MPP Commencement Speaker: Marlana Wallace, MPP'21

May 24, 2021

Marlana Wallace, MPP'21 in a black graduation cap and robe
Marlana Wallace, MPP’21

Good morning! Congratulations graduates!

Thank you to the professors and staff who work hard to keep us engaged and connected. Thank you to the families and friend-families who support every member of the Heller community. And many thanks to my MPP classmates who’ve given me the honor of sharing a few thoughts today.

It has been a year of devastating losses, big and small. Some of us are struggling to manage the discomforts of isolation, while others are struggling just to survive.

I want to start by recognizing the little losses. Grad school was not what we expected or hoped. Having spent the majority in a Zoom classroom, we missed out on a thousand passing hallway conversations that help transform professors into colleagues, schools into communities, and classmates into friends. I trust faculty and staff feel that deprivation as keenly as we do.

We can honor that loss today. And at the same time, we can honor the gifts of unexpected growth. Both can be true. Maybe you read a theorist who revolutionized your perspective, maybe you built a soul-sustaining friendship, maybe you simply found the stubborn will power to keep showing up, even after losing all intrinsic motivation to do so.  

This expansive capacity to feel contradictory emotions at once –that’s the heartbeat of the human experience, and a prerequisite for the pursuit of social justice. To grapple honestly with the injustices of our world is profoundly painful.

The systematic, state-sanctioned violence inflicted upon Black and brown communities is unconscionable. The senseless, brutal murders of Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Adam Toledo, among so many others, rouse an anguish that cuts across generations. The relentless destruction of our environment provokes an existential dread. And the fact that essential workers are compensated with poverty-wages while generational wealth goes untaxed—it’s maddening.

Yet, in the same breath, we must sustain the intellectual and emotional power to imagine the world as it could be, as it should be. To take in all that pain, and still believe we can build a world where everyone has safe housing and nutritious food, good health care and good schools; the means to care for those they love, and the opportunity to develop their creative capacities. Where our mistakes are met with mercy and support in healing the harms we cause. 

We have to summon the courage to make what was once considered radical, possible. We need to nurture a curiosity for divergent thinking. We must allow ourselves to feel the fiery hope that calls us to action. Or this vision will not be realized.

When striving to see inequities clearly, and to truly understand the policies that perpetuate them, it is easy to be overcome by helplessness. The distance between grief and gratitude, pain and possibility can be a heavy burden. None of us can bear that weight alone. Isolation dulls empathy. It saps energy. It yields apathy. If we did not know this before, we certainly know it now.

And so, we also know the antidote. Our sense of purpose comes from people. Connections invigorate. Solidarity empowers. Love revitalizes.

As graduates and as a nation, we are in the midst of transition. We are crawling out into a social and political landscape polarized by a hateful administration, ravaged by illness, and frozen in isolation. But because change is constant, so too is the possibility for hope, since there is always something new growing in the ashes of what’s passed. 

Now it is spring. Literally and figuratively. We are the buds on the vine, and we are also the gardeners planting seeds. As professionals and as people, our choices matter. Our shiny, new degrees do not make us smarter or better than anyone else. But they give us a little more freedom to choose the conditions of our work, and a little more power to improve those conditions for those we work alongside.

New graduates, I hope you find a job that helps you lead a thriving life, but more than that, I hope you find the people to carry you through the jobs that don’t. May you know and love people from many walks of life who exercise your empathy, alight your curiosity, and fortify your courage. May we nurture our relationships here at Heller and may we bring more people into this community in the years to come.

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