Keynote Address by Janet Mock, Commencement 2015

Authenticity is Your Real Power

Janet Mock | Keynote Address to the Class of 2015 | May 16, 2015

What is my life that I’m wearing this robe—what did I do wrong? Seriously, it is an honor to share this space with you today as your commencement speaker and to hopefully offer you parts of my experience as you journey toward and beyond the boundaries of Pitzer College.

Keynote speaker Janet Mock

Keynote speaker Janet MockWhen I received the invitation that you all chose me to be here as part of your monumental day, I was floored. Because these speeches in my mind were for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling…maybe you just couldn’t afford them but, you know, titans who built media empires or pushed generations of readers to think beyond the confines of their own reality. And in the world I come from, commencement speeches belong to them, not necessarily to me, not to the girl who just a decade ago was sitting where you’re sitting at my own graduation with nothing but a vision in front of me and a story to tell. So today I am going to be here doing what I do best, which is telling a story and lending you my truth, my truth of what it means to be a young person finding yourself and trying to assert yourself in a world that tells you daily that who you are isn’t enough, that who you are will limit you, and that who you are, ultimately, isn’t welcome.

And I hope in baring my truth to you, you gain power, understanding and the strength to go forth in the world exactly as you are.

So I grew up in a low-income neighborhood called Kahili on the island of Oahu in Honolulu, Hawaii. I grew up the middle child of five kids, with a mother who was a teen mother, with two sisters who were teen mothers, with a father who was addicted to crack cocaine. I grew up affected by my family’s joblessness and homelessness. We struggled for resources in communities ravaged by poverty. And if that wasn’t enough, I also had my own identity issues.

I was welcomed into the world as my parents’ first-born son. They named me after my dad. They dressed me in attire suited for boys. They expressed my gender for me at the start. As a child I struggled deeply and fought hard to be myself and reveal myself and express my identity, my femininity in a culture that demeans and devalues feminine people, in a culture that mandates that if you’re born with certain body parts, you are not allowed to express who you truly are if that expression doesn’t align with the gendered expectations thrust upon you and your body.

And despite the gender policing that I experienced as a young person, I still owned my difference. And I marvel at my teenage self, the girl with the unwavering sense of self who never let anyone’s expectations or perceptions of her identity or body make her doubt or question who she knew who she was. And I believe that self-assurance was the key to success and my survival and my resistance, allowing me to reveal my true self and transition through the halls of my high school.

I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college, and it was at the University of Hawaii that I discovered my love of writing. It was there where I began to tell stories. As a staff writer on our school paper, I asked people questions, I listened to them, I offered them space to tell their truth. I remember writing a feature story on our janitor in our school library who spent his lunch hours reading poetry because he yearned to be a poet, and I profiled other first-generation students telling their stories. As a reporter I learned that we all want to be heard, and we all yearn to be seen for who we really are, no matter our path. This is a universal truth. Telling our stories is revolutionary. It allows us to connect with one another but most importantly, it allows us to connect with ourselves. And I knew as a 22-year-old that telling stories was what I wanted to do with my life.

So after graduating from UH, I moved to the city of my dreams to attend NYU, and for me New York was the city of final destination, the city that is a goal, as E.B. White once wrote. I was someone who came to New York in quest for something, and that quest was voice, purpose and self.

In New York, I made the decision to not lead with the fact that I was trans, and it was liberating to be seen as “normal,” to be seen as another girl in the crowd, another 22-year-old discovering who I was beyond all the gender stuff. It was the first time in my life when I felt “normal.” With that privilege of unmarked existence, the privilege of normalcy, I gained access. I learned about writing from some of our nation’s best journalists, I got internships at magazines that I had read in my bed growing up, I earned my master’s degree and landed my dream job at the time as an editor for People magazine. I swore with my cocktails and my curls and my heels that I was Carrie Bradshaw.

