Wendy Young ‘83
September 16, 2017
I stand before you humbled to be here. To be part of this tremendous group of medalists is a huge honor, and a testament to the intellectual power, creative energy, and sheer smarts that come from this small but mighty college. I have always been struck by how Williams students, faculty, and alumni feel like family when I have the opportunity to connect and reconnect.
Thirty-five years ago, I sat exactly where you sit today, although with a lot fewer wrinkles! By the way, I am convinced that I am still 20 years old, so feel somewhat intimidated by the idea that I might impart any sage advice that you can take with you. But here it goes—I’ll do my best.
In my work with Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, I work with children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers who have had few choices in life. Most have been raised in abject poverty under repressive governments, subject to human trafficking, sexual and gender based violence, abduction, torture, and often witness to the murder of friends and family members. Most come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, all three of which rank among the top five murder capitals of the world with El Salvador consistently ranking first. Transnational gangs and narco cartels dominate their societies, systematically taking over communities to terrorize and exploit them because governments are too weak or corrupt to control them. The rule of law has broken down and these countries are teetering on the edge of complete breakdown.
At age 17, Ingrid was walking home from a trip to the store when she was kidnapped and dragged into a car by gang members. She was drugged and gang raped until her family paid a ransom of $3000. Her kidnappers were never arrested, and her family continued to receive threats that she would be abducted again until she finally fled for the US.
Families such as Ingrid’s are making the extraordinarily difficult decision to send their children out into the world on their own in the desperate hope that they will find safety in the United States. As one mother said, “I would rather my child die on the journey to the U.S. than watch her die on my doorstep.” They are doing what refugees around the world do when no other options are available—they are making the selfless decision to perhaps never see their children again in order to save their lives.
Which brings me back to choices. These children’s lack of choice—their desperation—presents the United States and we as individual citizens with choices. Who do we want to be? What do we stand for? Are we going to choose a country that limits its stature in the world by turning its back on those need or are we going to embrace our longstanding and hard won reputation as a country that stands up for human rights, freedom, and democracy?
Here’s a microcosm of what I mean. I met Maria in immigration court. The judge sat in his robes behind the bench when he called her deportation case. A trial attorney from the Department of Homeland Security sat at the front, prepared to argue for Maria’s removal from the US. Maria was by herself without a lawyer by her side. She was five years old. She approached the bench, wearing her Sunday best, clutching a doll. She sat behind the respondent’s desk, barely able to see over the microphone. The judge asked her a number of questions about why she was in the US and about her life here, none of which she could answer. Her eyes grew bigger and bigger as she sat silently, until he finally dismissed her and told her to come back at a later date. As she left the court, he asked her what the name of her doll was. In Spanish, she replied, “Baby Baby Doll.” That was the only question she could answer.
That moment haunts me. I continually wonder about the insanity of asking a five year old to stand alone and defend herself against deportation in a federal court room.
And beyond that– even though I have spent the past three decades since my graduation from Williams fighting for refugee protection and immigrant rights–such questions, while including immigration policy, extend far beyond the immigration debate and are truly becoming existential for this country and indeed the entire world.
The degradation and decay of our love and respect for each other is palpable. Racial divide, gender inequality, hostility toward those who worship a different God or want to marry and love someone in a “nontraditional” relationship are spreading like a pervasive cancer. It’s become acceptable to mock people with disabilities. An entire nationality is painted as rapists. Judges are deemed biased because of their ethnicity. Women are belittled, and bragging about grabbing them inappropriately is dismissed as locker room talk. Elected officials are exploiting these divisions, empowering themselves by stirring up the toxicity of “us versus them.” And we as a society are too often pivoting to defining ourselves and each other by our differences—as if those differences are the most critical feature of our lives rather than our commonality as human beings.
So back to those choices I mentioned. We can turn this around. We can challenge ourselves to strive for that most perfect union that shaped a vision for our country and set a standard for the world. Our history is replete with people who made the simple choice to look beyond themselves and stand up for what is right.
Some names are of course instantly recognizable. Abraham Lincoln who simply but profoundly stated “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Martin Luther King, who fiercely believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. John F. Kennedy who reminded us that things do not happen, they are made to happen.
Others who stood up were more everyday citizens if you will. A woman who chose not to sit at the back of the bus simply because of the color of her skin. A Chinese student who blocked a line of tanks on Tiananmen Square, his identity still unknown. A young woman who stood up against racism this summer, and was run over in a fit of bigoted rage in a peaceful college town in central Virginia.
And still others who remain nameless but engage in daily acts of kindness, such as the thousands of private sector lawyers who volunteer their time with KIND to represent those children in court. Both Ingrid and Maria were granted protection and allowed to remain in the US simply because a lawyer volunteered to help. When I asked my staff what it took for our volunteers to represent a five year old, she answered a lot of play-dough and candy. It also took dedication, empathy, and commitment.
As you round the corner to graduation, I would ask you to embrace your choices and stand up for what’s right. Let’s reject “us versus them” thinking and instead embrace “we the people.” We can be in charge of our destiny. We can change the world for the better. It’s been done before, and there is no reason to give up and say we can’t do it again.
I hope you will bear with me, as I am going to end on a very personal note. Four weeks ago, my husband died very unexpectedly at age 54. He had immigrated to the US from Colombia as a young child. He became a US citizen in his mid-twenties. He spent the bulk of his career in government working for the Department of Justice, trying to advance positive change in the hardest way possible–from the inside.
He never gave up on the institution of government, and firmly believed that it could stand for its citizenry and better people’s lives. He never judged others, but he was distressed by what he felt was a polarization in our society. He hated the viciousness and bigotry that led to the terrible turmoil in Charlottesville the weekend before he died, a town to which we had planned to eventually retire, in part because of its great sense of inclusion. Simply put, he lived his values, the values that can bring us together: love of family, the bonds of friendship, respect for “the other,” a sense of community and country while never forgetting the larger world.
I keenly miss him. But even in his death, there are precious moments through which I have been reminded of the profoundness of human compassion. Two faces come to mind—two faces for which I will never have names. When I rushed to the hospital after receiving the call that my husband had collapsed and they were unable to find a pulse, I was frantic as I tried to find him, still hoping they had been able to revive him. When I was told to wait—one moment more unbearable then the next—two strangers came up to me. Each took a hand and held it. One was a police woman in uniform, the other a middle aged woman wearing a hijab, representing two communities who are very often vilified. They told me everything would be ok. I wish I knew their names, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Selfless acts of love stand on their own. No names are needed.
As you leave this beautiful, idyllic campus and set forth into the world, I hope you will embrace your choices. If we all choose humanity, if we step out of ourselves and show compassion and understanding for the stranger standing next to us, I am confident that we will turn the corner into the light and away from the darkness.
We will find our way back to a place where immigrants and refugees are welcome, where children can dream of an education and put behind them the nightmare of conflict and human rights abuses, where health care is a right shared by all and not just a privilege for those who can afford it, where a young man raised by a white mother and a black father can become President and a woman is not judged by her age, hairstyle, and clothing but is assumed perfectly capable of becoming his successor. Where the simple act of holding the hand of a new widow once again becomes who we are.
All of you have that choice.