My commencement address to the graduate students in Latin American Studies at Stanford University – June 18, 2017 – reprint

It is that time of year – graduation. I was encouraged to reprint the commencement address I gave last year to the graduate students in Latin American Studies at Stanford University.  Here you go.


I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations to the graduates and their families. This day marks an achievement. Y’all made it.

Being invited to give a commencement address is a wonderful opportunity because it prompts you to reflect upon what you’ve learned and what’s worth passing on. Thank you Alberto for this opportunity.

As a nation we are in need of much reflection. Let’s face it; Donald Trump is president of the United States. He ran on a platform that included building a wall between the U.S. and Latin America. All of us, as Latin Americanists have to ask ourselves how our nation got to this point and what it means for the choices we will personally make moving forward.

Lately, I’ve had time to reflect. After more than 20 years of running non-profits working on human rights, social justice and foreign policy I decided to take a years’ sabbatical. I wanted to step back, think about the current coyuntura (a word I can use with this audience) – how we got here – and how the coyuntura should inform what I do next. I wanted to read history and explore outside of my own field. My fundamental question is, “What do I need to understand to be a better advocate for human rights and social change in the Americas?”

WOLA, where I worked, had around 250 interns during my time as director. When I would meet with them, their most common question was, “What was your path to becoming the director of WOLA?”

So let’s start there. There was no plan. One of WOLA’s board members and admittedly one of its best fundraisers often talked of moving from success-to-success. But that wasn’t my experience. I was more on a path of learning-to-learning. And, as I think about it, the career I ended up in wasn’t even a career when I started.

When I look back at the choices I made that led me here, they likely would not have made sense to other people. After college, I got a good entry-level job in Washington working on immigration and refugee policy. It was the early 1980s and I was involved in the last round of major immigration reform in the U.S. as well as the establishment of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans. However, I knew that people I admired in Washington had lived and worked outside of the country. I thought I needed that experience (and I was right).

So, I left a good, hard to acquire, job in DC and went to do community development work in a pretty ill defined job, in Honduras. (I think my parents were both horrified and somewhat scared).

I didn’t speak Spanish. I had to learn. The adjustment was really hard. Living and working with people in poverty was really hard. The whole experience was really hard. You see the theme. But this experience became a reference point for the rest of my life.

I went back to DC for less than two years, working on efforts to stop funding for the war in El Salvador. Then I moved to Mexico. I moved because my husband was offered a job there. Leaving was a hard decision for me. But I’m glad I went. (in the future you will have to make hard decisions that are not only about you) I arranged some part-time work with Americas Watch – later Human Rights watch – because I knew that I needed work to feel good about myself. Being in Mexico would also be an opportunity for me to go to graduate school.

Once again, this stage was not success-to-success. I applied to the Latin American Studies program in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the National University of Mexico (UNAM). I failed the Spanish language entrance exam the first time (because I had never written in Spanish and didn’t know how to use accents). I had proposed writing my thesis on the NAFTA negotiation, but because of my work with Americas Watch I changed my topic to the then developing non-governmental human rights organizations in Mexico. Graduate school was hard. Reading took me a long time. Writing was very hard. Again, you see the theme.

A few weeks ago I visited the UNAM. I looked out at that massive central campus and was STUNNED. It is so big. I grew up in a series of small towns in Wisconsin. Why did I think that could do that – go to the UNAM? Looking back, it was not reasonable.

I don’t think that I ever asked myself if I could do things. I always found something interesting, that I cared about, and just tried.

You would not have looked a me and said, “There is a woman with the skills she needs to be successful.” But, I did set my sights on something, and made it work.

As I was finishing graduate school, I looked at jobs in Mexico. I was interested in human rights and political issues, but I had a nagging sense that I shouldn’t be hired for the jobs I was interested in. A Mexican should have those jobs. It felt like my role was to address issues in my own country.

I came back to run a coalition of 60 organizations to develop and coordinate their work on US policy with Latin America. (This time my husband left the security of his job in Mexico and came with me.)

In terms of personal goals, I remember wanting to be the person that the congressional committee staff turned to when they had questions about Latin America. I knew that staff really shaped the policy and I wanted to shape them. In time, I achieved that goal.

When I moved to WOLA, 14 years ago, I knew that the former WOLA directors where all people that I greatly admired. I wanted to be like them and I tried to do that.

So, what from that story, from my experience, might be useful to you?

Find people who inspire you. They will help you set a path. You stand on the shoulders of others. Remember it. Embrace it. It can be a wonderful thing. While working for WOLA, on my first trip to Paraguay (where WOLA had done very little in 20 years and no one knew me), I was greeted by people who said things like, “everyone who was once a political prisoner here owes a debt of gratitude to WOLA.” Or, “When I heard that WOLA had requested a meeting I had to take it because of what WOLA did here.” I was benefiting from work that people did 30 years before me. Amazing. Recognizing that you stand on the shoulders of others will inspire you and can give you a real boost.

Don’t think too much about what you can or can’t do. Figure out what interests you and try.

Work to understand the coyuntura. This is a central point that I have learned while working in public policy. You must constantly assess your environment. Because, no matter how important what you are doing may seem to you – it is a small piece of a larger picture. The more you understand the context and your relationship to it, the better your chances for impact.

