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IR/GS 2010 Commencement remarks from Dr. Virginia Bouvier

The following are the remarks by Dr. Virginia Bouvier - Senior Program Officer for Latin America, Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution (The United States Institute of Peace, USIP) for the IR/GS 2010 Commencement ceremony.

Good morning.  I am honored to be here to celebrate today’s graduating Class of 2010.  Dr. Virginia Bouvier

Congratulations to the administration, the distinguished faculty and staff of the Global Studies and International Relations programs, and to all the others at The College of William and Mary and beyond who have nurtured and guided these students.

Congratulations to the parents, families, and friends of today’s graduates, who have invested a not inconsequential amount of time and money in their future.

Last but not least, congratulations to the graduating seniors.  Today represents the culmination of years of hard work and effort as well as the commencement of a new phase of your engagement as global citizens.

You join a long line of distinguished William and Mary alumni who have served in the highest posts in this nation and who have shaped the course of war and peace in the past centuries—including presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler.

While many of you may not aspire to the presidency, all of you will be called on to be peacemakers—in your families and homes, in your communities and in your neighborhoods, in your workplaces, and in universities as you continue your academic pursuits.  Many of you will take your place on the world stage in government, nongovernmental, and international organizations, and in the private sector and the military. Some of you will serve as this country’s leaders and policy makers, diplomats, scholars, and perhaps even mediators and negotiators.

THE CHALLENGE TODAY: WORK FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE

As you leave this historic campus and begin to craft the next phase of your lives, I urge you to put yourselves at the service of building a more just and peaceful world. Working for justice is the surest path to security and sustainable peace, and there is perhaps no more urgent calling today.

We desperately need new thinking about ways to address inequities and resolve conflicts non-violently.  Poverty, inequality, corruption, discrimination, environmental degradation, homelessness, and landlessness exacerbate violence and instability and demand our attention.  Our failure to create relationships and mechanisms for dealing constructively with such injustices and to effectively address legitimate grievances and injustices will ultimately undermine our security as a nation and our future as a civilization.

The preponderance of evidence shows that violence begets more violence.  More than 100 million people—90 percent civilians—have been killed in 240 armed conflicts since the end of World War II.1 Armed conflict and war have led to mass genocide, rape, torture, and displacement. War transforms the lives of those who are killed and those who survive.  It destroys the homes, schools, farmlands, hospitals, and bridges that allow human beings to sustain themselves and their families.  War often fosters, compounds, and perpetuates chronic problems of injustice.  It disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable sectors of a society—the poor, the disenfranchised, women and children, and ethnic minorities.
The cycle of violence, injustice, and war must be challenged anew by each generation.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “The chain reaction of evil — wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

We must seek alternatives.  For this, the world needs your ideas, your imagination, and your energy.  It needs your compassion and your passion, your faith and your dreams.  It needs your willingness to engage.

A DELICATE BALANCE

Your generation is particularly aware of how interconnected our world is. As students of global studies and international affairs, you have chosen a field that recognizes and explores these global linkages.  Many of you were just entering your teen years when our national consciousness was altered by the events of 9/11. As your class has come of age, the threats of terrorist violence and nuclear attack have dominated the mindset of U.S. policymakers and world leaders.  You have watched your peers and relatives go off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan in search of greater security at home.  You know that politics and events in one part of the world impinge on the whole body politic.

On the economic side, you have seen, as no other generation has, the delicate balance of interdependence that sustains the global economic system.  You have watched the global economy come unglued and have felt its effects as stores and companies shut down, jobs dry up, tuition savings evaporate, and families struggle to make ends meet.  You have seen bank collapses at home bring down entire economies overseas.

Furthermore, you have witnessed the global impact of natural and environmental disasters.  You have seen earthquakes and tornadoes shock Asia, New Orleans, Haiti, Chile, and middle America; you have watched volcanoes in Iceland interrupt air travel around the world; and you have seen oil slicks jeopardize ecosystems and livelihoods along the Gulf Coast. 
You have observed and participated in efforts to work in collaboration and partnership across borders in order to address each of these challenges.

THIRTY YEARS AGO

The world has changed dramatically since I was an undergraduate thirty years ago. Back then, two superpowers were locked in a Cold War.  China, India, and Brazil had not yet taken their place as leaders on the world stage. The historic Camp David Accords had just been signed, promising peace between Israel and Egypt, but elsewhere in the Middle East, Iraq had invaded Iran, and militant students of radical Islam had just stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken 52 Americans hostage.  Dictatorships and civil wars thrived throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  Protest movements for human rights and democracy were incipient, and violence against women was still considered to be a private affair beyond the scope of public policy makers.

On campuses thirty years ago, students organized Amnesty International chapters to educate ourselves about human rights.  We wrote letters on behalf of victims of torture, and we protested U.S. support of dictators overseas.  In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island incident, we marched to protest nuclear waste and unsafe dumping practices, and called for accelerated development of green technologies and solar power. We boycotted grapes to support farm workers and urged the Nestle company to revamp marketing practices that promoted the use of infant formula among mothers who had no access to clean water.  We fasted for the hungry, and collected clothing for the homeless.  We staffed shelters for battered women and held candlelight vigils to “take back the night”.  We urged college trustees to invest responsibly.  At my commencement, dozens of us graduated wearing armbands to protest the practice of apartheid in South Africa.

CHANGE HAPPENS!

