Former Intern’s UT Commencement Address!

The UT School of Social Work 2016 fall commencement ceremony took place in the LBJ auditorium on Saturday, December 3, and the convocation speaker was Reginald (Reggie) Smith, who was one of our interns during the semester.

“Reggie is an extraordinary person with a compelling story. In his own words, he has come full circle, ending an almost thirty-year odyssey through the school-to-prison pipeline that ultimately led him back to school,” said Allan Cole, senior associate dean for academic affairs when introducing Smith.

“By virtue of the many lessons he learned from his personal experience in the criminal justice system—including difficult lessons to be sure—Reggie has been a conduit for educating students, faculty, policy makers, and anyone else who will listen on a whole host of matters related to criminal justice reform and smart de-carceration strategies. He is to be commended for his vision, his courage, his wisdom, and his humanity while leading in this important work. And by the way, all of us do well to listen to him,” Cole added.

reggie-smithBy permission of the UT School of Social Work, Trinity Center is proud to share Reggie’s speech!

Thank you Dean Cole and faculty.

I’d also like to thank all the family members and friends who have supported us along our path. We truly would not be here today without your love, encouragement and most importantly your money.

I have the high honor and privilege to stand before you today and represent all these gifted and compassionate people who are graduating from the School of Social Work. To my class, I want you to know that I count myself blessed and highly favored to have had this opportunity to be in your presence. My life will be forever richer for knowing each and every one of you. I am sure that we will always be friends and colleagues.

As we prepare to strike out on new paths with new challenges and opportunities we can be sure that the instruction that we received from our professors here at UT Austin will extend well beyond the classroom allowing us to serve diverse groups, individuals, families and communities.

Barbara Jordan once said, “It is a privilege to serve people, a privilege that must be earned, and once earned, there is an obligation to do something good with it.” As graduates of The University of Texas we have acquired a privilege by virtue of obtaining a world-class education from this institution. We should strive to use this privilege to interrupt and end disparities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, mental or physical disability or location.

We don’t have to look far to recognize that we have much work to do. Right here in Travis County, one of every three black children and more than one of every four Hispanic children lives in poverty. Mayor

Adler has rightly pointed out that, “Decisions by governments to segregate communities and discriminate against African Americans, Hispanics and other groups created inequities that continue in Austin to this day.”

Let me give you just one example that has been reported by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. We know and evidence supports that hungry children have a harder time focusing on school and are more likely to have social and behavioral problems. Yet an estimated 24 percent of children in Travis County suffer from food insecurity. One quarter of the children in Austin don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. Think about that! That is unacceptable and we need to do better than that, no, we must do better than that!

Social work is a helping profession and as social workers we are bound by our code of ethics to draw on our knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to focus our social change efforts primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. Disparities in child well-being, mental health, education and mass incarceration all pose dire consequences for our society. Class, we’re graduating today because we earned our degree, but with that degree comes an obligation and obligation to do good. We do this good by ensuring that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and develop fully.

When you see children that lack consistent access to enough food then you have an obligation to advocate for more school-based child nutrition programs. When the community you serve is disadvantaged and has fewer resources and fewer academic and economic opportunity, then you should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups. This is what our code of ethics dictates and this is what our privilege to serve demands.

One of my hero’s is my grandmother and though she only had an eighth grade education she was one of the smartest people that I have ever known. She would often give me nuggets of wisdom which I will pass along to you today. First, to inspire change she would say, “If it is to be, it begins with me!” Then to inspire action she’d say, “If not now, then when?” My grandmother was not the type of person to quietly endure, silently suffer or patiently wait. She would take action because she felt it was her personal responsibility to affect change in the world.

Today I leave you with this, as social workers that have the privilege to serve and an obligation to do good, whenever you see injustice or inequality remember that change begins with you. Communities that have been historically denied the benefit of access to high-opportunity neighborhoods and groups having multiple disadvantages that are difficult to overcome need change now.

Our motto at The University of Texas at Austin states, “What starts here changes the world!” Having said that, I submit to you that we have an obligation to go out into our communities and work diligently to ensure that change does happen. We cannot look upon a world filled with injustices and wait for someone else to change it. Remember, if change is to be, it begins with each and every one of us, but if we don’t take action now, then when?

– Reginald Smith, BSW 2016