Chairman of the Board Singer, President Kaplan, faculty and staff, the entire Walden community, I want to express my deep pride at this honorary degree from Walden University, an institution that I have come to love and respect so well. It was certainly not anything I would have foreseen when I agreed to serve on Walden’s board more than fifteen years ago. I was only looking forward to an association with an online university that claimed to have an intriguing notion to educate scholar-practitioners to be able to make positive social change. And now, fifteen years later, that mission seems to have been even more relevant as the entire nation has apparently made an enthusiastic commitment to support an extraordinary change agent as president of the United States. One who has promised to make change the recurring theme of the new administration.
Yet even as we note the urgent need for change, there are good reasons to reflect on the obstacles. One of the most serious may be the fact that positive social change is a construct that is open to interpretation. Some years ago, I heard this story about a general and his troops fighting on some battlefield in some past war when only men were soldiers, the weather was wet, the battlefields mostly muddy. The men complained that they were tired of fighting in the muck and the mud. They had not even had an opportunity to change their uniforms, not even their underwear.
The general was concerned about his men, the morale was low, and he decided that he must respond to their complaints. So in a lull in the fighting he called them together and said: “Men I’ve heard your complaints. You’ve been fighting in the muck and the mud and you have not had an opportunity to change your underwear. So line up now for an underwear change.” The men cheered and lined up as requested. The general then walked down the line laying to each man, as he had them turn to the one next to him, and say, you change with you, and you change with you, and you change with you.
We should not be surprised if that particular change in underwear did not result in the increased morale that was sought. Our new administration in Washington has promised to listen to the millions of voices across the country pleading for change, to listen to the voices of our citizens bemoaning the decline in their disposable income, their home values, their assets and net worth, their safety net of pensions, healthcare and insurance, their children’s prospect of enjoying the same upward mobility and living standard as they themselves have enjoyed, they want to change the decline in our public schools, the lack of access to health care, they want to change the substandard daycare for children of working parents, crime, vandalism, and the deteriorating infrastructure in our cities and towns.
In order to respond successfully, we will need human resources with relevant knowledge and skills. How fortunate that the graduates of Walden University have been provided the opportunity to transform themselves to scholar-practitioners as they transform the nation.
How fortunate that at Walden, knowledge is judged worthy to the degree that it can be applied by graduates to the immediate solutions of critical social problems. How fortunate for the nation that Walden’s graduates have been challenged to make a difference. Fortunate because far too frequently, not only in this country but around the world, individuals’ commitment beyond self is only to groups to which they belong. I used to believe that the primary threat to our society was the majority group’s exclusion of members of certain minority groups from equal access to opportunities and resources.
It was a black-white thing.
Now the threat appears to come from more wide-ranging intergroup conflicts, from divisive culturally-related disagreements about the core values necessary to preserve our society. Disagreements between religious fundamentalists and secular humanists, between anti-abortion groups and pro-choice groups, between African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles, between immigrant Vietnamese fishermen and domestic fishermen in Texas, between the Crips and the Bloods, between gangs and the community, between the political right and the political left. And more distant, but just as threatening to our nation’s social fabric, conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, Palestinians and Israelis. Disagreements that are triggered by an attitude, my group right or wrong.
More important, the tendency is for each group to demonize the other. Walden’s graduates will almost certainly over the course of their careers encounter the attitude, my group right or wrong. Walden graduates from the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership may encounter schools with ethnically integrated classrooms but whose students fragment into ethnically homogeneous groups at lunchtime. Graduates of programs in the College of Health Sciences may encounter groups of anti-abortion activists prepared to bomb clinics that perform abortion or animal rights activists prepared to set fire to laboratories where animals are used in medical research.
The graduates of programs in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences may encounter stressed, angry residents of neighborhoods terrorized by gangs but who also view the police as violence-prone racists who are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Graduates who have earned degrees in the College of Management and Technology may be required to address the meltdown in our financial institutions, institutions in which some groups of disgruntled employees complain that they are victims of racial discrimination while others complain that they were victims of reverse discrimination.
The underlying fuel for all of these intergroup conflicts is in large measure the attitude, my group right or wrong. And in order for these conflicts to persist it is almost always necessary for each group to consider the other as innately evil or inferior. Is there an antidote for this arrogant, poisonous attitude, that can cripple efforts to effect positive social change? I believe there is an antidote. I believe that in almost every instance where conflict between groups is marked by the attitude that my group must be supported right or wrong, resolution can only begin with some acknowledgement from each group that its members may be and may have been victims but have also been -- sometimes perhaps in the distant past -- the victimizer.
