You’ve taken a chance — a calculated risk — on me twice now. The first time you took a chance on me was 37 years ago, when you admitted a working-class Puerto Rican kid from a vocational public high school that didn’t send many kids to the Ivy League. You took a chance when a lot of people would have doubted my abilities or my place in the class.
My high school transcript must have really had the admissions officers scratching their heads. My SAT scores were good, but they were lower than those of my freshman roommates, who both had perfect scores. I was at the top of my class, and in addition to taking AP courses, I also took secretarial classes and wood shop. I wasn’t sure I could go to college — so I took classes that gave me practical skills for the workforce. And even after you admitted me, my high school counselor advised me not to go to Princeton — saying that I wouldn’t fit in.
Luckily, I didn’t listen to her, but she was not all wrong. I remember the day when my family drove down to Princeton in our Pontiac Grand Prix. Everyone was in high spirits; my family felt as though we had “made it,” dressed in our Sunday best to drop me off on a fabled college campus. When we walked into Hamilton Hall, my mother and my grandmother changed into smocks and aprons to scrub my freshman dorm room until it gleamed before they’d let me move in. I remember the puzzled look on the faces of my roommate and his parents when they walked in and saw these two older women scrubbing the floors. We were obviously visitors in this house — but we were going to make it shine.
More seriously, Princeton was the first place that really challenged me — intellectually, socially, emotionally. In those first months, I was full of doubt, worried that I had only been admitted as an affirmative-action candidate. I’m sure many first-year students feel overwhelmed, but coming from my background, this was like a foreign country whose language I barely understood. I worked hard, earning my place. And now I am proud to have been admitted through affirmative action, and to stand as an example of why it works and how it is important to reach into the ranks of nontraditional students.
Despite my fears, what I found were professors, administrators and students who were from very different backgrounds — who welcomed me, nurtured me, taught me. And when I graduated, I was not only smarter, I was more confident. I knew that I could succeed.
But no one does anything meaningful or influential alone. My success, and this award, have been earned, not just by my own efforts, but through the work, love, and support of people too numerous to acknowledge, including parents, friends, and all of those who helped me through my four years here. And if I have accomplished anything at the ACLU these past 19 years, it is the product of thousands of people at the ACLU who have also committed themselves to public service in ways that allow me — and us — to succeed.
I’m not trying to be humble. With very rare exceptions, large-scale, positive impacts on communities, and the world at large, don’t flow from the actions of a single individual. Rather, they are the consequence of an environment in which public service flourishes and thousands or millions of people put the ideals of public service into action as volunteers, activists, donors or public-service professionals.
That is why what you do here is so important. As Bill Bowen [*58], the late president of Princeton, once said: “Institutions exist to allow us to band together in support of larger purposes; they permit a continuity otherwise impossible to achieve; and they allow a magnification of individual efforts.” He went on: “Learning to make the accommodations that institutional affiliation requires is not always easy. But there is a need to cooperate and collaborate, as well as to strike out on one’s own, if important societal ends are to be served.”
So my goal, every day, is not just to change America by myself, but also to help build institutions and nourish an ecosystem in which thousands of other talented and dedicated people will be inspired to change America.
Unfortunately, in a larger, societal sense, the American ecosystem is badly damaged. Humans have never been so interconnected, and the challenges we face — climate change, terrorism, economic displacement, authoritarianism, injustice — have never been so global.
But the environment needed to address those challenges has been fouled by an increasing focus on what separates and divides us — rather than what unites and binds us. We doubt the efficacy of institutions, we don’t believe in truth, we call into question norms and laws and values that have long defined America: that a vocal, free press is good; that we ought to be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin; that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Places like Princeton, the ACLU, local civil-rights organizations, and community playhouses are like lush hidden valleys surrounded by great deserts of media-promoted self-absorption.
And this saddens me, because I know just how important public service is — formal or informal, paid or volunteer, full-time or part-time. I am here today in large part because of others’ service in institutions like public housing, public schools, the foster- and adoption-care system, federal financial aid, and private scholarships.
Sometimes these large, faceless public institutions get a bad rap. But the people who work there are often committed, talented individuals who change lives for the better — despite lacking the resources and the public support that their responsibilities should command.
When I started school in the Bronx in the 1970s, my mother’s greatest goal for me was to make it safely home from St. John Vianney Elementary to the Castle Hill Projects where we lived. My parents were incredibly protective of my sister and me in those early years. I saw the ravages of drugs at a young age — kids barely out of their teens with the light already gone from their eyes. And violent crime in the area was a serious problem. In fact, the family in the apartment next door to us was murdered.
