[Dr. Call]
Again, I welcome you
to Queensborough and to the Fall ’17 Presidential
Lecture. This began, the Presidential Lecture
series, in 2001. It was established by my
predecessor, Dr. Eduardo Marti,
and in the Fall, we feature a prominent
leader in CUNY or in the field of education,
and in the Spring, we feature one of our very own
fabulous faculty. We’re very pleased to welcome
you faculty, students, staff, and
members of our community. We have very devoted members of
community who come and join us
every lecture. I want to thank and intoduce,
frankly, our Presidential
Lecture Committee. They work to
identify people who would bring great insight into
education and higher- and our role in the world, and
Dr. Azi Aalai. Where are you? In social
sciences, she teaches psychology, and Dr. David Humphries, from the
English Department.
Dr. Humphries was also presidential lecturer a bit
ago. Dr. Paul Sideris from the Department of
Chemistry. Dr. Tim Lynch, I already
introduced him, our provost, and I welcome you. Now,
President Mason, many of these students are John Jay students,
right? Wanna wave hello? You can wave hello. Ok. We have as I said, 4 dual-joint degree
programs with John Jay, and
over 1500 students enrolled in those
programs, so John Jay’s a great partner, and we’re very
pleased that the president of
John Jay, who was appointed this summer,
is joining us. After a very long career as an extraordinary attorney,
groundbreaking in many ways, President Mason then went
on to serve in the public sector, as I
mentioned, as Assistant
Attorney General of the United States, under the Obama
administration. And she oversaw the Department of
Justice’s programs and all kinds of services, and
her budget, unlike CUNY’s, was $4 billion
[laughs], so thank you for indulging CUNY,
’cause you don’t have that kind
of money, I know at John Jay, but all her life,
she’s been an extraordinary voice for
access, for equity for fairness, and for justice,
and I think we have to be very proud that she’s part of
the CUNY family now, leading a
great college. The college of John Jay, and they will have benefit of her
leadership, as we all share her commitment, her passion for
students, it was very impressive, as I
met her over the summer, to
listen to what she believes in. And
today, she’s speaking about a topic very important, since
yesterday was, of course,
Election Day. What exactly is the responsibility
of citizenship? And we have to ask ourselves,
you know, what does it mean,
and how do we use our voices as members of
this global citizenship, to really
affect constructive change. To contribute in very positive
ways. So I hope you’ll join me in
welcoming President Karol Mason. [applause] [President Karol Mason]
Good afternoon. So thank you
for being here. and thank you for your
patience. So one of the first things I wanna say is,
today was a lesson in being prepared for anything
that could go wrong, because it
did. So I wanna thank President
Call- where did she go? Oh,
there we go. Thank you for inviting me to do
this! I had just started work
on August 1st, and on August 9th, she sent me
an invitation to do this, and I am grateful for this
opportunity to come out to a sister college, and to meet
so many wonderful people from
the Queensborough Community. And- now where are
the John Jay students? Raise
your hands, I can’t see you. Yay! Good, thank you.
Where are the Queensborough
Community College students? That’s right,
yeah! So thank you for inviting me to be
part of the speaker series, to celebrate the 100th
anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. And that you all have chosen
the theme “women and their
journeys and their triumphs.” So as President Call said,
yesterday was Election Day, and yesterday, everybody that I
met, I asked them, “did you
vote yet?” and particularly as we
celebrate Women’s Suffrage, we all know that so many people
fought and died to have the
right to vote, so I’m gonna embarrass
people, but who voted yesterday? Yeah I hope every hand goes up.
That is a privilege, and when we talk about accepting the
responsibility of citizenship,
that’s your first and primary responsibility- to
vote. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, but it’s
talking about raising your
voice. That’s your first and primary way of exercising
that voice, is to vote. And not everyone has the
ability to vote, and I wanna be
clear, that to me, citizenship does not mean that
you are a recognized citizen of the United States with the
right to vote. Citizenship
means, to me, being part of a community, being engaged in
your community, and so that- when I use the term citizenship here
today, that’s what I mean, but
for those of you who have the privilege of being
able to vote, don’t ever sacrifice that obligation and
that privilege to vote, because it’s important. So, as
I mentioned, I’m honored to be one of the women that you
are talking about today, through this cycle about women
and their journeys and their
triumphs. But I thought about, what do I
want to talk about today, really wrestled with it, particularly
when they sent me
examples of what people have talked about in the past.
It’s a little intimidating, to
come after last year’s speaker. But I went to my tried-and-true, so how many of you have
listened to the soundtrack for
Hamilton? Yeah, so if the rest of you
haven’t listened to it, I
encourage you to listen to it, I remember when
somebody bootlegged a copy to
me- it was legal, let me be clear, it was online,
it was a link to a website before the
play actually went on Broadway, to the soundtrack and I started
listening to it, and I said,
“Ooh, I don’t wanna listen anymore, I wanna wait until I
see it,” And I am one of the
lucky people who have had the
opportunity to see it twice, but one of the
things about Hamilton, it’s my
go to whenever I’m struggling and
thinking about, “What do I want
to talk about?” or when I’m discouraged, I go to
Hamilton, because it’s got a song to address any
situation, I think there any challenge there is in life,
and I think it’s gonna go in
history as one of the greatest performances of
our generation, and the running joke where I used
to work, at the Department of
Justice, is for those of you who could not see it, they
recommended that you come by my
office any day around 6 o’clock, when
the phones stopped ringing, and
I did a reenactment of most of the songs in my
office when things quieted
down. My favorite song was, “not gonna miss my
shot, not gonna miss my shot!” and I hope that all
of you, particularly the young
people in the room, listen to that song, and think
about what that means, and it resonates with you about not
missing “your shot,” because
you have a wonderful opportunity with your lives
that I hope you take full
advantage of. But, so the songs I mentioned
are always constantly running
through my head. And for those of you who
haven’t seen it, one of the
things that they talk about, but just
visually seeing that all of our founding fathers and mothers in
that play are people of color. And that’s
just a profound message on many levels. First of all,
it says, we all belong. And that we are all America.
