A Commencement Address

The world is a mess.

A still-surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19 by sheltering-in-place we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic have been people of color, the poor, and the elderly. It is the least of us that have suffered the greatest losses. 

Given the absence of a federal response individuals, organizations, and states have been left to fend for themselves. They are competing for scarce resources, most especially to provide first responders and medical workers with the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe. The absence of ventilators vastly increased risks to patients in the hospitals, and to those trying to protect them. And the lack of a coordinated national strategy has endangered everyone. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented failure of leadership.

For the class of 2020, these are overwhelming obstacles to overcome. The challenge for these graduates is to decide: are we victims of this environment, or do we choose to take charge and do what we can to contribute to a better world. It’s times like these that shape our character.

By itself, dealing with this pathogen and its uncertain and long-term consequences is more than enough for any people to consider. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 came knocking on our door, we already faced numerous other significant crises. In this era of disruption, there is no shortage of other critical issues facing us, which have been overshadowed by the immediacy of coronavirus issues. They include: climate change; a rapidly growing gap in income and wealth; gender inequality; racism, etc.

Graduates, you are not victims. You have a role to play. It is a role many have been increasingly playing for over a decade. Witness many significant collective actions in recent years: Occupy Wall Street, which arose in 500 cities worldwide following the Great Recession; the “Arab Spring, often referred to as the Twitter Revolution; Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; Time’s Up; March for Our Lives; Never Again; Everytown for Gun Safety; the Women’s March, now a movement; OK Boomer; Youth Strike for Climate (over one million students participated); Global Climate Strike (September 2019, wherein over seven million people from 150 countries participated); etc. When we unite and gather together, we can demand change.

Scientists are studying the cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and pandemics. By itself, climate change poses an existential threat. Once a self-sustaining ecosystem, today the Earth is dying. The evidence is overwhelming: More frequent wild fires; greater and more frequent super-storms; longer periods of droughts, over-expanded geographies; rising sea levels; the warmest temperatures in recorded history; air pollution; water pollution; toxic waste.

The evening news stories have offered graphic pictures of the impact of climate change:

  • Australia, California, and the Amazon were ablaze;
  • Puerto Rico and the Bahamas were destroyed;
  • Floods have destroyed large areas from the Midwest to Bangladesh;
  • South Africa is suffering from an extreme drought, and Cape Town has a critical water shortage;
  • The Artic Sea is rapidly shrinking, and it was 70 degrees in January 2020 in Antarctica.

Despite this empirical evidence there continues to be science, economic, humanitarian, political, and crisis denial by too many. For sure, COVID-19 deserves our immediate attention, but beware what lurks behind it.

Some years ago, the late Ryuzaburo Kaku, former CEO of Canon Inc., wrote an essay in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Kyosei” (“living and working together for the common good”). Therein, he expressed particular concerned “about the imbalance between the generations, i.e. between those of us who live on Earth today, and those who will inhabit it in the future.” Graduates, we have failed you.

The teenage activist, Greta Thunberg, spoke at the United Nations last year, and said it best, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if choose to fail us, we will never forgive you…This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering.”

COVID-19 has also called attention to health disparities in our country. While African Americans represent 13% of the US population, they are 30% of the pathogen cases testing positive. Latino communities have also been extremely hard hit. The failure to provide adequate testing in those communities points to the larger issue of racism.  We cannot fix what we cannot talk about. There are no simple discussions or solutions here. But neither can we ignore it. 

The economic consequence of the pandemic also deeply affects people of color to a greater degree. Job loss for black and brown communities, particularly those part of the gig economy, is far greater than salaried white-collar employees. This exacerbates the growing gap in income and wealth. This condition is unsustainable, and can only create a greater sense of divisiveness and class distinction in an already divided country.

Another existential threat is truth decay, and the spread of disinformation and hate. The assault on truth is an assault on trust. It breeds hatred. At a time when we need to come together to collectively address so many significant issues, leaders who intentionally contribute to lies, and perpetuate disinformation, are magnifying the damaging effects of these issues. In an age of information, where everyone knows what’s going on, this represents an inexcusable failure of leadership.

In light of all this, it is no surprise that there has been an extraordinary erosion of trust in institutions and our leaders. The secret of leadership, I have learned, is that there are no secrets.  Trust – real trust – demands truth. They are two sides of the same coin. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today, and into the future.

My friend Yan Tougas posted the following on social media, quoting from Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, speaking on slavery (1857):

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Yan continues: “The arc doesn’t bend on its own. The bend is created by the courageous and persistent work of a minority, who posses a moral imagination capable of seeing a future world that is better than today’s. And so do we all have a responsibility to see the injustices around us, and to work towards its elimination, even if we never enjoy the fruits of our labor. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” (Rabbi Tarfon).

The pandemic is a global problem, not a national one. Climate change is a global problem. It does not belong to one nation. Truth, science, and global collaboration are critical ingredients to solving these problems. Crises can be opportunities. The pandemic is an opportunity to build a bridge between fighting COVID-19, while investing in climate change, biodiversity loss initiatives, and the new tech-enabled distance economy that awaits us.

Erich Fromm, the 20th century psychoanalyst and theologian, wrote in To Have or To Be:

”We have lost sight of the most important questions of human existence…who am I? How should I live?…We think virtues and ethical norms are arbitrary, and a matter of personal taste. It’s a battle between integrity and opportunism, the natural realm and the spiritual realm, between life and death.”

There is a Hebrew expression: tikkun olam,– “to repair the world, and build a more just, humane future.” Indeed, my work, and our work, is unfinished, incomplete.

Commencement is, by definition, “a beginning. ” We are at a turning point in human history.  What we decide today will determine the future for generations to come.  It’s time for a “new beginning. We must work together to focus on rebuilding America into a more just, humane society worthy of our children and grandchildren. Life comes with responsibility. It is our duty, individually and collectively, to work toward “repairing the world.“

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

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