And this was my dream at the time, this is what I was told, this was the American dream, I was someone who came from nothing, someone who was marginalized, someone who made something out of nothing. I became someone. In the world I came from, I was told that in order to be seen and be welcome, I had to be twice as good and work twice as hard. That’s why I earned advanced degrees, that’s why I didn’t speak my mother’s Hawaiian pidgin, that’s why I shed my otherness. I had to blend in to survive. Blending in was my armor, my way of protecting myself, granting me access to spaces. I shut off parts of myself in order to stay in those spaces. That sort of isolation forces you to exist in silence, which breeds doubt and creates a skewed reality where you’re constantly shielding and hiding parts of yourself. For me, as a young trans woman of color, I was fearful about opening up about a part of my identity that was stigmatized and de-legitimized. Why would anyone want to attach themselves publicly to a group of people who are constantly told they’re confused, who are told not to use this bathroom, that you can’t live or work there, who in 32 states can still be legally fired for being themselves, who, like the hundreds of trans women of color around the globe killed annually, are hunted down for being who they are.

And as I list these injustices, I also had to go deeper within myself, and unpack my internalized shame, my inherent fears about my identities. At the time, I walked around thinking that being trans, that being black, that being Hawaiian, that being a woman, that being “othered” limited me. I felt and I believed and I learned that I was “less than.” I felt that my voice maybe wasn’t worth hearing, that maybe I wasn’t worth being seen and counted because I saw no one like me in the media; on my TV; on my bookshelves that allowed me to see myself. And it took me years to come to the realization that just because we do not see images and stories that fully reflect who we are does not mean that our voices are not worth hearing.

Goddess Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I adopted that as my mantra. There was a story inside me that needed to be told and only I could tell it. So in 2011 I raised my hand to be counted. I used my voice so I could be heard, I took off the armor of exceptionalism, the armor that allowed me to be seen as normal, because being exceptional is not revolutionary; it is lonely. Choosing to tell my story of “otherness” emboldened me, giving me voice and visibility, allowing me to shift conversations, conversations about living at the intersections of gender, race and class, conversations about how restrictive gender norms oppress us all, conversations about the importance of media representation, and the power of Beyoncé.

And I’ve been successful at this mission. I’ve written a New York Times bestseller, I have my own TV show, I even high-fived Oprah with this hand, and cameras were recording it. I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish so far. But most importantly, I am proud that I get to be a mirror for young girls, a mirror that I didn’t have growing up. Yet I can’t ignore the fact that my experience, my success, is outside the norm for girls growing up like I did.

Many of my sisters are grappling with being homeless and jobless, with having a lack of access to health care and education, and this space of lack pushes them out of hostile homes and intolerant schools into detention facilities and prisons, and deeper into poverty. These alarming, interconnected issues remain widely unaddressed because we as a society deep down are afraid of difference. So we push those who are unlike us away. We aim to marginalize the “other” even further out of the scope of our vision, away from our reality. We push them further out because seeing others’ suffering proves that we are culpable to their suffering. And accountability isn’t fun. It’s work. Because we don’t want to be burdened with responsibility, we create and hold up tokens. Rare examples of marginalized people who have “made it,” who blend in, who we applaud. Their hyper-visibility alleviates us of that burden and our guilt. My success deludes many people into believing that my success is possible for all trans people, for all people of color, for all women embodying intersectional lives. The reality is it is not.

No one wants to talk about how our culture, our entire culture, made it impossible for me to be here. And being a public woman, outspoken trans woman, a visible woman of color, I know first-hand about what it means to be a token and not fully seen. The public’s continual gaze on my trans-ness is frustrating and limiting. I am often reduced to a single facet of my identity. My narrative is flattened in an attempt to make me less complicated, less layered, more digestible, more “normal.” It flattens me to a boring, basic token of normalcy that blends.

