University Medalist urges fellow grads to dance for a better world

The following speech was delivered at UC Berkeley’s Commencement 2011 by top graduating senior Aaron Benavidez, a double major in sociology and rhetoric — whose scholarship, public service and humanity won him the University Medal.

Good morning parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I hope you are all overjoyed about this cold and wondrous celebration. And congratulations Class of 2011: This day marks the beginning of your brilliant future, and I am honored to share this moment with all of you.

To further the festivities, I would like to offer you, my fellow graduates, a piece of advice given to me by the 1980 University Medalist, Joseph Montoya, one of the first and few Latino students to win this award. He said: “You should always remember that you’ve succeeded and excelled [at] one of the top universities in the world.” So you have real reason to revel in today’s pomp and circumstance.

Top graduating senior Aaron Benavidez

A UC Berkeley education will open many doors for all of us, and I hope you see our privilege as both a remarkable gift and a clear invitation to make the world a better place.

But what kind of better world should we—the Millennial Generation—seek to build? At Berkeley, we have learned that we cannot realize this better-world-building project by imposing our standards onto other societies, countries, and even communities within our nation. We must find solutions to contemporary problems by opening our ears, minds, and hearts to alternatives from unexpected places. This does not mean, however, that we should absentmindedly kick rocks on a country road, rambling toward some unknown utopia, waiting to be born. No, we can begin to work at building a better world guided by new paradigms and aiming at new goals.

On this day, I would like to offer a new paradigm for thinking about social justice work. I propose that the better world we create together be envisioned around one essential objective: to enable everyone to dance.

That’s right. Our post-modern sage Lady Gaga got it right: “Just dance. Gonna be OK.” But Gaga has not been alone in foreseeing this new social justice framework. Emma Goldman, the early 20th Century free-thinker and activist, also promoted this novel approach when she staunchly declared: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” This advice by our guides, Gaga and Goldman, suggests that to dance requires a healthy body, a robust human spirit, and, most importantly, a good dancing partner. In short, they acknowledge that dancing requires a human flourishing, which we all know has not been universally achieved for everyone.

Sociology, the discipline I learned at UC Berkeley, teaches us that this possible utopia, where everyone feels good enough to dance, is an aspiration with specific conditions. In other words, we will not achieve this utopia until black and Latino men in the United States can dance in front of police officers without risking intimidation and brutality; until transgender women in San Francisco can dance at the BART station on Mission and 16th Street without getting beaten and sexually assaulted; until Mexican and other immigrant children of America, regardless of citizenship, can dance on the wall between the United States and Mexico; and until California community college students can dance after getting into every course they need–or don’t need– to transfer to a place like UC Berkeley.

I recognize that some of these utopian conditions might seem somewhat controversial or perhaps impractical to naysayers and pessimists. But the first and basic requirement, to have enough steps and moves to dance, is already fulfilled. For the grandmas and grandpas out there, options like the Charleston and the boogie-woogie already exist. For moms and dads, the mashed potato and the twist are already on hand. For everyone, the moonwalk, the electric slide, the Macarena, the running man, and the dougie–which we can all do just like Michelle Obama did! Of course, for those who just want to sit this one out, a head bob is a fine option. And for those who are looking for something a little more spicy: you have the choice of all 3 minutes and 19 seconds of the Single Ladies dance!

But the next step will entail more than good choreography. The better world we can build together will oblige us to realize that having a healthy body to dance requires excellent health care for everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions or financial means. We will also need a guaranteed basic income and an expanded social safety net to inspire people to, every once in a while, take the day off and dance. Finally, our world should expand the recognition of people whose humanity is constantly being undercut by dance-deadening discriminatory laws and dance-numbing social mistreatment. Remember, we all need at least one partner to dance.

Graduating Class of 2011: I know you like to dance. I’ve seen some of you do all kinds of inappropriate moves at Kip’s and Blake’s before it closed. And this semester, there were three times more De-Cal courses that let you dance for a passing grade than university courses in the entire Eurasian Studies program at UC Berkeley. So just admit it: you love to dance. So let’s expand this love, and make it possible for everyone to shake a tailfeather. Until then, good luck, Class of 2011! And Go Bears!

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