Carol Larson Delivers Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Convocation Address

Carol Larson, President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, delivered the convocation address for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on May 20, 2014. Below is the convocation address text as prepared for delivery.

Dean Klag, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, family and friends, and most of all – 2014 graduates of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health!

It is both a privilege and a pleasure to be invited to address you on this special day. First, let me offer my heartfelt congratulations to each of you who will be receiving advanced degrees from this renowned institution. It is an enormous achievement and an honor you will carry with you the rest of your lives. You have been challenged by this world-class faculty to give your best and you have worked hard and made significant personal and financial sacrifices in order to be here today. And by all means, let’s also formally acknowledge the essential support and sacrifices provided by your proud families and friends. I am sure that grandparents, parents, spouses, and in many cases children, have been part of your support team. They might rightly receive a diploma today as well. Let’s applaud them!

Standing here at your convocation today is a great honor. I also feel an emotional connection. I am the proud mother of two daughters. In one month, I will be attending the college graduation of my oldest daughter and just about a year ago, I was sitting at my youngest daughter’s high school graduation. She is here today. As I look out at these caps and gowns I remember that day well. Among the sea of mortarboards emblazoned with the names of colleges the high school graduates would be attending, I saw hers. On it she had stenciled not the name of her college, but lines from one of our favorite poems by e.e. cummings:

Dive for dreams or a slogan may topple you

Trust your heart if the seas catch fire
And live by love
Though the stars walk backward

Trust your heart, dive for dreams! This is a great message for graduation. The poet wishes us both enthusiasm and energy as we dive toward our dreams. And I know you have many dreams. Indeed, the field of Public health is about dreams; dreams of a better world on a large scale. As the mission of your school states, dreams about “saving lives – millions at a time.”

You will do this in a variety of ways. Your public health degree is a wonderful foundation for a lifetime of fulfilling work with many different possible directions – and there is a bit of unknown. In fact, I am sure that you could inscribe on your caps today your next school or your next job or your next community. But the long term road map? That’s unknown. As you contemplate your future, it is worth keeping the words of the poet in mind: trust your heart, dive for dreams, and your journey will take you to wonderful places.

My daughters helped me prepare for today, and both encouraged me to talk a bit about my own journey. In fact, one of them suggested that I watch the now famous 2005 Stanford commencement address by Steve Jobs in which he told three stories from his life. I asked my daughter if I should focus all of my remarks on my own life and she quickly responded: “No, Mom, you are not Steve Jobs.” True enough, I am not. And you will be relieved that I am not going to talk too much about my own life. But I will tell you briefly my story to underscore the poet’s advice: trust your heart and dive for dreams.

I went to law school in the ‘70s – like thousands of young women in that decade we were entering the graduate schools of the country in record numbers in pursuit of the dream of equal opportunity. My grandparents, parents and even my four brothers always encouraged me to join the ranks of women pursuing graduate education and careers of their own.

I went to law school with a purpose: being interested in the rights of children, particularly those who had been abused or neglected. While in law school, the new federal legislation about the Education for All Handicapped Children Act took effect and after a clerkship, I worked for two years with a nonprofit agency in Los Angeles training parents how to advocate for the rights of their children under the new law. I then became curious about the for-profit sector and took a job with a good law firm doing civil litigation. I wanted to hone my legal skills, and while serving on boards about children and disabilities in the evening, my day job was taking depositions, answering interrogatories, attending hearings.

Some thought it was an unusual step for me to join a private law firm with a commercial practice. I remember seeking advice of a lawyer at Children’s Defense Fund about it. He was dismayed that I wanted to give it a try: “Why don’t you try coal mining? You haven’t done that either. You might like it just as much.”

He was wrong. Working at the law firm was great experience and I learned a lot. But he was also right. It was not my passion. It wasn’t what I enjoyed doing. And so, even though I had become a partner in the firm, I trusted my heart and went back to my dream of working on behalf of children. After a year or so of networking, informational interviews, volunteering, and deciding to take a large salary cut, I became a program officer at the Packard Foundation. And I never looked back. The Packard Foundation was growing. I had different opportunities to apply for promotions and for ten years now, I have had the privilege of heading one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world.

I am sure that your journey will have similar twists and turns. Your public health background will lead you to nonprofits, to government, to universities, to businesses. At my law school graduation, I had no clue what destination to stencil on my cap. I certainly didn’t anticipate philanthropy. But I had a great education. And the country was opening up to women. The dream for equal opportunity held by the women in graduate schools in the 1970s is now a lot closer to reality in this country.

But today as I look out at this class of 2014 graduates, and I think about your preparation,  I am reminded that in this decade the dream for equality and empowerment for girls and women is a global dream. We have come so far. But all of us are all painfully aware of both the promise and the long journey we have for achieving equality and empowerment for girls and women. Indeed, as another law school graduate of the ‘70s, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, stated at the 2014 UN Commemoration of International Women’s Day: “For all we have achieved together, achieving equality for women and girls is the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”

Of course this dream begins from the personal. It is a dream that my grandmother and mother had for me, and that I have for my daughters. It is a dream that this school and all of us assembled have for the graduates before us, the majority of whom are women. But this dream of equality and empowerment for women is also, fundamentally, the dream for a better world for both men and women. And, as Secretary Clinton reminds us, it is a dream long overdue.

