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Upcoming Commencement Dates

  • June 10, 2018
  • June 9, 2019
  • June 14, 2020
  • June 13, 2021
  • June 12, 2022

Geoffrey Canada, Commencement Address

Geoffrey CanadaJune 9, 2013

Good morning and thank you President Folt, trustees, faculty, parents, loved ones, and especially to the Class of 2013. I am honored and humbled to be this year's Commencement speaker. This is a special day for you all, but my message today is to the graduates. Today you are graduating from one of the most prestigious schools in the country. There are some institutions that have a reputation so stellar, that just saying you received a degree from them, makes people think you are really smart. And if by some means you are graduating today and you are not really smart, please try to keep that hidden from the public—your classmates and alma mater will appreciate it.

Thirty-eight years ago, I received my graduate degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and I remember it like yesterday. Armed with that degree that certified to the entire world how brilliant I was, I couldn't wait to demonstrate to any and all who had the misfortune of working with me how talented I was. My peers were not impressed. I was young, but I was convinced that my generation would make America a better country and we would be the best generation ever. I had my eyes on the top spot. That spot belonged to my mother's generation. They are called the "greatest generation." They won the war, defeated the Nazis, ended the Holocaust, and accelerated the Industrial Revolution. I was determined that my generation would do better.

You see, I have always been deeply moved by the sacrifices that others have made to make our country the greatest nation on Earth. I loved the ideal of America while grappling with its imperfect reality. I knew right out of college what many people still don't understand; countries don't become great by themselves—it takes heroic sacrifice. Our country was created, molded, and improved by men and women whose moral compass was not moved by the influence of wealth, prestige, or notoriety. They believed that America stood as a beacon for the world on what true freedom, true democracy meant. These leaders became my role models and upon graduation I sought them out for inspiration. I made a promise to myself that I would be like them. I would challenge America to become a better place for its children.

In 1975, when I graduated, it was evident to me that America needed to become a better place for its children. Growing up in the South Bronx, which was the poorest congressional district in the United States, I saw firsthand what can happen when people are desperately poor; not just financially poor, but poor in spirit, and without hope. I saw the crime, the violence, the filth, the drugs. And I made a promise to myself that if God allowed me to survive that place, I would bring an end to children growing up in places other Americans wouldn't be caught "dead" in. I knew the kind of changes I envisioned making would be a tough task. I looked to my role models for guidance.

My first role model who called me to a life of service was Rosa Parks. Her story known by all inspired a poor boy to believe that an individual courageous act could change the world. While I was still in elementary school, President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration challenged the nation to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." When I was a young boy, he meant so much to me because he stood up for civil rights, he challenged segregation and Jim Crow, an evil practice that would, if left unchecked, destroy America. He sacrificed his life for our country when he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. I was in the sixth grade.

Bobby Kennedy picked up his brother's mantle. He forced America to see the impact of poverty and he continued to challenge the prejudice and racism that at that time infected our nation like the most pernicious and virulent of viruses. Real equality for former slaves proved resistant to more than 100 years of efforts to eradicate it. Bobby Kennedy knew that he was risking his life fighting for this cause; but he was a great American. He was assassinated in 1968. An even larger role model for me, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in the same year, 1968. I was in the 10th grade.

So just imagine what I was experiencing. I'm in high school and Americans are going to jail, they're being cursed and beaten, and being killed, so that one day I might get a good education, live in a decent home, and get a decent job. People with everything to lose—money, fame, loving families—lost it all for the ideals of this country. Who could not feel obligated to continue their work, to ensure their deaths would not be in vain? With these men and women as my role models you can see why I felt compelled to make this country a better place. The promise I made as a teen, that I would get a great education and come back and rescue the children trapped in our urban ghettos is something that I took seriously. And I have spent my entire life trying to keep that promise.

There is something I want you to remember: I could never have created the Harlem Children's Zone by myself. My partner Stan Druckenmiller is a Wall Street titan. We built the Zone together. The hundreds of millions of dollars we have raised over my tenure came from businesses, philanthropists, foundations, and government. To me, this is the greatness of America: men and women, coming from different walks of life to join together in a common cause, to make this a better country. And Dartmouth has played a direct role in our work.

Steve Mandel, class of '78 and chair of the Board, has been a major contributor and a supporter of the Harlem Children's Zone.

And Mitch Kurz, Dartmouth class of '73, has been a member of my board for over 20 years. Mitch doesn't know this but he is also a role model for me. I first met Mitch when he was a captain of industry. He was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. At the top of his power and influence, he decided he would leave his corner office and swap it for a math classroom in the South Bronx, and dedicate his life to helping poor children prepare for college and have an opportunity to pursue the American dream. I would like to take a special moment and thank Steve, and Mitch, and Dartmouth for all they have done to help me in my work.

I would love to say to you that my generation has accomplished my dream of being a better generation than my parents. Alas, we have not. While my generation has done real good and made real progress, we have also left you a real mess. We have damaged our world environment. We have child poverty rates that are staggering with more than 16 million American children living in poverty. Thirty-eight percent of all black children are poor in America. Over 46 million Americans are on food stamps. Children who are poor in this country can still not get a quality education. Our country locks up more people per capita than any place on the face of the earth.

If that wasn't bad enough, when you look at the leadership in this country you see politicians so indebted to special interests that even the death of 20 five- and six-year-olds in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., couldn't convince our Congress to pass even weak handgun controls.

So I wish I could stand before you today and say that my generation is leaving you a country that is better than the one we inherited from our parents. It's not like we haven't done any good. We eradicated polio, created technology that is revolutionary; we've improved civil rights, gay rights, women's rights. But we haven't kept my promise to eliminate those places where our children don't have a chance. America's children are more imperiled than ever.

But I am not worried about my promise to America's children because let me tell you what else my role models taught me. The best of America is yet to come. The work we don't complete that attempts to makes this a better country, the next generation will finish it. Susan B. Anthony, another one of my role models, courageously fought to end slavery, and then led the women's suffrage movement. In 1900 when she was asked when women would get the right to vote, she said, "it will come, but I shall not see it ... It is inevitable. We can no more deny forever the right of self-government to one-half our people than we could keep the Negro forever in bondage. It will not be wrought by the same disrupting forces that freed the slave, but come it will, and I believe within a generation." Fourteen years after her death, the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed.

People believe Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was his greatest. I don't agree. I was always most moved by the speech Dr. King gave in Memphis, Tenn., right before he was assassinated, which was later called the "Mountaintop" speech. In that speech, Dr. King confirmed what I believe today: the work of making this a better country is often started by someone, but left to others to complete. In that speech Dr. King said, "And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

"Well I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

"And I don't mind.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land! I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

They assassinated Dr. King the next morning at the Lorraine Motel.

We named our schools Promise Academy because I promised our children and their parents that we would fulfill Dr. King's vision of what America could become to our children in Harlem. I promised we would be there for them from birth through graduating college. My problem today is that my 11,000 children believe me. You see, to my children, I'm 8 feet tall and a superstar. My children know I must be a star, because they saw me on Oprah. Twice! So when I walk around my schools my children point and they say, "It's Mr. Canada. It's Mr. Canada." They want to shake my hand or give me a hug. It's really the cutest thing you've ever seen. They love me and I love them. My children know I would risk it all; I would give them anything and do anything to save them. By saving these children I hope I can set an example that inspires America to save all children.

There's one problem though. I'm 61. My seven-year-olds think that I will be there when they graduate from high school, and then sit here like you, graduating from prestigious colleges and graduate schools. In all likelihood I will not. My time is coming to an end. Others will have to finish this work. Someone else will have to pick up the mantle and say no matter what else I do as a career, I will make sure I leave my country a better place than was left to me. I promised my kids that America could be and would be a better place for them. I need you to promise me that you will do your part. I'm not asking you to take a vow of poverty; some of you will have to make money; a lot of money. I have to raise a lot of money each year, so I know a lot of wealthy people. I tried raising money from poor people; it didn't work out so well. I'm just saying, everyone must play their part. Together you can finish what we have begun.

I don't feel bad about my unfinished work. You see, I've had a great career. Today I have more recognition than I am comfortable with. I have celebrity friends and get "A list" invitations. It's quite a distraction. But a distraction nevertheless. I try to keep my eye on the prize, that promised land for my children that isAmerica's future. That dream that Dr. King talked about. We are close but my time is running out and there is still much to do. I'm at a place now where the famous poem by Robert Frost, takes on new meaning.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promised to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Ten years from now when I'm puttering around my house, and playing with my grandchildren, I know I will be constantly smiling. My wife, Yvonne, knowing how serious I am about things will ask me why I'm so happy. And I'll say, "Because my children will be saved." And she'll say, "But how do you know? You haven't been to work in years." And I'll say, "Because those young people were so smart and talented. The best we have. And they promised. They could do anything they wanted with their lives; they graduated from Dartmouth, and they promised. My promise to my kids will be kept. I know it." And I'll look at my wife and say, "I think they might be the greatest generation yet. You'll see."

God Bless and God speed the Dartmouth Class of 2013.

Last Updated: 6/9/13