Here’s the transcript from the Faculty Speech delivered by Dr. Stephanie Cacace, a six-year veteran of the Wellesley High School Social Studies Department, at today’s graduation ceremony:
To Dr. Lussier, Dr. Chisum, Mrs. Novogroski, Mr. Bender, and Mr. Kelton…
To members of the school committee…
To the faculty of Wellesley High School….
To the friends and family of our graduates…
And most importantly, to the graduates, the class of 2015, thank you for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon….
Being asked to speak to you today as your faculty commencement speaker is a true honor. I am especially honored to be the first female faculty member to speak at commencement in quite some time. Though, I hear I am in good company. The last woman to speak at this podium was quite the radical—rumor has it she wore bloomers and a vote for Lincoln pin and extolled the virtues of woman’s suffrage.
Wow! With extreme views like that no wonder Wellesley High waited so long to invite another woman to grace this stage.
Though, I have to confess when I found out you had selected me, I felt a bit like someone who had just found out they were going to be a contestant on the TV show Fear Factor — At first excited to have their 15 minutes of fame, then filled with a wash of utter terror as they realize they will likely have to participate in a challenge that involves one of their greatest phobias — like having to eat a scorpion while a rat runs across their face and a ferret gnaws off their left toe.
While I pray that I have been spared that particular form of torture, after being asked to speak I realized would have to contend with my own fear: public speaking. Yes, I would have to write and deliver a speech before a sizeable crowd of people sitting in judgment…fun… I soon I began to wonder if giving this speech was a privilege or if it was payback? Was the Junior Thesis really that bad, that I deserved this?
But after repeatedly psyching myself up in the mirror like Rocky on steroids…ok, that doesn’t make sense because Rocky probably was already on steroids, but I digress….I began to realize that being asked to speak before you today truly was an honor, that you believed that I had something truly inspiring to say to you today, that out of all the people in the world you thought that only I could give you those final words of wisdom before you set out into the real world, that you wanted one final mesmerizing lecture from the all-knowing Dr. Cacace…ok, maybe I psyched myself up too much
The truth is that being asked to be your commencement speaker is a great honor, and that despite whatever fears I may have about standing up here today, I have an obligation to use my time at the podium to give you an important and meaningful message about the world you are going out to be a part of.
So to get started, I will be blunt: Life is unfair. Some people get into their first choice school while others do not. Some people land a plum job out of college, and others struggle to find employment. Some people get rich, while others become poor.
But, take solace in the fact, that while life may be unfair, it is not random. And most of you, when you leave here today, will walk into this unfair world packing a powerful weapon that will protect you from most of these injustices: privilege.
While many other commencement speakers will stand on similar podiums today telling a sea of young grads that where they go to college doesn’t matter, it is what they do with their degree that does, that hard work will carry the day. In my opinion, that is rarely true. Where you go to college, who you know, and where you grew up matter a heck of a lot. Life is unfair, but it isn’t random, and most of you have rolled winning odds.
According to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, graduates of the most-selective colleges earn more than graduates of less-selective universities, who in turn are employed at higher rates than those of community colleges.
Furthermore, 44.8% of the Forbes billionaires attended elite schools. And moreover, graduates of elite schools are at least 10 times more likely than their peers to be Fortune 500 CEOs.
Graduating seniors of Wellesley High School: This is your life. Most of you are about to attend an amazing college and will continue to develop your vast network of highly connected people. You are about to intern with Senators, TV stations, and powerful corporations. You are about to conduct cutting edge research with the country’s leading professors, work in prestigious labs, and shadow world-renowned surgeons. You are about to experience an endless set of privileges, many of which most Americans will never come close to having.
So regardless of whether you are or are not special, you are about to occupy a special position in the American stratification system. My question for you today, is what will you do with it? What will you do with your privilege?
You are about to enter a world in which, according to Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Report,” 0.7% of the world’s adults hold 44% of global net worth, a total greater than the wealth of the world’s poorest 95%. A world in which the 85 single wealthiest individuals are wealthier than the poorest 3.5 billion people.
And the statistics here at home are not much better. In the United States, wealth inequality has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. According to research from Stanford University, the wealthiest 10% of families own 73% of American wealth. And it is not just social class, where inequality is felt. One need only to look at recent events in Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson to see that racial inequality is alive and well. Blacks have lower household incomes, higher infant mortality rates, and higher incarceration rates than whites. Gender inequality is also still strong with the gender wage gap hovering at women earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and on college campuses nearly 25% of women are subject to sexual violence.
You are high school graduates now, or at least will be in a few moments, and you deserve to hear the truth. The world you are about to enter is an unjust and unequal place. I suppose the upside to this, however is that this inequality is not inevitable. Inequality is the product of human action, and thus can be unmade by human action. Life is unfair, but it doesn’t have to be, and you among all people have the privilege to do something about it. And I don’t mean holding a bake sale for orphans — oh wait bake sales aren’t allowed anymore, are they? Bad example…
So what will you do with your privilege? Will you take your place at the boardroom table and make hiring and promotion decisions that advance the place of women and people of color in your corporation or continue the trend of offering the highest paying positions to white men?
When you become mayor of a big city will you fund your city with municipal fees that profit off of the minor violations of your community’s most disadvantaged, or will you treat them as citizens not sources of revenue?
Will you conduct research on medical diseases that will save the lives of people living in remote regions of Africa and South America, or focus only on the profitable drugs like those for those first world scourges of erectile dysfunction and forehead wrinkles?
When you become a college president, will you take seriously the claims of sexual assault on your campus, or conceal them in hidden committees and red tape?
Will you stand in the street and proclaim that black lives matter, or will you merely drive by in a fancy car?
You must leverage your privilege into power. You then must use that power to change institutions; To dismantle the system and rebuild it anew. Use your power to make social change—not tree-hugging, drum circle change—but change that tangibly redesigns social structures.
I will end with the unsolicited advice that has come to categorize these speeches. You are graduating here today with privilege, with power. You can use it as a wedge to prop up the system, or a hammer to smash it down. My advice for you: get swinging.