Library | Speeches

Darren Walker delivers commencement address to Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Darren, Walker, New York 2014-2015. Photo Credit: Simon Luethi ©Ford Foundation.

May 25, 2017

Address to the Class of 2017 Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies

Johns Hopkins University

Remarks as Prepared

To Dean Nasr, faculty and staff of SAIS, and, most importantly, to the Class of 2017: Congratulations!  

I am thrilled to join you on this most auspicious, wonderful occasion, and I am honored—and grateful—that you have included me in your venerated ranks. 

Looking into your faces—and learning of your impressive accomplishments and inspiring aspirations—I must say: I feel better about the state of international diplomacy than I have in quite some time.

In all seriousness, our world needs you—now more than ever.

As a card-carrying member of the global community, I’ve been disheartened by the notion that, at least in some corners, being a “global citizen” is considered a bad thing.  

But class of 2017: In an age of alternative facts, you have dedicated yourselves to larger truths. In a culture—and climate—where many are tempted to oversimplify, you see nuance, and don’t shy away from complexity.  In a time of risk to—if not outright retreat from—global alliance, you are champions of interdependence and interconnection.  And as masters of international studies—as the newest alumni of this premier institution for the study of global affairs—your perspective, and your insight, could not be more indispensable.

Of course, you don’t need me to opine on the state of the world.

You know how the global order has shifted during these last few years—and how these shifts have affected multinational institutions and global governance. You know that even though we have made great strides on global poverty, inequality persists—and in many places, has worsened.  You know that authoritarian governments continue to trample on essential human rights and democratic freedoms—whether they shut down protestors or the press.  And you know that some democracies have begun to follow their lead. 

And yet, it’s worth remembering that while today’s constellation of threats to democratic values are unique, they are not without precedent.  

Consider democracy’s existential threat of the last century—the Second World War. In 1941, months before America’s entry into the war, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined what he called the “Four Freedoms.”  Then and now, these are the essential freedoms that all people around the world should enjoy: Freedom of speech. Freedom of belief. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. 

More than an American idea, these four freedoms have become an international ideal, and open the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But while these freedoms are, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “self-evident,” they are not inevitable.  Quite the contrary. 

In fact, our freedoms come with the responsibility to protect them, promote them, and extend them to others. Despite what the cutting-edge thinkers of the 18th century espoused, fundamental rights aren’t merely derived from our nature; they are delivered by our actions.

Let’s take freedom of belief as one example.

The free exercise of religion is hollow if the person practicing their faith or preaching their beliefs is somehow penalized for doing so—whether they’re teased or mocked, barred from a job or neighborhood, or denied their due process.  And so, with the freedom of belief comes a responsibility to accept others—to embrace the differences that make our societies stronger. 

And this is true for all our freedoms. 

With the freedom of speech comes the responsibility to listen—especially to views that are different from ours—and to engage with civility and an open mind.  

With the freedom from want comes the responsibility to serve.  Good fortune is half chance. So, those of inside the circle of opportunity share an obligation to push its borders outward.

Last but not least, to advance freedom from fear, we have a responsibility to act in opposition to those who would spread it. And this, class of 2017, is what I ask you to consider today: How do we embrace our responsibility to act in the face of fear?  

Now, for starters, what do I mean by freedom from fear?

There are a lot of things we could be afraid of: Climate change. The rise of nationalism in Europe or hate groups here in the United States. Political instability in South America and the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation in places like North Korea. Droughts and famines in the horn of Africa. 

Fear seems increasingly ubiquitous and unavoidable.  

For FDR—in his time—freedom from fear depended narrowly on, as he put it, “a world-wide reduction of armaments.” For us, however, it’s easy to see the advance of fear on many fronts.  

Fear is both a product of—and sometimes a cause of—our vulnerability.  And inequality, in all of its forms, engenders much of this vulnerability, in all of its shapes. 

There’s fear about not being able to pay the bills or put food on the table.  There’s fear for how you’ll be treated based on your skin color, or your faith, or sexual orientation, or gender identity.  There’s fear that you will be denied the right to determine your own future—to rise as high as your talent and hard work will take you.  And fear—along with hopelessness—is more than a byproduct of inequality, or a response to feeling threatened. 

Fear itself, to echo FDR, can be wielded as a weapon, as a threat to democratic values. It keeps people from organizing and speaking out, from being themselves, and from fighting for what’s right.

Fear compels societies to divide along lines of “us” versus “them.” It entices the desperate, or the frustrated, or the furious to make decisions that drive societies apart.  

