“Which Future(s) Will You Create”
Andrea J. Ritchie
Scripps College Commencement: May 14, 2022
Thank you President Marcus-Newhall, esteemed Trustees, Deans, Faculty, staff, Class Presidents, and students of Scripps College.
It is my tremendous honor to have been invited by the Class of 2022 to be your Commencement speaker today, and to have served as Distinguished Emily O’Brien Visiting Professor at Scripps College for the past six weeks.
It has also been a tremendous gift – during my short time here I have been transformed, both:
- by the students who signed up for my class on police abolition, who taught me so much about grappling with the tough questions on the path to the world we want, and about how we are already creating it –
- and by the students in classes I visited and who joined me for office hours, whose questions and provocations inspired me to think more deeply about my own journey and our collective path forward –
It was also an incredible gift to be able to welcome dozens of organizers from across the country who have been fighting for safer communities over the past two years – and the past two decades – to campus. Thanks to Scripps’ generosity in making outdoor classrooms, technology and facilities available, with the support of the Scripps Intercollegiate Feminist Center, Scripps Presents, and the Audio Visual department, organizers from Minneapolis, epicenter of the 2020 Uprisings for racial justice – Seattle, Miami, Durham, Detroit and many places in between – who have been strategizing, collaborating, learning together, and caring for each other through zoom screens since the Spring of 2020 were finally able to touch and feel each other’s presence in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, bringing many of us to tears.
In these gorgeous surroundings, under these beautiful blue skies, gazing at these majestic mountains, amidst the riot of roses and trumpet vines, the scent of citrus blossoms and jasmine, and gourmet cafeteria food the likes of which few of us had experienced before, we were able to replenish, regroup, and recommit to the next phase of struggle.
It was also an incredible privilege to cohost the Abolition is Feminism, Feminism is Abolition conference with the Intercollegiate Feminist Center. Deep thanks to Director Susan Castagnetto and Program Administrator Marnita Martin for their invitation to serve as Distinguished O’Brien Professor, and for their considerable labor and generosity in hosting me and the conference.
And, among all of these honors, privileges and blessings of my time here at Scripps, it is the Class of 2022’s invitation to deliver today’s commencement address that has most moved me.
I have been a fan of Scripps students and profoundly inspired by your commitment to justice since I first visited in 2015 at the invitation of Professor Piya Chatterjee and Hao Huang of the Scripps Humanities Center to speak about my work documenting and challenging police violence against Black women, queer and trans people. Over the years I have had the honor and privilege of organizing toward futures free of the violence of policing and prisons with Scripps alums like LeeAnn Wang at INCITE! who I am honored to have as my guest here today, Jess Heaney at Critical Resistance, Joss Greene at Survived and Punished, and Olivia Gleason at Californians United for a Responsible Budget, and of learning from the abolitionist scholarship of Scripps faculty, including today’s Convocation Awards Speaker Mark Golub.
I am especially a fan of the class of 2022, since I met some of you when I was last here in 2018. Scripps student organizers earned my deep admiration and respect when they told me that they needed to leave a student/speaker dinner early and would not be able to attend my talk later that evening because they were protesting a study abroad program at the University of Haifa.
The students’ protest that night bound us together in a decades-long tradition of student organizing against racist state violence and repression.
You see, I couldn’t tell you who my college commencement speaker was because I protested my own graduation as a leader in the struggle that shaped my undergraduate years: the movement to end Cornell University’s investment in the violent apartheid state of South Africa. As an exhibit that hangs in the Scripps Humanities Tent, where I held weekly office hours during my time here documents, students at the 5Cs were engaged in similar battles at the time.
Protests of the Haifa program represent a continuation of these struggles, reflected in ongoing calls by Students for Justice in Palestine for divestment from another violent and murderous apartheid state. Demands for divestment from violent institutions and regimes also inspired subsequent successful student-led campaigns to Drop Sodexho as cafeteria contractor at Scripps and on campuses across the country – including my own at Howard Law School – based on the company’s investment in private prisons. Divestment demands echo in the calls to #DefundPolice, divest from and ultimately abolish of all institutions of violence, and invest in meeting community needs and practices of safety that Scripps students joined in 2020.
My undergraduate years were shaped by other struggles that remain relevant to Scripps students today. For instance, I attended my first two marches on Washington during my sophomore and junior years as we faced down the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade.
