massachusetts.

Student speaker Aminata Khan ’19 urged the graduates to “go into this world fierce and unafraid. Continue to be bold and brilliant….Take risks. Keep learning. Make your life your own.”

Smith faculty member Barbara Kellum, professor of art and associate chair, received this year’s Honored Professor Award.

The weekend’s commencement activities highlighted both new beginnings and longstanding Smith traditions, as graduates, family members and alumnae took part in parades with ivy garlands, receptions and other special gatherings on campus.

In a panel discussion Saturday, some of the honorary degree recipients discussed activism, engagement and leadership.

In her Ivy Day speech to fellow members of the class of 2019, Ada Comstock Scholar Ingrid Magalhaes described the vital support she received from students, faculty and staff during her years at the college.

“My time at Smith has made me more confident and more aware of my strengths,” said Magalhaes, an international student and the first in her family to earn a college degree. “Always remember to believe in yourself, in your dreams, and in your power.”