Growing up “othered,” I was told that normal was the goal, normal was a pathway to acceptance and contentment. But I’ve learned that none of us should try to reach for “normal.” Normal is basic. The goal is not normalcy. The goal is not to become this homogenized, coherent, easy-to-digest blob. The goal is not to blend. Dare to stand out. Be different. Embrace the other. Embracing my otherness has emboldened me to step further into my power. There is such power in me proclaiming that I will proudly and unapologetically embrace myself in a world that doesn’t want me to exist. For me, and for each of us, to own the parts of ourselves that are deeply othered, the parts that are so outside the boundaries of the norm, and say that those parts are ours, allows us to bring otherness to center. Authenticity is your real power. There can be no equality, there can be no justice, there can be no love until we learn to embrace the other in ourselves and one another. So today, Pitzer Class of 2015, my hope for you is that you are able to excavate that part of yourself that you have been hiding and allow others to see you, just as you are, right here, without shame, without doubt, without apology.

My hope is that you go out in the world, centering the piece of yourself that you’ve kept on the margins in order to blend in, and recognize and celebrate those pieces in yourself and in others. Pitzer Class of 2015, I wish you love, contentment and power. I am rooting for you. Thank you.

Keynote Address by Jon Lovett, Commencement 2013

May 18, 2013
Pitzer College

President Laura Skandera Trombley:

In keeping with a 49-year Pitzer tradition, the Senior Class selected this year’s Commencement speaker. Our guest today is Jon Lovett. Jon is the co-creator and head writer of the NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. Prior to this, Jon spent three years as a speech writer for President Barack Obama. During his tenure at the White House Jon drafted speeches on a range of public policy issues. He also helped craft the jokes used by President Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Before serving in the White House he was the chief speechwriter for then-Senator Hillary Clinton, working on both her presidential campaign and in her Senate office. Jon is a 2005 graduate of Williams College. After college but before entering politics he spent time doing standup at comedy clubs around New York. He is a Los Angeles resident today. So on behalf of the graduating class of 2013 and the Pitzer community, Jon Lovett , welcome.

Jon Lovett:
Hey, guys. Graduates, how are you guys feeling? I, for one, think we look amazing in these gowns. We look like gay federal judges who aren’t afraid to put a little flair out there because times have changed and you can be a confident, proud, even flamboyant gay judge while still being impartial on, say , a copyright dispute, which you’re seeing more and more of these days as our creaking laws face the onslaught of questions that come with new forms of media. You wonder if the whole idea of copyright is antiquated; of course you believe intellectual property is the lifeblood of a free market, but you didn’t become a gay judge to arbitrate lengthy trademark disputes between multinational corporations. You wanted to stand up for the little guy; you wanted to help that undocumented farm worker who is just providing for her kids; you wanted to help that repeat drug offender get treatment instead of another pointless stint behind bars. And now look at you. Twenty years on the bench and the only reason you stand out as a jurist is because you wear a colorful sash. You didn’t even want to go to law school. You weren’t sure what you wanted to do but you figured a law degree would be a great resource and give you time to learn who you were but of course, three years later who you were was a lawyer with a ton of debt. So you end up at a big law firm in Manhattan grinding out the billable hours. You’re a young gay man in the heart of New York City but you’re too tired to go out and even if you weren’t you’d have no idea where to go because the only two places you’ve been are your windowless office and your tiny bare-walled studio with a big screen television and a bed. Now in hindsight you kick yourself for wasting the years when you were young and pretty and confident and still had some shine in your eyes and the world seemed boundless and anything was possible and all you wished with every fiber of your being was that you could go back to that young man accepting his college diploma and shake him, shake him hard and tell him that now is the time to take risks, now is the time not to be safe, that there would be time for safe, that there would be time for offices and stability and sacrifices and savings accounts but that this was the rare moment when a human being could be free—free to write and dream and walk the earth and shout at power and dance, dance with beautiful strangers. You want to smack some sense into your young self. But you can’t. Because that’s all in the past. You’re just an old gay judge now.
Anyway, good morning! Listen, you guys didn’t invite a typical commencement speaker so I’m not going to waste your time with a typical commencement speech. If you wanted one of those you could have booked historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, or that nice pilot who crashed into the Hudson or Tom Hanks. Imagine if I were Tom Hanks right now; how cool would that be, and I was like, this reminds me of the time I pulled a prank on Steven Spielberg, which is awesome because it seems like they have a ton of fun making movies together.

