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Commencement Address 2009

Tammy Baldwin ’84, LLD 2009; May 17, 2009

Commencement 2009

Tammy Baldwin, a Smith College alumna and the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives from her native Wisconsin, was the speaker at Smith’s 131st commencement ceremony Sunday, May 17, 2009.

President Christ, members of the faculty, parents, and especially the graduates.... It’s wonderful to be here this morning surrounded by so many incredible women. It’s especially exciting for me to be here with my class for our 25th reunion. My classmates are not only some of my best friends. They were — and are still — some of my role models.

My bio says I won my first campaign for public office when I was 24 years old. But my classmates always remind me that’s not completely true. My first campaign was right here at Smith when I ran for president of my house. I felt confident. I had passionately followed politics for years. And, not only was it my house, it was called Baldwin House.

Needless to say, I lost. But, I learned my lesson. I’ve never run another campaign against a Smithie. And I’ve never lost another election.

For the graduates, this may be the first time that you’ve thought of yourself as being part of a much larger community of Smith women. Perhaps watching the alumnae walk by yesterday, you felt what I felt 25 years ago. Amazement. Awe. Where do these incredible women come from? When did they get to be so impressive?

Now that I am on the other side of that age gap, I’m going to let you in on a secret. We are the ones who are amazed. We are the ones who are in awe. We look out at all of you talented, confident, beautiful women, and we can’t help but be excited about what you will accomplish.

I’m also reminded of what another Smith alumna, the author Madeleine L’Engle wrote. “We can't take any credit for our talents,” she said. “It's how we use them that counts.”

For those of you who are worrying that this is going to turn into a lecture about how you need to devote your lives to a higher purpose ....Don’t.

I already believe that your generation is more committed to making a difference in the lives of others than any other in my lifetime.

Let me share a few thoughts today about where I hope you can make a difference — and about how you can use your abundant talents.

One of my favorite professors was Jim Henle. My first class with him was “infinitesimal calculus.” I was a math major and a pretty sharp student. In his class he did something that took me completely by surprise.

He assigned us “insoluble problems” — problems with no solutions — as homework. We weren’t expected to come up with the answers. But we were expected to show some progress.

Professor Henle’s point was that by pushing against the boundaries of what we knew, we could expand those boundaries. Of course, in the back of our heads, a lot of us had another thought: that every problem starts out as insoluble. Then somebody goes and cracks it.

I never figured out any of the problems. There’s a reason I became a politician and not a mathematician. But as my career has progressed, I’ve thought back to that class many times.

Far too often, our greatest challenges are portrayed as insoluble problems. And our reaction is to throw up our hands, say “oh well,” and go on to the next challenge. But history teaches us that even our biggest problems have solutions. How do you calculate the area of a circle? How do you build a computer for less than a million dollars? How do you govern without a King... or Queen? All insoluble problems — or so they seemed.

So today, I have an assignment for you. No matter what you do in the years to come, devote part of your time to working on what looks right now to be an insoluble problem. It will be challenging. It will be frustrating. You may not see any progress for many years. But it may also be the greatest contribution to the world you ever make.

Before this gets too abstract, let me give a very personal example. A problem that has long seemed insoluble is the denial of equal rights to millions of gay and lesbian people all around the world.

I came out when I was 21 years old — first to myself, then to my closest friends. The world was a lot different back then. So was Smith. I still have a yearbook in which there is a photograph of the Smith College Lesbian Alliance. The photo was intentionally blurred by the students so that you couldn’t make out their faces. Even at Smith, in that era, they didn’t want anyone to know who they were. But they did want everyone to know that they existed.

I can tell you about that fear. The fear of consequences — in class, at home, and on the job — that fear influenced their decision to blur the photo. Back then, I didn’t know much about the gay rights movement. There weren’t many gay or lesbian role models. I had to go find them. So I started reading about Stonewall, Elaine Noble and Harvey Milk. I discovered a history of courageous people who took huge risks to gain a few more rights or change a few minds. Some were on this campus. I also discovered a history of violence, discrimination, and injustice.

When I graduated, I thought I might have to make a choice.... Between pursuing a career of my dreams or being honest about who I am. Between public service or being myself in public.

I decided I had to take my own risk. So I did one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I gave an interview to my local newspaper. And I told them I was a lesbian.

That spring, I was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors — anyway. In that same year, I attended an international conference for gay and lesbian officeholders. There were 14 of us. They could get away with calling it “international” because one Member of the British Parliament attended. That was it. And it wasn’t clear to any of us that our numbers were going to grow.

Today it looks like we have reached a tipping point. That conference I attended is in its 25th year. Last year it was sponsored by Prudential and Pacific Gas and Electric. More than 800 officials were invited. Here in Massachusetts, some same sex couples are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversaries. And three weeks ago, I led the House in passing the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act.

How did we get from there to here? There’s no easy-to-follow chain of causes-and-effects. It took protests, marches, vigils, late night conversations over the kitchen table. It took brave young gay people coming out to their families. It took brave young straight people standing up for their friends. It took brave old people changing their minds. It took religious arguments, political arguments, biological arguments, philosophical arguments. It took running for office and filing lawsuits and lobbying government and walking down the street holding hands. It took all this and much more.

