“Commit to changing world,” civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson urges Class of 2021

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

For only the second time in its history, MIT celebrated its Commencement in an online ceremony. This year’s event featured taped tributes from around the world, a musical composition created specially for the event, and a moving and deeply personal address from civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

In the hourlong webcast, 1,027 undergraduates and 2,271 graduate students were awarded their degrees – some of them, for the first time, instantly receiving electronic versions of the hard-earned credential.

In his Commencement address, Bryan Stevenson, noted civil rights lawyer and founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, gave a stirring account of the racial disparities in the nation’s justice system and its world-leading rate of incarceration, which today has put 2.3 million people in jail or prison.

“Just as in science,” Stevenson said, “the way you make progress, the way you make breakthoughs, is by understanding in an intimate way the nature of the problem.” Pointing to the looming problems of climate change and food insecurity, he said “there’s fear, there’s division – and I believe we can make a difference. I believe we have an obligation to not just celebrate the education we’ve received, but to commit to changing the world.”

He urged the graduates to find ways, as they go out into the world, “to get proximate to those who suffer. Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, the neglected, the marginalized.” By doing so, he said. “we hear things we won’t otherwise hear, we see things we won’t otherwise see.” And that closeness can help to avoid the problems such as when “our policymakers often come up with policies that are ineffective because they were created in spaces that were distant.”

Stevenson recalled his own childhood in the South, where he attended a Black-only school until lawyers brought suits to enforce the laws and made it possible for him to attend high school and college. “I’d never met a lawyer until I got to law school,” and that would never have happened were it not for the lawyers who got close enough to the Black community to understand the problems firsthand and force changes, he said. “I believe in proximity not just because of my work, but it’s what I lived, what I’ve seen.”

Stevenson, a graduate of Harvard Law School and now a professor at New York University School of Law and author of the bestselling book “Just Mercy,” told the graduates, “You should not underestimate the power you have to affirm the dignity and humanity of every human being. … If we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger, we’ll tolerate things we should never tolerate, we’ll accept things we should never accept.” In this country, he said, “we’re burdened by a long history of racial injustice. There’s a smog in the air and these toxins will not dissipate. We’re going to have to change the environment.”

No matter a person’s credentials, as a scientist, engineer, teacher, doctor, or MIT graduate, he said, “if you are Black or brown, you will go places in this country where you will have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness or guilt … it’s exhausting. It’s not the way the world should be.”

But these problems must be faced squarely, he said. “I believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” To combat that, “hope is our superpower.” To change the world, he said, “you’re going to have to be willing to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things, and I hate that,” he said with a smile, “because we’re human, and humans are biologically and psychologically programmed to do what’s comfortable … but it’s a necessary thing if we’re going to make a difference.”

Despite their achievements being celebrated today, he said to MIT graduates, “perhaps the most important thing you’ll do will be to contribute to the justice quotient on the planet, to change the world, to make healthier communities, to get proximate, to change narratives, to stay hopeful, to do uncomfortable things to create a better future.” And, he added, “I want you to know I’ll be cheering for you.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his charge to the graduates, mentioned the 69 MIT graduates who are part of the team that created and runs the Mars rover Perseverance, including its MIT-designed MOXIE experiment to extract oxygen from the Martian air. “I have every confidence that just like the Mars team, you have also found an ingenious way to transform an unfamiliar atmosphere into rocket fuel for future expeditions,” he said.

Through the unexpected and unfamiliar situations imposed during the pandemic, he said, “I see the extraordinary range of ways that you, and your families, have struggled and endured. … I see how you have supported and encouraged one another through all the dislocation and disruption. I see how hard you worked to recreate, remotely, what you love most about MIT.”

Urging the graduates to “hack the world” and make it a better place, he said “please help us to respond to this ongoing global pandemic with wisdom, foresight, compassion, and science. Help us to do everything it takes to live up to Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring vision. … Help us rebuild the habits of trust, empathy, patience, forgiveness, precise language, and thoughtful listening so essential to a healthy society.”

In conclusion, he said, “Go out there, join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.”

The Commencement ceremony opened with a special musical composition by Jamshied Sharifi ’83, with words composed by students of Erica Funkhouser’s poetry class. The piece was performed by student musicians and singer, and led by music faculty including lecturer Fred Harris.

Chair of the MIT Corporation Diane Greene SM ’78, in her opening remarks, praised the performance, saying “what a marvelous opening – with voices and instruments from across the MIT community – using their creativity to reflect the circumstances that have made it necessary to conduct our commencement virtually. Making art out of adversity is cathartic and empowering, for both the artist and the audience.”

Referring to the unique circumstances of the past year, she told the graduates, “Please know that your accomplishments – like some Olympic performances – have earned extra points for ‘degree of difficulty.'”

Madeleine Sutherland, president of the Graduate Student Council, recalled the trying circumstances of the past year, and said “in upended times, when nothing feels real anymore, remember to keep calling upon on each other and your friends within MIT. After all, to quote ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ ‘Sitting with friends, talking about something important is one of the most powerful and necessary forces in the world. … People gathered together to fight treachery is the reason that so much wickedness is defeated.'”

Kofi Blake, president of the Class of 2021, said that “history tells us that when facing insurmountable odds, the choice is up to us.” For the members of the class of 2021, he said, when people look back at this time, “they’ll find a fraction of a generation marred by a pandemic, political instability, and civil unrest. And though the circumstances of our history may not have been kind to us, it is our duty to be kind to it. It is our duty to make a difference in a world that desperately needs us.” Blake added that “as we set forth to do great things, let us continue to embody the Institute’s values of integrity, collaboration, and inclusion.”

In a video link from Antarctica where he is carrying out research, incoming doctoral student Danny Lowenstein described his uncertainty about a direction in life after earning his undergraduate degree. After a stint as a sous-chef, he said, he finally landed a research position in Antarctica for six months, where he was when he learned of his acceptance at MIT. His work at the polar station embodies MIT values in many ways, he said, including “pursuing our innate human curiosity to better understand the wonderful planet on which we all so deeply depend, and working together to solve complex, stubborn problems and build a better future.”

Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’93 PhD ’97, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Engineering, spoke to the graduating class about the uncertainties about the future that she felt at the time of her own graduation. “I was filled with doubt. And here’s a little secret: I’m still filled with doubt. I know I want to make the world a better place. I know I want a life outside of work. And yet the future is uncertain. My point is that it’s OK not to know. Just keep trying. Trust yourself to figure it out.”

The hourlong ceremony was preceded by an hourlong pre-show in which seniors Annie Yun and Dylan Sleeper introduced a series of short videos depicting various aspects of the MIT experience, including some of the creative and fun ways that students and faculty found to help maintain and build connections despite the separation and restrictions imposed by the pandemic over the last year and a half. The videos included looks at how professors enhanced the online learning experience, as well as tributes to MIT staff members, medical workers, the athletics department, student extracurricular activities, music videos, and greetings to friends and family.

Though this year’s and last year’s commencements were virtual, the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be honored next year in person as part of the 2022 Commencement ceremonies. As President Reif described it, “we will welcome you back for a live, three-dimensional, in-person, champagne-and-strawberries celebration, right here at MIT.”

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