Excerpts from Senior Fellow Maria Echaveste's Commencement Speech

On May 18, our Senior Fellow Maria Echaveste, gave the Commencement Address to the Columbia School of Social Work. Below is a brief excerpt of her speech.

Thank you Dean Takamura for inviting me to speak to Columbia University’s School of Social Work, class of 2016! I am humbled and honored to be before you, the graduates, your families, and your faculty.

I am a lawyer by training. As I’m sure you’ve learned through your courses and experiences, the law plays a significant role in shaping the duties and responsibilities not just of institutions and organizations, but also your own. I have a sister who is a social worker in Los Angeles County, working with the foster care system. So I have learned from her about the importance of her work—of your work. Sadly, too few people, whether in Washington or state capitols, understand the importance of your work and your training.

Particularly today with the type of rhetoric we are hearing in this election year, there is a palatable sense of anxiety. Here’s what we do know: modern life is stressful. Changing roles of women and men, changes in the economy, the interconnectedness of our world for good and bad, the instability in regions across the globe, climate change, you name it—lots of stress. Yet, there’s also tremendous optimism as technology brings opportunity to many, as people both here in this country and around the globe connect and organize to make change in their lives and their communities. There is cause for optimism. Every day we see examples of children, adults, families and communities demonstrating resiliency in the face of obstacles. That resiliency is what a society needs to nurture and encourage. That is why the profession you’ve chosen is so important.

We are recognizing more and more that there are no silver bullets for the critical issues facing individuals, communities, and countries. For example, much has been learned about health disparities among various racial and economic groups. We are learning that you can treat the physical problem in the hospital, but if that adult is going home to stress related to employment or housing, that stress will continue to impact his health. Or when a third-grader comes to school not just hungry, but traumatized by domestic violence at home, she is not going to be very receptive to an English or math lesson. We certainly should not expect our physicians or teachers to solve all problems, but increasingly hospitals and schools are recognizing that they need the help of your profession to do their jobs better. You are essential to helping individuals, be they children or adults, maximize their potential.

Now you’ve probably noticed I have mentioned children quite a bit. Why? When families are under stress, children often don’t flourish. And those children are our country’s, our world’s future. Children do not choose the families they are born into. They don’t get to choose their color, their race, their gender, their zip code—and yet a child, whether born here in the USA or across the sea or south of the border, has potential waiting to blossom. And those children become adults, and depending on the combination of nature and nurture, we will see cause for optimism or anxiety.

I say this as the daughter of farm workers, of parents who migrated from Mexico with no education, working in the Texas and California fields and orchards—cotton, strawberries, peaches, or my least favorite tomatoes. So yes, I know what it was like to work those backbreaking jobs. As the eldest of seven, I knew one thing: I was not going to stay in the fields. I will say I didn’t quite imagine that in one generation I would go from working those fields to working in the White House, but here I did. And here’s what I want to share with you: too many people in our country look at my story and many others like it to say, “See! It just takes hard work and determination. It’s up to the individual.”

I am here to tell you that is an over-simplification and serves an ideological purpose. I remember too many of my schoolmates in those fields and in the housing projects to stand before you and say I did it all by myself—and it’s their fault that they made bad decisions and didn’t go to college, or ended up with substance abuse problems or worse, prison.   

What does society owe a child who is born into a situation where education and income is limited and the stresses are many? Is it that child’s fault if he or she makes some bad decisions along the way? What kind of a society decides that it will leave to chance to determine who succeeds and who does not?

There are so many people in our country and in the world who have talents, who have ambition, who have drive, and shouldn’t our societies seek to harness that energy?

Now let me close with this thought. You may think I am a Pollyanna who believes in the goodness of humanity. No, what I believe in is that individuals make up a society, and individuals can make a difference, but only if we are not bystanders to life. And you the class of 2016 have chosen not to be bystanders. And I am so happy that our country and our world has your commitment to making change in years ahead as you shape your lives. Congratulations.  Welcome to the fight.