2009 Commencement Address by Philip Mangano

Thank you, President Thomas.

And thank you Dr. Houston for that citation which makes sense of my life.

And gratitude to the Board of Trustees.

The faculty. Distinguished guests. Friends. Family.

To alumni. To the students here who give of their lives in services to others.

And, of course, to you the graduating class of 2009.

Against all odds and those voices of doubt and skepticism, you made it! Congratulations!

I knew there was something special about this weekend and this class when I landed Friday in Seattle and the sun was out!

I am honored to be counted among those receiving degrees today with Mayor Moss and those who had been treated inappropriately by government in the past. Caring for the vulnerable  - not displacing them - is an appropriate role of government, and I'm glad that this University has sought to offer its remedy to that past. Congratulations to the President and Board.

With this degree I now consider myself part of the University of Puget Sound family.

But you know how family is. Always with suggestions.

In the mission statement of this great university an emphasis is placed on "sound judgment." Yet today you have given me this degree.

Some may want to call into question your adherence to that first principle. Perhaps a remedial course in decision-making or discernment is in order.

Nevertheless, I accept this honor and commit myself to upholding all of the values of your mission in this community and the nation.  

Now, I do have another academic connection on the other coast.

I have the great privilege of being on the Board at M.I.T. of the Dalai Lama Center on Ethics and Transformative Values.

Two weeks ago we hosted the Dalai Lama for the opening of the Center, and I was fortunate to spend time with him. Obviously, another lapse in sound judgment by an academic institution!

He spoke about the need to infuse our academic institutions with a curriculum of compassion. He and the Center Director spoke of the economic recession being a symptom of the spiritual recession. A few weeks before I heard the Bishop of Orlando indicate a similar concern that we were in need of a spiritual recovery and stimulus package as much as an economic one.

Both the Bishop and the Dalai Lama were pointing to a values vacuum and offering insights to cure and remedy that malaise.

They were commenting on the ascendancy of personal greed over the common good, so visible in the last year and insulated for so many previous years, that has wreaked havoc with the economic and social well being of rich and poor alike.  

In that context, the Dalai Lama called for schools of higher education to be centers of compassion, of actionable good.

After all, Walker Percy, the great Southern novelist, warned us that "you can get all A's in school and still flunk life." And Harvard's Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize winning student of people in crisis, laments that, unfortunately, there is no correlation between "intelligence and character."

In that great prayer that has come down to us attributed to my patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, we learn that our life is to be lived more in understanding than in being understood, more in consoling than being consoled, more in serving than in being served, more in loving than in being loved.

We are reminded by our Rotarian friends and by the level of volunteerism practiced by students here at this school that our life can be one in which we value service over self.

And in the scriptures adhered to by billions all over our globe, we are called to value the life of the other, especially the disadvantaged, the hungry, the homeless, the suffering.

My other patron saint, Simone Weil, the great French resistance fighter, philosopher, and companion to the poor, tells us that if we know of any human deprivation at all and do not agitate for its immediate remedy, we are guilty of criminal compliance. She's tough and she's right.

How do we instill these values, what the Dalai Lama would call "universal values" as the actionable good in academic curricula?

Don't ask me. I've been down in DC. For the past seven years I have been living my life in exile in Washington, where such principles of conduct are, shall we say, more a subject of rhetoric than reality.

The nature of my exile was apparent from the very first day. I was sworn in on March 15, 2002. March 15. The Ides of March.

Now swearing in someone named Philip Francesco Mangano - you don't have to guess that's Italian - on the Ides of March - what kind of cultural sensitivity is that? Not even the Caesar was safe on that day!

Now during those seven years I tried to live my life according to that ancient adage in our nation's capital. Wisdom passed down from generation to generation. It goes like this: "Any day out of Washington, that's a good day."

And I had the privilege of being here in Tacoma and at this great university for some of those better days. Mayor Baarsma and President Thomas always have made me feel right at home here.

