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Alithea McFarlane’s MPP ‘18 Commencement Speech

Good morning everyone.

I want to start by thanking you, my peers, not only for selecting me to be your commencement speaker, but for giving me the opportunity to do one more 32-hour project, because after submitting my APA at 1:30 in the morning on Friday, I definitely thought to myself, “yeah I could do another thing.”

But in all seriousness, it truly is a great honor. And I would like to extend my gratitude and appreciation to the friends and family that have come to witness the ceremony and share in the celebration. That is already laudable in its own right, but given that it is 10:00 a.m. on a Monday, it is downright award worthy. Like many of you, coming to this journey's conclusion has left me feeling reflective, and as I look back at the last two years I find myself returning to a particular category of discussion: the numerous conversations about the conversations we don't have at GSPP. It has been rigorous, time-consuming, and has found us drinking from the fire hydrant of skill and knowledge.

And yet this desire for the often unsaid, ignored, and neglected persists finding outlets in classic survey responses and student-led courses and workshops. Because even after we flattened our long-run supply curves, decompose our Wakako blinders, and executively summarize our “no more than four-page” memos we know that policy encompasses not just the technical but the normative, not just the quantitative but the qualitative, not just the economic but the ethical. Of these unspoken dynamics, the one that fascinates me the most is power. I find that it often has a negative connotation, that the first thing that comes to mind is its corrupting influence on the people who wield it, of its potential to be abused, as the evil against which the good guys rebel.

In the past, I determined that only a fixed amount of this thing called power could exist within the world, divided in a manner that favored a privileged few exercised and leveraged in proportion to the amount possessed. In this view, the status quo can only be changed when power is redistributed or relinquished. Now I conceptualize power not as something to which values are attached or something that is inherently negative or is a zero-sum game, but as a benign creative force capable of being exercised by all the level of the individual and the institution from the political to the economic to the cultural. Power is the ability to create the conditions that are necessary for a particular outcome to occur. And so instead of living in a world where power straightforwardly wins by merit of magnitude and possession we live in a world of interconnected manifestations of attempts to exert power. Ultimately, there will be the realization of some dominant constructs but the existence of alternate designs; potential realities are never fixed and are never extinguished.

And so, in this view, the status quo is always in constant tension with possibility. The paradigm of “what is” is in conflict with the promise of “what if” and so if power is a creative force then policy is fundamentally power. To propose a policy is to propose a vision of the way things should be. To pass a policy is to work toward creating it. Policies can create a world where bread lines divide neighborhoods, where pipelines run from schools to prisons, where dreamers are deferred, where potholes get filled, where housing isn't a crisis, where death isn't a penalty, where travel is banned, where sea levels rise, where infrastructure is crumbling, where healthcare is universal, where Flint actually has clean water. Now the point of this spiel is not to imply that receiving this degree is the equivalent of suddenly being endowed with power, but this degree confers upon us all an additional layer of credibility, the burden of responsibility, a trapping of the elite, maybe even expertise, maybe the title of decision maker. Maybe this degree will grant you a seat at the table in the room where it happens. And maybe it means that your words will carry more weight and so that the chances that you advance your vision of the way things should be, whatever that may be, will become even greater. But if any group had to be trusted with this charge I am happy that it is you all. I have been in awe of since day one. Your entrepreneurship, your advocacy, your humility, your compassion—the ways I've seen you exercise your power since being here, from the numerous workshops organized, to your work on the Berkeley summit, to the SCIPP symposium, and the resistance school at Berkeley, have inspired me and made me optimistic for whatever you will do in the future.

But of all these, the thing that has given me the most joy and brings me the most solace is the sense of community that we have created. I make no claims of perfection. Any set of relationships will encounter friction along the way. There are some of you with whom I am not close, others who have hurt me, and surely some that I have hurt or disappointed along the way. This feeling isn't predicated on consensus as we have our share of ideological disagreements as well. Neither is this to say that I have experienced complete content in these two years. This had its fair share of loneliness frustration and inadequacy. But I have never once doubted whether or not I belong to the Class of 2018. And so, I hope you use your influence and standing to replicate this feeling wherever life takes you next so that the people around you may feel heard and valued in the way that I have, and I hope that you have felt heard and valued here. I can't promise that we will encounter success or that we will avoid the pitfalls of failure, or that our work will be appreciated for its true value. That is beyond my knowledge and frankly above my pay grade. But I do know that wherever life takes us next, more often than not we will be more than qualified to hold the jobs we will have. I look forward to seeing what we will create.

Thank you and congratulations to you all.