You can make a contribution wherever life takes you. Sometimes life requires you to veer off the path you have seen for yourself. One of my favorite sayings – attributable to a few people including John Lennon – is “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” You may make a choice greatly influenced by a relationship that is important to you – a child, a spouse, a parent. When you end up somewhere unplanned don’t mourn, look around. You can learn, grow and make a contribution anywhere. Figure out how to take advantage of where you are.

Spend time with people who have less than you do. Your point of reference has a lot to do with your sense of happiness. If your point of reference is the rich, and you are not rich, you will feel lacking. You are already privileged people. You may not have started that way, but let’s face it; you now have a graduate degree from Stanford. It is easier to remember what is important and to be happy – if you have walked with people who struggle to survive. Find a way to do that.

Here are a few other random pieces of advice from my work experience and my current sabbatical.

Study history. I’ve been reading history lately. It gives you perspective and reminds you that much of what you are experiencing is not fundamentally new. Even the current political crisis in the US which most days feels like a new national low, is not new. As David McCullough, one of my favorite American historians said, “History is an antidote to the hubris of the present.” It puts you in your place.

Reading a little history, something like Lars Schultz’s book “Beneath the United States” will remind you that the relationship between Latin America and the United States has been fraught for centuries and that if we want something better we must constantly strive to build understanding and the relationships that create a different environment.

We all live in bubbles – get out of yours and listen. Try to learn what other people think and let it inform how you solve problems.

You are Latin Americanists. You have learned to analyze and respect other cultures. Think about the United States in the same way. Part of the current political crisis here is fed by educated Americans who look at those who disagree with them as stupid or ill informed. Take the cross-cultural skills that you have learned and apply them to your own country, whatever country that is.

Wealthy, educated people in Sao Paulo, Bogota, San Francisco or New York have much more in common than they do with poor people in rural areas in their own countries. The crossing of economic and cultural divides only happens when we decide to make it happen.

Look for the holes. What’s missing? What’s not being covered? WOLA has high impact programs on drug policy, organized crime, border security and migration that were established years ago when hardly anyone worked on these as transnational public policy issues. We identified a need and committed ourselves for the long haul. We built relationships. It isn’t that hard to establish yourself as an expert in an unoccupied space. And, if you are studying the coyuntura you can be the first one into an area that others will flood.

Have experiences and put them to use. Notice I didn’t just say share them. I don’t mean go skydiving and tweet about it. Although if that’s what you want, have at it.

WOLA makes a huge contribution to the policy-making community in Washington because the staff spends time in places that other people don’t visit.

Remember that if you have an experience that others don’t, you will have something to contribute.

While we live in the age of technological, relationships are still key. When I think about the moments where I’ve seen people become involved in social change in important ways, it has always been based upon relationships.

In the 1980’s Congressman Joe Moakley represented South Boston. Foreign policy was not his thing. This changed when a group of constituents brought a Salvadoran refugee to meet with him. He heard his story directly from the refugee and the constituent group maintained close contact with the Congressman. Rep. Moakley circulated the first dear colleague letter in Congress asking the Administration to grant a stay of deportation to Salvadorans. Rep. Moakley went on to sponsor legislation that resulted in Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and he led the US Congress’s investigation of the murder of a group of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. His staff person during this period was Jim McGovern who is now a member of Congress and the Chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. This all came from that one congressional visit and the follow through of a local constituent group.

My own most important contributions to the process of change may have been providing space for others doing difficult and dangerous work.

I recall Mexican human rights colleagues spending hours in my living room – which became a safe space for sharing stories and frustrations. We all spent hours just talking things through.

Once the Honduran Human Rights Ombudsman called and asked me to pick his kids up at the airport. They would have a letter explaining the situation. They were under threat because of his work and to continue, he needed to know that they were safe.

When the former Attorney General of Guatemala, the one who prosecuted former General Rios Montt for genocide, learned that she could not return home for a while, we made a place for her at WOLA.

Right now, the son of a transparency and accountability activist from Honduras is spending the summer with us.

Show up. One of my favorite sayings is this, “The world is run by those who show up.” This is true. And fewer people do it than you think.

I just went to Tampico, Mexico, because as part of my sabbatical I wanted to spend time listening to people who have been impacted by organized crime. I reached out to an academic who lives in Ciudad Victoria a few hours away. She didn’t know me, but drove for hours to come talk with me. She said, “I came because you came.” People experiencing difficult things can be very isolated. Showing up is meaningful and it will inform what you should be doing.

In conclusion, thank you for what you studied.

There is not one path. Finding your way may lead you through hard experiences. That isn’t a bad thing.

Have experiences that others don’t and use them to make change.

If you show up and do it consistently, I think you will find that you have built a life and made a contribution. Isn’t that really what we all aspire to do?

So get out there. You are well trained. The world needs you.

And just remember the words of Cesar Chavez – “Si se puede.”

5 thoughts on “My commencement address to the graduate students in Latin American Studies at Stanford University – June 18, 2017 – reprint

  1. Another post full of food for thought. I think I need to read this periodically at different points in my life to appreciate all the different elements. Right now, it’s good to be reminded that it is always hard to move somewhere different and do something different – it’s not just me 🙂 Also, I’m thinking about the “holes” piece. It’s tempting for many advocacy efforts to start by look for the new, popular trend rather than the underappreciated holes.


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