And it’s a reminder that America is a country of immigrants. And
if you haven’t seen this
wonderful video series they did, Google it-
“Lin Manuel Miranda” and Google immigrants, and it’s a
wonderful Youtube video that reminds us of
important contributions that all of us have made to
this country. So that, to me, is its secret, it reminds us
that the rich diversity of America is the
reason for its success, and that as a nation of immigrants, it’s
this wonderful mosaic of backgrounds and experiences
that makes this country unique
and a model for the world, because that’s
what we are- well, I’m trying
not to get political here right
now, but our country was created by regular citizens willing to
risk their lives for this grand
experiment that we call America. Our ancestors went
through great social upheaval to birth what is clearly, the
world’s greatest democracy. And through that experience, we
learn that voices and the will and the commitment
of a few could change the
course of history and create a better world, so the question
I ask you tonight is how will you use your voice?” How
will you use your opportunities? Will you be part of the
conversation? Will you be a part of creating this next chapter
of the great democracy? As
President Obama said in his final speech
on January 10th, “Democracy does not require
uniformity. Our founding
fathers quarrelled, and eventually they
compromised, and they expected
us to do the same, but they knew
that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The
idea that for all of our outward differences, we’re all in this
together, and that we rise or
fall as one.” So at the core of his
message and at the core of what was important about the
founding of America is this need to trust and respect each
other, not agree with each
other. So one of the other, there are
two famous battles in the Hamilton soundtrack,
where Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are
bitterly fighting over what does this new coutry look like?
You know, is it a nation of one or is it a consolidation of a
lot of states? And that is what’s in, if you
read the Federalist Papers,
that’s what that debate is about, and that’s why
we have this unique system
where we have states, 50 states, but we also
have a unified Federal
government. But what they had to do as a
result of fighting and debating was, they learned to
figure out, how do we move, how
do we figure out what we want to be, and
this foundation of wanting to
create a country where everybody has
an opportunity to succeed and
fulfill their dreams. And at the foundation of what
we need to do is trust and
respect each other, as we navigate
challenging times. And that’s what will enable us
to build communities across
racial and ethnic lines, where everybody
has an opportunity to succeed,
and trust is built on relationships
and communication, and really listening to each other and not
just talking at each other,
because too often, that’s what happens.
So, one of the nice things about being the President of
John Jay is, I heard Secretary of State Rosado described John
Jay as the United Nations for Criminal Justice. It’s a
place where people can come and
have difficult conversations with each other
in a respectful environment and really talk about issues.
And so, this particular meeting that
really had a profound impact on
me, because it was one of the early ones I
had in my tenure as the
President, was a group of corrections officers, the
corrections officers union,
said, “we wanna have a conversation with a group of
formerly incarcerated, and
advocates who are pushing to end mass
incarceration in this country,
and we wanna all come together and have this
conversation at John Jay
because we think that’s a place where we can deal with really
tough issues because of what
John Jay represents. So we had talked
for a day and a half, and it was really, really
difficult conversations but we
had one ground rule that started the
conversation. It said, they said you have to actually listen to
what anybody is saying, and you can’t be thinking ahead in your
mind, “How am I gonna respond?” How am I gonna rebutt what they
said? And that sounds like it’s
easy to do, but it’s actually hard, because
it forces you to really focus on what the
person’s saying, and listen and
take it in, and not think about how you can
change their mind, or how you
can counter their position, and listening
is a really powerful tool, because you learn a lot when
you listen and during this
difficult conversation, we made some progress, and we
actually came out with some agreement between union- the
corrections officers union, officials, and
people who were formerly incarcerated about how do we
move forward in creating an
environment where the corrections officers
who work in our prisons and
jails, and those who are incarcerated feel
respected and have a better
environment for everybody. So it was a wonderful,
wonderful lesson for me. So in the present political climate,
we have become too polarized
and not really listening to each other,
and we’re too often identified
by our interests and our positions and various
issues, instead of being seen
as people. As citizens. As humam beings.
So, how do we continue to be a positive force for change
in this environment? See, to
me, that’s what accepting the responsibility,
being a citizen means. It
means, how are you going to use your talents, your
energy, your voice, to move this country forward. And
there’s no one way of moving
forward. It’s multiple ways. So I’m
gonna answer that question by
telling you a little bit about my story,
and how people in my life have used their
voice to give me this
opportunity. So my parents were born and raised in North
Carolina, which was segregated
at the time, if they were alive today, they
would be 97 and 96 years old. And as many people in their
generation did, how many of you
all have heard about the great migration, the migration of
black folks from the south to the north?
It’s a fascinating story and
it’s a history that I suggest that you learn, and
it’s wonderful looking at the
travel patterns too, and so you’ll find that in
New York, most of the folks- of black folks, came from North
and South Carolina, and I think
it’s because of the way the
railroads ran, and then you’ll
find the people in Chicago tend to be from Alabama and
Mississippi, and you find a lot
of people from Louisiana who wound up in California. But
all of them, and if you ever
have the opportunity to see it,
Jacob Lawrence, is a famous
Black artist who, post-World War II, was
commissioned to paint this great series called the
Migration Series, and there are a few- when you get an
opportunity to see it, it’s
really a learning experience to learn
how difficult that transition
was, how difficult it was for people to make a
choice, to leave the South
where life was hard and people were fighting to
keep them from leaving because it meant that the farms that
depended on their labor were losing it, and they fought
hard to keep people from being
able to leave and then once they came to the North, to
what they thought was gonna be
opportunity, they found living circumstances
that were not ideal. So my
parents they left North Carolina. My
mother had a Bachelor’s degree
from Bennett College, which is a
historically Black college for
women, and a Master’s degree from NYU, but
they came to Long Island, and she wanted
to be a teacher but she wasn’t
allowed to teach because she was black. So the NAACP, she was
part of a lawsuit and became one of the
first two people to teach on Long
Island after the success of that
lawsuit, but during that time,
during that year, while the lawsuit was
pending, this is a woman with a
college degree, a Master’s degree, plus because
she also studied at Atlanta
University, she worked as a domestic,
because that was the only job
she could get at that time to help support
her family. And it wasn’t until
I was in my 40s that I learned what a great
sacrifice my mother made to make sure that I had a
different opportunity. So one of the things that they
were clear about all throughout my upbringing was, you have a
responsibility. You are fortunate, because you
grew up in- I grew up in
Amityville anybody here from Amityville?
