Rep. Liz Miranda ’02 delivered Wellesley’s 2021 commencement address
(I’m just going to go home after Lia’s speech.)
Good morning class of 2021, the green class!
Welcome to the 143rd commencement convocation at Wellesley College. I am just simply here to remind you that you are worthy. You are enough. And you belong.
I want to thank the spirit of the universe that has made today possible—even though not all of us can physically share in this space, I want all of you to know, from around the world tuning in, that even apart, we are still together.
Sibs, let’s take a moment to be present, to breathe, to feel the weight of this moment.
You made it. You deserve this. You earned this. Thank yourself.
Think of the year that we have survived, together. (I’m so tired of Zooms.) Look around to all who have gathered to celebrate you on one of the most sacred days of your lives.
Let us remember, and never forget, the 3.5 million lives we’ve lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve lost our loved ones, friends, and family members, and complete strangers, including my Avo, my grandmother Maria Andrade Alves Miranda. She was my everything.
Let us never forget the 1,068 Americans that have been murdered by the police since the death of George Floyd. I create space today for far too many Black women and trans women who’ve been brutalized and murdered by the police—Breonna Taylor, Ma’Khia Bryant, Sandra Bland, to say the names of only a few, but we know that only one is too many.
I thank my mother, Maria, who gave birth to a baby girl in 1980 at the age of 18, and she radically loved her. Thank you, Mommy, I love you. Because of you, I’ve worked earnestly to make you, and our people, proud. Obrigadu Mai, um ta amou. Pamode bo, um trabaja riju pa fase bo e nos povu sinti orgulho de me.
I thank the Wellesley Native American Student Association, the administration, and the student organizers for acknowledging that we are on the land of the Massachusett Tribe.
I honor them and our African ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. There would be no us, or this place, without generations of their stewardship, suffering, and survival on this very land.
I thank President Dr. Paula Johnson, the first African American woman to serve as president of this institution in its 146-year history. I see you. I thank the administration, the senior class, the board of trustees, the faculty and staff who made this ceremony possible.
I am incredibly humbled that you chose me to share this sacred space with you. To the graduates, all 570 of you, some of whom are here on the green and over 100 students who are tuning in, virtually, from Rwanda, Morocco, Zimbabwe, India, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Puerto Rico, I see each and every one of you.
I am now one of only 16 Black women who have ever graced this podium, in 143 years of this address, joining trailblazers like Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the first to bless this stage. Others who followed, like Maya Angelou, Anita Hill, Oprah, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and now me, Rep. Liz Miranda.
Can you believe? Can you believe they let me back up in this place?
I hold gratitude for Black women, the bedrock of our democracy, who paved the way for me, like my sorority sisters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Xi Tau chapter, the late Rachel Beverly, Kelly Brown, Mrs. Carol Estridge, Filomina Steady, and Dr. Robin Cook-Nobles. The world is a better place because of them, and the world will soon become a better place because of you.
Sibs, I hope that as I share my story you will see parts of yourself woven in my remarks. I share to express a radical belief that I actually hold: You don’t have to be perfect to do great things. But you do have to speak your own truth as a catalyst in the change you wish to see in the world. Even if your life’s challenges are different from mine, remember that all of us have moments in life where our backs are against the wall.
Sibs, let me share some of my story.
I can remember the drive from my grandparents’ house on Clifton Street in Roxbury to Central Street here in Wellesley in the fall of 1998. Only 10 miles away, but it felt like worlds apart.
My family’s story begins with my grandfather Manuel Goncalves Miranda, who came to Boston in pursuit of the American Dream in 1976 from the newly freed colony of Cabo Verde on the west coast of Africa, after a war led by Amílcar Cabral against Portuguese colonial rule. With a full heart and working hands, he came to build a foundation, working in a factory, preparing to send for his family still back home. Our family came to this community at a crossroads, experiencing environmental injustices, red-lining, divestment, but also it was transforming into a vibrant tapestry of people from different cultures.
There are two movies and a book called Streets of Hope about our neighborhood, the “Dudley Triangle,” rebuilding the community after decades of injustice. I bore witness to the people of our community who literally reimagined what our community could be and rose from the ashes, reclaiming over 1,400 parcels of vacant land for public good. It is here that I learned about my own agency, the power of hope, and possibility.
From whom and where I come is such an important part of who I am, and who you are. I embraced my family’s story, became stronger from the lessons of community organizing, and the power of everyday people to do extraordinary things. That beautiful tapestry of people was a powerful, driving force across my life.
Thank you to the people of Roxbury and Dorchester, who taught me how to speak truth to my own power and see my worth in a world that was determined not to.
I chose Wellesley because my mother, who’s a cook in the back of Boston’s hotels, told me a story about the head chef, in disbelief that her daughter got into Wellesley, [who thought] she must have been “mispronouncing” the College’s name.
I wanted to prove him wrong, so I did. The world tells a story about us that’s hardly ever true, but what that chef didn’t understand, my mother, the cook, has taught me more about life than College ever could. Not that George Bush is my homie, right, but he said something that has stuck with me my entire life. (I know, George Bush, right?) But he talked about “the bigotry of low expectations.”
Before my move-in day at Wellesley, I had never set foot on the campus. I couldn’t, I was at work. I missed orientation, I was at work. I was always at work. As the students around me started to settle in, I was filled with worry. My birth father had just been deported, and my siblings were incarcerated. I worried whether or not I could even afford to stay in this beautiful place—my family had already sacrificed so much.
My family and I had pulled up to Wellesley like 20 deep, with my little cousins, my three-piece Sanyo stereo (I’m dating myself), and my prized Tupac poster in the back of a U-Haul truck. It was a whole family affair. As we drove on the windy road to Stone D, I remember it being so green, with castle-like structures, and the air smelled so pure and fresh. I was now the Fresh Princess of Wellesley—I was ready for my Hillman College experience that I had seen on TV, the fictitious college on the show A Different World, and sure enough, a different world it truly would be for me.
After my family left, I felt alone, but I was not alone. I didn’t know that yet. I had my roommate, Amelia, the ballerina from West Virginia, my soon-to-be family at Stone D, Anna and Regina, the first two sibs I met walking around trying to get my trash bin and flip-flops from the Students’ Aid Society. I missed my family and friends, missed my block, the sights and sounds of Dudley Street, the sound of funaná, children’s laughter in the schoolyard, and ’90s hip-hop, the smell of soul food and arroz con frijoles, and my grandmother yelling to me in kriolu to come inside. I missed the noise, the No. 15 bus, and I soon realized that I was actually no longer home, but in a matter of weeks, I would build a whole new community, a new family, that would support me through my journey at Wellesley.
It was not all a fairy tale, though. Although I expanded my mind and held fond memories, I struggled here. I wasn’t even sure if I liked this place. (True story.) Many times I questioned if I even belonged here. But, I did. Photocopying books in the Knapp Center I couldn’t afford to buy, working two to three jobs through my four years, doing my classwork in the wee hours of the morning while eating meals the dining hall workers saved for me.
It felt like the world was on my shoulders and no one would come to save me. I remember being half asleep in Poli Sci 100, learning about political theorists including Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, all the while thinking the professor was talking about Makaveli, my favorite rapper Tupac Shakur.
Tupac was a philosopher, too, just like Niccolò. I can hear the words of his poem in my mind: “Did you hear about the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.” I was that rose from the concrete.
For some of you, Wellesley has been your home. A beautiful oasis that helped you become who you are today. For some of you, this space created challenges that were difficult to overcome. You may have struggled with imposter syndrome and felt like you did not belong.
I have learned that home is not always just about one physical space. It is not just about the beautiful memories of where you grow up. Home is also the space that you create for yourself. The love and agency you use to build a beloved community all around you. Creating your own sacred space where you can be your authentic self is never easy, but it’s so worth it. You will create beautiful new spaces that bring healing to our society, innovation to our doorsteps, and transformational love to countless communities.
The late Dr. Tony Martin encouraged me to write a thesis. He was a brilliant professor. He convinced me in my first year to study who I was, the impact of the diaspora across the world, and it was the start of my path toward loving my blackness. Ultimately, this would carry me to my honors senior thesis, “The History of Black Women Graduates of Wellesley.” See, not every feminist was Gloria Steinem.
We fought with the administration every chance we got to protect Ethos and to increase diversity in student life activities, faculty, and students. I survived so much just to get from Roxbury to Wellesley, and in these moments I finally realized that although I was taught to need [SS1] a degree to make it, the College needed me more than I needed it. And in fact, all institutions need us. They need us! They need us to add, to disrupt, to push, and to elevate.
Over four years on this campus, the community we built together worked to hold the institution accountable just like you have—you’ve carried a torch that will not stop today, or tomorrow, or the next year. Every generation has the opportunity and the responsibility to move us closer to justice. You have organized, mobilized up until the very day of commencement. You’ve fought to reimagine public safety on this campus, to end the use of gendered language, and the institution’s investment in fossil fuels. There is something about this place that forces you to reflect not only on who you are today, but who you want to be tomorrow.
When I sat in your seat as a graduating senior in the class of 2002 (I make 40 look good, right y’all?), George Bush was president of the United States and we had invaded Afghanistan just three months before commencement. (This clearly was not a moment when President Bush was worried about the bigotry of low expectations.)
I remember listening to our commencement speaker, Whoopi Goldberg (Whoopi’s the bomb!), who shared with us that the world was “vastly different after September 11” and what was really important to remember was “who we wanted to be” in that new world and how it required our help, how to check our own baskets of judgment.
With the confrontation of the COVID-19 public health crisis, we find ourselves working through one of the most difficult moments in our history. The weight of this moment has us feeling ill-equipped as we continue the fight against the 400-year history of racism and police violence against Black and Brown bodies. Before our very eyes, we are witnessing an economic collapse and exploitation of the working class while increasing wealth for the 1 percent.
When I think about this chaotic world that we all have inherited and also are responsible for, all I can think is: “This is sure a lot.” Has someone created the Zoom link for world peace and tranquility? (Because I would be on it…) Some of us already may feel emotionally fatigued and physically drained from the pressures of the past 16 months.
Dr. King once said, “I have seen the power of God transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for justice, all of humanity has constant companionship.”
Sibs, although there is so much that is pushing up against us, my heart is full of joy and hope today because we continue to push forward. The Black Lives Matter Movement is pushing us forward, the movement to end hatred toward our Asian friends and neighbors is pushing us forward, and climate justice organizers who are fighting for our world push us forward, and the disruptors and the truth-tellers who are fighting to restore and protect our shared humanity.
Sibs, you are pushing us forward.
In 2017, after my brother Michael was murdered, tragedy pushed me forward. It was a defining moment that called me to serve. Just like the movements of our time, built on pain, tragedy, loss, and injustice, my brother’s loss built a movement in me. When I first walked into the Massachusetts State House, I learned quickly that this space was not built for me either, but I was drawn to answer, and to answer the call to serve. See, the assignment was greater than me.
But, now more than ever, I am determined to make this space my home, just like the Dudley Triangle is my home, just like Wellesley is my home. Now I have the power to make any space I enter, home. Sibs, you will encounter a world with spaces that feel like you don’t belong, but you hold the power and agency to make it your home and to stand in your truth.
It is true that this time in our history has changed us forever, but that feeling isn’t new—I too left Wellesley and entered an uncertain world. I was too afraid not to have all the answers, but there is hope.
In the time that has passed I’ve been a dozen (or more) different versions of myself. I’ve failed, lost jobs, and lacked confidence. I’ve known heartache more times than I care to acknowledge, and paralyzing defeat and deafening disappointment. My life truly is an imperfect example of triumph over tragedy.
But guess what? I’ve also known exhilarating joy and enduring faith, real love, the beauty of friendship, and the warmth of achievement. On this journey, I’ve experienced life-altering compassion and generosity of those who are familiar and those who are unknown.
See, I always wanted more out of my life, and to do better and to want better and to do more. I am proud that I’ve survived and accomplished many things in this complex life. And now, so have you.
I humbly submit to you that we are able to overcome the impossible by loving ourselves. Remember to choose you and to offer yourself grace. Speak truths and use them as a catalyst for changing the world. There will always be a new beginning, a new space that will require you to become anew. Use the gifts of your imperfections, the power of your story, and the community you build to drive you forward.
Be brave, sibs. Be brave. The world needs you. Continue to demand more.
In closing, when your back is against the wall, [you are] confronted with the weight of the world, and unsure about how you will contribute, it is important that you ask yourself one question: “Why not you?” Why not you?
You are worthy. You are enough. You belong.
Congratulations, class of 2021.