Early on May 20, graduates, families, and alumni gathered at Franklin Field to attend Penn’s 263rd Commencement ceremony. The event featured a speech from Bryan Stevenson, an award-winning author and criminal justice reform advocate, who called on graduates to rethink racial injustices existing in present day United States.
Penn President Amy Gutmann gave the opening speech for the ceremony after 2019 College graduate Shiv Nadkarni performed the national anthem. Gutmann began her speech by using themes from "Game of Thrones" to symbolize division in society and call for unity.
“In the walls of ice, in the thrones of iron, we see a mirror for our times,” Gutmann said. “We recognize our own world, where too many live for their tribe alone, where too often we listen only to those who think, look, and believe as we do.”
Gutmann told the crowd about her background as a first-generation college graduate. She also spoke about 2019 College graduate Anea Moore, a recipient of this year’s Rhodes Scholarship who worked with Penn’s first-generation, low-income community following the death of both of her parents.
Later in the ceremony, Gutmann conferred honorary degrees to eight individuals, including singer-songwriter Jon Bon Jovi, who won a Grammy Award in 2007.
The event closed with a speech from Bryan Stevenson, who urged the graduates to help “the poor, the neglected, the incarcerated, and the disfavored” in their careers. Stevenson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has led the fight to eliminate unfair sentencing and to exonerate innocent prisoners on death row. He has won several cases in the United States Supreme Court, most recently in a historic ruling that banned mandatory "life without parole" sentences for children who are 17 years old or younger.
Stevenson also called on the graduates to challenge politics “rooted in fear and anger” and change the narrative of racism in the United States.
“It’s almost like we turned the Civil Rights era into a three-day carnival,” Stevenson said. “On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington. And on day three we changed all the laws and racism was over.”
“I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved,” Stevenson added. “It turned into decades of terrorism and violence.”
Steven also spoke about the history of racial inequality in the United States as well as current failures in the criminal justice system. He said confronting racism in America will require more open conversations about the nation’s history of slavery, Native American genocide, and segregation.
“I hope you are the generation that leads us into an era defined by truth and reconciliation,” Stevenson said.
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