Really? Nobody? Do you at least know where
Amityville is? Alright! That’s progress. [laughs] But I am so grateful that she
decided not to go back to the safety of where she
grew up, in Greensboro, North
Carolina. But to take a stand and raise
her voice and be a plaintiff in a lawsuit, to be able to
teach on Long Island, in Brentwood- Anybody from
Brentwood? Ok. You know where Brentwood is,
right? I’d rather you know
where Amityville is than Brentwood. But she was a
kindergarten teacher in
Brentwood for about 40 years, but because
of her willingness to make that sacrifice for me
and my siblings, and I grew up
in Amityville which at that time was less
than 10,000 people, It’s a village, it wasn’t a
town, and everybody knew
everybody. I’d been with the same kids
since kindergarten- there were
211 of us in my graduating class
which sounds small to me, I don’t know. Some of
you may have come from smaller
towns. But what was wonderful about that
experience is we had people
from all ethnicities in Amityville. And while we
lived in segregated communities, that was what we called back
then, de facto segregation,
versus de jure segregation. It was not
segregation by law, it’s by
housing patterns people chose to live
by people they were comfortable
living with. One digression I have to tell
you, and it wasn’t easy for
black people then to buy homes. The only way that
my parents were able to buy
their home is my father was friends with
someone who was a mortgage
broker who was Caucasian, who hid my
father’s mortgage in the middle of a
bundle, and so then in order for them to deny my
parents their mortgage, they
would have to have deny the whole bundle of mortgages,
and that’s how they were able
to buy their first house in Amityville. So, you know,
the world was quite different
but what was wonderful about Amityville is,
while we may have lived in neighborhoods that, you know,
route Broadway- route 110
divided Amityville, this side was
predominantly black, this side
was predominantly white. But once we got to school, we
were all together, ’cause
there’s only one elementary school, one
middle school, and one high
school. And the young people, the students,
we were each other’s friends, we went to each other’s houses,
because that’s just what you
did, and we didn’t see the racial divides the way that
some others might have, or parents might have, but it was
a wonderful, idyllic place to
grow up and to get this sense of
security of knowing that you could have friends across
all different racial, ethnic,
religious lines. And I, to this day, I go back
to my high school reunions.
Yes. It’s been over 40 years, and I
do go back, and it’s like we’re
stepping back in time to have that
camaraderie which is just
wonderful in this time period where people are so divided to
realize that you can still go
back to that time where people trust
and respect each other. And
then I chose to go to the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, which
at that time, was a campus of 20,000 students, which to me,
was twice the size of my town,
and it was heaven. I didn’t know a single
soul, but that was also my first exposure to the South in
a more concentrated way. Obviously, I went back to visit
relatives, but that was my
introduction to classism and racism… and not
in the overt way. It was, my generation of
classmates were the first
generation to actually integrate their
schools. And so, me coming from this
environment where we really
didn’t think about color, because it
was such a small town, to come to an environment where
my fellow classmates were very segregated in who
their friends were, so I had to
learn to navigate this world where I had white
friends, I had black friends,
and I couldn’t figure out why can’t I have them all
together, and I was very self
conscious about it at times. The funny
thing was at football games, so I would literally run back
and forth during football
games, I’d spend this quarter with my white friends, and run
over here to this quarter with
my black friends, because that’s just, there was this
separation which was a true
learning experience for me. But growing up in
Carolina- and that’s what you do when
you’re in college, for those of
you who are students. You may
feel- how many of you feel grown already? Oh, only a
couple of people? That’s good, the rest of you
realize that you’re just at the
start of your journey. And that’s something to be
embraced and enjoyed, ’cause
you have plenty of time to be grown and be responsible
and I know that all of you
already have lots of responsibilities on you. I am
not negating that at all. But
you’re gonna have more as you grow up
and this is the time period
where you have the opportunity to focus on learning and
growing and figuring out who
you are. So during this time while I was
at Carolina, that was in the 70s and there were very few black
faculty members at Carolina at the time, and, an
unfortunate part of Carolina’s
history at that time is we have these dynamic- a
handful of dynamic black professors, well respected
scholars, who were denied
tenure. And I’m sure there were many
reasons now that I’m in a different position, and I
understand that these decisions
are complicated, but from a student’s
perspective, I just saw that
people that look like me who I respected, were denied
tenure. And so that was when I first learned to use
my voice. And the black students decided to come
together and talk to the
administration and demand that they do something
about this- now I’m gonna tell
you a story, but I don’t want you to do what
I did. Is that a deal? Is that
a deal? I need a promise before I tell
this story. Alright. We took over the administration
building. But you all should not do that! Do you hear
me? You should not do that! But we got their attention. But I actually have to tell you
the true story. I’m actually
not telling you the full story,
so my parents raised me, you know, again.
