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2006 Commencement Address

Nan Aron, President of Alliance for JusticeNan Aron, commencement speaker

Commencement home

Thank you so much for inviting me. My only regret is that Commencement comes too late in the school year for this school's greatest achievement - Broomball season!

I want to play!

Maybe next year, my stepmother and I can come up. You'll be gone. But we could join President McCullough-Lovell and the Class of 2007 for the Polar Plunge. Since I'm someone who knows what it's like to be in hot water, this would be a refreshing experience!

Really, it is a great pleasure to be here. I can't tell you how wonderful it feels to walk by the Rice-Aron library and see this living memorial to a family that cared so much about learning.

I also liked reading through the survey on the web about Rice-Aron.

Typical Marlboro College: you not only survey people for the library's biggest weakness, you're open enough to put the results online so everyone in the world knows.

Incidentally, I thought the result was amazing. The biggest problem is book theft.

Amazing! Not the theft part; that students still read books!

My kids think if it doesn't exist online, it doesn't exist!

Anyway, we feel so honored to be here. It's a tribute to my family. It's a testament to what you think of Alliance for Justice.

I want to make sure you realize what a wonderful time this is to graduate.

Why? Because there are so many terrible things to fix.

Just recently, John Kenneth Galbraith, the acerbic, iconoclastic economist died. We hadn't heard much from him recently. But clearly he was still cogent - even at 97.

He told Arthur Schlesinger that the Presidency of George Bush led him to think "thoughts he had never thought himself capable of thinking."

Schlesinger said, "For example?"

Galbraith responded, "I long for Ronald Reagan."

Why do I bring this up?

Because I see that you are the class that was born in 1984 or thereabout. Not only was that the year George Orwell predicted meant the arrival of "Big Brother;" to me, Ronald Reagan had brought us closer to "Big Brother." In 1984 he was re-elected. His slogan was "Morning in America."

I had a darker view. I thought it was a terrible year.

But now I see it wasn't so terrible. In 1984, your parents were optimistic enough to create you, and to bring you up with a sense of commitment that would make you choose this great school.

Usually, Commencement speakers have a simple message. "You've got a wonderful education," they say. "Now, go do something wonderful."

That doesn't work for Marlboro. You've already done wonderful things. You have become Ronald Reagan's worst nightmare: students who can design their own course of studies, and work to redesign the community.

And sometimes that community can be a thousand miles away.

Most people watched, stunned, when Hurricane Katrina swept off the Gulf.

Not Marlboro students.

You organized. You raised money. And a tenth of you left Vermont, and went down to help rebuild.

You're at one of the few colleges where this could happen.

You were generous.

You were dedicated.

You made a difference.

And you symbolized what makes Marlboro so unique.

A place where you learn not just geology but generosity, not just calculus but compassion, not just literature but - can I say the word? Sure! It's Marlboro:


So we're not here just to celebrate Marlboro's decision to give you a diploma, but your decision to come year four years ago. We celebrate both what you've learned, and how you want to live.

Now, I want to make sure you understand that this doesn't have to end with graduation. There are plenty of ways to make a difference, and make a living.

Take the work I do.

Alliance for Justice is exactly what the title says. We're fighting to have courts where Americans can find justice.

Except when there are Supreme Court nominees, we don't get a lot of publicity. Ask Pat Leahy, your president's former boss. He's the ranking Democrat on Judiciary. Once he got so exasperated with how hard it was to get attention to this issue, he said, "The national pickle growers get more attention than judges."

He's right, and that's so wrong. Judges matter.

They especially matter when you have an Administration like the one that, well, that makes you long for 1984.

Let me get a sense of what you think.

This administration believes it's all right to ignore the Geneva Convention and torture prisoners. I suspect many in this audience would disapprove.

What about wiretaps without a warrant? Or the secret database of phone records of millions of Americans to see if our calls look suspicious? This Administration says, "Yes." I suspect many of you in this audience would disapprove.

They think its okay to hold hundreds of individuals 90 miles off the American coast without bringing charges against them or even giving them the basic right to a lawyer. I suspect many of you in this audience would disapprove. If I'm right about your sentiments in these matters, I'm in the right place.

I say that if Dick Cheney's chief of staff can hire a lawyer when accused of a crime, we cannot deny that right to Americans who have been accused of none!

It makes you think of what Jay Leno said, when this Administration's forces in the Iraq war were drafting a constitution.

He said, "Give them ours. It was written by a lot of smart guys, worked well for two hundred years - and we're not using it any more!"

When we have an Administration that can thumb its nose at the Constitution, we need courts that can say no.

Because if we smooth the path for enemies of fairness we make things rough for every American seeking justice from our courts.

And so we fought as hard as we could against two Supreme Court nominees who have consistently sided with the powerful: John Roberts and Sam Alito.

About our loss, I have this to say.

If you expected a commencement speaker who tells you things like, "You can achieve whatever you want," I wouldn't be at Marlboro.

Everybody loses sometimes. Everybody has defeats, even in Broomball.

You regroup.

You think about what you learned.

You get ready for the next game.

And you remember the times you won.

Here, I suppose I could talk about some big legislative battles we've fought..

But sometimes I remember a man I came to know who needed help named Jesus Collado. Mr. Collado, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, had lived out the American dream in New York City for 30 years. He sent his children to college, and ran a successful restaurant.

When he was 17 he'd been arrested for having consensual sex with an underage girlfriend and was given probation.

Twenty-three years later, returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic, customs officials asked if he'd ever been arrested. Being an honest person, he said, "Yes."

He didn't know that there was a new punitive law which converted his misdemeanor into an "aggravated felony." It was true of all kinds of crimes, like stealing cable TV. Immigration officials stuck him in prison and scheduled him for deportation.

I'd like to say Alliance for Justice rescued him. But it was better.

We publicized his case, even made a documentary film. Thousands of ordinary people were outraged. They organized. They lobbied. They held vigils. And an embarrassed administration ordered his release, and dropped the case.

The day he was released, I saw an act of justice. It was an occasion where power responded to persuasion, in the right way, at the right time. We know that life is full of such victories, that each one is very important, and that we carry with us the hope that one will help nurture others. Getting a good result takes a lot of hard work and determination. But in the end, it's the small victories that get you through the rest of the hard times you face.

Bobby Kennedy summed up the meaning of that kind of event. He said:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy ... these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of resistance.

I believe that. Remembering Jesus Collado gives me passion and purpose and the belief that more victories will come.

And in those battles I am confident we'll have people who have prepared themselves for just that kind of fight: you.

I know that because I know what kind of people come to Marlboro. I know that because I know what kind of school this is. I know how you design your own course of study, how you involve yourselves with others whether in Marlboro or Mississippi. I know about your intellect, your seriousness, your willingness to travel abroad to see how the world looks outside this campus.

And I know something about a strange, exasperating, comical group of people who should be your role models: your parents.

I don't want to stereotype the proud group of middle-aged people who did such a wonderful thing around 1984. They aren't cut from a cookie-cutter. They don't all share every view I've mentioned. But they did create you and helped create a better world.

And let me make a guess: they're rooting for you to do just that. And, you already know it's fine from time to time to get off the treadmill of studying, passing the exam, writing the next paper. You're as free today as you'll ever be. Don't be afraid to do something because it's too hard - after all, I started my organization with an idea, and just $5,000 in the bank, and if I can do it, so can all of you. You may be afraid that you won't reach your goals, but try to do what you want, and make sure not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

And I am sure that in the next few years, even if your parents grumble, they'll be secretly proud of the change you help create.

You won't do it alone.

You know, there's a story people used to tell about Bill Bradley, the Senator from New Jersey, when he was first elected.

At one point people were sure he would be President. All-American, pro basketball player, Rhodes Scholar. And one time he was at a banquet ready to give a speech. The waiter came by and put a pat of butter on his plate.

Bradley asked for another pat.

The waiter said, "One pat per person."

The emcee heard this. He was so embarrassed. Went up to the waiter and whispered, "Maybe you don't know who that is! Bill Bradley! Great ballplayer ... Senator ... gonna run for President!"

The waiter said, "Well, maybe you don't know who I am."

"I guess I don't. Who are you?"

"I'm the guy that controls the butter!"

That means we need each other. It means nobody gets things done alone.

That's frustrating in one way. But in another, it's hopeful.

It means each of us gets a chance to contribute.

For example, I saw a woman whose son had died in Iraq decide she wasn't going to keep silent even if it meant going down to Crawford Texas and living in a tent so the President would notice her.

You probably know Cindy Sheehan's name. But even she didn't act alone. All over this country we saw students and activists rise up and tell her story. They blogged. They sent e-mails. They made her cause their cause. The growing strength of the movement against the outrage of the war in Iraq is a testament to the work of many. But she made people listen, and made a difference.

And finally, let me tell you about someone I saw a little closer to home: my own father.

Jerome Aron didn't set out to educate. He wanted to litigate. But after law school the kind of law he wanted to practice wasn't open to him. He went into business. Eventually he became a teacher.

He fell in love with this place. He joined the Marlboro Board as finances threatened this school.

It was as if everything in his life - law, business, teaching - came together, and combined with the energy that always characterized him.

Did he save Marlboro?

He'd be the first to say no.

But did he make a difference when so many people thought it was impossible? He did. Along with others he created that ripple of hope. They did save this school.

And so I love the picture Marlboro used of him when he died two years ago. His head is cocked, he's staring out us with a slight smile as if to say, "See? We did it."

He and many others did it, and now Elizabeth McCormack who's here with me continues to sit on the board.

So now, as you leave this place where you have learned so much, am I going to ask you to make a difference?

No. You have already made a difference.

But here's what I do ask.

Use the unique experience you've had to make the rest of the world more like Marlboro.

Make this world more like the vision of Marlboro's founders, shocked by the barbarism of a war just ended, frightened at the possibilities that lay ahead.

Make it more like this place that understands that as we think about war and peace. Our lives must be enriched by a Robert Frost poem, or a clarinet quintet by a composer born 300 years ago.

Make it more like the place that is wise enough to pick a president who says in her inaugural, "There must be a Marlboro: a place of beauty; a clearing in the forest made for contemplation; a space to create and to become."

Make it more like this place where the man whose name is on your library, a man who saw his early dreams blocked found a way to help others realize their dreams, and in doing so, fulfilled one of his own.

And as you do that, I ask one more thing.

I ask that just as others worked to keep it alive for you, work to keep Marlboro alive for others, because by helping them you will find fulfillment for yourself.

And maybe someday you'll sit where your parents sit now, looking at someone you helped create.

And you will be proud to know they are as lucky in their four years as you've been in yours, whether working on a paper one-on-one with a brilliant teacher, sitting in Rice-Aron excited by a book you never knew existed (just remember to return it), or getting up the nerve to take the Polar Plunge.

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