The Choices That Define Us: UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía Speaks to Graduating Students at Williams College

This weekend UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía gave the Baccalaureate address to graduating students of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. You can view her remarks in the video and read the full transcript below.


Thank you so much for that very kind and generous introduction. I am deeply honored to be with you here for your baccalaureate and am impressed that you — at this moment of great celebration — have taken this time to consider the responsibility that comes with the knowledge you’ve gained here at Williams College.

Today’s program elevates the concept that “knowledge is not a destination but rather a path leading toward the quality of community for which we continue to yearn.” I want to talk to you tonight about that path in a way that, I hope, will have some relevance to you as you leave this beautiful school and make your way in the world.

UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía
UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía

But, first, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to all of you. This is a tremendous milestone. I know it required a lot of work, sacrifice, time, and money for you to get to this point. For most of you, it has been a four-year journey, for some maybe even a little bit more.

But that’s OK. You stuck with it and are here today! You deserve all the acclaim and celebrating you and your family will enjoy this weekend.

But as you celebrate, I want you to keep in mind that no one makes this journey alone. Somewhere along the line a teacher, a professor, a counselor, or a coach encouraged you and mentored you. I hope you will thank that person today. I hope you also remember your family and thank them for all that they did to get you to this moment. They all deserve a big hand.

Imagine, if you would, that I could magically transport you forward in time to 35 years from now. You are all here, sitting in these same seats, except now it is 2053 and most of your hair — at least for those of you who still have hair — is grey.

When you look around to your classmates in the room, you will see one or two members of congress, perhaps a governor. You will see CEOs, teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers as well as a scientist or two. Several of you will have written books, become a movie star, or sing on the big stage. Some of you will be wealthy, while others will have dedicated your lives to less lucrative endeavors.

In this future, 35 years from now, when you look back at the path you traveled, you will find it driven by individual choices you made: What career you selected, where you chose to live, with whom you chose to marry or partner. What job you quit, what political party you joined, what mentors you chose.

Every choice you make shapes the life you lead. Over time, your choices become your story — the unique history of your life. They define who you are.

Right now, here in the present, your story is mostly unwritten and the choices available to you are almost limitless. That’s why I wanted to talk with you today — because your choices will also define the world around you. They will shape the society in which we live.

Either by your actions – or your inactions – each of you will help define the future of our country. It is not only about what causes you champion in your life, it is about what you choose to tolerate, what you are willing to accept as the norm, what you challenge and what you permit to go unchallenged that shapes our world.

As the head of a civil rights organization, I am very aware of the choices that we – as a people – make. I see the consequences of what we tolerate. I see the by-product of what we accept as the norm.

I know firsthand the poverty and destitution that comes from limited access to healthcare and a good education. I know first hand, the indignity that comes with racial profiling laws and the denigration of members of our community as “rapists, and murderers, and drug dealers” – and most recently as “animals.” I know first hand about the impact on families who are being torn apart by militant deportation policies and the deep pain and suffering such actions bring — often to American children.

Such choices define us as a society. They define our civilization. They define our values and our humanity. As you embark on your careers and lives outside of Williams College, such choices will become your responsibility to make— or unmake.

Will we, as a society, build walls or build bridges? Will we strive to stoke division or will we seek to find common ground? Will a shot at the American Dream be reserved for a select few or will it be for all of us?

Like some of you, I am a first-generation college graduate and I am here today because of the choices my parents made.

Both of my parents could be described as humble and simple people with little education. They came from Mexico in the early 1950s and settled, of all places, in Kansas City, KS. My dad had a seventh grade education and my mom had a a5th grade one.

My Dad worked in a steel plant for 37 years. With seven kids, my mom did not work outside the home. We lived in a very small house with only one bathroom. My siblings and I basically slept dormitory style in one large bedroom.

We didn’t know we didn’t have resources. We had no phone until I was in the 8th grade, no clothes dryer until I went to college—my mom washed clothes in a wringer-washer until then.

In Kansas City in the 50’s when my parents went to the movie theater, they had to sit in a separate section. My father and other persons of color were directed to use a separate bathroom at the steel plant where he worked.

