20 May 2011

Anika Rahman Gives Commencement Speech to Columbia University School of Social Work 2011 Graduating Class

On Wednesday, May 18, Anika Rahman, our president and CEO, had the distinct honor of giving the commencement speech to the 2011 graduating class of the Columbia University School of Social Work. A graduate of Columbia Law School, it was a welcome homecoming, a pleasure to share her own motivation for a career that has been marked by a steadfast dedication to women's human rights, and to offer words of encouragement to a new generation of social justice leaders. Following are excerpts of her remarks:

I am so pleased to join you in celebrating the 2011 graduating class of the Columbia University School of Social Work.

I congratulate and commend you all on the discipline and passion that got you to this point. It is an honor for me to join with your families, friends, colleagues, faculty, and all who are present today to witness your accomplishment. I can only imagine the pride they must feel. My clarion call to my own daughter, who is just seven years old, is that she make a meaningful contribution and a difference in the world.

At this moment, I urge you to call to mind precisely what drew you to this educational pursuit and life path. My own background is in law, and the focus of my work, my heart, is human rights. Like many of you, I have been determined to channel my personal beliefs into a professional obligation. It is my personal mission in life to ensure that women—like the women who raised me and the one who gave life to me—get the respect that is their due.

I grew up in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in a liberal Muslim family. I was raised primarily by my maternal grandmother and my mother and aunt—three very strong women who ran the show at home, where they were clearly the more powerful. But outside, and in the eyes of society, they were not treated the same way. They were never given their fair share, but were always frustrated, always held back. I observed firsthand what inequality can do to very strong women.

In spite of the limitations they endured, I grew up to benefit from their many sacrifices and to enjoy the advantages assured by their care and guidance. Today, I use those advantages to secure women’s human rights all over the world—including the United States, since we are far from having worked it out here at home!

Like many of you, I come to this work because I aim to correct wrongs and encourage healing; alleviate human suffering and promote rights.

In addition to the positive and hopeful intentions we bring to our work, there is also an outrage at unfairness that fuels every worthwhile social change effort.We feel outrage at the realities of poverty, insufficient housing, economic and sexual exploitation. We feel outrage at violence, childhood abuse, and rape. We feel outrage at misguided policies, laws that fail to protect, systems built on a preference for certain groups and not others. We feel outrage at cultural attitudes that deny young people their true identity, deny their choices and right to belong.

These are the injustices that daily threaten people’s safety, independence, and interdependence on the planet. There can be no improvement unless we stand and face these injustices. We may want to resist looking, for fear of how it will make us feel, but then we will never find solutions. We may look and conclude that the world is simply a terrible place, but then we are of no use whatsoever. But if we can bear to see and engage with the problems, study them, and find out what is our part to contribute, then we are living up to our potential and our ideals.

None of us gathered here is powerless.

We can act with intention and with integrity, even in the midst of our disbelief and confusion about the problems we see. We can draw on countless examples throughout history of those who pursued rights for themselves and others—in small, meaningful ways and on a grander scale than we dream of doing.

Today, I have the distinction of heading the Ms. Foundation for Women, an organization with a rich and pioneering legacy of social change. The Ms. Foundation was the first to fund efforts to name and end the problem of domestic and sexual violence against women. The Ms. Foundation was the first to fund efforts led by women of color to educate women about HIV and AIDS, and help all women deal with the profound impact of this crisis. The Ms. Foundation was the first to ensure the rights of low-income women to reproductive health care and choice. And the Ms. Foundation was the first to power an urgent movement in the South after Hurricane Katrina revealed a collision of race, class, and gender which intensified women’s oppression.

The Ms. Foundation was created and has been steered by some of the most influential leaders of our time, including most famously, Gloria Steinem. As I step into my role as President, I feel that I am literally stepping into a flow of energy and enormous power. Within that flow exists countless stories of rights denied or ignored, and rights worth fighting for. I look to those stories for wisdom—how will I address the problems of my time? How, as a woman and parent? How, as the head of an organization dedicated to ensuring rights and equality?

And just as I have repeatedly urged my very young daughter to consider what her contribution will be to the world, I now ask the 2011 graduating class: How will you carry your most cherished beliefs into your work and into your interactions with others? I cheer you on as you hone and invent your own unique contribution to the public good. May this day be the celebratory and thrilling occasion you envisioned it would be!

Thank you so much for your attention.