"Change is Your Vocation"
by Gustavo Arellano
2022 Commencement Address, UC Irvine School of Social Ecology
Gracias for having me here. As graduates of UCI’s School of Social Ecology, all of you have committed yourselves to bettering society and humanity in one form or another. What a tremendous, intimidating task that is!
Humans are imperfect; society suffers from perpetual problems ranging from the structural to the self, the petty to the profound.
It’s a task for only the bravest — and here you all are.
The skills ustedes have learned over the course of your college quarters are those that this country frankly should’ve already learned. They are the tools needed to confront the challenges before us.
Because if there’s one constant that ties together all the drama we’ve endured in one way or
another, not just over the past couple of years, but really since forever…it’s something you have studied, practiced and are now ready to spark.
We’re going through an era that historians compare to other momentous upheavals, like the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the 1960s. These were times where societies were shifting course, whether people liked it or not. These are times that leave too many people feeling helpless.
Some can’t and won’t accept a world that’s no longer going to be the same, and thus fall into holes from which they may never emerge. Others don’t have the social equity necessary to stay above the rising tides, and sink into a worse place from where they were before.
And into this maelstrom come all of you.
Social Ecology graduates, y’all are simultaneously the lifeboats and lighthouses that can take and guide the rest of us to a more just world.
Change is your vocation. You have dedicated yourselves to dive into the depths of uncertainty and emerge with answers to take on our ever-shifting existence. And it’s about time the rest of us listen to ustedes — because you all know change and its contradictions.
You know that change that sticks, fundamental change, takes thankless work to dismantle institutions and biases, create something new, then get people to let go of a problematic past and embrace the future.
But you also know there is no leisurely pace to change. It requires the stamina of a marathon, but the frenzied strain of a 100-yard dash. Change can be instantaneous, and blow past you when you’re not expecting it — so you gotta know when to run with it and when to resist. Your disciplines have prepared you to know the difference — imagine how much better we’d all be if everyone else had your perception?
Change requires you to be of the moment. In your studies and internships and jobs, you have to be “on” all of the time — teach others and keep learning, help and be helped, research and do, be aware of trends and adapt accordingly.
But change also forces you to realize…it’s not about you. All of you embarked in your programs knowing that you’re humble participants in grand traditions created to improve our condition. A tradition of change that started before you, and will continue long after you.
To be at your best, you must be selfless yet self-aware, and realize that your rewards won’t be many, and may never even be acknowledged — and that’s okay, because your work is righteous, and you continue for the possibility of change.
Imagine how much better we’d all be if everyone else had your resilience?
Change can lead to success, and oh, what joy we experience when that happens...But change oftentimes comes in a way that we didn’t want it to. When that happens, too many folks want to give up. But you all know that you can’t. That’s not how to improve things.
So you continue…you have to. Going forward is the only way forward, because your effort makes it that much easier for the person who follows you or the folks you serve to have an easier path to success. Imagine how much better we’d all be if everyone had you’re your spirit of sacrifice.
Change is scary…but change is also hope. The hope — nay, the assurance! — that what you do leads to good. Yours is a school of dreamers and doers, a rare one-two punch with incredible power.
It reminds me of a quote from Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón: “The dreamer is the designer of tomorrow. Practical men…can laugh at him; they do not know that he is the true dynamic force that pushes the world forward. Suppress him, and the world will deteriorate toward barbarism. Despised, impoverished, he leads the way…sowing, sowing sowing the seeds that will be harvested not by him, but by the practical men of tomorrow, who will at the same time laugh at another indefatigable dreamer busy seeding, seeding, seeding.”
Social Ecology Anteaters: Imagine how much better we’re all going to be with ustedes out of college and fully among the rest of us?
Change us. Teach us how to change. The world needs it, the world needs all of you. Gracias, and God bless.
Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He is author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Orange County: A Personal History, and !Ask a Mexican!, and co-author of A People’s Guide to Orange County.