The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) held its inaugural commencement ceremony on Thursday, June 1, 2017. Master’s and doctoral graduates from the Class of 2017, as well as from the Fall Class of 2016 were celebrated at the ceremony, which was held at the historic Apollo Theater in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
The First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, was presented with an honorary Doctor of Science in Public Health degree in recognition of her leadership of ThriveNYC, a comprehensive mental health plan for New York City. Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was honored with the Champion of Public Health Award for her transformational work in addressing population health in New York City.
The keynote speech was delivered by Linda Sarsour, co-organizer of the National Women’s March and former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Ms. Sarsour called the graduates to action, “We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs and healthcare, sexism, violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and homophobia. We will stand up, we will speak truth to power no matter the consequences, we will demand change, we will center those most directly impacted because they, we, who are closest to the pain are also closest to the solution.”
In her speech, Ms. Sarsour emphasized the importance of social justice and recognized the intersectionality of the practice of public health, “We know that we can’t talk about economic justice without talking about racial justice, and we can’t talk about racial justice without talking about reproductive rights, or immigration reform, or environmental justice.” Said Ms. Sarsour, quoting Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Ms. Sarsour made an impassioned plea to graduates to act in their capacity as future public health practitioners, to address the suffering of those without a voice, “For, I truly believe that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. That silence is an endorsement of the status quo and makes us complicit in the suffering of the most marginalized amongst us.”
She called upon the graduates to be agents of change, “We must stay righteously outraged. We must never feel despair or complacency or submit to the idea that this is just how it is.” Ms. Sarsour wrapped up her keynote pledging continuing vigilance against injustice and suffering everywhere, “I will be righteously outraged everyday until we are all treated with dignity and respect, and we are all free in every part of this world; because when one of us is not free, none of us are free. I will be righteously outraged and I will make sure to contribute something every day to alleviating suffering and pain in my midst.”
Following Ms. Sarsour’s address, Dr. Bassett led the graduates in the recitation of the public health pledge, in which graduates pledged to “safeguard human and environmental health through prevention, protection, promotion, and educational efforts.”
First Lady McCray’s husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, made a surprise appearance onstage to present her with a bouquet of flowers to commemorate her honorary degree.
The Dean of CUNY SPH, Ayman El-Mohandes, closed the ceremony by inviting the graduates to turn their cell phones on and take a selfie. Dean El-Mohandes reminded the graduates, “No one can take this moment away from you. It is yours, and yours only. When bad times come, pull out that selfie and look at it. It is the flag that you have planted at the peak of Mount Everest. Congratulations! Go in peace.”
Please click here to watch a recording of the ceremony.