Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director of Farm Aid and Founder of the Armenia Tree Project
Good afternoon, graduates of the class of 2013! I am very conscious of the fact that right now I stand between you and the degree you have been working so hard toward.
Good afternoon President Angel, Clark University Board of Trustees, esteemed members of the Administration, Faculty and Staff, honorary degree recipients, families and friends of the graduates, and distinguished guests.
In preparation for this speech, I visited campus not too long ago to get to know you some of you. Some of you were willing to spend time with me in the student union on very short notice and I want to thank you very much for that. I was very taken with your enthusiasm, your spirit and your energy. You’ve demonstrated already the values you have, and the opportunity you’ve had here to put them into practice. I want to stay in touch with all of you, so, let’s be sure to. When I asked was asked what you’d like to hear from your commencement speaker, one of you said, “Just tell us it’s going to be okay.” Well, it IS going to be ok, but it will be different, it will be okay because of you and what you will do. That’s what I want to talk to you about today.
It is a great honor and pleasure for me to serve as your Commencement speaker, particularly here, in a place that I have come to love. I may not have been a "Clarkie" myself, but this university and this city are very much a part of who I am.
My grandfather Sarkis Mugar came here to Worcester in the late 1890’s (Please don’t do the math…I was born very young!). He came, seeking safety from his homeland of Armenia where there had already been massacres of about 300,000 Armenians. He worked here in a wire mill for several years before he went back home, married, and returned to the United States in 1906 with three children, my father among them, and another on the way. Their story—my story—is very common. It may be your story as well.
I give my grandfather huge credit not only for having the wisdom as such a young man to see ahead, but also for having the courage to act on that wisdom. Had he stayed in Armenia, he and his family might very well have perished along with a million and a half other Armenians in the genocide of 1915. My grandfather took action—took a risk—and came here where his family found safety and a future they could not have imagined in their homeland. Here I want to add that one reason that Clark is so important to me is that it is the only university in the country with a chair dedicated to Armenian Genocide studies, headed by my dear friend whom I admire greatly, Taner Akcam, and named after my close and highly respected Clark-graduate-friend, Aram Kaloosdian, class of 1952, and his wife Marianne.
Another close connection that I have to Worcester and Clark is my late husband, John O’Connor, who was a graduate of Clark in the class of 1978 and later a Clark Trustee. The friends John made at Clark were not only HIS close friends throughout his life, but they’ve become my very very dear close friends as well. For sure, they are part of the community that makes me strong.
John was an activist, especially for workers and the environment, and he traced those roots back to his years at Clark. Even before he graduated, he worked to empower community members in low income neighborhoods in Worcester.
After graduation, he became a full time community organizer…blocking a proposed landfill in one community, thwarting arsonists in another, and organizing neighbors to change the business practices of local polluters. He went on… drawing on his Clark and Worcester experiences… to start The National Toxics Campaign, launching grassroots campaigns across the country to protect people in cities and in rural areas. That movement led Congress to create the Superfund Cleanup Law, the most important environmental victory of that era. But John died when he was just 46. The lesson is: Don’t wait for your life to begin. When you see what’s wrong, there is ALWAYS something you can do, no matter what your age.
Today, I am greatly honored and fully humbled to receive this honorary degree on behalf of Farm Aid and the Armenia Tree Project—two organizations that represent the importance of courage, vision, and community.
Willie Nelson founded Farm Aid in 1985. He meant to have one concert—to raise money and awareness to stand up for family farmers who were being forced off the land due to economics, bad public policy and corporate power. 28 years later and 26 concerts later, I know that Farm Aid put down the roots of today’s surging movement for good food from family farms. Right here at Clark, you have signed onto the Real Food Challenge, committing your school to bring family farm food into the cafeteria! You are cutting edge leaders as the first Massachusetts college to do so! Thank you, students, and thank you, President Angel.
Did Willie know what to do when he had that first concert? Probably not. He just knew that something was really wrong in our country if our family farmers were being forced off the land and he knew that he could do what he could do: play music. So he invited a bunch of his friends to play with him. John Mellencamp and Neil Young stepped up right away at the beginning then, Neil Young…then hundreds and hundreds of artists have played over the years for family farmers.
