You’ll Move the Earth: Cum Laude Speech by Allison Arbib ’03

Allison Arbib '03

Thank you, Headmaster Hill. Welcome parents, faculty, staff, and guests. Thank you for inviting me. It is an honor to be here.

You worked hard to get here. You worked hard for brilliant and kind teachers who demanded it of you.  You spent freezing, dark Tuesday nights in December, going from sports practice to play rehearsal, staying up until 2 am studying for your Spanish test the next day, only to wake up at 6:00 to do you calculus homework.

Maybe after that Spanish test you scrawled notes  on Emily Dickinson’s poems for your AP English class before racing across the quad to the Schoolhouse. If you were lucky,  you were just fast enough to avoid the unit.

Or maybe your homework is always done early. Maybe you would never be caught  dashing something off at the last minute—I don’t know your life. Just mine.  But what I do know is that by achieving Cum Laude, you have achieved academic excellence.

Congratulations again. This is a big achievement, and you’ve worked hard for it, every day, in big ways and small. I may not know you personally, but I’m lucky enough to know the people who sat in those front rows in the class of 2003 (10 years ago!) and if you’re anything like them, you haven’t just excelled academically; you’ve excelled in sports, music, theater, the arts, and leadership. I admire you. And I know too that there is brilliance all around this Williston community gathered here today.

I wanted to make this speech special for you all, to mark this lofty achievement. It will, if all works out, include: neuroscience, marriage equality, the end of modern day slavery, … and bears. Grizzly bears, to be specific.

I’ve read advice about how to give these types of speeches. Most of the advice that made the most sense to me says “Don’t preach.” Which is fortunate, since I don’t have anything to preach about.

You may assume that I’m here because I was Cum Laude myself.

I was not. Maybe somebody told the administration I was Sorry if that’s a problem. So there’s your first lesson– always check your sources.

In all honesty, I spent a lot of my time at Williston feeling like there was some measure of excellence I came close to but never quite reached. I feel like a bit of a fraud standing up here right now, at a ceremony celebrating academic excellence. As Ms. Anderson can attest, I got C+ in Calculus.

Sometimes, I felt like excellence at Williston was bestowed upon you from above. It appeared, as if my magic, in many forms –  making varsity, or landing the lead in the play, or getting an A, or getting accepted to your first choice college. I know now that I was wrong to think this way, but hey, I was 16 and 16 year olds don’t have the best judgment. I mean, really. Really? YOLO?

What I’ve learned—what I’m still learning – is that excellence is about working really hard every day to try and make things better… whether anyone is watching or not. That there’s beauty in that struggle.

Preparing for today, I read some of the other speeches that have been given at Williston recently. I enjoyed reading the talk Headmaster Hill gave at the opening of school this September. If you don’t remember it, because you were, I don’t know, furtively finishing your summer reading, he gave the following advice:  “Think small. I mean it. Not really, really, small, but small enough. Take small, sure-footed steps at first and giant leaps are sure to follow.” This is good advice. Advice I have found to be true in my life, at Williston, in college and in my job.

I want to tell you to dream big, to take your Williston education and run out there and change the world, because, man! The world needs it.  President Obama told college grads in a commencement speech that there is “nothing naïve about [the] desire to change the world.” But it’s too easy to be overwhelmed if you’re looking at the whole world. If you only look at the big picture, and expect to change the world on that scale, it’s easy to become cynical or overwhelmed. But focusing on the little things, things you can control – that’s where the change is. Working hard in small ways every day is an act of optimism. Of determination. Of faith.

I work for Verite, a global organization dedicated to helping companies like Apple, the Gap, and Starbucks learn about the lives of the actual people who make their products. Your products. The things you eat – the things you wear – the things some of you are probably texting on right now. Someone made that. It’s our job to make sure they do so with safety, fair wages, and humane conditions.

Maybe you heard about the recent factory fires in Bangladesh that killed more than 100 workers. That’s why we’re at work—this is 2013. Nobody should live like that. Nobody should die like that. This sort of work—Corporate Social Responsibility—can be, as the tragedy in Bangladesh showed the world,  a matter of life or death. To address these problems in a meaningful way, companies often have to do hard work, work that nobody sees.

Of course, you can make the argument that by being responsible, companies can actually earn more money. They can tell consumers like you about their good actions you will pay a premium for their products. And this is true, to a large degree.

But ultimately, companies that really want to “do the right thing” have to accept that their hard work, even though it is the most important, moral and ethical work they can do to affect change—may not necessarily make them money. But they do it because it is the right thing to do.  The CEO knows this. The salesman knows this. The consumer knows this. You know this.

As the cliché goes (and I know that all of your great English teachers—like Mr and Ms Sawyer!—are banging you over the head to avoid clichés) character is what you do when no one else is watching. And how to work hard,  no matter what, is what Williston will teach you.  It will teach you this almost in spite of yourself. You Cum Laude inductees are a great example of this hard work. So are the students, faculty and staff at Williston who show up, every day, and do their own work.

I want to tell you about a situation we often see at Verite. It’s not bears. But we’ll get to bears, don’t worry.

Imagine you’re 22 and you live in the Philippines. You went to school to study computers, but when you graduated, you couldn’t find work.  You don’t have money to support your family, and you’re getting discouraged. Then one day, you see an ad in the paper for high-paying jobs in a computer manufacturer in Taiwan.

You meet with a recruiter, and he explains that you will get a really high paying job, and all you have to do is pay him a small recruitment fee. You don’t have that cash up front, so you borrow from the recruiter. You’re in debt to him.