In retrospect, we confronted those challenges with resignation and determination. We didn’t have any other options, so we powered through.
There’s a good chance that Woodrow Wilson is right now spinning in his grave like an Olympic figure skater.
Now, even as my family and I were desperate to escape the challenges we confronted, there were people who did have options, who came into the neighborhood, the schools, the workplace every day. Though they got paid, they didn’t do it for the big money. And though they probably didn’t think of themselves as particularly brave, they showed courage every day of their working lives.
These were the teachers at the schools I attended. The social workers in the foster care/adoption agency who placed me with my parents. The union worker who took my father’s request for a promotion and championed it. The Princeton alums who wrote checks to underwrite minority scholarships. These individuals all had options. They made choices. They decided to help someone else and not themselves or their own. Some toiled in challenging bureaucracies. Some deliberately exposed themselves to the pain and trauma of the individuals and communities they were trying to help. They didn’t do it for fame or fortune. They did it to make other people’s lives better.
Let’s be honest: Not every teacher or social worker in the Bronx deserves to have one of those inspirational movies made about them. Not every system is perfect, and not everyone who works there is an altruist. But there were enough of them who were kind and smart and committed to public service that at every step of my life, when things could have gone off the rails, they kept me on track. I live a life of meaning, a life beyond my wildest dreams, because systems, institutions, and individuals committed to public service — and not self-interest — made that possible.
And today, I am committed to public service because I want every American to have the opportunities that were given to me.
But let me turn now to the second chance Princeton took on me. And that is in giving me this award.
I understand that by granting me your highest alumni honor, you are trusting me to represent this university and carry on a tradition embodied in the words and the ethos behind this award. It’s not a culmination of my past work; it’s a charge to fight and to serve going forward.
I also know that not everyone agrees with the work of the ACLU. I can just imagine the alumni letters that President Eisgruber [’83] has already received complaining about giving the highest alumni award to the head of the “radical” ACLU.
You also took a chance in giving me an award named after Woodrow Wilson. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
There’s a good chance that Woodrow Wilson is right now spinning in his grave like an Olympic figure skater, as an award in his name is bestowed on the executive director of an organization literally established to oppose the xenophobic, anti-immigrant, flagrantly unconstitutional Palmer Raids he oversaw. There’s a good chance that the racist who resegregated the federal government and erased Princeton’s then-meager history of African American scholarship is doing a triple Lutz into a double axel as I accept the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.
I don’t think the word “irony” even begins to describe this moment. And it’s delicious.
Of course, it was a Princetonian, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This campus is certainly comprised of first-rate minds.
But how do you reconcile the man who said, “There is no cause half so sacred as the cause of a people. There is no idea so uplifting as the idea of the service of humanity,” with the man who also said, “We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race”?
I am a better attorney, executive, and servant to humanity because of the changes a racist xenophobe made to the university that took a chance on me. How do I reconcile that for myself? How do I put this award on my shelf?
I raise these questions because I want to be clear. This is not just a challenge for me, or for Princeton. It’s a challenge playing out in real time all across America: How do we reconcile the good that we have done as a nation and the beauty of our potential, with the evil that we have tolerated and condoned?
It’s a challenge that we have had to confront even in one of the most famously progressive organizations in America.
Even before they had won the right to vote, women helped found the ACLU. But our current board president, Susan Herman, is only the second woman to lead our board. And in 100 years, a woman has never been executive director.
The ACLU was an early and active champion of racial justice, defending the Scottsboro Boys and documenting the horrors of lynching. But in the hysteria of World War II, our national board declined to represent Fred Korematsu in his challenge to the racist internment of Japanese Americans, leaving it to our state offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle to lead that fight.
In the early 1950s, the job description for Roger Baldwin’s successor read, “Other things being equal, the ACLU director should not be one whose interest in civil liberties might be mistakenly ascribed to his being a member of an oppressed minority group.” At the time, the board wasn’t even thinking that a woman, a person of color, or trans person might be the ACLU’s next director. They were saying, “No Jews need apply.”
We filed our first gay-rights case in 1936, when Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour was banned in Boston for lesbian content.
And when ACLU attorney Tom Stoddard tried to convince our national board to create a litigation project in the mid 1980s focused on LGBT rights, he was asked by a national leader, “How is ‘who you sleep with’ a civil-liberties issue?”