This year, we are at an important, critical moment in striving for this dream as the world takes note of progress over the past 13 years on the Millennium Development Goals and forms the new global agenda for post-2015. Two months ago, representatives from 45 countries gathered at the 58th convening of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. They examined the world’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals as we near the 2015 target date. They found that progress on many goals had been made, but they also found that averages mask wide disparities that continue among regions of the world and between different groups of people. Too often, women and girls continue to be left behind.

Yes, we have seen progress in alleviating extreme poverty across the globe – but among the world’s poor, the rise in household income masks the fact that girls and women are the most trapped in poverty given discriminatory social norms and other barriers to women working and receiving income. Yes, we have seen progress in enrollment in primary and secondary education – but still today girls lag behind in actual completion of school. Yes, there has been progress in addressing  HIV AIDS – but in Sub-Saharan Africa, HIV prevalence among young women is double or greater than among men in the same age group. And we know that there continue to be very stubborn health barriers for women. We know that 290,000 women die every year from pregnancy related causes – with 99 percent of these women living in developing countries. Among them are many of the millions of girls who become child brides each year.

Perhaps most disturbing, we know and see that violence remains a pervasive problem for girls and women. I have sat in villages in Ethiopia and India and heard young girls describe the violence that they have experienced and seen. From female genital mutilation, to harassment on their way to primary school, to involuntary early marriage and childbirth, to violence within their marriage, and even for young women enrolled in the university – the fear of sexual violence while walking home from the library. One of the most horrific reminders of violence against girls is the recent abductions in Nigeria. We are reminded of the interconnectedness of physical safety, right to education and human rights. Indeed, achieving the dream of equality and empowerment for girls and women will take the work of all of us, in many disciplines and in countries and communities around the world. It depends on progress on many pathways.

At the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we focus on the pathway of achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has been a focus for the entire fifty years of our history as a Foundation. One of our best and long term partners has been the Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health right here at Johns Hopkins. I was with Dean Klag and President Daniels in Ethiopia last November for a gathering of over 3,000 leaders from around the world focusing on reproductive health and access to family planning. We have seen great progress on this pathway, but still today in the world 220 million women would like to use modern contraceptives but don’t have access to them. This school of public health, philanthropies, development agencies and countries around the world are uniting toward cutting that number in half by 2020.

For too many women – unintended, too frequent or too early childbearing interferes with their fundamental health, education and economic wellbeing. We need to change this. Existing commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights not only need to be included, but also strengthened in the post-2015 development agenda.

But while these services and rights are critical, they are not sufficient. I remember a visit with a group of young women in Bihar, India who had received some great information about sexual and reproductive health, in part due to Packard Foundation funding. I confidently asked a group of young women:  “So, what do you dream for your life – to go to university? Become a lawyer? A doctor? Study public health?”
One young woman spoke strongly: “That’s not going to happen, I know about my body and reproductive health, but I have no way to get an education or a job.”

Indeed, it will take progress on many pathways – health, education, economic opportunity, civic participation – as we pursue the dream of equality for girls and women. We cannot make pervasive, lasting change on one without addressing them all.

So, as you launch your careers, regardless of the public health problems you work on, I urge you to look hard for disproportionate impact on girls and women. As you work to save millions of lives at a time, be sure to keep in mind that solutions and opportunities need to reach girls and women specifically. Each of us here today will have a role to play in achieving the great unfinished business of the 21st century – the global dream of equality and empowerment. It will be a long journey. Progress will be imperfect and hard won. But we will get there.

And your public health perspective prepares you well for this work. The public health dream is not about quick fixes – it’s about taking the long view. When you commit yourself to a career rooted in research and knowledge, when you frame your work in terms of prevention and systems change, in terms of saving lives millions at a time, you have chosen a path not often characterized by instant gratification.
But it is a choice rooted in a fundamental dream of a better world.

What will be your personal journey over the next decades? If you dive for your dreams, I can guarantee you it will be fascinating and full of wonderful surprises. Your grounding in public health will also take you to many places: to public health agencies around the country and the world; to governments local, national, global; to multilateral institutions; to academic and research centers; to leading NGOs; to philanthropy; to businesses working toward the dreams of better health, better opportunities for women.

As you travel to those places, building on the education you have received here, remember a story. Last year, our country celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It was truly an historic moment, but there’s one part of the story of that day that you might not have heard. As Dr. King approached the podium to speak, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin” – a refrain she had heard him often use in churches in the preceding months. He paused, set his prepared speech aside, and spoke from the heart, punctuating his words with the now famous refrain: “I have a dream.”

So to you – the 2014 graduates – I say, tell them about your dream. Use your degree from this world class institution. Apply your skill for rigorous analysis and your understanding of systems and communities. But along the way, don’t  forget to set your script aside and tell us about your dreams. Dive for those dreams!