My Mom pitched in with babysitting but they never had much money. But I never heard them complain. My parents instilled in us a strong sense of values including faith, family, hard work, and sacrifice and they taught us to value ourselves.

In the early 80’s, five of their kids were in college, all at the same time thanks to the generosity of scholarships, work-study and financial aid opportunities. After all was said and done, six of their seven kids earned post-secondary education degrees.

My sister Martha took three buses to a job she had for 35 years.

Four of us became lawyers. My brother, Ramon, was the first in our family, and in the community, to attend Harvard law school. Today, Ramon is a lawyer in private practice in Kansas City, and a civic leader. He helped found the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Scholarship Fund and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Kellogg Foundation, where he was the first Latino to chair a major foundation.

My brother Carlos was the first Latino to be named a state court judge in the State of Kansas and in 1999, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the first Latino to serve as a federal judge in the District of Kansas.

And my twin sister Mary was sworn in as a judge on the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after having served for more than a decade as a federal judge in the District of Arizona. She was the first Latina to serve as a federal judge in Arizona. She and Carlos are also the first brother and sister in the history of the U.S. to serve as federal judges.

As you can see, I’m the underachiever in the family!

As for me, my proudest moment came when my parents paid me a visit when I worked in The White House. I walked them down the hallway to the Oval Office so they could meet President Clinton and my mother whispered “Cómo llegamos hasta aquí? How did we get here?

My father made a beeline to shake the president’s hand and thank him for giving me a chance to work there. The President replied, “She may have just led you through the West Wing, and I gave her a job, but you’re the ones who got her here.”

Two people with little means worked very hard, sacrificed much and chose to dedicate themselves to the education of their family and service to their community. I am a witness to, and in many ways evidence of, their unending belief in the American dream.

Their choices, their sacrifice, their hard work paved the way for my siblings and I to make choices of our own, to make contributions of our own, to have dreams of our own.

Each generation – each of us — has a responsibility of to move our country forward, to strive for what our constitution describes as “a more perfect union.” It calls on each of us to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and future generations.

It’s what my parents did. It’s what I do. It is what “we the people” do. And now it is your turn.

I will grant you that it is not easy, this responsibility. Since our country’s founding, we have struggled to live up to the promise of America.

It is only in my lifetime, that state-sponsored segregation was outlawed by congress. It is only in my lifetime, that discrimination in the workplace, based on gender, was made illegal. It was only in my lifetime that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illness. It is only in the last decade that the first Latina was named to the Supreme Court and the first African American was elected to the presidency.

The world is not an easy place. We face many threats both here and abroad and the social, economic and technological upheavals challenging our country can be extreme. Yet, I have great hope and confidence in our future, because I have great confidence in you and your generation.

Threatened by school violence, I have seen you — and some even younger than you — inspire a movement that is reshaping our country. I’ve seen you stand up and call “BS” to those in power. You understand that advocacy is not a passive vocation; you understand that activism means raising your hand to represent. You know, that to be heard, sometimes you have to say, “Me Too” and “Times Up.” I am confident that your voices will be heard, and your votes will count.

It is easy to demonize people who disagree with you, to dismiss their points of view as unworthy.

But I believe you and your generation will rediscover the commonalities that bind us together as Americans.

You will not retreat behind labels, or the color-tones of our skin or the God that we worship. You will not denigrate those who view the world through a different lens. You will listen to each other and hold each other accountable.

In you, I see the hope for our future and a generation that will define our common values and our common cause.

And today, the future has never looked brighter. Today the world is a better place because you are in it.

Graduates of 2018, enjoy the next thirty-five years and beyond! Strive to see your dreams come true; have faith in yourself; work hard. Remember integrity matters. Values matter. Be courageous. Put the knowledge you have gained at this wonderful institution to good use.

I congratulate you all on the choices you and your families have made that led you to this moment. Your accomplishment is already significant and well deserved. May all your choices lead to such great success and potential…for your careers… for your lives… and for the good of our country!

You might also be interested in: