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Remarks by Otis Rolley at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning Commencement

As prepared for delivery on May 25, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone.

Thank you, Christopher, for that kind introduction. Dean Sarkis, professors, staff, thank you for the privilege and honor to share some thoughts and encouragement with the Class of 2022. If nothing else, these last two years have taught us to give folks their flowers while they can still smell them, so I want to say a special thank you to some folks who may or may not be here, but because of their commitment to me and to excellence while I was at DUSP, I am here. As you graduates can attest, learning and molding happens in and outside the classroom, so I offer a heartful thank you to Phil Clay, Terry Szold, Langley Keyes, Larry Vale, Larry Susskind, Karl Seidman, Sandy Wellford, and Bish Sanyal. I also want to say thanks to Gilbert Contreras, Shawn Escoffery, and Anthony Ng.

Congratulations, Class of 2022. You did it. You made it to the end of your remarkable tenure here.

And when I say congrats, I’m not talking about just your academic accomplishments. You are now MIT grads, ’nuff said in that category. I’m talking about your efforts — and your success — in changing this institution.

Two years ago today, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. You watched that unflinching video of his death, captured by a teenaged witness, on your phones and laptops. And you saw how it sparked outrage across the country and around the world.

It moved you to act. DUSP’s Black students organized themselves and their allies, then approached the Department with some key concerns. Those conversations led to the development of four strategic priorities for this Department: Tackle the climate crisis. Become a truly anti-racist institution. Close the wealth gap. And enhance a multi-racial democracy.

Since then, you all have made important progress. You’ve published a Black DUSP Thesis to guide the Department in its anti-racist transformation. DUSP has developed a system for tracking its progress toward, and holding itself accountable to, those priorities. And they hosted a “teach-in” to explore what urban planning would look like if it confronted past mistakes and centered racial and social justice.

I’ve gotta say, I’m impressed. Yes, I’m biased. I believe planners and architects can do anything.  We can be a transformative force for good; or we can use our talent, skills, and power to reinforce what is broken about our society. You, in your time here, have chosen the former. I am in awe of your ability to articulate what, I would argue, are the most important issues of our time. It has been said, “Don’t talk about, Be about it!” You did that. And you’ve made progress in just two short years — years that have also been shaped by the biggest public health crisis in over a century.

I am not just in awe, I’m also relieved. It is easy in this time, with the assault on a woman’s right to choose, anti-democratic, racist voter suppression, assaults on the rights of LGBTQ Americans, and senseless, tragic murders of our children in elementary schools when we elevate our right to bear arms over our children’s right to safety and life… in the midst of all this, as you graduate, it is easy to lose hope. But, with leaders like you all out in the so-called real world, I feel a lot more hopeful about our future.

I gotta also say, if I’m being honest, I’m also a little disappointed. You’ve made this task — giving this speech — much more difficult. What’s a commencement speaker to do when graduates are already making a difference? When you’re already leaving behind classroom theories and dorm room debates and making a real impact?

Still, I do have some thoughts on where you might go from here. On how you might continue your legacy as changemakers, wherever your life and your career take you. So, this afternoon, I want to talk about how you can continue to make a difference in the world beyond MIT.

There’s a common assumption about what you should do after you finish your degree. It goes this way:

Make mistakes. Make money. Make a difference.

There’s also the assumption that you’ll do those things in that order. I’ve done all three throughout my career — well, except maybe the “make money” part. I seem to have skipped over that one.

But I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes. When I was in the first position where I was in charge — of people, of programs, of a budget, only two years after I graduated — I did a great job of collecting data, listening to my team, examining every possible angle of a problem and every possible solution to it. But I did a terrible job of actually making a decision and following through with it. My first year in this role, I suffered from “analysis paralysis.” It was an important lesson for me to learn: once you’re finished analyzing, you have to start acting.

You’ll make your own mistakes. And you won’t have to seek them out — they’ll find you. When they do, it’s important to remember it’s not the end of the world. Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get his first big break until the age of 46! Katy Perry was dropped by three record labels in seven years before she signed with one that released her first hit album. Kim Kardashian was married three times before she finally found Pete.

You’ll make mistakes, too. Life will go on — your career will go on — when you screw up. But it’ll help you bounce back if you remember another popular adage. One I embraced and have lived by after I got over my analysis paralysis…

Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast.

Expend your energy not on who to blame, but instead, find the lesson in your failure — quickly — and make sure you don’t repeat it the next time.

Let’s move on to the next step you’re supposed to take: Make money. Like I said, this has not been my gift — as my financial planner will tell you.

And I hate to be the one to tell you all this, but we don’t have time for you all to only make money before you start making a difference.

Because the problems we face are not going to wait. My generation and the generations before you have left our cities, towns, communities, states, nations, the world in such a state of disrepair. The problems we face are so fundamental — a changing climate, backsliding democracies, gender and racial discrimination — that if we don’t fix them, the world won’t be worth spending money in anyway.

Challenges as big as these require thinkers as bright as you.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can make money and make a difference.  You can do good and do well. You can push your firm to do more pro bono work. You can advocate for your city or town to embrace equity and justice. You can shape your NGO or CBO to think outside the box and cast aside patterns and practices of the past toward innovation and inclusion.

Judging from your actions here at MIT, it seems like most of you will want to make a difference no matter where you end up.

So, how do you find the right thing for you — the problem you’re uniquely qualified to help solve?

You have to match your head and your heart to your work. You might be called to global work. Or neighborhood work. Whichever it is, that’s great — we need either. Both. All of the above. So, find the kind of work that moves you, that motivates you, and apply your talent toward that work.

You also have to organize and value the team around you. Understand that different people need to play different roles in order for the entire team to succeed. For you all to make progress toward your goals.

