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Commencement speaker Wendy Kopp: 'Lead us forward differently'

By Public Affairs

a woman at a podium
Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America in 1990. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)
Wendy Kopp, Saturday’s keynote commencement speaker, asked graduates to “get into the arena of addressing the world’s greatest injustices and societal threats.” (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach For All and founder of Teach For America, gave the following remarks to graduates during her keynote speech at Spring 2019 Commencement:

Thank you, Jesse! Thank you, President Napolitano and the Board of Regents, Chancellor Christ, deans and faculty, distinguished guests, family, friends and loved ones, and most especially, the University of California, Berkeley, Class of 2019!

It’s a real honor to celebrate this day with you. This is a class with extraordinary strengths and perspective. More than one in five of you are the first in your families to earn a college degree. And 90 Dreamers are picking up your degrees today. Each of you sitting here in cap and gown has worked so hard to get here. Let’s hear it again for the Class of 2019!

To the graduates’ families and friends — as a mother of four who have not yet made it across this finish line, I’m in awe! Let’s hear it for them!

And — to the 53 graduates who are joining Teach For America — thank you! Your campus has sent more students to Teach For America than almost any other school in the nation.

I am inspired by what Berkeley stands for and by your generation. Jojo Lam, a Berkeley alumna who is helping build Teach For Cambodia, shared with me how much this institution influenced her. She said, “When you’re surrounded by people who care, it makes you want to care.”

Worldwide, Berkeley is known for student activism. In your time here, you have acted against racism, sexism, sexual assault, basic needs insecurity, income inequality, anti-immigration policies, climate crises, suppression of free speech and many other systemic injustices.

And even beyond this campus, your generation’s commitment to political and civic engagement surpasses that of any that have come before. That’s not just an impression. A survey of U.S. college students showed that your class had the highest levels of interest in political and community engagement in 50 years.

We need your ongoing engagement. We need each of you to get into the arena of addressing the world’s greatest injustices and societal threats, as early as possible.

After spending my senior year in college developing the idea for Teach For America, I set out to make it happen when I graduated 30 years ago. The journey to realize its potential — first at Teach For America and now across Teach For All, a global network of similar organizations in 50 countries and counting — has been challenging, exhausting, messy.

But there is not one year I would trade for a different path — I feel extraordinarily privileged to have found my way to this work early enough to have had the chance to understand the complexity of the issues and to find my way to real solutions. Along the way, I’ve been able to work with and become friends with the most amazingly committed people. I even met my husband in this work and had those four incredible kids I mentioned earlier. I’ve learned so much, including from among the more than 1,000 Berkeley grads who have joined Teach For America over the last 29 years and who are now teachers, principals, civil rights and immigration attorneys, elected leaders and social entrepreneurs, tackling inequity from all levels and many sides.

Most of you are heading into the working world, where activism may not be part of your day-to-day. Many of you are heading to jobs in marketing, consulting, finance, law, technology. These are the right choices for you now, given the many pressures and passions that led you to them. But you may find yourself encouraged to back off of your activism. I urge you to continue with it, and to stay conscious that many of the institutions you’re joining are built on and supporting the status quo — politically, socially and economically.

I think we all recognize that there are major problems with the status quo. We face many issues that seem intractable: climate change, historic levels of inequality, multiplying global conflicts. And the way we’ve been addressing them isn’t working. We tackle one piece and create new problems, or we see only incremental progress, or we are simply immobilized in a vitriolic and divided place.

I’m betting on you to break us through. I’m betting on you — to learn from previous generations, to bring your energy and ideas and, as the most diverse generation of college graduates yet, to bring your experiences, family histories and community backgrounds to the table. I’m betting on you to make meaningful progress in the struggle for justice, freedom and a sustainable future.

This is why I want to share with you the most salient lesson from my last 30 years, which is about the kind of leadership we need to reach our aspirations. I’ve learned that we need “collective leadership.”

Our culture is rooted in the ideal of the individual leader. We hear the word “leadership,” and we imagine heroic superstars. We valorize the entrepreneurs, particularly here, so close to Silicon Valley. We want to be our own bosses, to venture out on our own. This archetype deeply defines our vision of success in this country. But the more I see, the more I realize that individual leadership alone won’t get us where we’re trying to go.

a woman at a podium

Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America in 1990. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

When I started pursuing the idea of Teach For America as a 21-year-old, I believed individual leadership was everything. I’d internalized — no doubt because of my own experiences growing up in our Western culture — that if I wanted to accomplish something, I just needed to work harder and think harder. The experience of getting Teach For America off the ground and sustaining it only reinforced that mental model. Whether we lived or died seemed to me to rest on how much time I spent raising funds and on how good my plans were.

And my whole theory of change for addressing the extreme and entrenched inequities facing children was to cultivate a bunch of individual leaders — to recruit and develop individuals with leadership potential, to help them succeed as teachers so they have a real impact on kids and gain a deep understanding of the problem and its solvability and then to accelerate their individual paths as school system leaders, innovators, advocates and political leaders who would pursue systemic change.

But over time, what I’ve seen in communities, here and around the world, has led me to rethink my belief in individual leadership alone. I’ve been thinking about the need for collective leadership — a kind of leadership where individuals work together in a new way.

