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Commencement Address 2019

May 20, 2019

Weave a Tapestry of Communities

By Amy Gutmann

Good morning Class of 2019! You look fabulous! 

Though maybe some of you feel just a little bit tired?

Last night, some of you were out to dinner with family. Some of you were up late packing. And some of you went out with classmates and friends.

As this is Penn, I have to ask: How many of you managed to do all three?

I thought so! Did anyone here last night find time to turn on the TV…maybe turn it on…to HBO?

Are you ready? It’s time for a special edition of Game of Thrones!

Graduates: All of you today sit on either side of a great divide. 

To my right: The Southern Alliance! Among you are several Great Houses. 

Arrayed on the field are members of House Engineering! House Nursing! House Wharton! Houses Medicine to Dental; Law to Design; SP2 to Education; Annenberg to Vet! All of you to my right form the Southern Alliance!

Now, to my left: the Northern Alliance! Your Great Houses may be fewer, but man, are they big.

Arrayed on the field are the many members of House College! And the many more who together make House Arts and Sciences! All of you to my left form the Northern Alliance.

We have two sides, and spoiler alert: we’re going to do battle. But instead of a battle with spears, this will be a Battle of Cheers. 

Who left a Starbucks cup here? That’s not supposed to be here! Oh well…. We’ll figure that out later.

I’m going to call on each of your Alliances in turn. When I do, you need to make the most noise you can. The side that cheers the loudest wins! Ready?

Ok, let’s hear it from the Southern Alliance!

Impressive! Ok, now let’s hear it from the Northern Alliance! Also impressive!

Alright! Both your sides gave it your very best shot. Now it falls to me…. 

But I will not call a winner. Instead, I ask you to consider this a window into the human heart. 

Here we are, proud members of the Penn community – this beloved community. Yet, when called upon, how readily we divide to do battle for our side.

Game of Thrones became a global phenomenon for many reasons. We obsess over the characters. We love the dragons and the drama. But its deepest attraction is allegorical. 

In the walls of ice, in the thrones of iron, we see a mirror for our times.

We recognize our own world, where too many live for their tribe alone. Where too often, we listen only to those who think, look, and believe as we do. 

Where the game seems rigged against open and free exploration. We hear too few dissenting voices, and we consider too few conflicting views. But remember: None of this is inevitable. 

We can glorify our tribe to exclude all others. We can build up our walls and cast down those who are different. 

Or we can better use the strength in our hearts and the power in our hands. 

Our many identities and beliefs: We make these our threads. Our diverse backgrounds and goals: These become our loom. 

From this world of differences, we can weave a tapestry of communities.

Weaving is hard work, especially when we interlace many into one. Our identities may clash. Our beliefs diverge. We disagree over where we want to go. We argue about the best way to get there. 

But when – together – we embrace the challenge, the cloth of human understanding grows more resilient. We craft something stronger by far than iron thrones and walls of ice. 

As many of you know, I am a first-generation college graduate. My family had very little money. We lived in a small town. 

Try as I might to fit in, I always felt like an outsider and was often treated as one. My father, an immigrant, was the only person around who spoke with a strong foreign accent. In elementary school, I was the only Jewish girl. 

One day in fifth grade, I learned just how easily false stereotypes about minorities can arise. 

That’s when another blond-haired, blue-eyed girl moved into my class. My best friend Diane took one look, turned to me, and said “Oh! She must be Jewish, too!” 

My home town may not have understood or celebrated diversity, but it treated us respectfully.

I never took that for granted given my father’s escape from Nazi Germany. My parents even joined with others in neighboring towns to create the first synagogue. 

Wonderfully dedicated and caring teachers helped prepare me for college. And I couldn’t wait to go.

But when I finally arrived on campus, I was in for a surprise. In fact, I was stunned. I had never before felt poor. As a scholarship student, suddenly, I was surrounded by people who were so astoundingly rich! I was fascinated by other differences – different faiths, politics, ethnicities, and cultures. 

Sure, at times it was uncomfortable. There were moments I wanted to turn around and go back home to my mother’s warm embrace – and her home cooking! 

But like every one of you, I made the best, most important choice of my life: I would pick up the threads of differences to weave myself a new community. 

This would become my cause, my mission, my identity. I had found my purpose, rooted in beloved community.

I was inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. He called upon us all to embrace inclusion, love, and justice. He preached the soul force of nonviolent protest. 

He warned against the perils of tribalism, of clinging to the familiar and holding sacred the status quo.

King famously addressed his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” not to his jailers, but to his “fellow clergymen.” 

He challenged them to reject the status quo. In King’s words, we find the essence of beloved community, recognizing that: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

“We are tied,” he wrote, “in a single garment of destiny.”

One of our seniors graduating today grew up just a few miles from here. Close at hand, but a world away, Penn was an unfamiliar place. 

Just weeks after she was accepted, her father suddenly passed away. Then, only months into her freshman year, she lost her mother. Family is our very first community, the rock on which we build our lives. Hers shattered in the passing of a season. 

But she persevered, honoring her parents’ memory by embracing a new community, a University where we pride ourselves on the tapestry we weave. 

She championed educational access, leading Penn’s first-generation, low-income student community. Any FGLI students here today?

Last fall, we learned that this senior had been named a 2019 Rhodes Scholar. We could not be more proud. Her name of course is Anea Moore. Stand up, Anea!

Each and every one of you today left behind comforting familiarity to come to Penn. 

You embraced a more intellectually challenging, inclusive, and demanding world. You have woven a rich tapestry of friends and memories.

Now, the task before you: Stay at the loom. Speak out and stand up. Weave together a world better, freer, and more inclusive. 

Just as there are no dragons, there is no Northern Alliance, no Southern Alliance – there are many overlapping and intersecting threads woven into a beloved community of humankind. 

Together you weave that beautiful multi-faceted garment of human destiny, empowered by your Penn education.

So now, as befits this joyful occasion, I ask everybody to stand together as one beloved community. Families and friends, University leaders and faculty, stand with me and show our profound pride in the great Class of 2019.