But here’s the thing: those renowned, accomplished people, they don’t remember what it feels like to sit in your seats, not really. They can offer advice and sure, some of it may be good. Follow your dreams, aim high, whatever. But long ago they have forgotten the subtle notes of excitement and uncertainty and alcohol coursing through your veins today. And by the looks of you, there’s some other stuff in there, too. The guy in the sandals knows what I’m talking about.

I recently turned 30 which, I know, seems like a generation away to those of you graduating this morning but it’s more than just the worst. 30 is a year when you’re left straddling two worlds. One foot stands in the world of the young amongst the bright, eager minds and supple bodies of students like you. And the other foot stands in the world of the gray and decrepit, the ancient shapes of your professors and parents, their dulling senses, their craggily wizened faces. And by the way, congratulations, parents! This day is your day, too.

But what all this means is that I’m in a position to talk about life after college as someone who just lived through it. For example, do you remember how your elementary school felt enormous but when you returned years later, you were amazed by how small it actually was. In time your chosen professions will feel the same way. That is not to say that you won’t have almost unlimited opportunities but it is to say that if you sleep with someone who works in your industry, just be aware that you’re going to bump into that person at meetings and conferences and birthday parties for the rest of your life. I literally had to leave politics; we’re going to talk about it. Your love is a delicate flower.

So anyway, I’m going to skip the platitudes. I want this to be a practical commencement address and I’m going to do my best to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable to say, even when I probably shouldn’t say it, because you’re already swimming in half-truths and people telling you want they think you want to hear. And in the next phase of your life I promise you, you will encounter more. I should preface this by saying that the problem I’m going to describe involves a bad word, not the worst word, but a bad word, though I made sure I only have to say it now and one more time at the end so if you want to distract any little kids for one second, please do so.

One of the greatest threats we face, simply put, is bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research, in social media’s imitation of human connection, in legalese and corporate double-speak; it infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth and making it harder to achieve anything. And it wends its way into our private lives as well, changing even how we interact with each other, the way casual acquaintances will now say, “I love you,” the way we describe whatever thing as the best thing ever, the way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers, and we know that. There have been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap, hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named Your Call is Important to Us.

But this is not only a challenge to society, it’s a challenge we all face as individuals. Life tests our willingness in ways large and small, to tell the truth. And I believe that so much of your future and our collective future, depends on your doing so.

I’m going to give you three honest, practical lessons about cutting the B.S.

Number one: Don’t cover for your inexperience. You are smart, talented, educated, conscientious, untainted by the mistakes and conventional wisdom of the past. But you are also very annoying. Because there is a lot that you don’t know that you don’t know. Your parents are nodding; you’ve been annoying them for years. Why do you think they paid for college? So that you might finally, at long last, annoy someone else. And now your professors are nodding.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Yeah, this should definitely be in 3D.” No, what he said was, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. That’s what you have to do. You have to be confident in your potential and aware of your inexperience. And that’s really tough. There are moments when you’ll have a different point of view because you’re a fresh set of eyes, because you don’t care how it’s been done before, because you’re sharp and creative, because there is another way, a better way.

But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you’re wrong. Because you’re 23 and you should shut up and listen to somebody who’s been around the block. Now the old people are applauding. It’s hard to tell the difference. I love to get this one wrong. I got it wrong a ton when I started out as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. I got it wrong again when I became a presidential speechwriter. I worked on one speech about the financial system that caused the Dow to drop by 200 points. So that speech could have been better, probably.

Just this past year I faced the same dilemma co-creating a show on NBC. It’s called 1600 Penn and while you may have heard of it, based on the ratings you almost certainly didn’t see it, though it recently did make some headlines when it was cancelled. I had never so much as written a line of dialogue before I wrote this show but I was working with directors and writers and executives with years and years of experience in “the Biz;” we call it “the Biz.” I will always cringe remembering those little embarrassing moments when I said something dumb on a conference call, when my inexperience poked through, when I should have been more solicitous of the judgment of those around me. There’s a reminder that it’s not mutually exclusive to be confident and humble, to be skeptical and eager to learn.

