What grads really need to hear about the problems confronting us and the prospect of progress

June 7, 2021 12:01 am

Richmond Public Schools seniors outside their graduation ceremony. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

FALLS CHURCH — Gov. Ralph Northam traveled to Northern Virginia last week with a timeworn message for this year’s high school graduates as they enter adulthood: Anything is possible in America.

“The sky is the limit,” he said during an in-person outdoor ceremony at George Mason High School in Falls Church City. “Don’t ever, ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something, especially in this great country of ours.”

Northam spoke on a warm, sunny morning that capped a year of monumental challenges, from a prolonged shift to virtual education to cancelled rites of passage to nationwide demonstrations for racial justice.

He touched on resilience — how to “overcome things that are difficult in life” — a message that came as 17-year cicadas thrummed in the background and as students, draped in red caps and gowns, sat apart from one another. “At the end of all this, you will be stronger. And I want to promise you that there is finally light and hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel.”

To be sure, Northam’s speech came at a time for optimism.

Gov. Ralph Northam addresses George Mason High graduates last week. (Allison Stevens/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The COVID-19 pandemic is abating in Virginia and around the nation, thanks to the speedy development and deployment of highly effective vaccines. After months of demonstrations for racial justice, Derek Chauvin, a former Minnesota police officer, has been convicted of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. A president who spread lies and hate — and tried to steal a second term — is out of office, and has been replaced by one who respects democratic norms and traditions and is working toward action on some of our most pressing problems, ranging from climate change to racial inequity.

At the state level, Democrats saw major progress this year, banning the death penalty, expanding voting rights, reforming marijuana laws and more.

Progressives have scored accomplishments at the local level, too. Here in Falls Church City, this year’s graduates of George Mason High School are the last; next year, students will graduate from Meridian High School, a much-needed name change that came in response to calls for racial justice. Falls Church City schools also recently codified a new plan to advance diversity, equity and inclusion across the school district.

Despite this progress, Northam’s message struck me as lip-service to hope-hungry graduates.

Our nation has lost over half a million lives, including more than 10,000 Virginians, in part because our former president failed to lead a coordinated, national response to the pandemic.

Climate change is accelerating; storms are intensifying, wildfires are more frequent and sea levels are rising, threatening communities across the country, especially those of color.

White supremacist propaganda is increasing. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are surging. And income inequality in our country is extreme.

Prospects for needed change at the national level are slim, even though Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

One year after Floyd’s death, a sweeping police reform package named in his memory languishes in Congress. So too have bills that would address climate change, strengthen background checks on gun purchases and make other needed changes. Our federal government can’t even pass common-sense legislation to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Women and people of color continue to break through barriers to office, but our politics still don’t reflect the diversity of our society. In Virginia, White men hold most levers of political power, occupying the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, and the majority of seats in the U.S. House and the General Assembly. 

Call your mother

Northam also urged students to call their mothers every week and thank them for the work they put into raising them. As a working mom of two boys, I wished he told them to fight for policy change instead and particularly subsidies for child care, which remains outrageously expensive.

He mentioned parents, but I wished he’d namechecked dads specifically. Caregiving is the responsibility of women and men, and we need to reinforce that message, especially in light of huge setbacks women suffered in the workplace due to the loss of child care and education supports amid the pandemic.

We do have reason for optimism, especially this month as we celebrate the spectacular efforts students, families, schools and communities put into completing this academic year. But we don’t need another canned commencement address that gives graduates false hope about the prospect of progress in America and reinforces myths about achievement in our country. 

Some of us won’t be stronger at the end of this. We can’t always do what we set out to do, even when we put our best effort forward. We don’t achieve our goals on our own — but rather with (often invisible and unheralded) support from families, communities and society. And some of us, depending on who we are and where we live, have far more support than others. 

We can make progress and accomplish great things in the United States, but there are limits to our success — and they’re measured by the lengths we’re willing to go to to work together for the common good, to uplift everyone. If we want any hope of solving our most pressing problems in this challenging time, this is the message our grads, and all of us, need to hear.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is an independent writer, editor, and communications strategist in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at