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Commencement Address at University of San Francisco

University of San Francisco Commencement at St. Ignatius Church

Below is the speech that Frances Moore Lappé gave on May 18, 2019 at the University of San Francisco to accept the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, and deliver the Commencement Address to the graduates receiving degrees in the Humanities and Sciences from the College of Arts and Sciences.


Thank you, President, Dr. Rev. Fitzgerald and the Board of Trustees for the great honor you’ve bestowed on me. Good morning to you.

And, to Provost Heller, Dean Camperi, faculty and staff of the University, families, graduates, and dearest friends, good morning! To have your attention at this most auspicious moment in your lives is a huge honor. So huge, I feel I can do nothing less than pack a lifetime’s learning into 12 minutes. Or try! Imagine me just a few years older than you. I feared my community organizing work wasn’t addressing root causes of so much suffering around me. So, I stopped to ask: How do I get to the roots? I was terrified. I feared someone would ask me what I was doing with my life…and I’d have no answer. So I stayed home, cried…What if I never find direction? But soon a thought. Oh! Why don’t I start with what’s most basic of all… food. Everyone has to eat, and at the time, food and hunger were in our culture’s ether. Two books especially stirred fear: Population Bomb. scary. And Famine 1975 predicted imminent, widespread starvation. Hmmm…I thought: the first thing all living creatures do is feed themselves and their offspring, so why are we, the brightest species, failing…badly? If I could answer that big one… wow, maybe I’d unlock the mysteries of economics and politics and I’d have direction. So, my first question became Why hunger? Our culture’s answer: “Not enough”! So, I asked: Is it true? Burrowed in the UCB ag library, I discovered “no,” there’s more than enough. Thus, my first ah-ha: Out of plenty, we humans are actually creating the experience of scarcity. I was forever changed. I then had to ask why are we failing in a primal task other creatures have mastered? Maybe it’s that we humans are creatures of the mind. We see the world through filters we create. So, we can’t see what we don’t expect to see. I other words, for humans: Believing is seeing, not the other way around. And that realization only kept my questions growing. By the turn of this century I arrived at this huge one: Why are we together creating a world that that as individuals none of us would ever choose? After all, No one turns off the alarm in the morning asking: What can I do today to ensure another child dies from hunger? Yet, worldwide, poor nutrition contributes to almost half of deaths in young children. This aspect of human existence -- “believing is seeing”-- suggests our big brain can be a big problem. Of course, concepts our brainy selves conjure up help us survive, but what happens when they are false? Especially now that our species is in charge, with evolutionary impact, our bad ideas can, well, end life on planet Earth. And one of those bad ideas with great power? An atomistic, mechanistic understanding of nature, including our own. I summarize it in three Ss: Separation: we’re each separate from all else. Static: reality is pretty fixed, and Scarcity, never enough of anything. Fortunately, in my lifetime, and none too soon, science is awakening humanity to a very different, in many ways ancient, worldview. The ecological worldview: In it, all life is connected and continuous change, and therefore we’re all co-creators … Within an ecological worldview every element is continually shaped by all others. As German physicist Hans Peter Duerr once said, “Frankie, in ecological systems, There are no participants only participants.” So, my next question became, what is the human essence that gets shaped by its ever-changing context? Our culture’s answer is easy: Peel away the fluff and we are materialistic, competitive, and selfish. I say, Yes. We can be. But evidence mounts of human capacities for empathy, cooperation, and deep sensitivity to fairness. We are the most social of primates So, the next question seemed obvious, given our capacity both for power hoarding and cruelty as well as cooperation and fairness…what conditions (i.e. what social ecosystems) bring forth humans’ life-promoting capacities? I looked around, from all workplaces I’ve known to government at every level… to horrific moments of human cruelty and found this: We humans do best when: One. Power is shared and fluid. Two: Public relationships are transparent, and; Three: When we cultivate a norm of mutual accountability, the opposite of today’s blame game. Mutual accountability? Simple: Since we’re all connected, we’re all implicated. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses it this way: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” And those three conditions… another word for them? Democracy! And why do they work? They enable more of us to meet deepest needs to thrive beyond our physical needs. One. A sense of agency or voice. Two. Meaning in our lives, and; Three. Connection with others. Only democracy has a chance of meeting these essentials of human dignity. So, what have I learned? From my moment of panic over lack of direction at age 25, I learned that all that’s required is that I stay open to my own questions and to use each to dig, dig until I have answers…answers leading me to the next question and to the question behind that question. And never to stop. Finally, I want to close with three takeaways in this now long journey that can keep me going right now! First: In our relational world of connection, change, cocreation, NO ONE is ever powerless. Forget that idea. In our relational world, the only choice we don’t have is whether to change the world. Every act we take, and don’t take, changes the world. Someone is always watching. You never know who. Rebecca Solnit tells the story of a rainy day in the early 1960s when Women Strike for Peace protested above-ground nuclear testing at the Washington Monument. They reported feeling “foolish and futile.” But, years later they learned Dr. Benjamin Spock had driven by that day. Oh, he thought, if these women “are so passionately committed,” maybe I should pay attention to the issue. The world famous “baby doctor” then became the leading opponent of nuclear testing. And two years later, President Kennedy signed a Test Ban Treaty. So, yes, someone is always watching. And you many never know. A second realization orienting my life. Our species’ biggest challenge may NOT be that we’re too selfish. Maybe it’s the opposite, that we’re too social. As social creatures, we want to stay inside the pack. So, even as our “pack” is heading over the cliff -- now, with imminent climate catastrophe -- it’s hard to break away, to stand alone. So maybe humans good enough, and what need most to work on now is COURAGE -- willingness to break with the pack, to stand alone if needed. And how do we stoke our courage? There’s only one sure way: By doing what we thought we could not do. By risk! And, that means getting familiar with fear: learning it is not a stop sign, for we can reframe fear as pure energy…energy we can use as we choose. All you surfers and skiers know, you already know there’s a fine line between fear and exhilaration! So that pounding heart of fear? I know it well. I used to say to myself: “You wimp! What’s your problem?” But I decided to reframe: Oh, yeah, that’s really my inner applause cheering me on! Recently my granddaughters, Ida and Rosa, took me to school when a new class rule was being introduced. The rule? “Be an ally.” And, in an assembly an 9-year-old explained what the students call it the “courage rule”: It means “Do the right thing even when you’re scared,” she said. Also, because we are social creatures, we can have confidence that we’ll become bolder if we hang out with courage. So, choose friends bolder than up are. Their courage contagious. And a third freeing realization? Within an ecological worldview, in which the nature of life is connection in continuous change, it is simply not possible to know what’s possible. This means that hope -- itself a source of power as it re-organizes our brains toward solutions -- does not require we be optimists. I’m not. I’m a diehard possibilist. We don’t need certainty, nor even high probability of success. A sense of possibility is all we humans need to come alive, to feel the thrill of walking with fear, knowing that we cannot know the outcome of our acts, but certain that someone is changed. For sure, we ourselves are. In closing, may I leave you with my hope for you: May you find your question & then the question behind that question, and the next…each taking you, of course, to the scary unknown. As you encounter each unknown, may your learning in this extraordinary institution have enabled you to encourage courage in yourself and in others. All the while remembering that most of us do not need to be heroes to the world. No. When our time comes, all we need for fulfillment is to know we have been heroes to ourselves. Thank you again for this great honor.

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