But there’s another side to this coin which brings me to lesson number two. Sometimes you’re going to be inexperienced, naïve, untested and totally right. And then, in those moments you have to make a choice: is this a time to speak up or hold back? And it won’t be easy. You know, I worked for then-senator Clinton during her campaign for president, and I believed in her and still do. But I vividly remember feeling that things weren’t right in that campaign. A lot of the young staffers felt that way. It wasn’t a secret that there were problems in how the campaign was being run. The campaign pollster, for instance, rolled out so many slogans that it was impossible to keep track. Here is a sample: “Let the conversation begin.” “Ready for change, ready to lead.” “Working for change, working for you.” “Strength plus experience equals change.” Now, I like this one because it leads to the lesser-known corollary: “Strength plus experience divided by change equals one.” And then there was my favorite: “Big challenges, real solutions, time to pick a president.” One slogan which she had printed on the side of a bus but it was basically too small to read. So I’m putting these slogans into speeches and I look over at an Obama campaign rally on cable news and they have one slogan; it’s just the word “change” in big letters. That’s even better. But I was timid and a lot of us just assumed or wanted to assume that more experienced people must know what they are doing but that wasn’t true. So the campaign ended, my candidate lost and I ended up as a presidential speechwriter anyway which was cool. But the lesson I drew from that campaign, other than the fact that it’s always a mistake to run against Barack Obama, is the subway rule: “If you see something, say something.” And I’ve tried to honor that ever since, to call B.S. when I see it and to not be afraid to get in people’s faces and throw a punch or two to make a point, metaphorically; look at me, I wouldn’t do well in an altercation.

Now, lessons one and two can be intentioned, and I can’t tell you how to strike the balance every time though it helps to be very charming. And from my point of view I’d rather be wrong and cringe than right and regret not speaking up. But the good news is as long as you aren’t stubbornly wrong so frequently that they kick you out of the building or so meek that everyone forgets you’re in the building, you’ll learn and grow and get better at striking that balance until your inexperience becomes experience, so it’s a dilemma that solves itself; how awesome is that?

Finally, number three: Know that being honest, both about what you do know and what you don’t, can and will pay off. Up until recently I would have said that the only proper response to our culture of B.S. is cynicism, that it would just get worse and worse. But I don’t believe that any more, and I think this matters for what comes next for you. I think we’ve reached the turning point. I’m going to say the word one last time. I believe we may have reached peak bullshit and that increasingly those that push back against the noise and nonsense, those who refuse to accept that untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded, that we are at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding authentic superheroes in our blockbuster movies. We see it in locally-sourced organic food on campuses like this, at places like the Shakedown, a rejection of the processed as inauthentic. And we see it in politics. I believe Barack Obama represents this movement, that the rise of his candidacy was in part a consequence of the desire for greater authenticity in our public life. But you don’t have to be a Democrat to believe me. You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey, to Rand Paul in Kentucky. And what’s awesome is the graduates of schools like Pitzer, you guys, will be the ones who are best prepared and most likely to lead this movement. What’s striking about the culture of this school is an unabashedly sincere desire to do good in this world, to be responsible for one another and to carry yourselves with integrity, and it’s exciting that maybe, just maybe, those traits don’t just mean you’ll do good, but this earnestness, this authenticity, will help you succeed in a society that is demanding those qualities with both hands. All you have to do is avoid yourself in whatever you choose to do, to avoid the path of the sad, gay judge filled with regret, to go forward with confidence and an eagerness to learn and to be honest with yourselves and others to reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set in your own lives. And I say this only as someone hoping to do the same and go along with you for the ride. Pitzer Class of two thousand thirteen, you don’t need any more encouragement from me, you’re going to do extraordinary things and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Congratulations.