2004 Honoring the People's Author by Building Communities by
Sam Ruben

The theme of this year’s keynote, as you all know, is “Honoring the People's Author by Building Communities.” Now, I don’t have much experience with writing speeches, so I was at a bit of a loss for the proper way to start off. I would have looked to past years’ keynotes, but I’ll be the first to admit that, like most of the teens and young adults, while my body is almost always in attendance, my mind is usually still asleep at this point of the conference As I thought about the theme, the first idea that occurred to me was to write about the community that exists at the CSJO conference, and about all the good friends I’ve made over the years. I thought about talking about how each year I meet new people and pick up with the old right where we left off the year before. About how with each year the numbers wax and wane, different issues are raised (along with many of the same), and yet there’s always the sense of belonging as soon as you walk in the door on Friday.

At the same time as I was thinking about the great community that we’ve built here, I couldn’t help but shake the notion that this speech should be about something bigger. The more I thought about how great the people and the atmosphere is at these conferences, the more I came to realize that we have at our disposal a great tool for building a better community outside of these three days a year. That those of us in this room (and those of us still asleep upstairs) have an obligation, not only to ourselves, but to this community, as Secular Humanistic Jews and simply as good people, to strive to change our world for the better.

While I realize that this sounds idealistic, the more I thought about it, the easier I realized it was. There are the little things one can do on an everyday basis, things to improve the environment like walking or biking instead of driving, even brightening someone’s day with a simple thank you or have a nice day. But this isn’t enough; sometimes one has to move beyond the little, easy things to those that require sacrifice or courage. Even something that sounds as basic as standing up for what you believe can be one of the most difficult things one can do.

This fact was brought home to me quite clearly this past week. As many of you know, I graduated this past Sunday from Vassar College. In the school newspaper, on the back page, which is the humor section of the paper, a satire of the choice of Samuel L. Jackson was presented. The issue was not that they chose to satire Mr. Jackson, but rather that in doing so they utilized language and imagery that feeds into the stereotype of the African-American male as being violent and dangerous. This caused offense to many in the community, in particular a number of students of color, and we organized a meeting to discuss the issue.

From these conversations, which included the authors of the article, both white, we realized that prior to our explaining it to them, they had not realized the effect that their choice of language might have on people. We realized that this was just the latest in a long line of incidences regarding race that seem to come up every year or so and yet nothing more is done than talking about the issue until things die down. One must understand that Vassar, though it has a reputation for being a progressive, liberal institution, lags behind on race and diversity. As a result of its lacking even a minority recruitment program, there are usually no more than 5 or 6 African-American males in most entering freshman classes. The article was merely representative of the willful ignorance and lack of diversity that is fostered at the school.

We decided that we had had enough of talking the issue to death and decided that we should organize a protest. The problem was that this was the Friday night before graduation on Sunday. Many of us that were graduating, myself included, were afraid of the reactions that we might receive from both the other graduating seniors and the faculty, as well as the 1000 guests that would be in attendance. We were worried that they would not understand why we were protesting and be offended. Along with the fear of a negative reaction from our peers, our professors, and the general public, there was the feeling that graduation should be a celebration and that any action we might take would detract from that. Because of these and other factors, it was a difficult decision to go forward with organizing the protest. After much discussion and internal debate, we decided that irregardless of the repercussions, it was necessary to speak out on what we saw as a great wrong, not only at Vassar, but also within society as a whole. We committed that no matter what people’s reactions might be that we would stand up for what we knew in our hearts to be right.

The next day was spent making as many armbands as we could from the piles of clothes that students were throwing away in preparation for moving out. We also decided to draft a statement that we could hand out with the armbands and circulate in order to inform people of why we were protesting so that they wouldn’t dismiss us out of hand. We explained that along with wearing the armbands, we were standing in silence for a minute after the president asked everyone to be seated and then standing with our armbands in our fists for 15 seconds before sitting when we returned to our seats after receiving our diplomas. We worked all day and well into the night making the armbands and working to get the language in the statement so that it was satisfactory to all of us involved in the organizing process.

The next day we handed armbands and statements out to the senior class, the faculty, and those in attendance. The response that we received was quite overwhelming; around half and possibly even more of the senior class were wearing the armbands, along with a large number of the faculty and audience. Even more surprising was the numbers who stood with us for the beginning of the president’s address. As expected though, it was only those of us who had been intimately involved in the organizing process that stood with our fists raised, but all in all, the protest was an overwhelming success.

From discussions with people afterwards, and when we were handing things out, it was the first time that many of the people there had realized that the problem existed at Vassar. From this decision to stick up for what we believed was right, we had managed to change the way people looked at the situation at Vassar, and perhaps I’m being idealistic, but I would like to think that our actions have helped to begin the move towards a solution to the problem. By taking action to open people’s eyes to the fact that this was an issue that needs to be addressed, I would hope that I in some small way have worked to make the community at Vassar a better place.

Sorry for have gone on talking about myself, but I felt that it was the perfect example to illuminate my point. Sometimes it is necessary to take risks in order to follow what you believe to be right. It is this that I am asking you to try to do, as I will continue to strive to do, to stand up for your beliefs, to refuse to sit idly by while others are oppressed, while your rights or those of others are violated or removed. By working to uphold the values that we share as Secular Humanistic Jews, that of working for the betterment of all beings, we can all work to build better communities throughout our lives.

In closing, I would like to read to you a quotation from Sholem Aleichem that I came across while deciding what to write on: “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” It is my hope that you will share the wisdom that all of you have in order to help bring to reality the dream that I know many of you share with me that we can make a difference in this world, to change it for the better. So I ask of you, never stop dreaming and working to make those dreams come true, so that the day may come when life is a tragedy for no one and a comedy for all.