Carol Bellamy, 2005 Commencement Speaker

August 04, 2005


Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here in Iowa. I must confess my travels with UNICEF never took me anywhere as pastoral as this. Even the parents here today look eternally young, which is making me think the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson knew what he was talking about in Field of Dreams. I knew leaving UNICEF would be life altering, but I didn't think I'd get to heaven so soon.

It is an honor to be here today as another extraordinary group of men and women graduates from Grinnell College. Today is a day for the Class of 2005 to celebrate and also to give thanks -- to your fellow students, faculty and staff who helped create the unique atmosphere for learning that is Grinnell and, of course, to the families and friends who supported your being here.

You worked hard to get to Grinnell and you have worked hard to make it to this day. The reward for completing four years of college (or however many years it took you to reach this point) is always bittersweet: Great job! Now please leave.

But you are not a group of people that needs to be pushed out the door and into the world. I was thrilled to learn that Grinnell has the highest proportion of graduates volunteering in public service than any college in America. Twenty-four members of the Class of 2005 are going into post-graduate public service programs, including four people who are hoping to become Peace Corps volunteers, following in my own footsteps. (Please, believe me when I say that I do not recommend following the tracks that led me into New York City politics).

Clearly, I do not need to preach to you the value, and the necessity, of engaging with and working to improve your immediate and larger community. But I will say this: as you move away from academia and come up against the challenges of making a living and pursuing a profession, do not forget the world of ideas. Ideas matter. Nothing you have done here (or nothing that you would write home about) is irrelevant to the world. Nothing is purely theoretical.

During 10 years of leading UNICEF, I have seen how ideas and beliefs -- theories of economics, public health, religion, gender, sociology, psychology, ethnicity, and yes, politics -- inform the choices that make a profound difference for children -- influencing what happens to them and whether or not they have a chance to overcome what happens to them.

The sad truth is nearly half the world's children are living in poverty not because of benign neglect, but because too many governments are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. And too many people are letting those choices be made without challenge.

Of particular relevance today, as we celebrate this milestone of your education, is the fact that despite some progress in recent years, there are still 100 million children, most of them girls, who are denied schooling. The consequences of this are enormous, not just for the children themselves, but for the next generation as well. Uneducated girls are less likely to be able to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other diseases, from abuse and exploitation. If they become mothers, uneducated girls will be less likely to send their own children to school, or be able to protect them, or to give them the chance to break out of poverty.

Children may not be on your mind right now. You are no longer children yourselves, and I don't imagine many of you have children of your own. But if you care about humanity, about the future of the world, about progress and peace, you can do no better than to fight for the rights of children, particularly the poorest and most marginalized among them. Only by ensuring that all children survive and thrive will cycles of poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness be broken for good.

There have been times during the past decade when I have felt like a broken record, speaking out about the need to protect the rights of children and to invest in children. I have accompanied UNICEF's practical work on behalf of children with a soundtrack of what needs to be done and why:

  • Educating every child.
  • Supporting children orphaned by AIDS.
  • Prosecuting those who use rape as a weapon of war.
  • Demobilizing child soldiers.
  • Protecting children from trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry.
  • Investing in medicine and health care so children don't die of preventable diseases like measles or malaria.
  • Ensuring clean water and sanitation so children don't die from diarrhoea.

While much progress has been made, there have been times when it seems the messages fall on deaf ears. There have been times when the message is simply rejected. In my tenure at UNICEF, I was occasionally called a radical feminist, criticized for putting emphasis on women and girls. Yet it is not UNICEF that places special emphasis on women and girls. It is those who deny more girls than boys a seat in the classroom that have placed that emphasis. It is those who allow 500,000 women to die in childbirth every year who place that emphasis. It is those who turn away as HIV spreads ever more rapidly among women and girls that place that emphasis.

As long as girls and women are singled out for discrimination, they are in need of extra advocacy. Do you have a special interest? Well, then, I say good for you. For who else are we to speak on behalf of than those marginalized, discriminated and abused groups who are denied a voice of their own?

Back in New York, we would say what's required to change the world is to be a bit of a nudge. Be a nudge locally. And be a nudge on a global level. Just don't be dissuaded because people don't want to hear your message or are moving too slowly. Unlike many disasters, change for good rarely 'strikes suddenly.' With persistence, with a steady blend of thought, talk and action, it happens incrementally until hopefully it seems to take on a life of its own.

One of the jarring things about being a new graduate is how often you will be regarded as being idealistic or naive. You may confront constant reminders — either direct or oblique — that you're not in Iowa anymore. But I believe that you may have a clearer vision now than ever of what you want, what you believe in and what you believe is possible.

Growing up may be easier in this country than anywhere else in the world, and we should rejoice in that, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. What you do will change you, and it should. As Ben Franklin said, "When you're finished changing, you're finished." As you move on in life and priorities shift, what once seemed black and white may start looking a little gray.

It's at those times that you should look back to where you are today. Let Grinnell be your touchstone. Let it reinvigorate your commitment to match the very best ideas with the strongest action. Let it propel you, wherever you are, to do your part to make the world a better place.

I wish you the best of luck.


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