Collective leadership asks diverse groups to maximize their differences, rather than be immobilized by them. It encourages us to come together to speak, listen, reflect, understand the whole picture, develop shared vision for the future and generate new solutions. Collective leadership recognizes that our power is so much stronger than my power.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Anseye Pou Ayiti, Teach For Haiti in Creole. At its outset, its CEO, Nedgine Paul Deroly, spent more than three years in the rural communities where her team was planning to work, building relationships and considering one question: As a people, when are we at our best in Haiti? Stemming from that question came conversations about education and about what the community wanted to be true for its young people. Nedgine listened to reflections that repeatedly focused on respect for local culture, customs and community.

Collective leadership gathers entire communities to exert leadership. The people in these Haitian communities came together, listened to each other and created a vision for what would be true for their kids by the time they’re young adults: that they will have the education necessary to provide for their families, be proud of and value their own heritage and be active citizens and leaders committed to social justice for all.

Almost five years into this work, this collective leadership has created transformational changes. To share one example: Although it’s technically outlawed, Haitian schools for decades have utilized corporal punishment as a primary discipline system. The practice is embedded in the country’s colonial past, passed down from generation to generation as it has been in many parts of our country and the world. And yet, in the five years since Anseye Pou Ayiti launched, whole schools have shed that entrenched approach and created positive discipline systems.

This is deep change — change that laws couldn’t effect. How did it finally happen? It happened because diverse people came together, listened to each other, developed shared vision — and realized they would never get where they were trying to go using that old system. They chose to become more invested in the new vision than the old ways.

In our own country, we too often fail to create the space necessary to bring people from different perspectives together to develop new paths forward.

Take what’s happening in Berkeley’s back yard, in Oakland’s public school system. Thanks to so many committed individuals across the system, there are many things to be hopeful about. In the past 10 years alone, graduation rates have risen from 55% to 73%. Having first visited there 28 years ago, I can tell you that, today, many more of Oakland’s children are on a path to college and to meaningful careers. Yet, there is still so much trauma in the system.

Maybe some of you followed the news of Oakland’s recent teacher strike — protesting untenable teacher salaries that aren’t enough to let teachers live sustainably here in the Bay Area. The successful strike and hard-fought resolution resulted in an increase in teacher pay of 11% over four years. Yet, that’s still not nearly enough to keep up with rising housing and living costs in this area, and many are concerned the deal will bankrupt the district.

Why can’t we figure out how to enable teachers to live sustainably and take care of themselves — and our children?

What I know for sure is that there are no easy answers, and there is no path to progress without dialogue and generative problem-solving. We need all the actors — students, parents, teachers, advocates, employers, philanthropists and government leaders — to talk and to listen. We need them to consider together the whole picture — not only teacher pay, but housing costs, pension costs, our willingness to pay taxes in support of public education and more. And yet, this kind of discussion seems utterly impossible.

It’s impossible because there is deep anger in the community, particularly at the philanthropists who’ve been investing in the city and at any advocates or organizations that accept their support — because it’s corporate leaders who have had a loud voice, even when they’ve played a role in perpetuating the income inequality at the root of Oakland’s issues. With so much anger and fear, there seems no way for people to come together to get to know each other’s perspectives and develop new solutions.

So, we’re stuck. And Oakland is just one example of dozens and dozens across this country where this same story plays out.

To create different outcomes, we need to develop different capabilities than most of us have learned. We must learn to build authentic relationships across lines of difference, to see the strengths in those from different walks of life and different ideological perspectives, to listen and learn from each other. We must develop the muscle to think beyond our own individual pursuits and to hold the space necessary to bring diverse people together. And we must be literate with trauma — our own, others’ and the world’s — so that we can have generative conversations, even when others hurt us.

Class of 2019: I want to challenge you to lead us forward differently — to make it your life’s work to create dialogue, to make it your job to replace judgment with curiosity, to co-construct a vision of the future that works for all, not for some.

You don’t need to wait to find yourself in a position of influence. We need you now. Seek out a conversation with someone who has a radically different view and listen generously. Be curious and willing to be surprised. Understand that, just like you, they have hopes and fears, things they value and things that make them feel vulnerable.

Make time to do the inner work to understand yourselves. Know your deepest values, and take time for your own healing, because as we ground ourselves, we’re able to be more generous with others and more generative in our collective spaces.

Always look around the table and invite in voices that are not heard. And if you’re the one who can offer an unheard perspective, something that can move our shared humanity forward, have the courage to speak up, even when it feels difficult. Real progress requires moments of tension. If we approach these moments with generosity and curiosity, rather than resistance and blame, we can find entirely new ways forward.

This may be slow in the beginning. But I’ve come to realize that many diverse people trusting each other and working together is the only path to achieving a just, peaceful, sustainable, inclusive world.

I’m placing my hopes in you. With every generation, humanity goes through an evolution, and we’re going through one now. Your generation brings new wisdom, consciousness and a yearning for justice. We need your imagination and collective spirit.

I’m so excited to learn from you as you live into your potential as a generation of change-makers and together create the world we long for.

Thank you, Class of 2019, and good luck!