image description

Power, Privilege, and the Obligations of Belonging

A commencement speech by Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg | May 212017

Justice Robart, President Murray, distinguished guests, and most importantly, class of 2017, I am tremendously thankful for this once in a lifetime opportunity to address you and pray to do it justice.

A lot of graduation speeches seem to offer advice on how new graduates should live their lives.  I’m not yet 40 and don’t feel wise or experienced enough to offer such advice. It feels like I’ve only just graduated Whitman myself.

As a wife and the stressed out mother of an 8yr old and a 2 yr old, I struggle to balance pursuit of a meaningful career with building a strong family life. I’m still trying to figure out the answers for myself.

But I think these are the same qualifications; wife, mother, and committed change agent, that compel me to use this speech as an opportunity to point our collective attention to some of the urgent challenges and tremendous opportunities that we face at this moment in history.

Today I want to celebrate your bright shining faces and these robes that mark your new belonging to a global educated elite. My goal for today is to challenge you to think about the power, privilege, obligation and opportunity that come with your new degrees.

Let me apologize early but my speech is not going to be light or funny. Its actually quite heavy. I was a Politics major here at Whitman who went on to become a Political Scientist so I definitely want to talk about politics. (On our way here, my husband and I argued about whether I was being too nerdy and philosophical.  I told him you’d understand me since you’re smarter than average and we all took encounters which is what this speech is really all about)

I want to honour the fact that we are living in the proverbial ‘interesting times’ and that you, the class of 2017 are graduating into a world that is currently tight with political and social tensions.

I would characterise wealth inequality and diminishing opportunities as the most important problems that shape the world you are joining us into.

Around the world, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, doors to opportunity are rapidly closing and people are increasingly more desperate as they seek dignified lives for themselves and their children. 

Young men and women from across Africa are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean knocking on European doors that are locked increasingly tighter. 

Some of your families here today risked it all to cross a hostile border in search of opportunities North. Now there is talk about building even taller walls.

Across what is now called ‘flyover country’ much of the formerly middle class America is coming to terms with the fact that the American dream doesn’t buy what it used to.

We are chocking and gasping for clean air in the midst of a climate catastrophe as factories consume more natural resources than Mother Earth can sustain, automation decimates jobs, and cities become graveyards for the dreams of our youth.

So who is to blame?

America’s current political leadership, voted into power by a significant percentage of the population, has very particular ideas about which kinds of people are to blame, which kinds of bodies belong in America, and which ones should be excluded.

From Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho with Brexit in between, much of the electorate around the world is eagerly pointing an accusing finger at the ‘other’, the ‘stranger’, the immigrant.

In the midst of all this, we, Whitman graduates stand as some of the most privileged of our generation.

We are the beneficiaries of some of the most expensive education on the planet and whether you came from a family of poverty or wealth, by virtue of your Whitman education, you stand on the threshold of more opportunity than most of your peers around the world will ever know.

What is your obligation?

And here I’m not talking of guilt.  I’m not talking about that almost-delicious feeling that permits us to wring our hands in narcissistic self-flagellation, and then step away from our obligation to work towards justice.

When I challenge us to think about our obligation, I'm speaking from an almost spiritual perspective that to whom much is given, much is also expected.  I mean that, by virtue of this expensive and precious Whitman education, we also carry a level of obligation to make the world a better place.

We are not the first generation that has had to do this kind of difficult work. My husband is an American Jew and last month we visited the Holocaust memorial in Berlin for the first time. We also visited the burial place of his great grandparents who were killed in the banality of that evil. 

Berlin reminded me that generations who came before us have faced the difficult work of recalibrating the meaning of justice, rebuilding more inclusive societies, and crafting institutions that can hold those in power to account. 

But we find ourselves at this point in history because the work of previous generations remains incomplete.  And like these United States whose union calls for continued perfecting, the ties of justice that bind our human family together need continued nurturing and occasional repair.

You must feel overwhelmed hearing me challenge you to use your Whitman degrees to repair the world (What a wonderful Jewish concept. Tikkun Olam). But I promise you that on that journey, it is the things that seem hard that are simple and the things that seem simple that are hardest.

The late Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai talked about purposeful actions that seem small but change the world by challenging systems. She talked about her ‘little thing’ being planting trees.

My ‘little thing’ has been a concern for wasted talent.

A few years after leaving Whitman, I founded Akili Dada, a leadership incubator that invests in talented young women from poor families who are passionate about driving social change in their marginalized communities.

Today, 141 brilliant girls from the poorest families across Kenya have received full scholarships to access a high school education that was previously inaccessible. 100% of these girls go on to earn full scholarships to universities around the world, further magnifying the impact of our scholarships.

As part of our investment, these young women leaders are required to design and implement social change projects to serve their communities. 

In the last decade, hundreds of thousands in poor communities have been touched by the work of Akili Dada. We are not only growing a cohort of female leaders for the continent, we are also shifting society’s attitudes towards women, especially young women in leadership.

As you think about how you might leverage the privilege that comes with your Whitman degree into impact in the real world, allow me to quickly share three lessons from my Akili Dada journey that might help:

  1. Start with what you already know. What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome to get to where you are today? Who else are facing similar challenges?  What worked for you and how can you scale it up to help others?  Its that simple. No need to go off saving Africans in far off places (unless you’re an African, in which case come back home!). For me, Akili Dada was born out of trying to scale up the ways that my Whitman experience had changed my life and to make that kind of experience available to hundreds more girls.
  1. Money is important but its not worth worshiping. I struggled really hard to raise money for Akili Dada. Really hard.  Here I was, a scholarship kid myself trying to raise scholarships for other kids. At Whitman, I made close friends with kids who had never known a day of poverty.  Living with them, rubbing up against their daily lives taught me that wealth doesn’t make you happier, wiser, or immune to the pain of being human. It was one of the most important things I learnt here and allowed me to be more authentic as I sought to build a network of high net-worth supporters of Akili Dada’s work.
  1. At the same time, we can’t afford to ignore money. For too long, we on the Left have pretended that money is dirty and those with wealth are automatically on the wrong side of justice. At the same time, the Koch brothers have leveraged their wealth into tremendous political power and policy influence. Progressives needs to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of money and wealth.  Here I come back to this idea that privilege carries obligation. Some of the most inspiring wealthy people I have met are those who are principled in how they leverage their wealth into social change. Many of them I have met through Whitman.

Today, two of the young women of Akili Dada are members of my beloved Whitman community.

Michele Buyaki, who has just completed her first year at Whitman, and Faith Nyakundi who graduates today.  That the three of us are here today, is confirmation that pursuing your ‘little thing’ does make a difference.

In important ways, the story of Akili Dada here today, is very much the story of Whitman. It is the story of opportunity opened up, expanded and multiplied.  It is the story of how privilege can be leveraged into impactful change.  It is the story of us as a Whitman community and it is an incredibly hopeful story unfolding at a politically important moment.

It is one that I pray will inspire you as you navigate the tensions of the current political moment and work out how you will leverage your unique privilege to fulfil your obligation to repair the world.

On behalf of fellow Whitman alumni from years past, I congratulate you and welcome you to this exclusive Whitman alumni community where membership comes with an obligation to make the world a better place!

Thank you!

Watch her video

View her photos