They were part of the civil
rights movement, they raised me to be an activist, to be
engaged in the community. We had friends who went to the
march on Washington. My father
went down to Dr. King’s funeral just to be
there when that happened, you
know. So I was raised to be
this socially conscious person, so when I
called my father, told them
that I was you know, part of the taking over of the
administration building, it was
my senior year, my last
semester, my father was like, “Oh God, oh Lord, you
gotta graduate, oh God.” and I
was like, “Dad! You raised me this way!” But I
had this English professor who
really got on us because what happened, is
we- and there weren’t many of
us, there weren’t even as many of
us here in this room right now,
back then, this was in the 70s. And so, we took over the
administration building, and Chancellor Ferebee Taylor, at
that time, was not there, and
they said, “If you leave, he’ll
come out and speak to you.” So we left. So the
next day, I was a math major but my senior year, I took all
these interesting classes to
round myself out, so I took an English class with
Professor Lee Green, it was a
class on Invisible Man, and if you haven’t read it, I
recommend it. So the next day,
he talked to us and he goes, “You all don’t even know how to
protest right.”
[audience laughs]
He said, “They told you all, if you
left, he would come speak to
you, and you left. Did he come speak
to you? No.” He said, “Because you left.” So
that was my education about how to be more effective in
raising our voices but again,
we have a deal, you are not going to do that to your
president. And the John Jay
students, you are not gonna do
that to this president, right? We have
a deal because you trust us,
don’t you? ‘Cause we’re on your side. Seriously,
we are. It’s your success that
is the first priority for us. But what
I learned from that experience,
it took a few years, but things
changed, and by the time I went
on to the Board of Trustees at
University North Carolina, we
had the best diversity of any
public university in the
country at that time. Progress takes time, but you
gotta speak up and use your
voice so here’s my core layer to that
story. So, we were raising
tuition, and I was chair of the audit
and finance committee, and it
was my first encounter with a student
protest, and I tried to get
into the meeting where we had, and the students
had black arm bands and they
were just, throngs of them and I
couldn’t get through to the
meeting or I- I said “Ooh, that might be my excuse.”
Because I couldn’t believe that
I was gonna be on the other side of the protest. And so I
remember seeing Chancellor Ferebee Taylor, who remember,
40 years before, I had protest
to him, and so I saw Chancellor Taylor, and I
said, “Chancellor Taylor, I
understand what I did to you
now.” Now that I’m on the receiving
end of a protest. But again, it is using your voice. So my
journey after Carolina, where I first learned
to raise that voice was through
the University of North Carolina excuse me, the University of
Michigan to Law School, and because of a chance
encounter when I left the
dining hall, the woman who
became my best friend of 40 years now,
ultimately became the best friend of the first
lady and President of the
United States and as a result of their
elevation to the White House, I
had the opportunity to fulfill
a dream of a 14 year old from
Amityville, New York- to be
able to make a difference in this
world. So I grew up, as I
mentioned, in 60s and 70s where the Civil
Rights Movement was in its
heyday and I always dreamed of being
part of the movement for justice and equality, and I
even- How many of you know what Woodstock is?
Or was? Yeah, I didn’t see any young
hands go up, so all the folks
my age [laughs]. So I grew up in Amityville, and
wanted to go to Woodstock, you
know, that was the- but, I was too young to go, and I
knew that if I actually went
with my neighbor, ran away and went, that I did have to come
home, and it would not be
pretty, so, I missed it. But, by the time I became a
lawyer, the world the big Civil Rights Movement
seemed to have been over- notice I said seemed. All the
major legal hurdles at that
point seemed to have been addressed.
But I realized, and I, you know, I looked and I saw that
underneath, there were still
these festering issues that
needed to be addressed. Quality public
education, access to higher education, access to
quality housing for families struggling economically, and
access to jobs. So, I chose to focus my law career
on doing something different than what my peers
were doing at the law firm, who were focused on
representing large corporations
and doing litigation I focused my career on what we
call public finance, but that
meant that I was focused on financing affordable
housing for low and moderate income families, promoting
economic development, which
produced jobs, and I was lucky to work
at a law firm that allowed me to take that path, and gave
me that freedom to do things. But in the firm’s management,
also gave me the freedom to do
the public service things that I wanted to
do as well, mentoring younger
people. So At the firm I became the first
black woman partner at any law
firm in Atlanta. Later I became the first black
woman to be on the management committee, and later became the
first black woman to chair the
management committee of any national law firm in the
country. And, so I stayed in those things
because I was raised to think
that if you have an opportunity as a black woman,
as a person of color, to open doors and build bridges,
you should take that
opportunity. So in taking that, I always
focused on making sure that I was building a path for those
people coming behind me so that I would no longer be the first in
many things, or the only. Oops, I’m sorry. I messed up
your screen. But, again, the firm’s leadership
supported me in that, and supported me in my role of
serving on the Board of
Trustees at UNC Chapel Hill where my focus was
access to education as President Call talked about, and it was
important to me that my fellow trustees always talk
about, whatever conversations
we had, whatever policy decisions we were
making, they knew that I was
always going to raise the question, “What impact is this
going to have on low and moderate income
families who are struggling and
deserve a Carolina education just like
everyone else?” Carolina is the
flagship university in North Carolina. It is also
the first public university in
the country. I have to say. And so I pushed
them, and I used that voice to remind them of what we
were- we were a public
university who should be there to change
the lives of everyone who has the academic
qualifications to be there. And
so one of the things that I’m so proud of that
started under my tenure was not my idea, it was the idea of
the woman who was the head of
Financial Aid at Carolina who was the first in her family
to go to college. She created
something called the Carolina Covenant Scholar’s
Program. And what we guarantee, or what they
guarantee, is that, anybody
who’s family earns 200% or less of the
poverty line, you come out of Carolina debt free. And the
reason that happened isn’t because it didn’t involve any
new money. It involved
creativity and how we use and leverage the
money that we were already
getting from the federal
government. Using work study creatively,
and I intend to do that at John- not the promise, I
can’t do that promise, but I
intend at John Jay to make sure that
we are leveraging our assets in
a way that benefits our students
to the maximum so that we can minimize the
debt burden. But it was about just being creative and
thinking about how do we make
sure that the students we want to educate have the
opportunity to get that
education? So, you know. I did these
things, I used my voice, but I still felt this
hunger that’s like, “am I doing
enough?” I’ve had these wonderful
opportunities, this wonderful
access, but I felt like was I doing enough, and
repeatedly, my answer was “At the moment, you are.”
