2017 Pomona College Commencement – Commencement Speaker: U.S. Senator Brian Schatz ’94

2017 Pomona College Commencement – Commencement Speaker: U.S. Senator Brian Schatz ’94

August 20, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


(Brian Schatz) Thank you very much
for this incredible honor. I didn’t expect for it
to be emotional for me. First of all, it bears repeating
happy Mother’s Day. Second of all, I want to, before I get into my
more formal remarks, I want to recognize President Oxtoby. You are so fortunate to have been led
by such and extraordinary academic, such an extraordinary administrator. And I’ll just tell you one of the things
that I think makes him special even among extraordinary
people and presidents of colleges and universities. I was sitting right next to him
and as those two students spoke, there was a tear in his eye. And there aren’t that many people
who care so deeply about all of you and you are very, very lucky. So: President Oxtoby. [applause] So, Mr. President,
to the board of trustees, faculty, staff, fellow recipients
of honorary degrees, thank you for this great honor. It is great to be back at Pomona
and to the class of 2017: you did it! Congratulations. [applause] To the parents, the grandparents,
siblings, family, friends sitting behind today’s graduates, on behalf of the graduates, thank you. Thank you for the love you’ve given. Thank you for the moral support
that you’ve given, the money that you’ve given, to make today happen. This is a day of celebration, but it is also a day of great gratitude,
so thank you. To the graduates, if you remember
one thing that I talk about today, I hope it’s the story of a
person named Tony deBrum. Tony deBrum was the climate change
envoy for the Marshall Islands, a country between Hawaii
and the Philippines that’s made up of tiny little
islands with , people. Everything is at sea level. The rising Pacific Ocean has eroded makeshift seawalls and
contaminated freshwater so that the land is disappearing almost as fast as it’s becoming
useless for farming. It’s a pretty place and it’s a unique island culture but to be blunt,
any diplomat from the Marshalls is not exactly an
international power player. Tony deBrum once told the
environment minister of India that climate change was going to
sink the Marshalls into the ocean. And the Indian minister
responded by saying, “So what?” But even without raw power, even with other larger countries
showing him disrespect, he would not be deterred. He remained committed to saving
his country from climate change and he did what he could
with what he had. And his moment to change
everything comes in , when diplomats from every
country gather in Paris for the United Nations Climate
Change Conference, an annual event for countries
to try to come to an agreement about what to do about the climate. And just like every other year, no one is really optimistic
about the outcome, but Tony has a plan. At the start of the conference, he puts together a dinner
for negotiators from several different countries and that dinner becomes
the first unofficial meeting of what he calls
the “high ambition coalition,” a group of countries committed to a highly ambitious
agreement on climate. And their message is very simple: we have to do more or we will perish. They hold a press conference
to try to convince people that an ambitious agreement is possible, that the political climate exists, but everyone is still assuming
that the bigger polluters, countries like China, India, Saudi Arabia, will push for a low ambition
deal and succeed. At the second to the last big
session of the conference, Tony gathers all of the members
of the high ambition coalition and this has grown from just a
handful to many, many countries and marches them in
to the negotiating room. Imagine these diplomats
from nearly countries, marching together into
a conference center in unity to do the right thing on climate. They are way out on a limb. They have no idea
if it’s going to succeed but lacking raw economic
or political power, they do what they can. And it works. It creates a moment where
people start to believe that this thing is really possible, that we can make
the kind of climate deal that will enable these island
nations to survive. Up until the last moment
of that conference, people felt that it could go either way, but when the gavel came down
at the end of the Paris meeting, countries had committed
for the first time to lower greenhouse gas emissions
and fight climate change. This was the biggest climate
agreement in the history of the world. It was the deal that
Tony had hoped for, all because he did what
he could with what he had. All because one man without power
or pedigree did not assume that someone else would save his home. So a year after
the Paris agreement, a woman from my home state
was shocked and angry when Donald Trump won the election. Teresa Shook, a grandmother and
retired attorney living in Hana, Maui, decided that she was going to do
what she could with what she had. So she went onto Facebook and suggested that women
march on Washington, DC. Before she went to bed that night, a few dozen of her friends
had responded, but she woke up and hundreds of thousands
of people had responded. She woke up the following
morning to find out that there was a march that
was now a movement. Ten weeks later, five million people marched in thousands
of places around the globe. [applause and cheering] And the resistance was born because Teresa Shook did what
she could with what she had. Since inauguration, I’ve been thinking a lot about something
that Ben Franklin once said. He was leaving a meeting about
the future of the United States and he was asked, “Dr. Franklin, do we have
a republic or a monarchy?” And he answered, “A republic,
if you can keep it.” Ben Franklin’s challenge
is all too relevant today. Can we keep our republic? Can we save our planet? Can we build a more
just or free society? Well, the answer actually depends, and it depends on all of you. Now, I remember my graduation. I was interested in service
but I had this sense, or maybe it was a hope,
that people older, wiser, smarter, more powerful than me were
sorta taking care of the big stuff. This is a myth. [some laughter] That wasn’t supposed
to be a laugh line, but okay. [louder laughter] It is a myth that relieves us
of the responsibility to be equal to the moment. It is a myth that relieves us of the responsibility
to reach our potential. It’s a myth that misunderstands
how history is made. It’s a myth that comes from
Hollywood with heroes and villains that are literally larger than life. But it is a myth
that you must kill. There is no one
older, wiser, smarter, more powerful than you
figuring these questions out. The future is on you. The world needs you to do what
you can with what you’ve got. You’re graduating in a unique time
in the history of the world. I’m in my th decade on
the planet and I promise you, thus is not normal. The climate is in peril. The American experiment
