a commencement speech

“The past and the future merge to meet us here.” We made it. Today of course marks an end: the end of an adventure, a rollercoaster, a nightmare, a dream. But Commencement does not mean end; it means a beginning or a start. Today is about what you’ve accomplished, but today is about more.

For the Professors here, your patience has bettered us. You were there for the times we thought we knew too little and had to be pushed; the times we thought we knew too much and had to be tamed. You stretched us and shaped us, and we didn’t thank you enough.

For the family and friends here, there simply are no words; trust me, I searched my lexicon long and hard over you. You were steady when we were not; encouraging when we thought we could not. You were the light to our darkness, and we could not have done this without you. So today, thank you, sincerely.

As for you, graduates:

When I met with Dean Inman for some guidance on my five minutes up here, she gave me a two part formula: Share about our experience. End with some advice. But who am I to do that? My struggles have not been your struggles; your victories have not been my victories.

So I want to urge you to remember your own experience. Think back even on your fuel for wanting to become a lawyer and revel in the reality that your dream is coming true today. Do you feel the weight of that? The thing is, we all feel that weight differently; it’s heavier for some than for others.

For some, today is heavier because there were times when you felt that you couldn’t be who you are—or worse, that you were looked down on—because you are Black or Latin or gay or a woman. For those who ever felt limited or lesser, let this day and this degree speak freedom over you. We are all juris doctors today; your potential knows no bounds. You are breaking the curse of a dark history of devaluation, discrimination, and disrespect. For those who ever felt limited or lesser, your greatness and endurance and strength surpass mine. You inspire me and teach me and make me better.

And for others, today feels heavier because there are people we always thought would celebrate this day with us who didn’t live long enough to see us now. That’s why today feels heavy for me. One of my tickets is up here with me, and the seat for my mom sits somewhere back there, empty. For those of you like me, I am confident the empty seats would have been filled with the loudest cheerleaders and the proudest people. For the rest of you, I am deeply thankful for your support and encouragement these past two years without her; you helped save me.

I hope you can understand now why I’m not going to share about our experience today. My story is not your story. But what I am going to tell you is that we have a greater story to tell together now. “The narrative of a worthy life is [ours] to write.”

So what kind of lawyer are you going to be?

Beyoncé, I think, should inform our answer to that question—and likely our answers to many other questions, but I would digress. Right now, Beyoncé is sending a loud, powerful, and evocative message around the world:

When life serves you lemons, make lemonade. “One pint of water; add half pound of sugar, the juice of eight lemons, the zest of half lemon.” Of course, you must find your own recipe, and I feel sure you will strive to find your passions, purpose, and people who will help you make life sweet. But Beyoncé isn’t saying the aim is a sweet life. She is saying be your own alchemist—spin gold out of this hard life; conjure beauty from things left behind; find healing where it does not live.

Don’t squander this experience on sweetness; sweetness wasn’t meant to satisfy. Every sweetness I taste will be paired with a little bitter because there will always be an empty seat for mom at every big day of mine. But that has taught me that the only thing stronger than even the greatest of griefs is passions directed rightly—toward justice for the marginalized, equality for the devalued, and freedom for the oppressed. Make your life better than sweet; make it matter.

I agree with Toni Morrison in that “I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ as the third right. I would rather he had written life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.” So I feel obliged to urge you with her words: “Don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

I hope law school has taught you resilience: how endurance produces character, and character, hope. We must press forward; “best foot first just in case.” Keep fighting, even with wobbly and weak knees. I hope law school has also taught you strength: the kind necessary to fix broken systems and to believe people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done; strength to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. And most importantly, I hope law school has taught you the power of a voice, one we must use to speak against injustice and to advocate loudly for those who have been silenced.

Today, billions of dollars are being exchanged for trafficked persons, as slavery has not ended. Millions of adults sit in prisons, too many of whom are there not as a result of crimes but color. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are fleeing terror and tragedy in their own countries only to be turned around at the border or, worse yet, placed in the custody of exploiters by our own government. Don’t kids—all kids—deserve justice too?

Hundreds, hundreds of us.

What kind of lawyer are you going to be? Whatever that answer is for you—let it be glorious.


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