Because if everybody is doing something where they are,
making some difference in the
life of somebody, making a
contribution to make your
community better, that’s accepting the responsibility of
citizenship. if we’re all doing
that, you’re gonna see major change over time, and
it’s the cumulative result that makes the difference, so
what I’m trying to say is that there are many
ways to make a contribution,
they don’t have to be Earth shattering in
your mind to be make a difference that will
change the world. As I mentioned after President Obama’s
election, I had an opportunity
to go to work in Washington. But it
was a tough decision. It was a decision to uproot my-
what was a very comfortable life, to make a
fraction of what I was making at the firm, and to start, and
to go backwards, so here I was,
somebody who had been chair of
the management committee, of a major law firm, and I chose to
go be somebody’s deputy, who was 10 years younger than
me. And so, what I’m trying to say is that,
don’t look at your career path as something that’s linear,
you’ve got to- and don’t let other people tell you what
success looks like. So I
remember talking to my law partners about what job I
was going to take. And I had opportunities for some
big jobs, and I told them no, for two reasons. I had
no exposure to the federal government, and I didn’t wanna
go in at a Senate appointment level,
when I had no exposure to the
government because I knew I wasn’t
prepared. And so you’ve got to
recognize what your prepared for, and make
decisions based on what’s right
for you at the time, not what people think is more
prestigious. So, it was a hard decision for me
to leave the law firm, take several steps back and go
be somebody’s deputy, make a whole lot less money, but it
was the best decision I ever made in my entire life.
Best decision I ever made in my entire life. So don’t be
afraid to think about stepping out of your comfort zone, and I
will tell ya, I know we’re
filming, but I will tell you that the first few months,
there were days when I would say “Why did I do this? Why did I
leave a very comfortable life,
to start completely over in my
50s?” But once I crossed that hump and began
to understand and learn had I not taken that job, I
never would have positioned
myself for the last job that I just
had, that President Call talked
about, where I had a $4 billion budget. But you
gotta take steps back to learn sometimes, to prepare
yourself, to equip yourself for
a bigger challenge, to be able to
make that bigger difference in
the world. And so I became, I was appointed to be the Assistant
Attorney General for the Office
of Justice programs after having spent three years learning a
different job. And that equipped me to do this job that
was at that point in time, because
of what ended up happening in
the world, really, really, critical and
important, so, as Dr. Call mentioned, I had a $4 billion budget, and as I mentioned, it
took me over 40 years to get to the position where I had the
opportunity to impact the
country on a larger, broader scale, from a
bigger platform, to do things. So, over the past
three and a half years, my job
was to partner with other federal
agencies, state and local
leaders and citizens across the country, to advocate for more
just and equitable society, and to make sure that everyone has
an opportunity to live up to
their potential and live up to their dreams. Now when I say
everybody, I mean everybody. It’s- I remember going to
juvenile detention facilities and meeting the
young people, I was there with
Secretary Duncan and then attorney- well, then
Secretary Duncan and then
Attorney General Holder. And we met with these young
people who were incarcerated and asked them, “What do you
want to be when you grow up?” and
they want the same things you all want. They want to be
veterinarians, they want to be
doctors, some of them wanted to design video games, yes. But
they had big dreams and aspirations and so it was my
job to make sure that they had those opportunities because
we all benefit when everybody has an opportunity to succeed.
And we built partnerships to
make sure that those things happen. Was
it easy? No. Is the job done?
No. But it was, you know, really so
many pinch-me moments when I would
walk into meetings and I
realize, “I’m sitting at the table with
cabinet secretaries. And we’re talking about real problems and
how we’re gonna fix them and really making a
difference.” So yes, there’s
another Hamilton song I’ll
reference, I was in the room where it was
happening. And it was, for
those of you who haven’t seen the tape,
listen to Thomas Jefferson-
excuse me, Aaron Burr, talk about he wanted to be in
the room where it happened.
And, it was a huge moment to realize
that people that look like every single one of you in this
room, black, white, Asian, Hispanic,
gay, straight, all different
religions, that we were in the room,
making really big decisions
about what was going to happen with this
country. And the interesting
thing was you know I remember, to me,
they were my friends, and I had
to sit there and go “Oh. Tom Perez is the Secretary
of Labor. Oh my God, Anthony Foxx is the Secretary
of Transportation. Oh my God, Eric Holder is the Attorney
General. But we used to be just
like you, and I mentioned Eric Holder for a
reason because he’s from
Queens, and he will tell you in a heartbeat that he grew up
in Queens, he’s a Queens boy
and always will be a Queens boy. You all can become the Attorney
General of the United States.
You can become the Secretary of
Transportation. You can become
the Secretary of Education. Whatever your dreams are, you
can do it. You can be it. And that’s part of accepting
the responsibility of
citizenship, but you don’t have
to be at that level to make a
difference. To make a
significant contribution to what’s
happening in this country and
to other people’s lives. So, now, I have the
privilege of working at John Jay College and being the
first woman, and the first person of color to be the
President of John Jay.
[applause] [applause] And I never set out to be a
College President. As a matter of fact, I didn’t
want to be a college president. I wanted to be the president of
John Jay College of Criminal
Justice. Because John Jay’s mission is
to educate for justice, and to create fierce advocates for
justice. And what John Jay and
the whole entire CUNY system does,
which is why it was also
important to me that John Jay was part of CUNY,
to be part of a wonderful system whose sole focus is to
educate and make sure that everyone in
New York City and beyond, but in New York
City, has an opportunity for a
quality education and that’s what
you’re getting here. Those of
you who are students at
Queensborough, that’s what you’re getting. Dynamic.
