[The following speech was given to the graduating class for the School of Social Work by Dave Kalloor – one of the mighty nonviolent foot soldiers marching into the horizon of higher consciousness, and forever my beloved comrade.]
MSSW Class of 2011 how does it feel to be done?! We never thought we’d see the day, did we? I brought my phone up here so that my dear friend Asad could be among us, everyone say hi to him! It’s a great honor to be up here today. I’d like to dedicate this speech to all the people who have helped me on this journey to live a life of passion, meaning, and humor – you know who you are out there. I’m a little nervous right now. Thankfully, I did some deep breathing this morning, along with CBT, EMDR, exposure therapy, motivational interviewing, scaling questions, positive self-talk, 11 affirmations. Ok maybe a little too much, I think I’m good to go.
When I got the word that I’d have the chance to give the commencement address, I thought, “Hmm… I’m giving a speech on behalf of 200 already passionate and motivated human beings.” We’ve paid thousands of dollars to learn how to better serve humanity, watched inspiring TED videos on our spare time, and we know who we are inside and out thanks to the 250-300 reflection papers we’ve been forced to write. What can I possibly say to yall today? Oh wait, I hear something, it’s…it’s…a familiar voice… 'Dave, this is Professor Sudolsky! This is no time to be sharing your feelings! You are getting a Masters of Science in Social Work! Make us proud! OK!!' Wait... I'm hearing some interference... Kathy Armenta? 'Hey Dave, you’ve trusted the process, well done. Validate and normalize, and you can’t go wrong today. Validate and normalize. YEAH! Juicy stuff.' Wow yall, that’s some good feedback. Speaking of Kathy, I’d like to give a special shout-out to my amazing cohort, Armenta’s Army in the house, wooooooo. I wouldn’t be who I am today without you all.
MUNTU! A word I learned last year from Natalie Goodnow, an actress in Austin. It’s a word of the Kikongo language in the Dominican Republic that means both TREE and PERSON. When I first heard it, I wasn’t really sure how it made sense but then I thought about it a little more. I mean… we’re both alive, we both grow and change, and I’d argue, we’re both rooted in something. When I think of our experiences together the last few years, I would say our graduating class is rooted in our core value of building significant relationships, lasting connections, both with one another and more importantly, with the people we serve. I mean, no matter how different we are in age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, style, personality, carnivore, herbivore, vegan, freegan (you know what I mean), think about the bonds we’ve created with one another.
So my fellow Muntu, what are the moments that have watered our soil and helped our roots grow a little deeper?
Well there’s my personal favorite…awkward moments. Like the first time you watched yourself social working a classmate in a video role play. Yeah awkward. How about when you had to confront someone in a group project who was slacking off? Super awkward. OR that time at Bennu, it was 2 AM, you were on your third cup of coffee, and everyone turned around as you cussed out the literature review on your laptop. Yeah I was that guy.
Some of our most powerful moments came outside of class. Like during our first week of the program when they sent us out to find social services in Austin without a car or a cell phone. You forgot about that, didn’t you? OR the massive bake sales we organized for the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods (oh we KNOW how to throw a freakin bake sale!!!). What about when groups of us drove to Raymondville, Texas to march against the Tent City immigrant detention center. OR more recently, marched to the Capitol to speak out against unjust bills and budget cuts.
Then, there’s the moments that truly spoke to us. Many of them happened at internship, where we got pretty used to hearing the F word……FEEDBACK…from our supervisors! We connected with our clients, our fellow Muntu who were ignored or being uprooted. Like when a client who’s experienced violence and oppression learned to trust us because we helped them feel safe. OR When we witnessed someone with mental illness write a poem for their daughter instead of ending their life the night before. Some of us listened and advocated for students who weren’t being heard by their peers or teachers, while others of us sat next to people’s bedsides to ensure that they died with dignity. With the legislature in session, a few of our friends worked 50 or 60 hour weeks in the Capitol, while others noticed a ripple effect in their organization because they chose to speak up when others would not. At the end of the day, I hope that we remember that no matter how fancy our intervention, it is this connection and trust, this rootedness between one human being and another, one group of people and another, that will make a difference.
So what now? When we fall asleep in our gowns tonight after a night of pure debauchery, what’s going to keep us going in the morning? What will sustain us? We all know the answer to this question.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the answer when he reminded America of the fierce urgency of now. When he said that, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Malalai Joya, a 25-yr-old social worker in Afghanistan, knew the answer when she was expelled from her position in 2007 after denouncing the presence of warlords in the Afghan parliament who oppress her people and inhibit peace. She continues to speak out today. Sunitha Krishnan, a social worker in India, knew the answer, when she started a small education program for the children of women in prostitution. She now manages one of the most successful anti-trafficking organizations in her country.
Instead of taking a seat among the powerful, they all chose to stand with the powerless. Our muntu are around the world, we are interconnected and alive. And we all share an unwavering passion for what we do.
Yesterday, my mom brought me a jasmine flower from our backyard in Houston. I’d like to end with a story that she once told me. When my mom was a young girl in India, she would go outside at night and sit in front of the vast field of jasmine bushes. On her right side was her father and on the other side, her grandfather. They would spend hours just sitting amongst the jasmine flowers blooming in the night. She told me that as they bloomed, the collective fragrance that the flowers let out was incredible.
Over the last 2 or 3 years, through the moments of doubt, pain, and struggle, we’ve watched each other bloom, watched each other wake up. Our loved ones in the audience, they’ve sat through the night, watching us grow and stand out in the darkness, and, in this very moment…they notice our fragrance. It smells of compassion…dignity…laughter…justice…and love. MSSW Class of 2011, remember that we are jasmine, blooming in the night, ready for the dawn to come. We are Muntu. We…are social workers! ONWARD!