Willie stepped up and did something about the problem he saw. He raised money and sparked a movement. He didn’t plan, but here he is—the most committed visible supporter of family farmers.
It may seem odd to suggest that you just jump in without deep consideration given to your choice about what path to take. But here’s an observation from experience: Yes it’s good to think ahead, to plan, but often the best thing is to simply act. Just take that first uncertain step, and then take the next, and keep going. Don’t spend any time standing still in fear about which road to take. Just get moving. Life happens when you make choices, when you take action.
John and I started the Armenia Tree Project in 1994, a terrible time of crisis in a country that has seen a lot of strife already. At that time in Armenia, families were desperate to heat their homes and cook their meals with the only resources they had: their own possessions (furniture, floorboards, even books) and the trees growing around them. To survive, people were deforesting the country—a trade-off that was unjust and undermined the future of their own country.
We were asked: “How can you plant trees when people are hungry and have no heat?” The answer? It is exactly at that time when everything seems hopeless, that you must plant for the future. Now the Armenia Tree Project plants between 300,000 and 400,000 trees in Armenia each year, growing not just sustainable forests, but thriving communities. Since 1994, we’ve planted more than 4.2 million trees including many fruit trees which will feed future generations. We have three nurseries, two environmental education centers, and partners across the world. Perhaps most importantly, our work is a concrete demonstration of the belief that Armenians, and the Armenian diaspora across the world, hold for the future of our people. Also, I’d like to add, very importantly, that three Clarkies have been at the helm of this organization since it started—Regina Eddy (class of ‘80), Jeff Masarjian (class of ‘75), and Jason Sohigian (class of ‘93), who is here today.
And so, I encourage you, when you jump in, be a visionary who can look ahead to see the fruits of a long labor, and who can be patient enough and steadfast enough to work for the future. As one of our sages in the agrarian movement, Wes Jackson, tells us, “If the work of your life can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” Think about it.
Clark’s motto, “Challenge Convention. Change Lives” is right on--for John and for me, and for all of you. I don’t need to tell you how special your Clark education is—both in the classroom and out. Each of you will leave here today prepared to go forward. You may do your work here in Worcester or all over the world.
It may be wrong, on this of all days, to call you graduates ordinary. But I will, and I do so as a compliment, because I believe it is the ordinary people who change the world—people like my grandfather Sarkis Mugar and my late husband John O’Connor, like Willie Nelson, and like all the people in the United States and Armenia who make up the Armenia Tree Project. And now, and in the great tradition of commencement speakers, I will offer you some brief thoughts for going about creating that change.
First, don’t be afraid. Have courage. Move toward what scares you. Be open to change, receptive to possibilities. You are equipped to go out from this place and to engage with the world, to meet opportunities with open arms and to step out and make a difference. You’re getting a degree today, but curiosity will open you to having a lifetime of being educated. Stay curious.
Second, be an ordinary visionary. To imagine yourself a visionary sounds pretentious. It’s not. It’s ordinary (and remember, that’s good!). Imagine the future and begin to make it happen.
Third, don’t do it alone. You have shared your years at Clark with fellow students, teachers and staff. As you venture out, you will encounter new friends, colleagues, new mentors and people who you will mentor. Bring them all along. Bring people together, keep people together. The communities we hope for come from people joined together, sharing a vision and contending with one another about what the future looks like.
Finally—really, finally—I want to reassure you about the future. You may be entering the world indebted and uncertain as you leave the relative calm of the college campus—though more than other colleges, you have been separated from the “real world.” People like you are going to make all the difference, as we have in the past and always will. With ordinary human courage and vision, with the particular special tools that Clark has given each of you, and an indomitable spirit, and with the hands-on experience you already have, together with others, you have the capacity to do what needs to be done. I’ve seen all this at Farm Aid and I’ve seen it at the Tree Project. And I know we will all see it in what you do. I look forward to that. And be sure to keep us posted. Congratulations, graduates!