Fear, in fact, seizes upon our differences and exaggerates them. Fear empowers demagogues and strong-men who exploit people’s anxieties, while amassing power for themselves and their cronies.  Fear drives governments—even elected ones—to make decisions that seek to preserve “law and order” at the expense of freedom or dignity. 

For these reasons, among many others, freedom from fear is essential to the healthy functioning of any society.  

There is no better guardian of this freedom—no better defender of the vulnerable—than civil society: Committed, compassionate, engaged citizens organizing themselves—and mobilizing others—to work on behalf of others.

At the Ford Foundation, we believe one of the most troubling trends in the world today is the outright assault on civil society.  Indeed, during the last several years, many countries have begun restricting the right to assemble—and impeding the work of civil-society organizations, of NGOs, and faith groups, and associations of the discounted, disregarded, or disenfranchised. 

People and groups who challenge unjust laws are often persecuted, without due process, and unfairly punished. And, again, I hasten to add: This is happening in democracies, not just under authoritarian regimes.

Clearly, there is reason for fear—but there also is reason for hope.  

I choose to be optimistic because I see so many people fighting fear with concerted, courageous, compassionate action. Every day, on every continent, they take action for dignity, for fairness, and for the democratic values they believe in. 

In the favelas of Brazil, where black men are routinely killed by police, organizations like Redes de Maré are bringing the community together to denounce the violence and raise their collective voice. 

In the courtrooms of Zimbabwe, where unjustly-incarcerated demonstrators face persecution and prosecution, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights are providing emergency legal support.

And in the streets of Uganda, where the LGBT community has been oppressed by the government, organizations like Sexual Minorities Uganda have risen to challenge unjust laws and defend human rights, despite personal risk. 

These brave men and women speak truth to power. They forge relationships with local communities and understand their concerns. By taking action, they make people feel less vulnerable. And you can bet that more than a few of them sat exactly where you sit today.  

I can’t help but think of Jody Williams—herself a SAIS graduate—who, 20 years ago, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. When she joined the campaign in 1992, there were only two NGOs involved; Jody was the only person on staff. But because she took action, people took notice. Over five years, Jody grew the campaign to more than 1,300 organizations in 95 different countries. And because ordinary people, around the world, took action, too, so did their governments— which eventually signed an international treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines.

In her Nobel Lecture, all those years ago, Jody closed by quoting the French ambassador in Oslo who said, “This [treaty] is historic because, for the first time, the leaders of states have come together to answer the will of civil society.”

Most importantly, because of all these actions—because of actions taken together and taken for others—people across the world are a little freer from fear. 

And now, class of 2017: This responsibility to act falls on you, too.

From the fast, full hours that you’ve spent on the campus here, or in Bologna, or in Nanjing—and from your countless hours serving around the globe—you know that our collective futures and wellbeing are intertwined with people and countries thousands of miles away. 

You know foreign policy isn’t some abstraction.  It affects the lived experience of untold millions—billions, even. 

And you know, better than almost anybody else, that international relations isn’t merely an academic exercise. It’s the expression of our most noble aspirations: to work together, with others, in common purpose toward a common good. 

So, wherever you go next, I challenge you: Expand the freedom from fear by fulfilling your responsibility to act. You can do this whether you are in Foggy Bottom or working as representatives of your home countries; whether you are making a global impact at the World Bank or a local impact, lifting the voices of your constituents at a community organization.

No matter where you work, I challenge you to think about ways you can bring your talent and tools to work for civil society, too. Ask of yourselves: 

How can I learn from the courageous work of civil-society organizations and their leaders around the world?

How can I take my cues from communities and civil society—from the people closest to the problems themselves—and advocate for change?   

How can I act on behalf of the NGOs defending human rights in countries where they are under threat?

How can I model and extend these freedoms we cherish to all people?

It will take humility, and courage, and commitment to spread freedom from fear, and create a world that is free of fear.  But this freedom—and all our freedoms—are worth fighting for. 

It was Nelson Mandela, who—while on trial, facing life in prison—said:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Today, so many people around the world are prepared to devote and risk their lives in this same work.  So many are taking action to expand the Four Freedoms, to promote freedom of speech and protect freedom of belief; to advance freedom from want and expand freedom from fear.  And there is no group of people more prepared to join them than you. 

So, class of 2017, I urge you to embrace your responsibility to act.  In the best tradition of this extraordinary institution, act on behalf of those who are afraid, but still aspire to the very freedoms we are so lucky to enjoy.  Act with integrity.  Act with care.  Act with courage. 

This is your moment. And I know you will seize it. Thank you. Congratulations.