I am especially pleased to be here again and to witness firsthand the work that this university and this community are continuing on behalf of the poorest, most vulnerable and disabled people, those suffering the long misery and human tragedy of being without a place to live.

The University's support of the Pierce County and City of Tacoma Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and the research support offered by your faculty. The commitment and resolve of Professor Renee Houston and her colleagues has become a national model of academic partnership in plans to end homelessness.  

And the investment of your students in service projects is the envy of many a school.  
They deserve our thanks.

Those of us who have worked to abolish homelessness understand the need for change.
If good intentions, well meaning programs, and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness, it would have been history decades ago.

In Washington and all across the country including right here, we've been focusing on a new strategy with the intended outcome of abolition. End homelessness for those already there. Prevent homelessness for those at risk.

Even in the face of the current double trouble - foreclosures and job losses that are claiming more families in the human tragedy of homelessness. New strategies are making a difference.

We've changed the verb of homelessness from managing to ending and the noun from shelter to housing. And the equation from running a gauntlet to housing first.

That's change we've been waiting for. As well as increased resources and decreased numbers on our streets.

Nine consecutive years of record resources from Washington. Three years of reductions on our streets.

That's quantifiable and visible change. Not the kind you see in those late night infomercials.

You know the ones I mean.  They promise change effortlessly.  In fact, the less effort, the greater the change. Learn Sanskrit in 10 minutes a day while you're driving. 

Or my new favorites - earn your college degree in 15 minutes a day for $49 or in the new advanced course, for $79, earn your PhD while you're sleeping.

We wish change came like that.  Quick and easy.  Painless and effortless.

If we could just enter a magic room and come out healed and whole. Maybe go in treatment. Maybe with Gabriel Byrne and talk it through. [There are your HBO subscribers!]

What we've learned in the past seven years is that there are such magic rooms for our homeless neighbors. They are the rooms, studios and efficiency and one and two and three bedroom apartments that are now key to the strategy to abolish homelessness. We had forgotten for two decades that the central antidote to homelessness is a place to live. A home.

Now we are awake to insure that our neighbors have the stability and security and the services they need in housing. Not only are we awake, we are moral insomniacs in accomplishing that mission.

Through it we insure that those on the street move from being exiled to being our neighbor. From being outcasts to being welcomed. 

Are there results from all that planning?

Across our country and right here in Tacoma, those field-tested, evidence-based strategies, proven in practice and supported by data and research, implemented through  Ten Year Plans, are the root cause for the recent announcement of the first documented national decrease a 30% reduction in street and long-term homelessness in this community and this country. Your most vulnerable and disabled neighbors are increasingly moving off the streets, out of shelters, into a place to live.

And here's the good news to your community at UPS.

You share in that achievement. You have partnered with your community in achieving these unprecedented results on what seemed to be an intractable problem. Congratulations.

In doing so, you have realized the vision of a speech made here at this campus five years ago.

The inaugural speech of your new president who asked provoking questions to stir your imaginations and actions.

In assuming his new role of leadership for this university, President Thomas asked, "How shall this liberal arts college on the shores of Puget Sound, in the shadow of a great mountain, on the edge of the American West, how shall we embrace the call of citizenship?  . . . [Quite poetic . . .]

Our first question should be, does the life of liberal learning lead us to embrace our civic duty at all?"

He went on to ask rhetorically if the university and all of you should stand apart from the arena so that "we can be disinterested critics and commentators of a world from which we are largely detached?"

And later, after a litany of university accomplishments in arts and sciences, he asks, "What new noble work remains to be done by us together at the University of Puget Sound in the common duty with our community, with our nation?"

Provocative inquiries five years ago to inspire a vision for your university, for your education, and, perhaps more importantly, for the formation of your lives.

Looking West from Washington these past five years, the answers to those questions are visible and tangible.

In partnering to end the moral and spiritual disgrace of homelessness, the University of Puget Sound has visibly and actively engaged in a "new noble work" in "common duty with your community" and "with your nation."