Looking back, we can note many successes, though they were not immediate and we could not have predicted them at the time.  Non-violent movements brought down dictatorships throughout Latin America, in South Korea, the Philippines, Poland and beyond.  The apartheid era in South Africa imploded, ushering in a new regulatory environment and creating new norms for corporate social responsibility.  Human rights considerations today have become an integral part U.S. policy making; women and ethnic minorities have moved into positions of power throughout the world;  and violence against women no longer falls on deaf ears on the public stage.

Following the end of the Cold War, the number of armed conflicts declined steeply, although in recent years they are on the rise again.  Peace agreements were signed in Central America, Northern Ireland, Dayton, and beyond.  Truth commissions have been established throughout the world to document abuses and forestall their recurrence.

TODAY’S TOOLS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

Despite these and many other advances, the paradigms of injustice have not changed all that much.  Nonetheless, the players as well as the strategies for addressing continued injustices have evolved. 

We must build on the old strategies and strengths as we develop new tools in the struggle to create a more just world. Social change continues to demand the capacity for critical thinking, research, and analysis; strong communications and leadership skills; the ability to engage in active listening; and the capacity for teamwork.  These are the skills nurtured by a traditional liberal arts education.  They provide a strong foundation for ethical consciousness and thoughtful engagement.  In themselves, however, they are not sufficient.  Creativity and imagination combined with commitment are also critical elements in the struggle for justice and peace.

For youth seeking to address today’s global challenges, there are new tools of engagement.  Thirty years ago, texting did not exist, to say nothing of Twitter and tweets.  Nor did MP-3s or iPods, iPhones, chat rooms, instant messaging, blogs, Facebook, or YouTube.  Thirty years ago, we had cassettes and Sony Walkmans, not cellphones, CDs or DVDs. Video cameras were costly and cumbersome, and video-chatting was unimaginable. The Internet was still in its testing phase so we depended for information on the library with its vast card catalogues and endless bookshelves.  Even word processing was still in its infancy.  I gained some infamy as a senior at Wellesley College after I invented a new way to underscore titles in my senior thesis that crashed the entire university word processing system in the critical hours before our theses were due.  (Luckily the deans saw fit to grant a blanket extension to the class—which made me a hero in some circles and a villain in others.)

Thirty years ago, our tools for social change were far more limited and low-tech than those of your generation. Direct communication with those suffering or combating injustice was sporadic.  Interdisciplinary work and transnational approaches were the exception, not the rule.  The capacity for real partnerships, particularly with international partners, was far more limited. 

Today, technological and communications advances have decentralized power, deepened democratic practice, and generated a surge in participation from previously marginalized sectors of the population.  Current efforts to seek social change today are more likely to be participatory, multinational, pluralistic, and multi-sectoral, and to rely on an ethic of solidarity and coalition building. 

These new tools and approaches have revolutionized our capacity for both good and evil.  I would like to offer a few examples of their power and potential to help meet today’s global challenges:

•    With just a computer, working out of her home in rural Vermont, Jodi Williams launched a global campaign to ban landmines that won her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.  Thirteen years later, we are within sight of ratifying two international conventions to outlaw this inhumane and cruel practice. 
•    Following the recent earthquake in Haiti, young people designed and launched an unprecedented text message campaign that raised $8 million in disaster relief through $10 donations.  Individuals donated some $200,000  per hour in the first 48 hours following the quake.
•    Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, GPS technologies, and other social media are being used today to map disasters throughout the world, to locate missing persons, and to provide information on food distribution centers and emergency resources.
•    Scientists, researchers, and advocates have established international programs and partnerships that are producing results in areas such as poverty reduction, infant mortality, and maternal health. 
•    Young people throughout the world are organizing sporting events and teams, concerts, student exchanges, and cultural activities that are bringing together those separated by longstanding legacies of hatred and violence to join in  common pursuits.  The personal relationships forged in these endeavors are sowing seeds of hope for the future.

WILLIAM AND MARY:  A PRACTICE OF ENGAGEMENT

Students at William and Mary have not shied away from engagement.  They have cut their diplomatic teeth as award-winning members of Model United Nations teams.  They have organized medical missions and generated social justice projects in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Belize, and along the U.S. border regions. They have worked with orphans in Romania, and women and girls targeted by war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They have supported nutrition and health initiatives in Tanzania, and poverty-reduction in Bangladesh and China.  Last year at this time, William and Mary students partnered with other schools and churches to collect some 400,000 pairs of shoes which they displayed around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, drawing attention to the enormous loss of lives in the war in Darfur.   These are important experiences on which to build.

Civil society is far more organized than it has ever been, and there are infinite opportunities to engage in local, national, and international struggles for justice.

I urge you all to continue to probe the unique and wonderful gifts you have to offer the world.   As Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern dance, noted: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

Your task now and in the coming years is to discover these inner forces and to compose your life in a way that allows each of you to blossom fully and infuse your life with meaning.

GO BEYOND YOURSELVES

We are all called to go beyond ourselves.  We are increasingly aware of how global patterns and international relations impact our lives.  We are also increasingly aware of how what we do as individuals and societies impacts the world.  For those of you who have not yet discovered your passion and for those of you who have, cultivate caring and compassion wherever you are–in your families, with your friends, in your communities, and in the world at large.  Relationships of mutual respect are the essential building blocks for global peace and security.

We have a tremendous capacity--individually and collectively-- to bring about social change.  There may be days when the task seems insurmountable and you feel like giving up.  Don’t.  What you do matters.  As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado said, “Se hace el camino al andar”—“The path is created by walking it.”
Forge your paths wisely, and God-speed for your journey.
 
1 Carnegie Commission 1997; and Patterns of Peace and Conflict: The UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, 1946-2008.