No problem, you think, you’ll pay that back quickly with all the money you’ll make at your new job. When you arrive in Taiwan, your new boss tells you that your salary is only half of what you’d been expecting. And half of your pay is deducted automatically for the tiny, cramped dorm you share with ten other workers. You work seven days a week, 14 hours a day. There’s high interest on that debt to your recruiter, so even though you are paying it off every month, the amount of your debt barely goes down. You can’t leave, because if you did, you could never pay off your debt. You’re trapped. This is modern day slavery.

This is a real situation that plays out in different variations all over the world, in every sector. In vegetable farming.  On coffee plantations. In gold mines. We need to address these problems. And not with one, sweeping, heroic act like suddenly ending modern day slavery. That won’t happen all at once.

Instead, its lots of little acts. Its companies actively choosing to make sure they put in real effort to be accountable for knowing where their products are made. It’s striving for meaningful change, for something better. It’s companies setting up free hotlines for workers so anyone can send an anonymous text if they’re facing a challenge. Change is companies who source from factories in Bangladesh advocating for an independent fire chief to inspect their factories. Change is cocoa companies getting together to improve training for teachers in rural Ghana so more children attend school instead of working full time on their family cocoa farm. Certainly, none of these things, alone, are enough.  But slowly, things are getting better.

Change requires companies to constantly evaluate the choices they make: which factories should they use? How should they monitor those factories? Each choice they make can move them towards real, lasting change. It requires lots of spreadsheets and email and committee meetings.  It requires consumers like you to ask questions of companies you buy from and write emails if you’re not happy about what you learn. It sometimes requires you, when you’re on a weekend trip to the Holyoke Mall,  to think – there is no way this two dollar t-shirt was made by workers under fair conditions so I’m not going to buy it.

This is the work that matters.

Even in my own job, I come up against this tension between the ideal of changing the world and reality. I’ve been lucky to travel to some exciting places. Sometimes, on good days, about 5 percent of the time, my job brings me to families in mud huts in West Africa who farm the cotton some of you are wearing or to the fishing  boats in Indonesia that are the beginning of a chain that leads, maybe even tonight, in the Dining Hall,  to your dinner.
The other 95 percent of the time, my job is me. At my desk. In a basement. Staring at an excel spreadsheet.  Sometimes I come up against my own cynicism. I tell you this not to discourage you, but to highlight the fact that sometimes that most challenging, detail oriented, dare I say occasionally boring work is where the change happens.

There’s this narrative we have around hard work in our culture – that if you work hard, it will lead to success. We see it in classic sports movies. We see it in political discourse that tells struggling families to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s embedded in the myth of rugged American individualism. Hard work = success. Well. Sometimes. If hard work equaled financial success, the women farmers I met in West Africa would be billionaires. Some of the times I worked the hardest… Well, I remind you of that C+ in calculus. Or pushing myself in soccer practice only to sit on the bench during the playoffs. There was no swelling string music. No triumphant late entry to the game where I scored the winning goal. Just the cold bench in the November air and the feeling that I’d failed. That I didn’t live up to the excellence Williston expected of me. That I expected of me. But I’m grateful for it now. I wasn’t at the time. (I personally, could be a dumb 16 year old.) But just because the outcome wasn’t what I wanted didn’t mean the work wasn’t worth it. It didn’t mean I would take the work back if I had the chance.

I sat in this chapel recently, for the wedding of a dear friend, who was a senior at Williston when I was a Freshman. He was married in a lovely ceremony in July. My best friend, his younger sister, was the maid of honor. I cried when he and his husband, walked down the aisle, a legally married couple. I was sitting next to legendary former teacher Ann Van at the ceremony, and she leaned over to me and said, “you know, when you were at Williston, this would not have been legal.” In some ways, it seems like civil rights movements come all at once, in big sweeping waves. In the words of Theodore Parker, a Boston abolitionist, the arc of moral history is long, but it bends towards justice. Activists for marriage equality have been working tirelessly, on a host of small, wonky issues for years and years, just as civil rights activists did.  I believe that history bends towards justice, not out of fate or destiny. But because of all of the little daily actions we can take or not take.

These little daily actions are often the hardest for me. I’m often impatient.  Or I jump from one thing to another without finishing what I was working on in the first place.  Like my calculus homework. I get distracted by something newer, bigger, shinier. I’m tempted by shortcuts. I struggle with this. All the same, these little changes what I believe in. I was hiking in Glacier National Park with my family this summer (and sidenote: go there now! While you still can. Every year, drip by drip the glaciers are melting and soon they’ll be gone. Then won’t be Glacier National Park. We’ll have to rename it Gravel National Park. And nobody  wants to visit Gravel National Park.) Anyway, we were out in glacier and being the slightly nerdy family we are, we attended a geology talk given by a young park ranger.

She asked the audience to shout out what we thought of as geological forces affecting the rocks in the park. “glacial movement,” “wind and rain,” “plate tectonics” people shouted out. “There’s another one you’re all missing,” the guide said.  We sat in awkward silence. Until someone in the back said, jokingly, “Bears?”

Yes…… Bears.

Bears – both black and grizzly – eat berries and grubs. To get at these treats, they dig up the earth under rocks. They paw through brush. They move so much dirt over their life that they are considered a geological force. This is how change gets made. The daily grind of bears digging up grubs.  Doing your homework even when you’re tired. Working hard in practice. Staring at spreadsheets.  Doing the right thing when no one is watching.
Small steps with sure footing.  This is how the world changes. This is how slavery ends, how civil rights are won, and how landscapes change. The hard work you are doing now is worth it. You may think you’re just waiting to start the real work, but here’s the best part – you’re already doing it.

Keep going. Keep working. Keep asking questions. Keep digging. You’ll move the earth.

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