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Address to the Graduating Class of the School for Social Work

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, August 16, 2013

President Kathleen McCartney addressed School for Social Work graduates during the school’s 93rd commencement ceremony on August 16, 2013 before conferring her first degrees as the college’s president.

Good afternoon!

Today is a day of celebration and pride.

The faculty, your friends, your family, and the entire Smith College community — we are all immensely proud of the work you have done.

And we are excited by the work you will go on to do.

I couldn’t be prouder to lead an institution that counts among its crown jewels a preeminent school for social work — a program with a storied history leading back to World War One.

A school whose pioneering work with veterans of that war set standards that still inform us today.

A school whose graduates have gone on to work with children and families, veterans, college students, those who are incarcerated and those with mental illness...

With individuals and communities around the world...

And a school that I have recommended to countless students for graduate studies over the course of my career.

At the heart of this story, and this success, is the faculty.

Their work, focused on the highest intellectual and academic standards, built on the power of human relationships, a deep commitment to social justice, and an expanding international footprint, has made the Smith College School for Social Work into the renowned institution it is today.

It gives me great pleasure, too, that the first degrees I will present as Smith’s president will go to graduates whose work — whose values — align so closely with my own.

My own academic work comes from a focus on human welfare, on understanding human potential and growth through the experiences of society’s most vulnerable members - children, youth, mothers — and how society supports the needs of those populations to grow and develop in the most positive ways possible.

I don’t have to tell you why we do this work.

We do this work not only out of moral obligation, but also in service of a collective, social enrichment.

As a culture, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us.

Our challenges were made vivid this summer in the powerfully conflicted opinions of a divided Supreme Court.

We celebrated the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and the expansion of the recognition of marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Yet, only hours earlier, the court put into question the use of affirmative action in college admission and eviscerated voting rights protections that had been in place for decades.

This was a particularly stinging loss.

Some of you may know that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was driven, in part, by a civil rights leader named Whitney M. Young, Junior.

Young was eulogized by President Nixon as a man who “knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”

He built the National Urban League into a powerful advocate for the disenfranchised. He spent his career fighting to remove the barriers set up by segregation and inequity, advocating peace, justice and equality.

What you might not know is that he was, by profession, one of you.

Young received his social work degrees from Kentucky State University and the University of Minnesota, had a long career in civil rights, served as the dean of social work at Atlanta University, and was the president of the National Association of Social Workers from 1969 to 1971.

In a speech that reminded his colleagues of their professional obligation to take action against the wrongs of society, Young told his audience that “social work is uniquely equipped to play a major role in the social and human renaissance of our society.”

While one piece of Young’s legacy—the Voting Rights Act—has been challenged by a divided court, another piece, the commitment that social work embraces—that you embrace—grows stronger with each one of you.

As graduates of the Smith College School for Social Work, you know the hard truths of division, of classism, of exclusion.

In the shadow of the Supreme Court’s actions, and in the divisive outcomes of other court cases this summer, you know that there is still a deep undercurrent of inequality in our society.

But you, as a school and a community, have taken powerful steps against it.

In the 1990s, faculty, students, alumni and staff of the School began drafting a roadmap to becoming an anti-racist institution. That commitment has become a core element of the school, informing curricular and co-curricular decisions at every level. This is an ongoing commitment — one that I will be honored to support in the coming years.

When President Obama addressed the nation in July after the Trayvon Martin case came to a close, he spoke about violence. About division. About inequality. He asked us, “Beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?”

He did not ask for a time of quiet healing or passive reflection. He instead told us, “We have to be vigilant and we have to work.”

We have to accomplish, like Young, “what other people are merely for.”

It will take the best minds and most committed hearts to bring us to a place where we not just promote, but realize the full potential of every member of our society — a place that will see Whitney Young Jr.’s social and human renaissance as the fulfillment of the American dream of equal opportunity.

It will take your minds. Your hearts. Your compassion.  Your deep commitment. And your hard work.

As you set out to take on these challenges, know that you carry my deep confidence in you.

Know that the pride and confidence of Smith College and its global community follows you wherever you go.

I want to close by thanking Dean Carolyn Jacobs for her many years of service. That I join Smith as she leaves is bittersweet.  I wish her the best in her retirement, but selfishly would have loved to have had her as a neighbor and colleague for a longer term.

I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn in 2012 when we served together on a conference panel about contemplative and mindful practices in higher education. It was a panel, in some ways, about innovation — and Dean Jacobs is no stranger to innovation.

In her more than three decades of service, she has built new international networks, strengthened the school’s clinical focus, deepened the school’s anti-racism commitment, fostered creative continuing education programs, and launched a scholarship for military personnel.

Thank you, Dean Jacobs.

And thank you, graduates of the Smith College School for Social work, for all you have done and for all that is yet to come.