Education. Here. And that is going to propel you
out into the world and so my
priority when I came into the job at
John Jay it was just so exciting to be able to be among young
people who were such fiercely committed to equity
and justice, and it doesn’t
mean that they’re gonna go into the
criminal justice field. We’ve
got folks who wanna be actors, doctors, teachers, but they’re
all grounded in this foundation of what is equitable, what’s
right, and what’s fair, and I
know that all across CUNY that those are
the values that we instill in
the young folks here at CUNY, and I want you to
make sure that you understand what a wonderful opportunity
you have, what a wonderful
privilege you have, to get this education and to be
part of CUNY, because it’s your job. The reason why,
I will admit, there’s some days I worry about the conversation
in this country and where it’s going, but then I
look up and I see you all, and
I’m not worried anymore. I’m not worried
because you’re our hope. Look
at you! Look around, look at each other. You
all are our leaders. You’re our future. You are
going to change the world, and
you can’t see it right now. I remember when
Valerie and I first met each
other in the summer of 1979. Some of you weren’t even born
then, right? Yeah. That sounds
like the dark ages. But, here we were just bopping around law school,
never had any clue where we would wind up, and
what we would have the
opportunity to do, and that’s
what you’re gonna have in all kinds
of facets. So it’s gonna be
your job as our future leaders, by the
dint of your own initiative and hard work, to find the recipe
to achieve and guide those who
are coming behind you because
that’s your responsibility, so
whenever I’m helping young
people and they always say, “I wanna
thank you, how can I thank
you?” and I say, you can thank
me by helping other people. There
is no question in my mind that I am here, in this position,
because the people who came
before me, who opened doors before me, mentored me,
took time to help me learn this world,
from big things to little
things. I remember this woman
that I used to babysit for when
I was at Carolina. Not to tell you this story- so
she was, she spoke at a lecture just like this at
Carolina that I went to, here.
And there was this dynamic black woman- I’m not suggesting
that’s what I am, that’s what
she was. But I said, “Ooh, I wanna get to
know her.” So I went up to her
after and I said, “Hi, you
don’t know me, but I wanna babysit for
your kids.” And back then,
people trusted people and she said,
“Sure!” And that was a lifelong
relationship. Because of that
relationship with her, I learned and she
exposed me to a world that I
would never have understood. I remember
that we used to go to this
fancy restaurant because she wanted me to learn
how to deal in those kinds of
environments. We couldn’t afford to eat there, but we
went for dessert. And she said, “Because I want you to be
comfortable in this
environment, so I’m gonna take
you here so that you’ll learn how to be comfortable
here.” But it was such- so she
thought about those things. She grew up poor, in Tennessee,
and put herself through Howard, by being a domestic. And, she
rose to be the Ombudsman for the SBA, in Washington. She was
under Governor Wilder, she was Head of the Office of Minority
Business Employment
Opportunity, so you know, people, you start
small and you just don’t know
where you’re gonna wind up, but I do
know that you all are our hope, and I hope that you
embrace this role, of making sure that you guide those who
are coming behind you, who may
not have the same opportunities you have, and it is a privilege
that you have, again, to have
this education and the lesson of our history
is that, progress, as I
mentioned, is a slow march. But it is, but it
does happen. I remember, years ago, my
nephew is now thirty- what year is this? So he’s
thirty-two. He did one of those shadow-your-parents-day? Well
his mom was the teacher, so he
wasn’t gonna shadow her, ’cause that was called
going to school every day, and
he did that every day. So I always had my niece and
nephew shadow me and we were
having this conversation. Mark couldn’t have been more
than 10 at the time, and he
said, “Has there ever been a
black president?” and I said, “No.” and he said,
“Why not?” And I really paused and I thought
about it, and I thought, “How
do I make sure I don’t disillusion him early, but I don’t think it’s ever
gonna happen in my lifetime or
his.” Well I was wrong! So wrong!
Because it did happen, and many of you have the advantage,
the young folks in the room, of he may be- that President
Obama’s probably the first
president you all were aware of. So you have the opportunity to and the advantage of knowing
what’s possible versus people
my generation who cried when that happened because that was something that
we didn’t think was going to
happen in our lifetime. So the lesson of our history is
that progress is slow, and as
Dr. King said, it’s neither automatic nor
inevitable, but is not quick and easy success, but
hard work and perserverance
that will give our accomplishments
lasting importance. The
progress we’ve made as a nation has been hard one, and
a result of courage and
sacrifice on the part of countless heroic
individuals who look just like everybody in this room. And so
I believe this courage
continues to be called for in our time, and I
am confident that you guys have
it. So challenges remain, and equities
still exist, and citizens and pockets of our country, the
wealthiest country in the world, still see life through the lens
of despair, but you are in a position to help them.
You’re in a position to give
them hope just because of what you have the
possibility of doing with your
degrees from CUNY. So I hope that with history as
our guide, that you will triumph over all
the challenges that you will face over time, and
that you know that you are the ones who will help
us create this more perfect
union that this country was designed
to be. And my hope is that you will use your energy and
your talent to accept this responsibility being citizens,
to accept this responsibility
of finding your own personal voice. So
what worked for me, the way I
chose to use my voice, may not be the
way that you choose to use your
voice. Everybody’s got a different
voice, and I am horrible with
analogies, but I will say it’s like a
chorus, it’s like a choir. If we’re all singing and doing
something, and our common goal
is to move things forward to help
people have the same
opportunities that we have, it’s gonna be beautiful music,
and it’s, you know small music, it’s gonna build
and build and build, but you
gotta keep singing you gotta keep using that
voice, keep working hard, and
so I wanna say thank you for encouraging me.
Thank you for inspiring me because you just don’t
understand- you know I tell
young people all the time that
I get so much more from you than you
ever get from me, because you’re the future and I see in
you so much about what’s going
to be happening and I like to tell the young
folks in my life that I look
forward to sitting on my
rocking chair and watching on TV and seeing
what each of you does with this
country and that wonderful change that
you will make. So, thank you
for this opportunity to share a
little bit of my story with you, and thank
you for being here and being patient. [applause] [Dr. Call]
We have some time for a Q and A. Who wants to ask a question? [speaker]
How would you define justice?
[Mason]
Ah, good question. To me, justice is equity. It means that, in justice, I
use it not just in the criminal sense but I’ll start there and
then work out. To me, it means that in terms of an
accountability sense it’s meaning that we’re
being fair and thoughtful about how we treat people and what
kinds of consequences people
have for what they do. And so, one of
the things that was, something we worked on quite a
bit together with other
departments was this notion of supported
school discipline, because too often,
behavior that when those of us in the front were
children, the behavior that we
did, because we all acted out, we
all did something wrong, I had
one person when I asked this “Who has never done anything
wrong?” I had one person raise
their hand and she said, “I was a preacher’s kid.” and I
said, “And I know you’re lying”
[laughter] But so the question is, how do
we create a support system that
allows people to make mistakes and
grow? So to me, justice is a world where people are given
a social safety net and giving
structures where they have the
opportunity to fulfill their dreams and have access to opportunity. Does that answer
your question? Now if you don’t ask questions,
I will. Oh. There you go.
[speaker]
This is not a question, but a suggestion for anybody
who’s under 25 here. I think there’s a few. I would suggest that you take a look at 2018 where your congressmen will be running again, where your state
legislators will be running again. Get in
touch with those headquarters. The wonderful
thing about political action is that they don’t care
who you are, what age you are, if you’re able, they will let
you do it. I have met more people and gone
to the White House like you, been through local connections, you may not spend your lifetime
there, but the people you meet who are working with
you, are well worth the trial. So that’s one
of the possibilities that could make
starting out looking for community, you might even know somebody
who knows somebody in there to get a job, and on it goes. [Mason]
Thank you.
[applause] So she talked about engagement.
I think that, you know, we tend
to think about the federal level
as being engaged in a civic way, but think about your
school boards, your state and city governments,
your mayors, your city council. Go to those meetings, hear what
they’re talking about, and express your views on those
things because you have a voice
and you need to be thinking about, and aware
of what’s happening, ’cause
that’s where the real power is, at the local level, and
that’s where change is really
happening. And so I encourage you, as she
said, to pay attention to
what’s going on where you live. I know for the
students in the room, your
number one job right now is focusing on your
education. Ok? But thinking about where you
stretch yourselves as you- after you finish your
education, you know, go back to
your community. Ask your parents to make sure that they
go and participate and sit and hear what’s going on. Because
the only way we’re gonna
improve our public education
system is if parents demand it. If
parents say “My child isn’t getting what he
or she should be getting. “I’m paying taxes for this.” You
need to be responsive to make
sure that they have an opportunity that
they’re getting the tools
they need to succeed when they come to college. This is the easiest audience I’ve ever had! Wow. Oh, there she
goes. Good. Thank you. She’s bringing you a mic. [speaker]
I wanna know your opinion based
on the community that we have. Every person thinks
different about justice. So based on that, what
do you think about justice? [Mason]
So, what I think is have the conversation. ‘Cause that’s what’s important. And you’re right. Everybody’s
got a different perspective
about what it is, but I think we reach better decisions when
people are talking and thinking
and exploring about, “What does
that mean to you, and why?” and
why do you think X ought to happen?” So one of
the examples I’ll give is when we were thinking about
some of the criminal justice
reform issues, we spent time talking to
victims, and we found in
talking to them, that the things that
people thought they wanted, which is long incarceration
terms, was not what they
wanted. They wanted to know that we were gonna
create systems so that what happened to them
couldn’t happen again. They
wanted to know that the person who committed the crime
was remorseful and they wanted
them you know, they wanted some what’s the word I’m thinking-
reconciliation’s not the right
word, but but they wanted their voices to
be heard and respected, that
they didn’t necessarily want these long sentences. So it was
a result of conversations we
began to rethink and talk about,
“What does justice in that
context really look like?” And I think
in any context, it’s
conversation, coming together. I taught a
criminal justice class last
week, at John Jay and talked about police
issues and police reform, and it was a fascinating
conversation to hear because we
got a lot of people who go to John Jay are
gonna go into law enforcement,
and to hear their perspective and to hear the perspective of
some of the folks who are
advocates on the other side and being able to reach some
common ground because you talk and you listen to each other.
So that, to me, that’s the
beauty of America is that we’re designed
to be a place where people have
an opportunity to talk and should
be raising their voices and
contributing to the
conversation. There’s one back there. [laughs]
You’re getting your exercise, and I have my fitbit on, so I think I
need to run those stairs
instead of you. [Audience
Member]: Oh. [chuckles] your talk was wonderful. What
is your thoughts about reaching
out to other countries in the
world? We’re talking a lot
about America. And right now, there’s a lot of
countries that are doing a lot
better than we are in terms of health care, in
terms of infant mortality, in terms of treatment for
people who are addicted to
drugs, incarceration, lower rates,
reform for people that are
incarcerated. Just recently, I was talking
about happiness. I picked up a Time
magazine in the doctor’s
office, and we are not the happiest
country, you know. Singapore,
Costa Rica, are countries that have a
higher happiness rate, and I think a
lot of the topics I mentioned
are relating to that. So what’s your thoughts, you
know we always say, “America!
