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“Learning to Pivot”

Baccalaureate Address, May 2018

Elizabeth Coggins, assistant professor of political science

Standing here before you on this momentous occasion in your life is truly a career highlight for me. It is likewise an immense responsibility, one that has weighed heavily on my heart for the past couple of months since tasked with this duty.

What you know about me, I hope, is that I have cared deeply about your education and your lives. What you may not know is that you, the graduating class of 2018, are my first class as a college professor. I have known you, so many of you, since your first year at Colorado College because it was my first year, too. You’ve heard me say that this is my dream job—this place, this design, this life. But what I often leave out of that homily is you. You have brought to life this dream—you are its original cast, and you harbor a special place in my heart because you will always be first. And thus, I feel especially fond of you, but also especially responsible for who you become in this world. So, I take this task as your baccalaureate speaker evermore solemnly. I reflect with you. My heart skips a beat with you knowing that much will soon change.

For the past couple of months, I have been thinking nearly constantly about the most important thing I could share with you today. And the question is really, I suppose: what do I hope, five, 10, 20 years from now, you will remember about this day, this moment? And how, if it all, did my words affect what you continued to do or started to do the moment you left this chapel. My mind consistently returned to a handful of thoughts.

The first is that this year represents the 50-year anniversary of a momentous and shattering year for the United States, 1968. The culmination of many years in which Americans had risked their lives, and others had indeed given their lives, for the sake of equality. Equality beyond the ballot box, beyond opportunity, for equality in outcomes. In 1968, the year the fault lines gave in many ways, we were said to be heading toward two societies—separate and unequal.

However, for many, it was the year of the first “woke” if you will. It was the year that so many Americans began not only to see their country differently, but to act differently.

The year so many Americans learned to pivot.

They, like you, decided to stop walking around this campus like you hit a triple because you suddenly realized you were born on third base.

Many seemed to wake to an obvious fact, one that reverberates in my ears from hearing it so many times as child, one that I repeat to my one-year-old daughter as her eyes close each night, and one we, and you most especially, must return to in response to divisiveness. And it is this: “We all bleed red.”

It is a sentence, a mantra from my own home, by which I am charging you to live your lives. This is the thing I hope you’ll remember years from now.

There is, in my estimation, no more important qualification by which to guide your days, starting today. Right now. “We all bleed red.” Yes, in an era of ever polarized politics, a divided Washington, a country replete with fault lines, and sometimes even a divided campus, I am telling you, charging you, begging you, really, to push back. And I am telling you, promising you, that you have the ability, and more importantly, the power, to do so with tangible effect.

But, the theory, “we all bleed red”, is only part of the formula. It needs a parallel practice. And it needs tangible action. The action, quite simply, is this: learn to pivot.

Pivot away, and push back, against the tendency for division, the tendency to focus on what divides us, what separates us, what makes us different.

And so, we must first learn to do this in our thinking. Often times, our contemporary dialogue sounds something like this: “speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.” When in a true liberal fashion—that is to say, a fashion that honors tolerance and broadmindedness—dialogue should sound more like this:  “I think A, and here is my argument.” This can be quite difficult in the contemporary  world, of course, where these identities often do define the way one is treated in both socially driven micro experiences and the more macro level of policy and law that govern this country. Whether your identity has privileged you or made you a target, this type of dialogue allows for the building of bridges. It means there is room for dialogue, for new construction. It gives a person’s content more credibility  than his or her package. It means that no one part of my identity defines me completely. Importantly, it means our identities are central to developing and defining our own understanding  of the world. And, at the same time, they don’t redeem us any more than they disqualify someone else who doesn’t share those identities. It means, critically, that connection, not estrangement, is the goal.

Now, and 50 years ago, and many times in between, we have relied and leaned on brave voices, the so-called radicals of their time, the ones who remembered the shared color of our blood—to garner attention. They have acted as our megaphones.

But, now we—and especially you—have a captive audience. And now is the time to pivot.

Focus on a set of principles that unite us. Develop a message in which differences are less important. A forward-looking, progressive vision, grounded in equality of outcomes, that a broad range of people, with varying identities, can see and say “yes, I see myself in that vision. Those are the principles I stand for, too.” Framing issues in terms of basic values and principles shared by our allies is our strongest tool to combat divisiveness.

If we can make the case that we are more similar than different, then we are more powerful than the intolerant and narrow-minded. THIS is speaking truth to power. If we can pivot away from focusing on our differences, and instead focus on the bridge

where we can meet—albeit from different life experiences—we can begin to appreciate those differences, recognize them, and then train our focus on how this diversity is our most powerful and effective tool for constructing a society in which we all thrive.

If I was lucky enough to have you in my classroom in your tenure at Colorado College, then we surely read about and studied the elusive concept of change: changes in politics, changes in perception. And we surely studied the critical role of factors like institutions, protests, framing effects, genetics, ideology, life experiences, representation, in our study of real, perceptible, lasting change. And quite frankly, without these things, these studies, these ideas, this research, I would be out of a job.

But I am telling you, there is one thing that supersedes all of these studies, all of these factors, all of these variables in the scholarship of change. And quite simply, it is you. We should never assume that some sort of magical force is inexorably leading us to some utopian progressive end, to better days. There isn’t. Instead, you are the magic. Your pivot, your purposefulness, and critically, your daily changes will lead us.

How, then, do we not just think, but act? Where do we start? Your words for one. Your words signal to the rest of us who you are and what you believe. Change them to match the person who believes that we all bleed red.

Next, change your everyday actions. Engage the people around you. That person two rows up from you at this very ceremony, even though you were never friends because you didn’t hang in the same prefabricated  crowd? Yes, that one. At your new job, the people who don’t look like your Colorado College friends? Yes, those people. In your new city, the people who don’t live in a neighborhood like where you grew up? Yes, definitely those people.

What I mean to say is that this shift, this pivot, is one that happens in a lasting fashion when it happens socially. It lasts, it sticks, when it happens in our most intimate spaces. Invite people into your home. Share a meal. There is hardly a thing more personal, more meaningful and intimate, than sharing a meal.

This is learning to pivot in our everyday actions.

Importantly, don’t save your action, your application of your theory—we all bleed red— for the “big moments.” Not only are these moments incredibly rare in life, their results are often fleeting. It’s the everyday moments that generate lasting change. The biggest, and the best, portion of your life will be small, nameless moments. They add up. And their sum is your character, your legacy.

Note that I have asked you to do incredibly simple things. At its core, I’m asking you to extend trust and respect to other human beings. But make no mistake: you will find that these are hard things. They can require a complete pivot, a literal switch in the direction in which you are walking, sometimes, and often an actual rewiring in your brain. You will likely have to change your “routine”, you will have to change your habits.

But you can do it. And the stage is set for you on this precipice of change and newness to do so. And, we are counting on you. I’m counting on you. You have our attention.

I’ve often heard it said that the difference between amateurs and professionals is the ability to show up every single day, to do the work every single day. Be professionals. Learn to pivot.

Thanks for listening, and thank you for being here.