I don’t want to dwell on history. What I want to stress to you is that there was no “eureka” moment. There was no elegant proof or simple formula. It took the constant application of pressure by people who usually couldn’t even tell whether they were making a difference. This is what it means to work on an insoluble problem.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He used it in many speeches, but the most famous time was in his speech in Montgomery after the march from Selma.

Remember this was the third attempt to march. The first time, they were attacked by the police with clubs and tear gas and had to turn back. The second time, they were stopped by a judge’s order. The third time, they finally made it all 54 miles to Montgomery where Dr. King gave his speech.

However, all they had accomplished was getting to Montgomery. They hadn’t changed any laws. They hadn’t gotten any concessions. Jim Crow was still the law of the land.

Today, we remember the march from Selma as a key turning point in the civil rights struggle. This is how progress happens. You push and push and push until you can’t push any more. Sometimes you are beaten back. But in the end, that arc bends just slightly and the world is a better place.

Many of you know this history. I raise it today because it is easy to forget that in the history books, we always know how the story ends. Real life is different. We can’t see that far ahead. We don’t know what the future brings.

It becomes easy to focus on problems that have clear cut solutions. How do I get this job? How do I get this apartment? How do I pass this bill? Avoiding the insoluble problems means saying that at best, we can do only a little bit better. What a tragic pronouncement!

We can’t settle for a little better. We need to take on the toughest insoluble problems — including the problem I believe is one of the greatest challenges of our time: global climate change.

I won’t assail you with statistics about carbon dioxide levels on your graduation day; though levels may go up when you get your diplomas and your parents finally exhale.

To me, the course of action seems obvious. Molly Ivins, another Smith alumna, was famous for her “law of holes.” “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Polls tell us that Americans are highly concerned about global warming. They also show that Americans aren’t eager to act. They see climate change as an insoluble problem.

There is one statistic though, that gives me hope. When Americans are asked whether we need “immediate, drastic” action on the environment, people in your generation are more likely to say yes than people in mine.

You can see this enthusiasm right here on this campus. Whether it’s calling your representative to get more transportation funding... or building a solar home... or calculating your school’s carbon footprint... or operating a “bike kitchen”... many of you are already pushing in the right direction.

We need you to do more. President Obama has said that he can’t do it alone. We in Congress cannot do it alone. Whether we protect our planet depends in large part on the actions of Americans who care about this issue. Which means it depends in large part on you.

I’m not just talking to the environmental science majors or the campus chapter of PIRG. What we need is a national transformation in what we believe is possible. Which means it will take the combined force of billions of small gestures. Buy a smaller car. Start a car pool. Ditch the car, get a bike. Start a fluorescent light business. Urge Congress to act. Back candidates who share your views. Run for office.

Yesterday, you marched behind the alumnae. But on this issue, you will have to march ahead of us. I don’t mean to pile on just as you’re preparing to take on all sorts of other new responsibilities. My generation must also do its part. We all must.

In the end, our greatest obligation isn’t to each other. It is to the generations of Americans and people all around the world who haven’t been born yet — the ones who will inhabit this planet long after we’re gone.

Poet Drew Dellinger captured this sentiment when he wrote:

“it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do

Climate change may be the most insoluble problem of all. And yet, history teaches us that we can take these actions and make these sacrifices. With the constant application of pressure, we can solve insoluble problems.

I was raised by my grandmother. She was born in 1906 before women had the right to vote. My grandmother always wanted to be an astronomer. But the times dictated she learn to sew. “Nana” was an incredible artist and seamstress. She made all of my clothes until junior high school. Then I recall asking permission to buy a pair of blue jeans. Homemade jeans just couldn’t compete with real Levis.

My grandmother was so proud when I graduated from Smith. She was even prouder when I started my career in politics. Every time I appeared in the newspaper, she clipped the article and saved it. She kept all of those clippings in the drawer of the nightstand beside her bed.

The best part of running for Congress was that my grandmother, at age 92, was able to vote for me and watch me get sworn in.

That nightstand of hers held many things that were special. On top she had a photograph of my cousin and her first great-grandchild, Jennifer. She would look at it before she went to sleep every night.

I don’t know what was going through her head in those late night moments. I imagine she was thinking of everything that had changed since she was born, about all the ways our country, for all its faults, had evolved into a better, wiser, fairer place... about the great scientific discoveries... the great wonders we’ve built... the great triumphs of justice.

She must have been marveling at what lay ahead for Jennifer. Imagining the possibilities... not knowing exactly what would happen. But feeling sure that those possibilities would be better, grander, and more plentiful than the ones she had as a child so many years earlier.

We have solved insoluble problems in this country before. I ask you to use your abundant talents to help us do it again. Whether you focus on climate change, social injustice or some other challenge, I hope that you will find your own barriers to push, your own difference to make, your own conventions to topple. Don’t be discouraged. Have faith in progress even when you cannot see it. Be the kind of leaders who inspire this faith in others.

But those problems can wait for another day. For now, we all face a more urgent problem: Will I ever stop talking so that you can graduate and go enjoy this day with your family and friends? Thankfully, this is a problem with an easy solution.

Congratulations, Class of 2009!
You’re amazing!