Schools must find ways to promote collaboration between students who belong to groups hostile to each other, ways to work together to achieve a shared goal, and in the process learning that members of the other group can be as smart, as fun to be around, as members of their own group. Anti-abortion activists must be helped to acknowledge that pro-choice activists do not disrespect human life and actually may save many lives by their concerns for abused and abandoned children or their efforts to find cures for disease. Pro-choice advocates must be helped to acknowledge that anti-abortion activists are not necessarily evil people but may actually care about helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies. Inner-city residents must be helped to acknowledge that some of their friends and neighbors and even family are engaged in violent anti-social behavior that threatens the common good and must be held accountable. Police in inner cities must be helped to acknowledge that some of their own do not protect and serve all citizens but only some citizens and must be held accountable for their destructive bias. Victims of racial discrimination must be helped to acknowledge that the failure of some of the members of their group to achieve cannot always be a consequence of the racism of others. Victims of reverse discrimination must be helped to acknowledge that at times it has been to their advantage not to be black or not to be brown.
The real urgency of now will then be for the groups to engage in a problem-solving effort in which the primary task is for each group to consider what it can contribute to the solution of the challenges faced by the other. The initial response that this clearly simplistic model of conflict resolution is that we will never get, as human beings, past our willingness to see ourselves and the members of our group as blameless victims and the others as unrepentant victimizers. But I refuse to believe that human beings are driven by some inescapable imperative to accept a group identity that must be supported right or wrong. Human beings are an evolving life form capable of critical thinking and, yes, capable of adaptation and change.
Who would have believed a few years ago that we would have a South Africa that has dismantled apartheid in an almost bloodless transfer of political power? But it did happen. How many faculty and staff of traditional universities believe today that you can have a for-profit online university with both a strong commitment to academic excellence and a mission of positive social change? Not many, but we do. Who would have believed even a year ago that we would be able to inaugurate an African American President of the United States with the unprecedented support not only of Americans, but nations around the world? Not many, but we did.
This is undoubtedly a different United States of America than existed when most of us in this room were born. We may be involved now in a real possibility for generating change. And let me give you a brief autobiographical vignette which I believe illustrates the significance of changing individual and group identities in this country. I am clearly African American. My maternal grandparents were born as slaves. I grew up in a two parent family but spent my first six years in a rural community in Texas where my mother taught all eleven grades in a one-room schoolhouse.
After my family moved to Houston, my primary and secondary education were in Houston’s public schools, racially segregated by law. I received my undergraduate degree from a historically black university, my M.S.W. from a major predominantly white public university, and my doctorate from a predominantly white private university. Forty-six years ago, I married an immigrant from Central America whose great-great-grandparents migrated to Laisse de la Balia in Honduras from the Cayman Islands when slavery was abolished by Great Britain.
We now have seven grandchildren who live in Memphis, Tennessee; Houston, Texas; Beltsville, Maryland; and Santa Ana, California. The mother of two of my grandchildren is a Mexican American whose parents were undocumented workers who returned to Mexico and allowed her to be adopted by her maternal grandparents who were legal immigrants. The mother of another grandchild is white, born and raised in a military family in Kentucky. The mother of two other grandchildren is African American, reared in a small town in east Texas by a grandmother who buffered her from a dysfunctional family and was the first in her family to go to college. Two grandchildren’s mother is my only daughter who married an African American from Silver Spring, Maryland, whose husband’s uncle served in the Maryland state legislature.
I give you this family history only to suggest how more and more American families may be morphing into ethnically diverse extended families that require rethinking our conceptualizations of ethnic identity and our strategies for assessing and resolving ethnic group conflict. Many of those Americans, still isolated ethnically or geographically, now have access to technologies that allow them to connect with people very different from themselves.
Now this communication networking possibility makes it more likely that most of us can indeed be removed from the attitude, my group right or wrong. Finally then, let me remind the Walden graduates, winter 2009, that this degree that you have earned is from a university whose mission is to educate scholar-practitioners capable of making positive social change. You will not be spending your careers in isolated laboratories or in the solitary pursuit of knowledge, although these careers may also result in a contribution to the greater good. You on the other hand will inevitably be engaged with this society’s diverse populations, people who may be Eurocentric, Afrocentric, or just plain eccentric. People who may worship in churches, in synagogues, in mosques, or nowhere at all. But wherever you practice, wherever you teach, wherever you consult, wherever you supervise, you will make Walden proud.
Congratulations and Godspeed.