We are now on the threshold of the reality we feared then and sought to forestall. Today, millions across the country marched in defense of the right to universal access to safe abortion. I am proud to see Scripps students take up the mantle of calls for reproductive justice – and invite all of us to expand our understanding of what’s at stake beyond narrow framings of the right to choose one medical procedure, toward a broader vision of ensuring sexual and gender self-determination for all, including trans youth whose access to basic health care is under attack across the country, and to challenge all the of ways that pregnancy and parenting, sexuality and gender identity and expression are criminalized for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, migrants, criminalized, incarcerated, trans, queer, and disabled people.
Indeed, the Class of 2022 has stood on the threshold of a new world for much of the time you have been students at Scripps:
- You have lived through a global pandemic that has killed over one million people in the U.S. and15 million world-wide, bereaving and disabling billions more, disrupting life as we knew it on and off campus in ways that track and reinforce existing fault lines along axes of race, gender, class, and nation.
- You experienced an unprecedented economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic, which persists in widespread evictions and growing houselessness.
- You witnessed devastating manifestations of the mounting climate crisis in wildfires that blazed across Australia, the Amazon, and then much closer to home here in California.
- You witnessed an election and right-wing insurrection that threatened the very foundations of the structures of government as you know them.
- You are graduating in a world at war – not only in the Ukraine, but across the globe.
- You are certainly not the first generation to experience all of these things – but perhaps the first to experience them in such a short period of time.
- In many ways, the past three years have felt like a final exam for organizers – and for humanity – in which the number of questions keeps increasing, their scope keeps expanding, and the time keeps shortening, rendering anti-colonial scholar Franz Fanon’s call to arms – that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” – more urgent than ever.
We find ourselves at the edge of a portal to the future, in which the choices we make today will shape the world we create. Conjunctures such as this represent openings through which we can call into being radical new possibilities – and in which those with competing visions of the future can do the same.
So many of you have already stepped up to meet this historic moment – by organizing mutual aid for fellow students, waging the No One Fails at Scripps campaign, traveling to LA City Council and County Board hearings to add your voices to choruses calling to #DefundPolice and invest in community safety, and by filling streets and packing council chambers and courthouses across the country to demand the world you want, in which housing, care, opportunity, and safety are abundantly and sustainably available to all.
Some of you danced the dreams of people trapped in cages as COVID tore through prisons leaving devastation in its path outside prison walls, and then transmitted the dances back to people locked inside as rays of hope. On my very first day on campus, I had the privilege of traveling with Professor Suchi Branfman to meet with classmates at the misnamed California Rehabilitation Center, and to see the impact of Scripps’ faculty and student commitments to the humanity of incarcerated students.
Most importantly, I have witnessed you meet this moment by continuing to ask hard questions – in classes, of organizers, and of each other – about who we need to become and what we need to be willing risk to if we are to collectively survive what’s next.
As beloved anthropologist and Occupy organizer David Graeber, who joined the ancestors during your time here at Scripps, said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
The choice of what world we make is in your hands.
We can choose a world where access to dwindling resources is increasingly intensely and violently policed. Or, in the words of the Critical Resistance-INCITE! Statement, we can build a world based on “radical freedom, mutual accountability, and passionate reciprocity, in which safety and security is not premised on violence or the threat of violence, but a collective commitment to guaranteeing the safety and survival of all.”
We can condemn a growing number of people around the world to misery while continuing to pour over 100s of billions of dollars a year into ever more police, prisons, borders, and wars – or we can choose a just transition to care-based economies in which collective resources are used for the collective good.
We can choose a world where pandemic relief funds are diverted to fuel an growing police state – or we can use them to:
- alleviate suffering and meet the immediate needs of a population devastated by grief, illness, housing crisis, and debt,
- ensure continuing and universal domestic and global access to vaccines, testing, research and preventative measures,
- to make sure that teachers and students can learn in safer environments without risking their lives and those of their loved ones,
- to heal from the countless losses, isolation and disruptions of the past three years,
- And to build the infrastructure we need to ensure a just recovery for all – and to survive what is to come.
We can choose to meet the next pandemic, and the next, and the next, with ever more criminalization and deprivation, sacrificing the health and well-being of millions to the profit of the few, consigning essential and front-line workers, disabled, chronically ill, and immuno-compromised people, children and elders to death, disability, and deprivation. Or we can choose a different path, in which every single life is treated as precious and valued.