Partnering with the city and the county, the university has rejected the myopia of disinterest and detachment from the Ivory Tower, instead engaging in the call of the "useful and the good." You with your partners have become the Good Samaritan to those left behind on Tacoma's streets.

"We do not come to Tacoma to hide," said President Thomas, but "to partner with our fellow citizens here, and in our nation."

In its partnership with the national movement to abolish a social wrong, the University of Puget Sound is not hiding, but seeking - seeking involvement, seeking answers, and sometimes questions, seeking the data and innovations that will end the long misery of its poorest neighbors.

Not alone, but as a partner. With your city, your county, your state, and your nation. All have joined in a national partnership constellated by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

A partnership that recognizes that no one level of government, no one sector can abolish a moral and social wrong alone. A partnership that now includes more than 1,000 mayors and county executives, including Mayor Baarsma here in Tacoma, 49 governors including Governor Gregoire, 20 federal agencies, faith communities, non-profits, business, and academia.  

All partnered. Creating change in that right moral cause. Longing for the good and just.  

On great moral issues of wrong we do not set out to manage or simply accommodate them, or even to "reduce" them. We set out to end them.

Whether slavery, child labor, civil rights discrimination, apartheid, totalitarianism. Our intent is to end these moral and spiritual failings. 

Some voices will be skeptical, pessimistic, and downright cynical. Those voices tell us that ending homelessness is a naïve goal. That even reducing homelessness is a foolish objective.

These demoralizing voices point only to the impossibility of the mission.

They would leave us managing a social wrong. Maintenancing an inadequate emergency response. Accommodating a moral and spiritual disgrace.

Leaving us believing that "impossible" was the final word.

Have you seen the acclaimed documentary, MAN ON WIRE? Won British and American highest awards.

It's the story of Philippe Petit - a funambulator - a tight-rope walker who walks between towers and confronts the impossible. He's the man who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Towers.

From him we learn something about how to approach the impossible.

Philippe Petit. 3 balls, juggle. Two towers, walk. World Trade Center.

Logistics -

Impossible - to get in and avoid guards

Impossible - 300  pounds of equipment to floor 110

Impossible - to string wire without detection

Impossible - to smuggle Philippe in

Petit listened to all of that and when they had finished the report, he agreed.

"Impossible. Impossible. Impossible. Sure, impossible."

He said. And added, "So, let's get to work."

And they did, overcoming all the obstacles through a committed will and a strategic plan. He funambulated. (From the Latin.)

When he was later interviewed about how this amazing feat had been accomplished, he said it could only have happened through a "conspiracy of true believers." 

Together they had overcome the impenetrable difficulties and defied the impossible.

Ten years ago in the United States when we looked at the issue of homelessness, we were essentially in détente with the disgrace.

If we asked about increased political will, innovative ideas, decreased homelessness, strategic plans - we were told these were impossible. 

While certainly there was a smattering of rhetoric about "ending" homelessness, the reality is that not one of the pieces was in place to accomplish the mission. Each was inconceivable a decade ago. They were dreams without dreamers.

Impossible. Impossible. Impossible, we were told.

And while we had urgency and good intentions and well meaning programs, we had no strategic framework, no consensus of political will, no set of innovations to accomplish the mission.

And no assurance of increased resources to invest in the future, only enough to maintain the past.

These strategies to reduce and end homelessness were not even on the horizon line. A decade later they are central to the mission.

We have created a "conspiracy of true believers" that extends well beyond those with rolled up sleeves on the frontlines. 

Having convened my peers in other countries around the world, Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, I know that our conspiracy is growing and is worldwide.

You have to love that word "conspiracy."

From the Latin. "Con" meaning together. "Spira" meaning breathing.

Haven't you always wanted to be part of a conspiracy? A co-conspirator?

A conspiracy is a "breathing together" to accomplish a mission. All of us breathing together to one goal, one purpose, one mission - ending the long misery and human tragedy of homelessness. To overcome the voices that would relegate us to détente with wrong.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., echoing the insight of abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, reminded us that the long moral arc of history, the long moral arc of our American Experience, bends toward justice.

