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2021 Commencement Remarks: Dean David Weil

Descriptive Transcript


A person in graduation regalia is seated against a virtual background of the exterior of the Brandeis Heller School. There is a large wall of glass windows beneath a white, overhanging roof, and a curved black sculpture jutting up in the front.

Weil speaks:

Good morning. My name is David Weil and I am the Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Welcome to the 2021 Heller School commencement exercises. I'm delighted to see the hundreds of family members, friends and other members of the Heller community who have joined together at this virtual commencement to honor the work and accomplishments of our graduating class of 2021.

As we all know this academic year and the semester proceeding it are like no other. In light of the global nature of the Heller community and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on so many of us around the world I would like to invite you to join me in a moment of silence in honor of those we have lost. Let us pause for a moment to honor their lives and acknowledge their memories. Although we would all prefer to come together in person and see the pride and excitement on your faces and those of your families and friends. We once again join together virtually and are gratified that so many members of our community have joined us.

Welcome particularly to the families grandparents and parents spouses and children whose love and support are critical to completing a graduate degree. Some of you may have provided not only spiritual support but a literal shelter from the storm. I salute and thank you all. I know that celebrating your graduation in front of your zoom screen is probably not what any of us would have hoped for. But let's use one of the zoom tools we have all come to know so well. I'd like to invite everyone to use the chat to let us know the places where you're joining us from. Feel free to let us know what time zone you're in. Or what the weather's like where you're watching from. Thank you and keep those comments coming
throughout our celebrations.

I also want to welcome our faculty staff and researchers at Heller who are watching with great pride today. And to our alumni, friends of Heller and members of our Heller Board of Advisors and Alumni Board. We're all here to cheer you on. And now let me greet our graduating class of 2021. Today we celebrate the scholarship of 241 newly minted Heller alumni. Including 14 Doctoral graduates and 227 Masters graduates. You represent over 38 countries and speak over 32 languages. Our capacity to welcome students from so many nations and communities is a gift. And the strength of our school is often noted by visitors to our community. Each of you brings to Heller not just your personality, professional experience and cultural traditions but also your intense devotion to a specific social justice cause and mission.

I want to extend to you all the heartfelt congratulations of our faculty staff and researchers who have had the honor and pleasure of working with you during your studies at Heller. Despite the fact that our interactions occurred almost entirely online we have come to know you as a talented, intelligent, dedicated and inspiring group of people drawn together in common study. Our respect and admiration for you arises from the grit and determination you have shown by facing the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic as well as the many social challenges encountered in 2020 and 2021. You remained active and dedicated in your studies. You undertook your assignments, capstone and TCP projects, practicums and papers with zeal and focus. And you did all of this while facing adversity. Perhaps you lost critical childcare or a job you relied on. Or were required to live in circumstances different than those you had planned.

All of us struggled with anxiety and concern for family members and loved ones. And of course, the difficulties posed by social distancing. But even more important you supported one another in this crisis and you supported your faculty teaching assistants and staff. It will take a long time for us to process this difficult period but we will long remember your class for what you did for one another and for all of us in this community. Graduates, you have been uniquely tested this academic year. I hope you will find fortification in the experience of weathering this storm together. Remembering what it brought out in you and what it brought out among your peers.

These last few months I've been thinking a lot about the many different ways individuals affect positive change in society. We have lived through 16 months where it was easy to feel paralyzed by circumstances and isolated from our colleagues. In reflecting on the events of the last year I have often thought about a quote from Leviticus that in the translation I remember most vividly is thou shalt not stand idly by. The way this pandemic split us all up sent many of us home and pushed our worlds onto zoom screens sometimes made it hard to feel connected to wider society. And yet there was always an opportunity if you look hard enough to heed the admonition of those words thou shalt not stand idly by.

In the past year we saw what failing to observe those words look like. Remember the chilling scene of the attack of 65 year old Vilma Kari on the streets of Manhattan. Brutally accosted for no reason beyond the fact that she is of Asian descent. Not only did we observe that horrific act but we saw a security guard standing in plain sight of the violence not only failing to intervene but closing the door after the assailant had left and Ms. Kari struggled to stand. A stark reminder of what happens when we fail the admonition thou shall not stand idly by. Yet also think of Darnella Frazier. The brave 17 year old who saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck and pulled out her cell phone to record. Hers was the longest and clearest bystander video of George Floyd's death and became the most powerful piece of evidence in the murder trial that ensued. She refused to stand idly by. And when shoppers at a grocery store in Boulder Colorado earlier this year had to flee for their lives from a senseless attack by a gunman. We saw videos of strangers at the store helping one another to safety. Often risking being shot themselves. They did not stand idly by in the face of random violence. Bystanders aren't always in a position to intervene but they can share the resources they have in transformative ways.

The Heller community couldn't stop the pandemic, of course but we could help protect our Brandeis community. So we shared our space to provide a place for COVID-19 testing throughout the year and in the last few weeks, and in future weeks this summer for vaccinations for the entire university and Waltham community. The concern to affect social policy in a way that advances social justice is a calling and one that brought us students, faculty, researchers and staff to Heller. But it must not only be embodied in the role we aspire to take in our work. It must be part of the way we act and interact. How we respond to the divisions that surround us. How we decide to act in the presence of the insensitive or uninformed statement. How we speak to those who we feel cannot understand. How we act in the breach but also in the small moment.

Graduates, you are entering a world rife with division disparities and inequalities. A world where systemic racism persists. Where social bonds and public trust have been eroded. Often willingly by the cynical manipulations of political leaders. Never has the need for people to enter the fray of social policy armed with knowledge and skills but guided by a social justice compass been more important and more pressing. I have every confidence that you will not stand idly by and instead take your place in addressing those challenges. Just as you were inspired by someone, your work as you begin your next chapter will be an inspiration for others. Including all of us in the Heller community. Congratulations to all.