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Keynote Address by Phil Coltoff

Class of 2015 Convocation

Dean Videka; Dr. Connie Silver and Marty Silver; Dr. C. Cybele Raver representing the provost; distinguished faculty; graduates; parents; and guests. This is your day. Graduates, you earned it. Parents, you paid for it. This day should be both a source of pride, accomplishment, and, above all, relief and fun.

I recently was invited to be a speaker at the annual conference of the National Education Association. The incoming president, upon being introduced told the audience that in a conversation with his wife the night before the meeting he said, "Honey, in your wildest dreams did you ever think that I, a high school teacher, would become the president of a million member organization." His wife responded by saying, "Dear, I hate to tell you but you’re not in my wildest dreams." I thought of this story not so much in relation to myself but to you the students who have just completed an incredible educational journey, where among other things, you learned clinical interpretation, behavioral analysis, psychotherapeutic interventions, and, in some cases, dream interpretation. Yes, dreams are our private domain, especially the wildest ones.

Your choice to become a social worker, in my view the noblest of professions, was I know a serious and thoughtful process and had to be rooted in your sense of justice, of helping to make our community, society, and world a better place for all. I'm certain that for many of you this better place was a reflection of not only your own experience and sense of purpose but a moral commitment to minister to the needs of those most excluded from our society's riches and rewards. I commend you for this commitment, for this belief that America can be a better place for all our people—children, the unwanted, the homeless, the oppressed, and for those where the concept of opportunity applies only to others, not one's self. In this connection, I'm reminded of a story told to me by a most distinguished professor Lizbeth Shorr of the Harvard Medical School and author of Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage. Her daughter was making out applications for college. Lizbeth, known as Lee, said that she always had a great relationship with all of her children, close, sharing, and open but that relationship suffered during this period of stress. She said, "I used to look for opportunities to leave the house at night because the tension was so great and all of us were so unhappy. One day as I was leaving for a meeting, my daughter said, 'Mom, I need your help. I have a dilemma.'" Lee said that if she had a meeting with the president that night she would've cancelled it because it was the first time in months that her daughter reached out to her in a civil and respectful way. Her daughter said she decided that she wanted to be a social worker. Lee thought without sharing it with her that this kid would be a scientist or a doctor, but she said, "Honey, that's great, social work is such an important field and I'm proud of you, but what's your dilemma?" Her daughter then said, "I also decided that I want to be rich."

We all know that none of us went into this profession thinking that we would be rich. But that doesn't mean that we don't have a right to a decent living, salary that's commensurate with our training and education, let alone enough to pay back our student loans. All of us should be committed to this sound and fair approach to our compensation even as we strive and struggle to help those that we serve. Our national association as well as other lobbying efforts are directed toward this goal. Each of you should join in this cause.

This takes me to one of my major concerns and source of some dismay. Most of you are now trained to be very good clinicians and practitioners, thanks to your own study efforts and to this wonderful faculty behind me who shared with you their great knowledge of human behavior and treatment. We need competent clinicians to help the many who are struggling to find their place and some happiness in a complicated environment. While doing this we also need social workers who see their role as change agents. As those that can change our social system to better serve our people while we also help those in need better cope with their environment. We need advocates, we need leaders, and we need those that will run the organizations who now employ us. We also need to be the CEOs, the presidents, the directors of the social service organizations that are or should be at the forefront of change. There is no reason that I can think of that you graduates cannot also be these leaders, the heads of the mental health organizations, of Boys and Girls Clubs, settlement houses, senior citizen centers, juvenile justice facilities, and any other organizations that define themselves as nonprofits. Yes, you might choose to work as a therapist or a clinician in one of these agencies, but you can also have or get the skill, the knowledge, the determination to run the organization, to be the leader, to be the visionary, and, yes, to hire those that want to be the clinicians.

You are graduating at the most interesting time since the 1960s. Look around and social reform is the order of the day. Public schools need to be transformed, behavioral health needs to be recognized as at least as important as physical health. Communities need organizing; young people need to be in school or at work, not in prisons or jails. Two million young people mostly Black and Latino and male are languishing in prisons or juvenile facilities when they can be much better served in colleges or job training programs. We need to be part of the movement in communities throughout our country to change the climate so that these young men and women do not feel that society is against them be it the police, the courts, or the Congress. We need to be aligned with those who are legitimately protesting and aspiring for a better life. That is a charge that is embodied in social work history.

Seniors need to be treated with dignity and respect, receive an increase in their Social Security and Medicare allowances, and we also need to there for those who are being discriminated against based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Who is better to do this than we the social work profession? The time is now, the imperatives are before us, the issues of national identity are clear, and the responsibility rests in part on our shoulders. Let’s seize the moment, let’s seize the day, let's make the changes now that have similar impact as did our professional forebearers did in the 1930s and ’60s when social welfare, Social Security, the war on poverty, and delinquency prevention were the order of the day.

Our university and others in recent years have become globalized. NYU has programs throughout the world and especially large portals in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. An opportunity exists not to export our way of life but to share ideas, create deeper friendships, and respect each other's cultural and political systems. But globalism is also right here in New York City where more than 2.5 million out of our 8 million people have within recent years become part of our city life. Dominicans, Cubans, Chinese, Central Africans, Middle Easterners, Indians, and Bengalis are our neighbors, our coworkers, and our partners. That global network being right here at home is where we should also be because these folks have largely been left out of our political system and can use our support. Yes globalism begins at home.

Social work has always believed in case to cause, which couples individual or family assistance with the need to progressively change our system. We need to become not just interdisciplinary, but polymathic, where we bring to bear the knowledge learned through science, research, and the allied professions to better serve our clients. At the Silver School of Social Work there are significant beginnings in this realm. The McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, founded and funded by trustee Dr. Connie Silver and under the direction of Dr. Mary McKay, represents this new direction. Other faculty members are also in the forefront of new directions in areas of research, adolescent sexuality, palliative and end-of-life care, and child welfare. We commend these leaders for their work and the opportunity that it presents for our profession.

Yes, at most commencements graduates are implored to go out and change the world. Maybe we should start by changing ourselves, our agencies, our schools, and our communities, and through the marshalling of those resources, change our society. We believe in you. We believe in your capacity to make an enormous difference in the way in which all our people, citizens and immigrant alike, share in a better day. It's up to us to deliver on our promise. We trust in you as our future leaders, and we know that you will not disappoint.

Type: Article

Phil Coltoff