Now it may not look that way every day or month or year or even decade, but Dr. King assures us that it bends inexorably toward justice.

An amazing insight, isn't it? Seems counterintuitive when we are immersed in the news of the day, when we read the headlines, when we watch the news.

But Dr. King and many others have come to understand and teach us that the arc is bending away from our failings and failures, away from the morally impossible and toward the revelation and reality of justice for our neighbors.

Again, there will be skeptics. Just as there were when Dr. King set out to end segregation and achieve civil rights, skeptics that our abolitionist intent is possible.  

The abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights activists. 

The anti-apartheid resisters and the dissident Refuseniks

of Soviet totalitarianism were all told that the change they wanted was impossible. 
Could not be done. 

Was beyond reason.  Disturbed the natural order of things.

And to think that it was possible, was to be called foolish and naïve. 

Foolish to believe that our efforts will make a difference.  Naïve to think that it is possible.

These doubting voices have been around for a long, long time. 

They spoke to William Lloyd Garrison and Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass to dissuade them.

To Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

To Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy.

To Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn.

To Mandela and Tutu.

"You can't change things," these voices say.

Those voices were wrong back then. And they're wrong now.

Against all odds, those activists and agitators remedied the wrongs. They understood the moral common sense of the future and appropriated it to their own time, weathering the insults and resistance. 

They overcame. And wrongs were undone.  Slavery abolished.  Suffrage expanded.  Civil rights extended.  Apartheid replaced by Truth and Reconciliation.  The Iron Curtain went up, and the Wall came down.  The Soviet grip opened. They are our ancestors.  Their DNA is ours. 

You all know Muhammad Yunus.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago for his work in creating the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and offering hope to millions there and around the world to move beyond poverty.

In his biography Yunus says this: "My goal is that my grandchildren will have to go to a museum someday to see what poverty once was." 

Our goal is that our children will pilgrimage with Yunus's grandchildren.

To underground railroad museums to see what slavery once was. To the Susan B. Anthony suffragist museum to see what limited voting once was. To Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church civil rights museum to see what segregation once was.  Or to South Africa's Robben Island museum to see what apartheid once was.  Or Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie museum to see what Soviet totalitarianism once was

In their travels, they'll come here to Tacoma or to your hometown to visit the shelter museums to see what homelessness once was.

And there in those museums under glass will be the strategies, the 10 Year Plans. Here in Tacoma and Pierce County, prominent under that glass will be the names of this university and its students, faculty, alumni, and administrators who are active in the movement.

How proud your children will be that you stood up.  When others said it's impossible, you went to work. When pessimists said you couldn't do it, you overcame.  When doubters insulated themselves, you offered welcome. When others dumbed down our homeless neighbors,

you offered them opportunity.   

We are breathing together to accomplish this mission. Against those voices who would say impossible.

Susan B. Anthony makes this word - impossible - ours. 

Her suffragist mission still incomplete as ours is, her last public utterance was three words: "failure is impossible." In that sentence she takes the hopelessness and skepticism out of the word "impossible" and infuses it with action and idealism.

What is impossible is for that moral arc to stop bending.

What is impossible is for us not to accomplish this mission.

What is impossible, she teaches us, is failure.

Failure to free the slaves.

Failure to expand suffrage.

Failure to extend civil rights.

Failure to overcome Soviet totalitarianism.

Failure to do away with apartheid.

Failure to abolish homelessness.

Make no mistake about it in this mission to end a moral wrong, the University of Puget Sound is a co-conspirator.

As a community, its arms raised up to that bending arc of justice to bend it into the lives of your poorest citizens. So that everyone who lives here and everywhere else will be known by a single name - Neighbor.

Finally, what is our role? Your role?

Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize wining poet, offers us a choice in her poem, "What I Have Learned So Far," where she writes:

"Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

"Be ignited, or be gone," she writes. "Be ignited or be gone."

The light is burning brightly at this school and in your lives of service. Keep it lit.