Transcript from commencment speech given on Wednesday, May 16, 2012
First let me offer my heartfelt congratulations as you experience the utter joy and pride that comes with an accomplishment such as this day brings; commencement, the beginning of a new era in your lives. Today is not about the end of your journey but it is more about the exciting possibilities that some of America’s brightest minds will bring forward as they venture out into this great country of ours to test the wares of things learned in an academic institution of such excellence as Rutgers University. I stand in awe of your accomplishment and I hope that in the midst of this moment every graduate takes the time to relish the magnitude of this day.
Unless one thinks that I am waxing too poetically about the accomplishment that this day holds, I ask you all to consider the studies you have taken on relative to ostensibly, what is the greatest document in modern history, the United States Constitution and not only as an academic measure but for its practical application in guiding our country; As such, we are the gatekeepers of every bit of promise and protection that the Constitution espouses to provide for one of the greatest democracies known to man, the United States of America.
Regardless of where your studies propel you, there is the great honor we share in being those gatekeepers. Whether your leanings are conservative or liberal, the power we share in working within our system of jurisprudence should cause us to collectively share excitement about the accomplishment of the day. Some may choose as I have, law enforcement, some may choose to continue in their educational quest toward a Juris Doctorate in the practice of law. Some may teach criminal justice. Some may choose to pursue local, state or national legislative posts. However this knowledge attained is leveraged, it is the part of a much larger ideology that makes our great country the beacon of light wherein people come from the furthest parts of the globe to partake in what we often take for granted. I am proud to be an American! But with that pride, I am fully cognizant of the challenges our country often faces as we drill down and take an objective look at our application of justice. We still have much to accomplish and this generation of Rutgers graduates can be the catalyst for truly what is great about our country and refining it to make it even greater. As new democracies emerge throughout the world we must continue to evolve as a country where there is unequivocally justice for all. Until the scales of lady justice are balanced to the extent that they are blind to race and class and rooted in not only the letter of the law but tempered by its spirit; we still have much to accomplish and your many talents are welcomed to bring about equality in what is a great country, yet our pursuit is to make it even greater.
These ideals may seem a bit lofty and yes even idealistic; yet with the advent of the internet and the public’s insatiable appetite for information, on demand, the world as we know it has become so much smaller. New opportunities do not just present themselves within the contiguous lower 48 states of the United States then out to Alaska and Hawaii, but our reach and our dimensions span the globe, sometimes in as few as 140 characters and a “tweet”. Wait you say, “I’m just one person” how can I cause a change in a world so vast?
As an 18 year old, fresh out of high school, there was a television show that glamorized the life of a police officer to such an extent, that out of a dare from a high school classmate, I went and filled out an application for the Detroit Police Department. The show was “Miami Vice” and yes I fancied myself as a suave debonair Crockett or Tubbs. Ok, admittedly you may be too young to know much about the show, but ask your parents at dinner later, these guys had as you may say today, “real swag”. I never thought in a million years that I could influence lives, I just thought it would be “way cool” to have a badge and carry a gun at 18.
I applied at 18, was hired at 19, yet was I cognizant of the impact I could have on the profession of policing? I absolutely was not, but after close to four years on the job, the city suffered some serious economic issues and I received a lay-off notice. It was sobering, disconcerting, and demoralizing. Yet it was in most ways the best thing to ever happen in my career. It started my pursuit of education and advanced training; it humbled me and made me appreciate the magnanimity of what responsibility I held as a law enforcement officer. I learned the vital role I played as one of many moving parts in what we refer to as our criminal justice system. I realized that the freedom of men and women could be influenced by my application or “misapplication” of the law. I realized because of the office I held and uniform I wore that credibility and standing were given to the words I spoke in a court of competent jurisdiction. In a phrase I “grew up” and realized that one person can make a difference.
Rutgers graduates, each and every one of you has been taken through a process that has prepared you to be critical thinkers, one’s inspired to make a difference. Yes you are poised to be difference makers, whether it is in the small encounters we engage in through the course of our lives that in the moment seem insignificant, yet in actuality are the seeds of change planted by our constant desire to work in excellence. Or whether it is in the course of a precedent setting United States Supreme Court case, we are the gatekeepers.