is being tested again. Society is afraid. Trust in institutions is low. Trust in each other is low. And so we need your courage
and your talent to meet the challenges of our time. And make no mistake, it is always the new generation, it is always young people, meeting the test of their era. They were the ones who
fought Nazism in World War II, who battled for civil rights, who battled for women’s rights, who stopped the Vietnam War. At the end of the Paris
climate meetings, every country had the opportunity
to give a closing statement. And you might think that Tony
deBrum would have been justified in taking a victory lap for himself
and for the Marshall Islands but he handed the microphone
to an year old woman from the Marshall Islands
named Selina Leem. She traveled miles to tell this room full of powerful people how important this agreement was to her country and to its future. And she ends by saying that she hopes that the agreement
is a turning point. And if the Paris agreement stands,
and I believe that it will, then she’s right. The agreement will
be history-defining. Now, our country is yet
at another turning point and the question you face today is: are you going to be a part of it? Are you ready to do what
you can with what you’ve got? Well, I’m hoping I can help you
to answer that question. And I’ve got good news and bad
news depending on your perspective. The good news is that you now
have a degree or almost — from one of the best
colleges in the country. And as part of the Pomona family,
you are in elite company. Look at Sarah Elgin. She’s opened doors so that students can be
part of scientific discovery. Look at the Sontags, two people who have built a place where students from all five colleges
can make things happen, where they can innovate and collaborate. Look at Gay Payton, who has helped the world
to make progress on some of the most difficult issues
known to humanity: systematic rape, sexual slavery, apartheid. There is a long list of Pomona people who have blazed trails, opened doors, and made discoveries. They can serve as role models
and mentors as you go forward. So that’s the good news. The bad news, and again,
it depends on your perspective is that they call it
commencement for a reason. Today is the beginning. And so everything you’ve done up
until this moment, if you were in every club
and aced every course, or if you were like me and you struggled through and missed deadlines
or even a few classes, either way it doesn’t matter a whole lot because now you’re back
at the beginning. During my time at Pomona, I was a marginal student at best. Honestly. I loved my time here
but I was anxious, I was aimless, I played a lot of pool and pinball and I don’t know if you’ve ever
heard of Ms. Pacman but that’s what I did. [some laughter] I had no idea
what I was going to do and so I majored in philosophy. [some laughter and a cheer] So it was my —
Look at that crowd. [applause] So I was in my senior year and I was sitting with one of
my philosophy professors, a person named Jay Atlas, and I wasn’t sure
what I was going to do and I asked him if I should
pursue a PhD in philosophy. And he sorta leaned back
and he paused and he said, “Brian, you lack a certain rigor.” [laughter] So I still remember Professor Erickson’s
comments on the last paper that I ever turned in to him. And it read, “Brian, we both know that
you are better than this and that is what matters.” [laughter and applause] I’m telling you this
not to embarrass myself, although I’ve done
a pretty good job of it, but to illustrate a post-college truth. If you did great in college, good for you. But if you stumbled
across the finish line, if you barely finished your thesis, that’s okay too. What matters most
is what you do next. I know it was not easy
to get here today. You’ve been under
tremendous pressure for so long. For some of you,
it started more than a decade ago. You’ve been trying to
make your families proud and to be equal to
your incredible potential. You’ve been trying to do right
by all of the people who are sitting behind you today and you’ve managed
your time with precision and you’ve done your work with discipline. You’ve succeeded. But what does success look like
in the next phase of your life? You have been taught
for much of your life that your job is to do well. Fair enough, but now your job is to do good. And that’s the difference. That’s what graduation and
commencement are all about. Do well if you want but make certain that you do good. There’s one more person
I want to tell you about. It’s my dad, Dr. Irv Schatz. In the ‘s, he was right
out of medical school, starting his career, and he read an article in a medical journal
about a study on syphilis. The researchers approached African
American men in rural Alabama and offered them free healthcare. But what they really wanted to do
was to study syphilis. So of the participants, about of them had the
disease which can be deadly. And instead of giving these
men the proper treatment, the researchers withheld
the cure for decades. All so that they could,
“observe the disease process.” My dad was outraged and he did the only thing
that he could. He wrote a letter to
the author of the study and the United States Public Health Service. Frankly, it wasn’t a satisfying
moment of protest. He never got a response and, in typical fashion for my father, he never told anybody that
he even wrote the letter. But years later,
the media found out. The Congress found out. And eventually, the United States
Public Health Service was prohibited, as a matter of law,
from ever withholding medicine from sick people
for the sake of research. [applause] And here’s the thing for me. My dad could have
easily not sent that letter, thinking that someone else,
someone more important, someone more powerful, a medical ethicist, a journalist, a member of Congress, someone else must be in a better
position to do something. He could have decided that because a letter was
such a small thing to do, that maybe it wasn’t
worth doing at all. After all, who was
he to try to fix that? But without my dad’s small act, history would be different. And without Teresa Shook from Maui, there might not be a resistance
or a women’s march. And without Tony deBrum, the planet might be in greater peril. They all did what they could
with what they had. Every day is going to give you
a chance to change the world, but it’s not going to be clear
when your moment arrives. I mean, life isn’t a Marvel movie. When your opportunity for courage
and leadership presents itself in an obvious way when the bad
guys show up with ominous music. [some laughter] What do you do when human rights
and civil rights are undermined during your comfortable life, minute by minute, sliver by sliver? What do you do when the sea levels
rise millimeter by millimeter? What do you do
when you see injustice but your life is becoming more
successful by the day? You do whatever you can
with whatever you have. That is your responsibility
as of today, as of your graduation
from Pomona College. You have all done very well. Now you have to do good. Congratulations and best of luck. [applause]