Congressman Jamaal Bowman:
Keynote Speaker

Hello, Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2021!

Thank you so much for inviting me to join you on this incredibly important day. I’m so honored not just to be here, but to represent the 16th Congressional District in the United States Congress. What an honor to be the commencement speaker for this world renowned institution right here in our district.

Let me say a big congratulations to all of you. What you’ve achieved is a tremendous accomplishment. I wish very much that we were able to celebrate in person together on this special day. For now, though, we’ll continue to stay safe until all of us and our loved ones and families are able to get fully vaccinated and we can share in that love in person together once again.

I want to talk a bit today about brilliance—about what that means, who our society considers to be brilliant, and how we can use it to build a shared vision for humanity and peace. I’ve been an educator for almost all of my adult life, and I’ve seen and experienced firsthand what happens when you allow children the environment, attention, the care they need to unlock their brilliance—as well as what happens when they don’t have access to what they need, or when they are trapped in a cycle of punishment and trauma. The work of an educator must always be about the former—and I believe that’s my also my work as a Congressman today.

I was born and raised in New York City on the Upper East Side and lived in public housing and rent-controlled apartments. Our mother raised us to live our lives with love and joy.

This year has been incredibly difficult. I knew what that meant, but it all became clear to me when my mother passed earlier this year on Valentine’s Day. I know I am not the only one among us today who has faced tremendous loss of a loved one in this past year, and I hold space in my heart for all of you and those who are no longer with us.

Growing up, I did not plan on becoming an educator, much less running for office and becoming a member of the United States Congress. Like many kids I wanted to be a professional athlete. Through the suggestion of a close friend I decided to get into teaching.

After a decade of working with children as a guidance counselor and dean, I had the opportunity to found a new school, CASA Academy in the Bronx. I had the incredible opportunity to hire my own staff with a shared philosophy for education who believed in what we were trying to do. At CASA we built a program for our kids based not around performance on a standardized test, but on student voice, holistic education, cultural awareness, and love. Most importantly, we taught our students to seek justice, truth, and love themselves in a world that does otherwise.

I’ve seen firsthand how a system that’s rigged in favor of the wealthy and privileged few denies low-income families opportunities over and over again. I’ve seen how when kids are dealing with issues like homelessess, mental health struggles, a lack of healthy food, trauma, and racist policing and immigration systems, they  can’t learn and connect with their peers and teachers in the way they should be in order to reach their potential.

At CASA, our approach was to focus on educating the whole child, and creating an environment that helps them to reach full potential. Education can’t just be about getting good test scores. It must be about character development, project based learning, creativity and innovation, and getting kids excited about learning. It must also be about addressing the conditions that children are living in—not just when they go through the doors at school in the morning, but what environment they go home to and what their community is like. That is how we can unlock the brilliance of every single child.

That brings me to what I want to ask you all to think about today. We have seen the potential of the human race to accomplish unimaginable things in our current world. We watched in awe over the past year as scientists developed safe, life-saving COVID-19 vaccines at a record pace. We see great artists every single generation change the way we think about music, dance, food, and culture. We see groundbreaking academic work come from the hardworking scholars at institutions like yours.

We see it in young people picking up the torch to mobilize by the thousands against racism, violence, hatred, oppression, and climate catastrophe.

We see it every day in the endless patience and love of those in care work, which touches all of our lives from beginning to end—from the unpaid labor of those who raise us as children, childcare workers, teachers, home aides, and healthcare workers, to those who care for us in old age and see us through the end of our lives.

The world we live in today and the humanity all around us is remarkable and astounding. I’m sure in your experiences at Sarah Lawrence you’ve experienced the brilliance of your peers and their dreams and passions, discovered new capacities within yourselves, and the mentorship and experience of the educators around you.

But let’s not stop there. As we all have seen and experienced just by moving through the world, not all brilliance is seen, let alone valued. We live in a world where your life expectancy is often determined by which zip code you were born in. We have kids who go to schools in buildings that are falling apart, where teachers are overworked and underpaid, in districts that are redlined and overpoliced. In this district alone, 17% of children live in poverty, and that number is 22% in the Bronx.

I want us to be able to dream of what potential we can unlock when all children are treated as the beautiful, valuable humans that they are; 

when no one in this country or on the planet is unable to get the food, shelter, water, health care that they need;

when every person is able to achieve the level of education that all of you graduating here today have achieved;

when we eradicate all forms of violence, war, oppression, and white supremacy.

If we’re able to do that, I believe that the potential of the human race is limitless, and that we can solve the challenges that seem insurmountable today. I believe our children and children’s children deserve to see what that new world looks like—one without war, poverty, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, and the plague of white supremacy. 

This is what I hope you will keep in mind regardless of your chosen field, your path forward, and those you share it with. I hope you will find ways to look around you and ask: what brilliance lies in the communities around you that hasn’t been realized yet or hasn’t been heard. How can you draw that out, be encouraging and supportive and curious and collaborative with your fellow humans—not just at a personal level, but in ways that can reach your whole communities, your country, and your world.

All of you are brilliant in your own ways. I invite you and encourage you to find your path in a way that always uplifts others so that we can build that shared vision of humanity and peace for all. Let’s move forward with love. You all will go into the world and become agents of justice, freedom, and liberation. Own that power. Unleash that force through your talents and passions. We need you now more than ever. Our darkest times are behind us, a new world is in front of us. You are a part of that revolution. I have no doubt that you will make your mark in ways that will surprise you.

Congratulations to all, and peace and love to you and your families. 

Remarks as prepared for delivery