MBA Commencement speaker: John Valinch, MBA/MPP'20

May 31, 2020

John Valinch MBA/MPP'20

Good afternoon friends, partners, families, and graduates of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management Class of 2020!

I’d like to thank my MBA and MPP cohorts, Dean Weil, Dr. Madison, Ravi, Carole, Mike, Janet, and Bob. Thank you, Norma—you are the node that holds our MPP and MBA programs together. Rose—you are the heart of Heller. Thank you to the food service workers, the custodial and maintenance workers that are irrefutably essential and without whom our world could not exist.

Thank you to my family and my community of Chelsea for instilling love, humor, passion, and integrity into my soul.

I invite you to think about those who have lifted you to where you stand today. We are on this journey together.


I now invite you into my universe.

My home is Chelsea, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. My mom, Maria, worked as a billing clerk, and my dad, Bill, as a union mason, to support me and my four siblings.

Here, I’ve lived side-by-side with the hardest workers I’ve ever known. Predominately immigrant and Latinx, Chelseans are the economic foundation of Massachusetts: grocery store and custodial workers, room attendants and food distribution workers, healthcare and airport workers.

Like many Americans, I grew up with little knowledge about class and structural inequalities. That changed with the Great Recession and my parents’ divorce. My mother was laid off after years of devoted service, which forced us to move again and again.

When I went away to college, economic difficulties widened for my family and community. Meanwhile, banks, CEOs, and predatory mortgage lenders were bailed out.

This opened my eyes to the roots of economic injustice and how institutional systems don’t really support women, working class people, people of color, queer and trans people, disabled people, and immigrants—people who by economic design almost always have to thrust themselves over the chasms of inequity in our society

I realized that the notion of rugged individualism was a poison. If my family and my community of Chelsea were really compensated for their efforts, our people would be thriving. Instead, Chelsea has one of the highest asthma hospitalization and cancer rates in the country and is now the hotspot of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, all exacerbated by decades of environmental racism.


The effects of this rabid economic order require deep, systematic change. Thankfully you, my friends and colleagues, are driven to a higher calling to transform this world.

That brings me to the mission of the Heller School: “Knowledge Advancing Social Justice.” It isn’t often that one can count on being in community with others sworn to create a better world—but you actually all care about that. I’m humbled and energized by your insight, talent, and by the conviction with which you approach society’s most pressing problems.

Two other Brandeis mantras also came to mind: “Truth Unto its Innermost Parts” and “Enough is Known for Action.” We must improve the world around us with data, real life experiences, theories of change and community organizing—to fight the economic imperative that values profit over people.

And so it is the optimism of your will that fuels your belief that a better world is possible. This world requires visionaries, planners, idealists, strategists, spiritual leaders, operational experts, financial gurus. In short, it requires YOU.


The story of my life and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that disruption is inevitable. Transformation is thus essential.

Over the last several months, nations have been measured by the speed of their emergency response, their operational effectiveness, and healthcare organization. This crisis has also demonstrated the importance of empathy, the timelessness of community, and the undeniable truth that humans are not commodities.

The mutual aid networks that have sprung up swiftly across the globe prove the power of collective action and solidarity and highlight the leadership of working class communities to organize and meet the complex needs of the day.

As civil rights movement icon Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Each one, teach one.” As a community of leaders, we must teach and share but also listen, learn, and evolve together. We must recognize that collective intelligence and empathy have always driven societies from points of pain to trajectories of creation. It is within all of us, and incumbent upon us, to work together to build a new world.

I’ll close as I began, with a dedication to community, to creation, to love & to hope by sharing the words of Assata Shakur in Affirmation:

And, if I know any thing at all,

it’s that a wall is just a wall

and nothing more at all.

It can be broken down.

I believe in living.

I believe in birth.

I believe in the sweat of love

and in the fire of truth.

And I believe that a lost ship,

steered by tired, seasick sailors,

can still be guided home

to port. 

Our mission, my fellow graduates, is to forge a future on the principles of love, solidarity, and mutual responsibility. May your hearts guide you always toward the horizon of justice.

Congratulations and boundless blessings to you, class of 2020. The future is in our hands.