Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour delivered the commencement address at the City University of New York School of Public Health on Thursday, urging graduates not to be bystanders in the face of injustice.
“We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs and healthcare, sexism, violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia,” Sarsour, one of the lead organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, told graduates. “We will stand up, we will speak truth to power no matter the consequences, we will demand change, we will center those most directly impacted because they, we, who are closest to the pain are also closest to the solution.”
Sarsour’s selection as commencement speaker drew criticism from some right-wing speakers who accused her of holding anti-Semitic views because of her statements on Middle Eastern politics, prompting some calls for the speech to be canceled. Sarsour adamantly denied the accusations, and more than 130 Jewish leaders signed an open letter defending her on Thursday.
Read the full transcript of her speech at Harlem’s Apollo Theater:
May Peace and Blessings Be Upon you all.
Wow. I am so deeply honored and humbled to be here today amongst all of you. Huge shout out to graduating class of 2017 – YOU DID IT. Yes you did.
We made it. I made it here. You already know it’s been a more than memorable and eventful experience for me, I am still standing and still unapologetically Muslim-American, Palestinian-American and from Brooklyn, New York.
It was worth every moment to be able to share this beautiful evening with you, your family, friends, the remarkable faculty and staff of CUNY School of Public Health and two outstanding women, NYC’s First Lady Chirlane McCray and Commissioner Mary Bassett.
You did this. I hope you all are feeling as proud as I am of all of you.
Thank you to the CUNY School of Public Health, to Dean Aymen El-Mohandes and his extraordinary work and leadership.
I came to tell it like it is.
We live in difficult and uncertain times.
Tonight, I use my platform to honor four men and to hold them up as beacons of light for all of us – Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, Ricky Best, Micah Fletcher and Richard W. Collins III. This week, three of these men lost their lives at the hands of hate. One man, Micah Fletcher, a remarkable young poet, lived to tell the tale after brutally being stabbed.
Taliesin, Ricky, and Micah were strangers to one another – in a matter of minutes they made separate decisions to go from bystanders to heroes to defend one African-American young woman student and her Muslim-American friend wearing hijab as they were being aggressively harassed by a man on a train in Portland.
Taliesin and Ricky lost their lives but their act of courage will live on forever and have restored a small empty space in my heart with a sense of hope and recommitment to standing up against injustice no matter who it is against. Are we all ready to embody the courage and selflessness of Taliesin, Ricky and Micah?
I am here tonight during the holy month of Ramadan. This is a month of contemplation, reflection, increase in spirituality, closeness to God, and charity. I have sat through many thoughts this past week. The tragic story in Portland made me reflect on how I was and am showing up in the world, in my community, in New York City, in our country. Was I ever a bystander? Would I ever be a bystander?
What does it mean when we say we are social justice activists and organizers committed to justice and equality for all people – it means we made the decision never to be bystanders.
We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs and healthcare, sexism, violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.
We will stand up, we will speak truth to power no matter the consequences, we will demand change, we will center those most directly impacted because they, we, who are closest to the pain are also closest to the solution.
Public health to me means the mental, emotional and physical well-beings of whole communities. To create healthy communities – we must create a society where a young Black man or woman can walk down the streets of their communities without fear of being killed by a police officer or gun violence, that an undocumented mother can return home after work to her children without fear of deportation, that an LGBTQI person can feel safe in any and all public spaces, and yes, that a Muslim-American woman can walk to school and take a train without fear of being assaulted and attacked for what she is wearing.
But we can’t stop there. We want our communities to flourish and thrive. We want to build foundations of success for ALL. We can only do that if we see our communities and its people as whole people.
Our approach to this work is critical which is why I was so honored to be invited to speak here today – you, too, understand that the only way to do this is to organize intersectionally and holistically. This is why I made sure that my participation as a national co-chair of The Women’s March on Washington was intentional. Not only was it dubbed the largest single-day protest in U.S. history – it was one of the most intersectional platforms of our generation. When women lead, when women of color lead – we do great things and we bring people and movements together.
We know that we can’t talk about economic justice without talking about racial justice and we can’t talk about racial justice without talking about reproductive rights or immigration reform or environmental justice. As Audre Lorde beautifully said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
This is my work. This is what I live and breathe every day.
Will we commit today to love and protect one another?
A few weeks ago, we remembered the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 which began the internment of Japanese Americans. I thought – 75 years is not that long ago and there are some alive amongst us who remember that horrific time.
Who were these bystanders? Who were these Americans who sat back idly and allowed their Japanese-American neighbors to be stripped from their homes with their children?
Who were they? They were the silent majority. Did you ever think about who you would have been at that time?
I love my country. It gave my Palestinian immigrant parents who lived under military occupation the opportunities to give me and my siblings a better life and I am forever grateful. I love my country so much that I work every day to push my country to be a better nation to stand up to its original ideals. Malcolm X once said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” For, I truly believe that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. That silence is an endorsement of the status quo and makes us complicit in the suffering of the most marginalized amongst us.
Understanding our history and being rooted in the moments when we were wrong – starting from the days of our founding and the massacres of indigenous people, to the forced enslavement of Black Africans, to segregation, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to internment of Japanese Americans to mass incarceration, also known as modern day slavery, to every thing in between — we must acknowledge the mistakes of the past and present to commit to NEVER AGAIN.
A famous philosopher once said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the age of alternative facts and fake news and emboldened racism and xenophobia – we can not be silent. We can not allow the voices of hate and divisiveness be louder than the voices of solidarity and love. We can not allow any more horror to happen to any other communities. We must stand together united in solidarity against the targeting, demonization and vilification of any group of people. We must intervene. We must protect one another.
We must stay righteously outraged. We must never feel despair or complacency or submit to the idea that “this is just how it is.” I will be OUTRAGED every time a black man or woman like Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Rekia Boyd, Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Jonathan Edwards, Freddie Gray are killed at the hands of law enforcement, I will be OUTRAGED every time I remember that Flint still does not have clean water, I will be OUTRAGED every day until we end mass incarceration, I will be righteously outraged every day until we are all treated with dignity and respect and we are all free in every part of this world, when one of us is not free – none of us are free. I will be righteously outraged and I will make sure to contribute something every day to alleviating suffering and pain in my midst.
I will end my remarks by sharing a quote with all of you that is both hung in my home and in my office by an aboriginal woman named Lila Watson, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.”
We are in this together.
I look forward to working with you Class of 2017 on these streets. You can always count on your Palestinian Muslim American sister from Brooklyn, New York to keep her voice loud, feet on these streets in the name of justice for all.
It is WE who make America GREAT.
In solidarity and love.
CONGRATULATIONS Class of 2017. Watch out world!