Keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke to the graduating Class of 2021 about overcoming racial injustice and inequality.

Stevenson began his address by telling a story about his grandmother, who made him promise that he would take care of his mother, always do the right thing even if it is hard and never drink alcohol. Stevenson said that to this day, he has kept all of these promises, and he requested that the graduates make promises of their own. He asked the Class of 2021 to promise to deal with the injustice in the world.

“I do believe that until we tell the truth, until we commit to truth telling, until we commit to changing narratives, we will deny ourselves the beauty that is justice, and we need more justice,” Stevenson said, addressing the students. “I want you to promise that you'll think about ways to resist fear and anger to change narratives. Secondly, I hope you'll promise to stay hopeful because in this moment of so much difficulty, we need more hope.”

Stevenson elaborated on his reasons for pursuing justice. He explained that his great-grandparents had been enslaved, and he and his family grew up in segregation. It was not until his community enforced the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education that Stevenson was allowed to attend a public high school, and then later, college and law school. Despite the racial injustices that he faced, Stevenson said he always held on to hope and did the right thing. “I have this hope that if you are hopeful in the exercise of the opportunities and talents that you have, you can open doors for people,” he said.

Hope is an important aspect in moving the country forward on the right path, Stevenson explained. “I want you to reject hopelessness,” he said to the graduates. “I believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. I think injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. I want you to understand that your hope is your superpower.”

Stevenson emphasized the need for continued change in the country and the world, and how the contributions of this graduating class will be necessary in this effort. “I don’t think we’re free in America,” he said. “I think we’re burdened by a long history of racial injustice. I think it’s contaminated the atmosphere.” He spoke about how the United States has been built on genocide and slavery, and how it is neccessary for these wrongdoings to be recognized and the narrative of the country to be restructured in order for there to be justice.

“I want us to reject the politics of fear and anger,” Stevenson said, noting that leaders across the world are engaging in these politics. He added, “We have to understand the threat that that poses.” Stevenson spoke about how there has been too much suffering in the world as a result of these politics and again emphasized the need for change.

Stevenson believes people are judged by their contributions to combating injustice and inequality. He asked the class to promise to do “uncomfortable and inconvenient things.” He defined this as always doing the right thing, “affirming the humanity and dignity of every person” and working hard to change a narrative that has long been rooted in racism. 

“I believe that you represent the hope of a new generation,” Stevenson said to the graduates. “You represent the hope of a better future. You represent the hope that comes with the possibilities that when people come together they can do great things.”

President Ron Liebowitz also spoke to the Class of 2021. He took a moment to offer thanks to Justice Louis Brandeis’ grandson, Frank Brandeis Gilbert, who has continuously supported the University and helped students maintain their connection to the values of “jurisprudence, democracy and civil society” that Justice Brandeis emphasized.

Liebowitz began by acknowledging the great and unforeseen challenges that the Class of 2021 faced upon graduating and urged each student to “take pride in the determination and resilience they have shown, particularly during the pandemic.” 

Over their four years of studies, the Class of 2021 received a broad and extensive education and Liebowitz believes the graduates can use the skills and knowledge they have developed in their future endeavors. While all of their learned skills are essential, Liebowitz emphasized the importance of their digital and technological knowledge. These skills in the sphere of technology have only grown from hybrid learning that students experienced in the past year. “A large part of your academic success was the product of your own ability to engage with technology and adjust to new and untested pedagogical strategies,” Liebowitz said. 

Liebowitz emphasized that the Class of 2021 has shown strong dedication to the University's social justice mission with their successful activism and fight against “hate in all of its forms.” The current state of the US is filled with “the racism that has outlived slavery for almost 150 years, the deep xenophobia towards Asians and Asian Americans and the millennia old antisemitism most recently exercised as a protest against Israel's right to exist,” Liebowitz said. These instances of injustice must be challenged, he said, and the Class of 2021 has exhibited all of the skills and abilities to do so. 

Lieowitz expressed his confidence that many in the graduating class will “make groundbreaking discoveries, create new forms of art, literature and human expression and introduce innovative ways for wealth creation” in order to further improve the world we live in. “I look forward to the day when your creativity, discoveries and innovations in leadership across many fields and roles in society have a noticeable impact on our world,” Liebowitz concluded.

Kwesi Jones, who double majored in African and African American Studies and Film, Television and Interactive Media, then gave the undergraduate commencement address.

Jones recognized the graduating class’s unprecedented senior year caused by the pandemic. “I imagine we all had our dreams or aspirations but I bet that none of them included the global pandemic, impending ecological collapse, constant social upheaval and our professors asking if they're sharing their screens every five seconds.”

The Class of 2021’s undergraduate experience was “long, grueling, exciting, tiring, inspiring, tear-jerking, humbling and rewarding,” he said, adding that even though the journey was not easy, each and every graduate succeeded.

Jones proposed that students abandon the principle of wishing to return to the world before the pandemic, the world which we all consider normal. While there were a multitude of positive aspects to that normalcy — “Springfest and the sign in the Boston shuttle and big cultural events and Midnight Buffet and dorm parties and everything else” — people must “envision a new world better than the one we call normal,” Jones said. “Normal,” he explained, included the deaths of thousands of people due to the pandemic and the rampant anti-Black violence. 

Jones’ call to action for the Class of 2021 was to “leave the world better than we found it”  — not simply slight improvements, but a “complete restructuring.”  He continued, “let's pull back our sleeves of inhibition and plant deep within the earth seeds born from our collective ingenuity, seeds of knowledge and truth, seeds of community and love, seeds of change.” He urged the Class of 2021 to use whichever profession or career they chose as a vessel to “tear down the old rusty pillars of inequity and replace them with a new material that makes the values of liberty and justice for all universal and unconditional.”

Finally, Jainaba Gaye, who graduated with a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence from the Heller School, delivered the graduate student address. She spoke about her gratitude for the Brandeis community and the positive impact she believes she and her fellow graduates will make on the world.

At Brandeis, Gaye said she met many different types of people. Despite the differences among her classmates, Gaye noted how they remained respectful of each other and shared an important ambition. “We all had one overarching goal, which is to positively impact life,” she said.

Emphasizing this sense of community, Gaye said she found a home at the University. Especially in times of grief, she said, “The selflessness, care, compassion and empathy displayed by the students and faculty were astounding.” In particular, Gaye addressed the challenges of last year, noting how the “spirit of community” kept the class connected even after the University went virtual last March.

Although the graduates will go forth with their own individual journeys and stories, Gaye said that they are still alike. She urged her classmates to continue dreaming and not limit themselves, even if they feel unprepared.

Quoting activist Angela Davis, Gaye said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time, and sometimes we have to do the work even though we do not yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it is actually going to be possible … Change, no matter how impossible or far away it may seem, is possible and has the potential to impact lives.”

Gaye concluded her speech by telling her graduating class to connect with themselves and others, lend help when needed and “always remember [they] are worthy of celebration.”