We can choose a world in which, a mere 25 miles from this lush and beautiful campus, people are caged among rats and forced to eat food festering with cockroaches, fearing they have been forgotten by all but their loved ones, in what one incarcerated Scripps student describes as a “No-law land,” in which “punishment is a tool of repression and daily meals are sites of humiliation.” Or we can learn together, build connections based on our shared humanity, and fight to #FreethemAll until the walls between us crumble.
We can choose a world where we continue to promote prisons as the solutions to violence when in fact prisons are violence, and 90% of the people caged in the California Institution for Women – which also sits less than 25 miles from here, are survivors of violence – victims of abuse who were denied protection and then criminalized and abused by the state. Or we can choose a world in which resources are diverted from policing and punishment into preventing, interrupting, and eliminating violence in all its forms, and ensuring that survivors have a multitude of options available to them to avoid, escape and heal from violence.
We can choose a world where migrants following resources extracted from their homelands and fleeing violence and climate crises fueled by the nations of the global North are whipped and beaten at borders, left to drown in oceans, ripped from their parents, children, and families, and caged for years far from home in prisons and jails – including the Santa Rita jail, which is also less than 20 miles from where you are sitting. Or we can imagine a world without borders and commit to ensuring that each of us can find safety and thrive in all the places we call home.
In other words, we can choose a world in which, in the words of another incarcerated Scripps student, “justice is vengeance, contrived by those who wield it in their favor…[in which] peace requires violence, freedom stands on slavery, equality ignores inequity, and progress toward tomorrow is made by slaughter today.”
Or, we can recognize, as he reminds us, that “every day we are the future” – and dream and build worlds in which we are all free – from fear, from harm, from violence, and from want. We can imagine new geographies and new social relations based on collective rather than coercive power, and call into being a collective commitment to nurture each other and our planet for generations to come.
While these choices and charges may seem daunting, to say the least, we can begin to choose new futures right here, right now.
For example, we can choose to honor the original stewards of the land Scripps College is built on beyond land acknowledgments by giving #LandBack and making reparations to its original inhabitants.
We can choose to create communities that invite and admit Black, trans, undocumented, and first generation students only to fail to attend to their experiences on a campus where they don’t see themselves represented in faculty, administration, or conversation, and feel unsupported in the reality that as one student described, “the world is always knocking at their door” – in the form of the next phone call from a family member who has been arrested or deported, the next time they are called the N word or a homophobic or transphobic slur on or off campus, the next time they are stopped by cops in heavily policed communities surrounding Scripps.
Or we can choose to create truly welcoming and affirming environments by listening to students, offering greater institutional and financial support and staffing, including paid student positions, by paying careful attention to what is required to build genuinely welcoming spaces, and by upholding basic standards and values in the core curriculum that honor the dignity of every student.
We can choose to create spaces in which students are pressured to police each other – and denied access to the resources they need to continue their education if they resist. Or we can create worlds that value student workers and support harm-reduction and care-based approaches to residential life, drawing on the values of communities in which, to paraphrase ResLife Counselor Aleecia Sharpe, we “rely on one another in neighborhoods with limited resources. We enjoy each other’s presence because it is the gift that we have. We ask for help and support others in the community…we support those around us as if our and their lives relied on it, because they do.”
Scripps can be a space that pours money into Campus Security and allows it to be weaponized against Black students and faculty, or it can be one that prioritizes resources to care and counseling for students navigating unprecedented pressures and trauma, while confronting presumptions that Black people are not part of this community, but rather a threat to it.
We can betray our values by busting unions instead of recognizing and negotiating with them, or we can choose a world where we recognize, value, and support organizing for better conditions by the workers on and off campus who make life at the 5Cs possible.
We can choose responses to sexual assault on campus that individualize the problem, fail to address the conditions that perpetuate it, and reinforce carceral responses, or we can follow the lead of the visionary Scripps students who are reimagining and practicing sexual assault prevention, intervention, care, and transformative justice on campus and beyond.
We can choose a world where students graduate with disabling debt, or we can choose a world where all student debt is forgiven and quality higher education is a universal right, not a privilege of the few.
In other words, as Black feminist visionary fiction writer Octavia Butler, who lived and died just a few miles down the road taught us, each of us can shape change and be changed. We can start to build the world we want with the choices we make and the relationships we create today.
I want to close with a few words of thanks and an invitation. First, thank you to the Board of Trustees, Deans, administrators, staff, and faculty who work hard to create conditions and opportunities to learn at Scripps in service of building the world we want, and to ensure that we have a wealth of tools and resources at our disposal as we do so.