Every institution, whether it’s Princeton or the ACLU, has to struggle with the legacy of bigotry and intolerance that often sits beside altruistic and high-minded goals. It’s tough to admit, but racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and a host of other diseases are in our society’s DNA.
So, how do we cure ourselves?
The answer is by fully exploring and exposing our past.
A month ago, we held the ACLU National Board meeting in Montgomery, Ala. As part of that board meeting, we visited Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the National Lynching Memorial). There’s a museum that sits alongside it called the Legacy Museum. Both sites are beautifully executed, deeply moving, and incredibly raw in their depiction of widespread lynchings and the systematic brutalization and terror perpetrated on African Americans. They are unlike any museum or memorial you will visit.
As my friend Bryan worked to organize and establish the memorial and museum, he encountered enormous opposition — largely from the white community, but not only. He was accused of fueling the fires of racial separation and hatred by focusing on lynching and the terror of slavery.
The fact that Princeton’s highest alumni award is named after a man who was by equal measures racist and visionary helped me probe my own journey.
But Bryan believed, and I agree, that the only way to move forward is by acknowledging, understanding, and debating the past. And that past includes the harmful, violent legacy of some of our esteemed leaders.
Because today, despite sincere and effective efforts to weave the diverse elements of Princeton’s student body into a vast and beautiful tapestry, there are some who still feel like outsiders — who feel alienated, who feel like they don’t belong. But activism and public service can help change that.
I believe that demonstrators who drew national attention to the contradiction of Wilson’s tenure and forced the University to reconsider his place in our history performed a tremendous public service. We live in a healthier environment, and we have a stronger Princeton because of the Princeton Black Justice League and its supporters.
I believe that the Wilson Legacy Review Committee performed a tremendous service with the report they presented at last autumn’s Thrive Conference, titled “Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy: Wrestling with History.” I know that compromise can leave both sides feeling unsatisfied, but this is a better university for their thought.
And I believe Walter Hood’s brilliant installation “Double Sights,” in Scudder Plaza, performs a tremendous service. Because when we can see and read and touch and consider both sides of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy and our own past, we can move more intelligently into the future.
I know that there are some who wish this award weren’t named after Woodrow Wilson. And I know there are some who wish that the leader of the ACLU wouldn’t accept an award named after a racist.
But I am glad to do so because it gives me an opportunity to explore, understand, and reckon with the past. In my own institution, I believe that the ACLU is made stronger by recognizing and addressing its history of exclusion and discrimination. And I think Woodrow Wilson’s continued presence on this campus provides administrators and students with a daily reminder that we must probe those areas where we still fall short of our aspirations and redouble our efforts to address them.
On a very personal level, the fact that Princeton’s highest alumni award is named after a man who was by equal measures racist and visionary helped me probe my own journey and evolution. I arrived at Princeton with views of Muslims, Sikhs, women, and even gays (as a closeted gay man) that were very different than the ones I held when I left. There are things I said and did as a younger man that still today fill me with shame and embarrassment. But I grew, I was schooled, I was taught, I was led, and I was humbled out of my ignorance.
I would like to think that if the ghost of Woodrow Wilson were ambling around this campus, with this faculty and with these students, he, too, would be transformed.
Also, the fact that an award for public service is named after an imperfect public servant underscores a larger point: that the contributions of any one individual pale in comparison to the infinite contributions of the many who toil together without fanfare or acclaim.
In the spirit of President Bowen’s observation that “institutions exist to allow us to band together in support of larger purposes,” let’s forget the idolization or narcissism inherent in either granting or accepting an individual award. Forget for a moment who it’s named after or who it’s given to.
Instead, I’d like all of us, as representatives of this institution, to ask ourselves how we can embrace the motto “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
Being in service isn’t something that can be outsourced. It can’t be delegated.
It’s something we all have to do — by seeking out people who are serving the public. By giving them the respect they deserve. By trying to erase the gap between the “bottom-line” people and the “better-world” people. By being part of the feedback loop that fuels service and brings change.
We can serve by changing an environment that has lost balance, by nurturing the soil and clearing the air in ways that will bring progress. By spreading the word of Woodrow Wilson: “There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”
Most important, we can serve by finding and embracing the joy and the rewards of public service ourselves. The rewards George Bernard Shaw had in mind, when he wrote:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
Thank you all. And thank you especially to the future generations of public servants.
This is a lightly edited version of Anthony Romero’s Woodrow Wilson Award address. View his talk at bit.ly/romero-2020.