America!” right now, I don’t
think we’re getting what we need in
this country in terms of guidance and what’s your
thoughts about reaching out to
other countries? [Mason]
Well, so I will tell you that during the eight years that I worked in the
Obama administration, we did look at other countries
that were doing things better. So for example, their institute took a group of people from
across the country to look at
the prisons in Germany. To understand how do they do
things because they don’t have
a prison sentence longer than 10 years, and so- Excuse me? [laughs]
and so, you know, we,
the people came back, talked to us, and we
were trying to learn from their
system and learn how they did
that. There was another example that
I had, I just lost my train of
thought. But- no, it was not about…
but anyway. So, yes, I definitely think
that we can learn from- Oh, I
know what I was- when we were looking at police reform and
use of force issues, we looked at some of the
Scandinavian countries,
somebody said Sweden and they
were right, and we had them come over and we had a big
convening of law enforcement
leaders talking about use of force and how do we
prepare officers to avoid
situations where they have to use force, and we
had these law enforcement leaders from other
countries come over, where
their law enforcement officers
don’t carry guns. Granted, the world is
different. Not only do the
officers not carry guns, but the population’s not carrying guns
either. But, still we were trying to learn from
them about how they train their
officers in a way to avoid circumstances
where lethal force was necessary. So yes, I’m a
firm believer in when you see
something happening in another country that’s good, we
can learn from it. America does
not have a monopoly on the right
answers, by any means. But then
the flip side is, we were examples. So we had
made great progress, for example on gang issues, and we spent a
lot of time talking with South American, Latin American
countries, about what we
learned from our experience that would help them there as
well. [speaker]
Good afternoon, hi. Thank you for
the lecture, it was really
interesting so far. I recently became a citizen
last month, [Mason]
Congratulations!
[speaker]
Thank you. [applause] [speaker]
But, during this entire lecture,
what I realized was that we have not
addressed those who are not citizens. So,
what advice do you have for
those who are still immigrants and are not
citizens, and how do you think they should express their
voice, and partake in their
government, especially when there are
people in power whose sole goal
is to repress their voice. How do you
address non-immigrants? People that are not citizens,
people that can’t vote, and
don’t technically have a voice in this country?
[Mason]
So, I started out actually, talking about my definition of citizen
was not whether you were under the legal definition
of citizen. To me, citizen is people who are part of the
community. And so my view is,
everybody who’s living here is a citizen of the community. You
may not have the legal right to
vote, but you have- you are a citizen of your
community. And you have the
same voice, the only thing you can’t do is vote. But
you have an opportunity to talk to people- you can still
go to public hearings and
public meetings, and raise your voice, and talk
about what’s important. You can
still reach out and help those coming
behind you, but the most
important thing you need to do
right now, is get your degree. That’s your
number one thing to do, because once you have-
education is power. And once
you have that degree, that’s going to- [applause] and I will tell you that the
CUNY system across the board, we have made
it clear that we don’t care- we don’t ask
people’s legal status. All we care about is that you
are students, that we want to
educate and equip to be successful in this
country. So what I, my answer to that
question depends on where you
are in life, and as a student again, get an
education. For those of you who
are not students, I think that you
still, again, raise your voice, and be heard,
and find allies in the work, and so the
wonderful thing about the CUNY
system is you’ve got allies across the system that
want to make sure that people who are living here,
contributing to our
communities, have the same respect as
everyone else, and the same opportunities as
everybody else. So I’m sorry if
you didn’t hear that clearly in the beginning, but
citizenship, to me, is
everybody. Everybody. [applause] [speaker]
Hi, good afternoon, thank you
so much for coming. My name is
Louisa and I also have a similar question. In the
beginning, you spoke about
citizenship and how it’s so much more than just
voting, and the first thing I
thought of was my relatives in my homeland
of Puerto Rico, who are citizens, but yet cannot vote.
So, I ask you, do people like
that and also like, the sister here
was trying to get at when citizenship means
something so different for so
many different people, even when you have this so called
citizenship- it’s not just
Puerto Rico, it’s also Guam
and other countries- [Mason]
You have the Virgin Islands as well.
[Speaker]
Right, exactly. How do you define citizenship for them, and more
importantly, how can we use our citizenship here to
advocate for populations like
them? [Mason]
Yeah. So, yes. People
in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. You don’t have the
same right- voting privileges that
we have, but you do have
representation in Congress, and I will tell you that the
representative in Congress, who
I met with a lot when I was in the Department of
Justice, is a fierce advocate
for the people of Puerto Rico. I will tell you
that it’s a complicated issue,
so when I was at the Department of
Justice, my boss at that time
was the co-chair of the Task Force on looking at
Puerto Rico, he was, Tom Perrelli was co-chair with
Cecilia Muñoz, to figure out,
what do we do- it’s a complicated issue, as
you know, because there are
some people there’s not- there’s no
consensus on whether- on statehood issues in Puerto Rico. But I do think
that we all are- I shouldn’t say all. CUNY
is clearly committed to helping the people
of Puerto Rico. We had- at our counselor-president’s
meeting this morning, it was
the number one topic. Talking about what support
we’re giving to people from
Puerto Rico without them thinking that
we’re going to raid the talent
from there. We wanna be supportive without draining the
talent that’s already leaving because the circumstances there
are so bad. At John Jay, one of
our professors, Jodie Roure just came back from leading-
taking a group of medical
doctors and nurses over to provide health care in
Puerto Rico. So I think that
you will find that in New York, we’re lucky to be
in a state that recognizes the talent and has
this strong commitment to the success and the recovery
of Puerto Rico, but not everybody has that same
commitment. But I will tell
you, it’s widespead. I’ve got friends in
D.C. who, every day I’m getting
an email about fundraising and support
and what we’re gonna do there. So it’s on people’s minds, and
it may not be in the news every
day, but the nice thing is that I
think there are people who are
committed for the long haul, but that
doesn’t answer the question
about the vote. But part of that the people of Puerto Rico have
to decide that themselves. And
you know that’s there’s a great divide on that. [Dr. Call]
Well thank you,
President Mason. And thank you, for being with
us today. [applause]