2023 Commencement Address - Chesa Boudin

Good afternoon, thanks and congratulations legal studies 2023! 

I’m so honored to speak to you on this special occasion, to share in your celebration. We are here today because of the collective triumph of a community. Teachers, parents, coaches, siblings, nieces, nephews, friends. Everyone in this room is part of the accomplishment of these fine young people because everyone is connected in the intricate web of relationships and struggles and shared hopes.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said it: “All life is interrelated, all humanity is caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, united in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  Indeed, we are a community. And so, we appropriately applaud everyone in the room. Congratulations!

But most of all, we applaud you! The graduates, each and every member of the class of 2023. You are the ones who voluntarily chose to major in legal studies, when there were far easier paths open to you. You, as a group, are one of the most diverse majors at the college, and a particularly exciting aspect of this graduation class: about half of you are first generation college graduates. You count, amongst your ranks the very first person ever admitted to Cal while still incarcerated. Lest there was any doubt that admitting him was a risk worth taking, Kevin McCarthy went on to win not one but TWO Chancellor’s awards and the Mather Good Citizen award.

No matter our backgrounds, Cal is a special place for all of us, a place founded on the increasingly radical notion that worldclass education should be available to all through public educational institutions. The legal studies major in particular aspires to be a hands-on enterprise geared towards helping all of you reach the full measure of your humanity within a community. That ideal—always fragile, never easy nor simple, always revolutionary—is central to achieving an open and democratic society.  And like democracy itself, it is an ideal that is never finished, never finally summed up—it is an aspiration that must be defended vigilantly, fought for ceaselessly, and achieved anew by every individual and each successive generation. A school like this one wants you to grapple—both now and in the future—with a question central to the spirit and heart of democracy, a question both simple and profound, straight-forward and muddled: what’s your story?

The answer to that question begins with where have we come from, pauses, ever so fleetingly, on where we are in this moment, and meanders inexorably into the future. 

All human life, of course, is a story of suffering. As Joseph Conrad once wrote in a three-word novel on the inside of a matchbook: “Born, Suffered, Died.” Each and every one of us has and will experience loss. What matters most for where we are going, is how we respond to the suffering.

When I was in diapers my biological parents dropped me at the babysitter and never came back. That day, they participated as unarmed getaway drivers in an armed robbery that left three men dead. My mom served 22 years in prison and my father served 40 years before, miraculously, he was granted clemency and released on parole. I was, like so many millions of American children, a collateral consequence of mass incarceration. My earliest memories are the lines of mostly black and brown women and children at the prison metal detectors, the invisible ink guards stamped on my hand, my passport back to freedom, the sound of steel gates closing as I left my parents behind after each visit to be strip-searched and returned to their cages. It wasn’t easy for me. And I made sure it wasn’t easy for those around me, at home and at school. 

Yet I was lucky. Lucky to land in a stable, loving family with two older brothers. Lucky to attend good schools. Yes, I was suspended at least once. But I also got countless second chances from people who believed that my future, like yours, was my own to make. And those second chances added up like so many points in a bowling alley with bumpers. Eventually I walked across a stage just like this one. I studied abroad, learned languages, went to graduate school, and became a lawyer.  

Over the decade plus since finishing law school, I’ve worked as a federal law clerk for two judges, served as a San Francisco public defender, representing poor people, mostly black and brown, in desperate need of second chances. I’ve stood next to innocent men and women who plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit simply because they were too poor to pay bail. I’ve fought to save a grandmother from deportation after she shoplifted Christmas presents for US Citizen grandchildren. I’ve learned, as the great civil rights lawyer Brian Stevenson says, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice. I’ve seen, personally, and professionally how badly broken our criminal system is. And so, in 2019, I ran as an outsider with a vision for justice and won the office of San Francisco district attorney. My background, my platform, my policies were explicitly focused on driving system change: we made a massive impact in the little time we had in office.

As the poet Carl Sandburg wrote: “Nothing happens unless we first dream.” 

You stand on the shoulders of many others who have gone before. Who will you lift up? Years from now, when people look at you and see your many accomplishments, they won’t know the struggle, the effort, the sacrifice that you and many others made on your behalf. But you will know. What will you do with that knowledge? What will you do?

No matter which next degree you pursue in the fall, no matter what your first job is, your story, graduates, is yours to dream, to write anew today and every day.

To be sure, sometimes our stories are ignored or diminished by others, sometimes we are seen through the lens of stereotypes and labels, our three-dimensionality suffocated and belittled. It’s here that you draw on your education, on your own mind and your own spirit, to lift yourself up.  

Telling our stories, trusting our stories, and listening carefully and empathetically to the stories of others is part of the work of democracy and of community. What’s your story?  How is it like or unlike other stories? Of course, you’ve now written your college story—the good and the not-so-good, the beautiful and the weird—and that story is in the books.  

But what’s next?  What will you do now with your one wild and precious life?  What is the next chapter going to be, and the chapter after that, and after that?  Only you can write those next chapters—and even so, only partially, for every life is also a dance of the dialectic, a sometimes difficult negotiation between chance and choice.

Stuff happens, and some of that stuff we can’t control.  Still, education urges journeys---voyages of creativity and construction.  So let’s focus on choice, the things you can decide to do or not to do here and tomorrow. Let’s all choose to be present, really present for each other. To really listen and hear those whose lives we touch. 

As I’ve stood here sharing thoughts, as the minutes have passed, we’ve been inching closer to a moment you’ve all worked and waited, dreaded and yearned for. As you prepare to leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. I’m guessing it wasn’t timed examinations (do you still use blue books to hand write answers?), or late nights in the library, or cafeteria food. It certainly wasn’t the way the COVID pandemic defined your first years together. No. What we love most in this place is each other, the way we grew and lived in close, almost continuous contact for so many years. The way we collectively mourned the tragic loss of Professor Edelman. The ways you rose up to join the BLM movement after George Floyd’s murder. The way we pushed, and challenged, and yes, sometimes teased, each other. We call it community. And now you are almost ready to head off in separate directions and become part of new communities. But you will not lose each other. You will not cease to be part of this community. 

Twenty years from now, you may not remember the topic of your honors thesis seminar paper, or which professor taught your foundations of legal studies course (sorry, Professor Simon), or why you couldn’t just wait until law school to talk theoretical foundations of criminal law. You almost certainly won’t be able to pull all nighters preparing for exams. But you will still be writing your story, one dream and one day at a time. You will still have each other, the people sitting next to you and the people filling the rows behind you, supporting you today and always. Community.

The writer Barbara Kingsolver put it well: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.” And so, graduates, it is almost time for you to run out of this hallway. And I am honored to be tasked with delaying your receipt of your diplomas just a few moments longer. 

No, the time is now. Your time is now. You are ready. Congratulations!