2010 Senior Cap and Gown Ceremony Speech: Family Weekend
November 01, 2010
Thank you, Keith, for that wonderful introduction. Sr. Janet, Vice President Scully, seniors, families and friends, thank you for this honor of addressing you this morning.
I know many people begin talks such as this with a joke. But, as those of you who have had me in class know: I cannot tell a joke. In fact, a number of years ago, one of my students gave me a book of jokes. She told me she was giving it to me at the end of the semester so that I could study it over the Christmas holiday! I did study and I am practicing but I fear I am not yet ready to go public!
Joke or not I hope you can see from my big smile what a great treat it is to address you on this special day when you don your cap and gown. It is, in fact, a very special year of ending and beginning. Ending your undergraduate years at Emmanuel and preparing a new beginning. It is a year of excitement and challenges.
When I mentioned to a colleague that I would be giving this talk this morning the response was: Yes this is THE moment. It is IT! I responded that it is one of many its to come. You will have a number of endings and beginnings. But, this is a big one for sure.
For many of you, your life route until now has been pretty clear: elementary school, middle school, high school and then college. But now you will be paving your own individual path. Making your own choices. Of course you are not starting all of this anew. You have chosen a major that interests you. You are receiving a great liberal arts education that has been opening doors to knowledge, interests and skills. As you move forward, your professional life will become a lot more specialized. So relish these coming months to experience even more of the variety of this amazing campus. If you are majoring in chemistry why not take an art or music class? If you are majoring in history why not take a course in sociology or philosophy? If you are majoring in business management why not take a course in international relations or religion? Try an extra internship or a new sport. Listen to the insights of your classmates. Attend special lectures and programs and reap the richness this college has to offer.
Now how about that new beginning, the blazing of your individual path I referred to a moment ago? I want to pose a challenge to you all. No matter what your path, whether it be in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities or arts, I hope you will include in your life's goals not only work that will enable you to earn a living and care for your family and loved ones, but the goal of pursuing peace and justice along with that work.
The opportunities abound and I never fail to be inspired by those around me who have included peace and justice in their vision of life and work. This past spring I had the honor of spending the semester in Turkey as a Fulbright Senior Researcher. My research topic, Turkey's relations in the Middle East, gave me the opportunity to travel around Turkey giving talks, participating in conferences and conducting interviews. I met government officials, politicians, scholars, professors, students and journalists. It was a fascinating and exhilarating four and a half months full of memories I will hold for the rest of my life. But, the one I will discuss with you today is a research trip to southeastern Turkey to the city of Diyarbakir.
I went to Diyarbakir with a journalist friend because it is the principal city of the Kurdish region and is the heart of the Kurdish resistance in Turkey. The Kurds of the Southeast sought separation from Turkey and an independent Kurdish state which they would call Kurdistan and would consist mostly of the contiguous Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. There had been enormous civil unrest between 1984 and 1998 in southeastern Turkey, costing over 30,000 lives. There is still a great deal of discontent in the area. That is the reason I went to the region.
It is a very traditional society. Most married women wear headscarves. In many areas of the region they do not go out in the street alone. They do not work outside the home. They are very dependent on their husbands. Violence against women is not uncommon. They live in a society where honor killings still take place. In some traditional societies, especially those in the Middle East women are considered possessions of the men in the family. If they do anything to shame or taint the family honor they are to be punished to save the family face or status. The punishment in these cases is often killing by their male relatives: a father, brother or husband.
While in Diyarbakir, my journalist friend introduced me to a very courageous woman, Nebahet Akkoc. Nebahet Akkoc, who had been a school teacher began a group called KAMER or the Women's Consultation and Solidarity Center. It is KAMER's purpose to help women, most especially those who are suffering violence at home including the threat of honor killings. Ms. Akkoc says that women in the area are economically dependent and have a low level of education or no education. Some in the region, especially those in villages still speak only Kurdish. Therefore they cannot go to the Turkish authorities for help.
The group actually began during the height of the violent civil war in 1993-1995. At that time, violence against women was not seen as important compared to the goal of an independent state. But the women, who began KAMER, saw a connection between the violence on the street during the Kurdish uprising and the violence women were experiencing at home. They believe violence begins at home.
They started meeting. Though they were harassed, they rented a small apartment for the group. They began a restaurant that featured regional specialties to fund the organization. Even women opening a restaurant on their own was unheard of and they were the target of threats.
They started consciousness, raising groups of 15-20 women who meet for about 14 weeks. They began entrepreneurial training to help women become economically independent. They also offer early childhood training, concentrating on non-violent and non-discriminatory upbringing for children.
Their work to stem violence against women in this extremely patriarchal and traditional region is breathtaking. KAMER conducts an emergency aid program to provide immediate help to women facing domestic violence and honor killings. Since 1997 over 10,000 women have sought assistance from KAMER. The organization works with Governors offices, social service institutions, bar associations, security forces and other NGOs. Between 2003-2009 the group received 550 applications dealing with honor killings. Five hundred and forty-eight of the women were saved. KAMER now has groups in 23 cities in east and southeastern Turkey.
So, why am I talking to you about Kurds in southeastern Turkey at your Cap and Gown Ceremony? (That is, besides the fact that you invited a professor of political science who specializes on the Middle East and Turkey to speak!) I am hoping to make two points with one story. First, this is a very small world and ideas travel and make an impact. So much of what the women in KAMER are doing has roots in the earlier women's movements here and in Britain. Second, one woman who suffered violence, Nebahet Akkoc, began to work for justice in a life threatening environment to reach male authority figures in the police in a very patriarchal society, to train the police so that they will work to save women threatened by violence and to structure programs so that women can take responsibility for their lives. One woman committed to peace and justice has saved over 500 lives.
As each of you begin to break your own new ground on your own paths there will be something you can do to bring peace and justice to your world. Perhaps as a scientist or architect you may work for a cleaner environment. As an attorney you may work to build a fairer justice system. As a psychologist you may help those suffering from trauma. As a chemist, perhaps you will work to develop a medication to protect those in the developing world as well as those closer to home. As a writer perhaps you will pen a play or poem or as an artist a piece of music or a piece of art that reminds us of a just cause. Perhaps you will be a teacher or professor opening doors to learning for all and challenging young minds. Perhaps you will be a community organizer, corporate executive or real estate developer who thinks about the impact of your work on the people in your organization, on the environment and the larger society. Perhaps you will become a political representative, senator or president. You will all have the opportunity to bring about a more just and peaceful world.
Certainly, you will encounter opposition and you will need to be persistent. Years ago one representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Lois Pines, kept proposing a "Bottle Bill" requiring a fee for bottles to be refunded when a bottle was returned and year after year it failed. Representative Pines never gave up. Today almost no one questions that bottle fee and the recycling of bottles. Paving a successful life path will take that kind of persistence.
There is no question that each of you, in whatever your life's work, can accomplish great things in your chosen career. I cannot imagine all that you will do. But, with your education, your energy, and a world and society that needs your creativity I am sure you will write your own version of my talk with wonderful examples of accomplishments including peace and justice... and maybe even a few good jokes.