Though the task that is laid before us at times may seem daunting and impossible, I am reminded of a quote by the Greatest of All Times, Muhammad Ali who said, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” Again I say what lies before you though daunting and unobtainable to small minds is possible and obtainable to you, critical thinkers, we are the gatekeepers.
As we have seen remarkable barriers of race and gender overcome in some of history’s most undeniably awesome manners, inequities in pay between men and women are still unacceptable in a society as advanced as ours. We witnessed the election of the United States of America’s first black president and a nation was inspired by chants of “Yes We Can”, yet the racial divide in America is still vast as the country remains at odds about the death of Trayvon Martin and who is most at fault in the tragedy. The prevailing opinion as to fault has devolved in great measure down lines of race and class. I raise these issues not to be controversial or gratuitous, but to remind us lovers of the law that the work we need to do for our country is far from complete.
Critical thinkers that don the scarlet of Rutgers proudly, we welcome you into this fight for the maintenance of a society that is great and will only remain that way because of your passion, skill, intellect and caring. Yes, I said caring. This laboratory of democracy we call the United States of America is founded not on an academic theory absent passion and focus for the good of our fellowman, but out of the passion of freedom loving men and women who even against some of their own misdeeds, wrote a document that delineated that there be liberty and justice for all. In my ascension in the Detroit Police Department through its ranks to ultimately become its 40th Chief of Police, a wise man reminded me that “people don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” I say again, we are the gatekeepers.
As the gatekeepers of justice, we must be mindful that it is not in the proverbial “sheepskin” alone that will catapult our works to greatness. Recognize and appreciate the worth that all persons can bring to our advocacy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted as saying, “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle… (Or) Einstein’s Theory of Relativity… (Or) the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Yes, we are the gatekeepers.
We are the gatekeepers of an ethos that resoundingly declares that all men are created equal and are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights. Although we state emphatically that “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, the reality is that our greatness is not static but it’s dynamic, ever changing pursuant to the new talent and intellect that is brought to the fore. And as we compete in a global economy and as the world we speak of becomes ever shrinking, new leadership with bolder vision is needed now more than ever. The self evidence that we purport only comes to fruition and is made manifest by the critical thinkers that matriculate from academia and with their combined passion and knowledge, perpetuate the conditions that are ripe for democracy to spread across the world in pandemic fashion. English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.” Our light shines so that the world embraces the doctrine of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Rutgers graduates, as I move to the close of my remarks, I want you to know that the possibilities are limitless for the impact you can have not only on this country, but also on the world. There are two people in this world that have catapulted me into a life of service, and to them I am eternally grateful. For you see the things I espouse are cloaked in eloquent words and prose, but are the product of foundational beliefs and truths drilled into me by a father who dropped out of school in the 10th grade to join the United States Army and a mother who was a high school graduate that wed my father at 18 years old, five years his junior. After 45 years of marriage they are still together, with diminished physical capacities, nonetheless, I am grateful for them being alive. My mother has battled Multiple Sclerosis for nearly 20 years and my father is the survivor of 4 heart attacks, 3 open heart surgeries, and two strokes, the last of which was the most debilitating leaving him paralyzed on the left side of his body. With all of their health challenges and obstacles that have been present in each of their lives, I have never heard nor have I seen their “can do” spirit crushed or demoralized, but they thank God for every second of their lives and live to the fullest. The hope and promise that I find in you today is a reflection of the hope that Ralph Lloyd Godbee, Sr. and Beulah Godbee placed in their two sons, one of which Pastor’s a church in Raleigh, North Carolina and the other of which is the 40th Chief of Police of the Detroit Police Department. I vicariously take pleasure in advance for the profound impact you all will have on this world. In the moments we have shared today, it is my prayer that something that has been said will inspire you to tap into the greatness that resides within. I want to thank the faculty of Rutgers University for entrusting me with this important moment in the lives of you and your families. In keeping with the etiquette of public speaking as taught to me by my father who is an ordained Baptist Pastor, “Son, You stand to be seen, you speak to be heard, but most importantly, you SIT DOWN to be appreciated.” God bless you and thank you for this opportunity.