Remarks to the Cap and Gown Convocation
September 29, 2007
In the last few weeks, Trinity students have had a lively discussion of the justice issues that arose in Jena, Louisiana. But we do not need to go that far to find examples of the deeply rooted conditions of injustice, borne of historic racism and protracted discrimination, that still afflict our own city. Washington is the capital of the free world, the powerful voice for freedom around the globe, a place where public leaders have not blinked in choosing to spend more than $600 billion — that’s billion with a B — dollars to wage a war to bring democracy to people on the other side of the globe while balking at children’s health care legislation here.
We shouldn’t be too surprised that in this very same city where so much power and money do business each day, more than one-third of the resident adults cannot read. We know that Washington is a city with a great divide that runs geographically and emotionally, racially and culturally down 16th Street from top to bottom, dividing east and west, dividing wealth and poverty, with the eastern and southeastern quadrants characterized by segregation and conditions of violence. Yes, gentrification may be changing some of that — not fixing the problems, only pushing them to the farther fringes of consciousness.
Today, fifty years after the forced integration of schools in Little Rock, 40 years after the landmark D.C. case of Hobson v. Hansen mandated equal opportunity in the District of Columbia Public Schools, our local public schools remain largely segregated and profoundly unequal compared to the educational opportunities available to children in suburban jurisdictions.
There is no greater challenge for our city today than achieving justice for our citizens through equal educational opportunity. Chancellor Rhee is responsible for some, but not all, of the necessary remedies to achieve this goal. She certainly cannot do it alone, and she deserves our support and cooperation. Even as she leads the reform movement for the schools, we must also address the conditions children face when they return home after school.
Far too many children go home at night to households where no adults can help them to read their books, write their grammar lessons, work on their arithmetic problems. Far too many children go home to neighborhoods where the fear of violence prevails, where street corners are marked by lamppost shrines stacked with teddy bears for the last child shot down on the mean street. Improving educational outcomes for our city requires all of us to work together for comprehensive solutions — better schools, yes, along with better adult literacy programs, improved health care for children and families, improved early childhood programs and parenting education, and a clear commitment among families and community leaders united to root out the violence that diminishes hope, destroys lives.
Educational justice was the whole idea that St. Julie Billiart had when she founded the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur 200 years ago. “Teach them what they need to know” was her pithy instruction to her sisters, and so it continues today at Trinity. We seek to teach you, our students, what you need to know to be successful in your work, to be leaders in your communities, to be advocates and activists for those moral values that formed this university in the Catholic tradition, values that arise in all faith traditions: charity and hope, justice and peace.
You, our seniors, our great Red Class, you are the latest exemplars of the vision of St. Julie and the courage of the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity 110 years ago. They created this institution in spite of great opposition from people who thought, at that time, that women should not go to college. Today, people don’t say so much out loud, but there still are prevailing practices and attitudes that keep people — women, men, children — out of college, away from educational attainment.
Over the course of the last century Trinity has expanded our articulation of this mission in many directions, but the fundamentals remain timeless: wherever you go, whatever you do, you will carry the mission of Trinity with you.
May you be steadfast in your commitment to justice, unafraid to speak the truth in rooms full of deceptive silence; may you be exemplars of honor and integrity, creative minds with luminous souls.
May you have the courage to be the agents of change that our world needs so very much.
May the strength, the wisdom and the love of Trinity go with you, through all of your remaining days here at Trinity, down all the pathways of your years.
Congratulations to the Red Class!