Thank you to all the Scripps parents for gifting us with these gorgeous and open and brilliant minds and spirits – and special thanks to first generation parents, for all of the sacrifices you have made to make this day possible.
Thank you for supporting your student’s choice of a liberal arts education. There is no degree program that will prepare us to meet what lies ahead, no trade school that will make us into the people we need to become to meet the challenges before us. As the quote from Ellen Browning Scripps that graces the entrance gate reminds us, “the paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” The curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, and care nurtured through a liberal arts education are the qualities that will best serve us in the search for solutions to the problems that plague us.
I hope you will continue to support your students in exploration and practice of their gifts, and in discerning how and where they might make their best contributions to the future, even if their plans are not yet fully formed.
There is no singular path to who they will become – my father gave me law books for my college graduation, but I put them away on a shelf for a decade before I applied – in the meantime, I followed my bliss, and in so doing acquired communications and people skills and an understanding of the world that served me in good stead in my legal career, and most importantly in becoming the person I am today. I hope you will continue to support your students in following their instincts and curiosities as they gain a deeper understanding of where their gifts lie, what their calling is, and what brings them joy as they live into their purpose.
When I was 13 my brother gave me The Prophet, a collection of poems by Khalil Gibran – but it was to my parents that he read one of them, “On children,”
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
I invite you today to marvel at the beauty of these arrows and celebrate their trajectory into the future as you release your bows.
My invitation to all of us in closing is to meet this day, and those to come, with love. I know some of you may be unsettled by some of the ideas and calls to action you heard today. I invite you to consider meeting them with curiosity instead of fear, with the understanding that abolitionist visions come from a deep place of love – love for survivors of violence, for communities that are devastated by policing, punishment, organized abandonment and climate catastrophe, for families ripped apart, for children of all genders who are denied the love and self-determination that is their birthright, for the citizens of the world and the planet we inhabit. As Erin Miles Cloud, co-founder of Movement for Family Power insightfully points out, “everyone cares about someone’s safety somewhere some of the time. Abolitionists care about everyone’s safety, everywhere, all the time.” In other words, we choose love, refuse fear, and leave no one behind.
As parents, today you may be seeing a fuller expression of your child’s political views, racial identity, gender, sexuality, or ways of loving than you have before – it is my sincerest hope that you are also able to meet those with love, not fear.
Class of 2022, you are inheriting a world on fire. But you are also inheriting the resources, tools, skills, and wisdom of generations of ancestors, teachers, and mentors that can begin to heal it. The tools of abolition are in our hands, and everywhere across the country and around the world, people are fighting for and practicing other ways of being. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry – we can impose beauty on our future.
There will be many moments that lie ahead in which we will be tempted to respond with fear, but that we must meet with love if we are to survive. Now, I must admit that if my commencement speaker had been speaking about love when my heart was filled with rage at injustice and fear of what was to come on my own graduation day, I might have scoffed.
And if there is one thing the intervening three decades have taught me, it is that I would have been wrong to do so. As Che Guevara proclaimed, true revolutionaries are guided by love. As of my students recently reminded me educator Paulo Freire, who I studied as an undergraduate, taught that love is an “act of courage, not fear.” bell hooks, who also joined the ancestors during your time at Scripps, described love as a practice of freedom, a liberatory process. As poet June Jordan said, “love is life force” – and the force through which we must build the power to create the world we long for.
In our forthcoming book No More Police: A Case for Abolition, Mariame Kaba and I quote Audre Lorde’s invocation that “Sometimes we are able to choose the time, and the manner, and the arena of our revolution, but more usually, we must do battle where we are standing” as well as Lorde’s reminder that “despair is a tool of your enemies.” We are in the midst of a centuries long journey toward justice, in which, as Mariame often reminds us, hope is a discipline. As we move along this path, it is critical that we heed the wisdom of Toni Morrison, another giant who joined the ancestors during your time at Scripps, that “it is not possible to constantly hold on to crisis. You have to have the love and you have to have the magic. That is also life.”
If you take nothing else away from what I have said today, I hope that you will take with you a commitment to meet what lies ahead with fierce and fervent love – for yourself, for your communities, for our planet, and for future generations. That you will choose to step into the challenges of this moment to love fiercely into the future, to say there is no going back, to say NOT this, to act and fight on your beliefs and manifest us through that portal.
I, and we, are counting on you, to live as if a different world is possible, and to lead us there.
Congratulations to the Class of 2022.