Let me give you an example.

At my undergrad, a phenomenal institution then and even more so now, during my junior year, the then-president of the university said that Blacks are genetically inferior. Graduates, this was not in 1954, it was in 1994. The president of the university, I won’t mention his name, said that Blacks were genetically disadvantaged and so the university should lower the SAT standards for them, because they can’t achieve at the level of Whites because of their inferior genetic disposition.

Yup. That’s what he said.

So, call me crazy, but I spent much of that year trying to get him removed from office. I helped found a group called the United Students Coalition. We came up with a list of demands inclusive of, but not limited to, the president’s removal. We took over buildings, shut down a nationally televised basketball game, marched on the state capital. And then, during a demonstration outside the president’s house, I was arrested. I spent the beginning of my senior year in a courtroom.

As the group’s spokesperson, I got a lot of attention. I went on cable TV, various news programs, I was even on The Today Show. I was on the front page of papers of record in Philadelphia and Newark and Washington DC. But that didn’t mean I was more important than the people handling our fundraising, organizing our marches, or the folks coordinating our efforts with other campuses. And I was pretty dang grateful for the lawyers in our group when I found myself in court. We talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when we talk about the March on Washington, but it could not have happened without Bayard Rustin.

Every. Role. Matters.

No matter what kind of team you’re on, you have to place equal importance on every person’s role — because every role is equally important.

After that experience at Rutgers, I came to MIT ready to fight. Graduates, I remember coming into a meeting with administration with my long locs (I used to have hair y’all) and rocking my red, black, and green. Me and others challenged the administration to do more. Increase enrollment and support for students of color and professors of color. Their response: “You are right. We’d love to work with you. You lead.” We did some great things, one of which I’m most proud of was the establishment of a sanctuary of support, fun, and fellowship for students of color and their allies at 440 Mass Ave that lasted for 20 years!

Before I got here, I didn’t realize that an administration could not only listen to and agree with you, they could actively support your efforts to make change. When one of your classmates, Natasha, approached the head of the department about the lack of representation of disability planning in the current curriculum, his response was the same. “You are right. We’d love to work with you. You lead.” That’s what they did for you all in 2020. And that’s what they did for my classmates and me 20 years ago.

But I’ve gotta be honest with you: In my experience, that kind of reaction is rare. You’re more likely to run into leaders like the ones at my undergrad than you are the ones at MIT.

Most of the places I’ve worked haven’t been like MIT. America’s not like MIT. The world’s not.

Think about it for a moment. George Floyd’s murder was the catalyst for you all approaching DUSP with demands for change. It was the catalyst for protests, for proclamations, for calls for police reform and racial reconciliation and justice across the country.

For a while, it looked like things would change. And in some places, like Cambridge, and for some people, like a lot of us in this room, they did.

But by and large, the progress we were hoping for in the summer of 2020 didn’t materialize. Instead, most police budgets rose last year. In some places — like New York and LA — they rose to record highs.

And according to a UMass Amherst poll released this month, public support for police reforms, from banning military-grade weapons to redirecting funding toward social services, has dropped. Perhaps most concerning, about a quarter of the people polled expressed indifference — not support, not opposition, but indifference — to proposed policy changes.

In other words, America hit the snooze button. Just like it did after Rodney King. After Trayvon Martin. After Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Sophia Vasquez. The fact that some of you are probably thinking, “Who?” proves my point.

Eleven days ago, a white supremacist traveled 200 miles to walk into a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo and murdered 10 people. It was in the news cycle for a shorter period of time than Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock. Yet again, America couldn’t help but hit the snooze button.

You all heard the alarm after George Floyd. You pushed yourselves and your organization to do better, to be better. But the rest of us? The rest of us still need to get out of bed. You can be that catalyst. You can ring the alarm. In conversations with friends and family. At hearings and commission meetings. Through your writing and your research. Through your work and your career. I ask you to keep ringing the alarm and keep pushing us forward.

You can do it. I’ve seen progress in my lifetime. I saw progress here, and in the cities and organizations I’ve worked in. I’ve been honored to have been part of some of it.

That said, making a difference can be hard. It can be disappointing and demoralizing. It can be exhausting and exasperating. So, you’ve got to prepare yourself for what it is going to take, not just professionally, but personally. Those two things are closely connected, but I want to focus on the personal for a moment.

You can’t help the person next to you if you haven’t already helped yourself. It goes back to what the flight attendants tell you before the plane takes off: You have to secure your own oxygen mask before you help the passenger on your left or your right.

So, make sure you’re practicing self-care. And, when you need to, take a break. Not from your responsibilities, or from trying to make a difference. But if there’s a committee you’re leading or an effort you’re spearheading that someone else can take over for a while, try to make that happen.

Dr. Thelma Bryant said the following: “Rest is revolutionary. Self-care and community care are soul food. Dancing and singing in the midst of everything that pulls you to disconnect from yourself is radical. Spiritual practices are fuel for the journey ahead.”

Graduates, rest is not laziness, and it is not a sign of weakness. It is, in fact, the best way to build and maintain your strength.

Audre Laude said the following: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation. And that is an act of political warfare.”

Let me close with your priorities: Tackle the climate crisis. Become truly anti-racist. Close the wealth gap. Enhance a multi-racial democracy.

These are bold and laudable goals. I challenge you to stay committed to them. Because they matter — in the communities where you’ll live and work and, most importantly, to the people in those communities.

And I challenge you to apply the lessons you’ve learned here to help the world make progress on these goals. Because you matter — your voice, your knowledge, your creativity. Planners are the tip of the spear!

We need you. We’re lucky to have you. And we can’t wait to see the kind of difference you’ll make next.

Congratulations, Class of 2022!

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