"Winners for the Losing Team:" An Inspiring Speech At Penn by Geoffrey Canada

Over the years, some great speeches have been given at the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate long ago, I was responsible for bringing Robert F. Kennedy and Jackie Robinson to Penn. (An invitation I sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his tragic death led to his gracious telegram of regrets). And I remember being thrilled with optimism after hearing labor leader Walter Reuther address students at the Wharton School. Much more recently, I attended enthusiastic speeches by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton there.

But perhaps the greatest of all Penn speeches, from my perspective at least, was one I did not attend: Geoffrey Canada's address to the University of Pennsylvania graduating class of 2012, reported in great detail by Maarvi Singh, of Penn's Class of 2013, in the July/August Pennsylvania Gazette, Penn's high quality alumni magazine. See http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0712/gaz01.html. The text of the speech can be found in The Pennsylvania Almanac at http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v58/n34/comm-canada.html . A You Tube tape of the speech (with better sound quality than the one posted on the You Tube site itself) can be found at http://wilkes-university.blogspot.com/2012/06/penn-2012-commencement-add... .

Geoffrey Canada was one of seven recipients of honorary degrees in May, and his speech stole the show, relegating even a thoughtful sppech by Penn President Amy Gutmann calling for more societal collaboration and describing current graduating students as the "collaboration generation" to the sidelines.

Canada is the longtime leader of the Harlem Children Zone's, a non-profit provider of educational, social, and medical services. He is also the author of two highly acclaimed books, the first of which gives graphic descriptions of communities and individuals as victims of violence. He described himself as one of the leaders of a team of what Singh summarized as "altruists who fight for the impoverished and disadvantaged:"

"Come join our team {in the game of life}." Canada exhorted the audience. "We're losing. You have what it takes to make it.My question is, do you care about those who won't make it without real help.

"The other team offers you money and power and luxury cars, vacation homes and stock options.

"Our team offers you challenge and struggle, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guidance and a good night's sleep.

"There is evil out there.

"Some,from the very moment of their birth, have the odds stacked against them so high that for all intents and purposes they are out of the game even before they get in.

"Fear for the self is everywhere. We find it hard to care for the homeless when our mortgages are underwater. The poor feel under attack. The middle class feels under attack. Even the wealthy feel under attack. Our team--the team that rallies us under the common good, that emphasizes self-sacrifice and altruism--is losing...

"I know an enlightened group of men and women would not tolerate their country drifting towards this calamity. Our team needs you....

"(I)t's not easy being on the losing team. You have to be careful. If you are not properly prepared, you will become a loser. We don't want losers. We want winners who aren't afraid to play for the losing team.

"You are a wiser and better generation. Here is my fantasy. One day not too long from now, my team and I will be doing battle against the forces of darkness. They will trying to reverse our progress, hurt our children, destroy their souls. And it will suddenly seem to me that I can do no more.

"Suddenly, from behind me, I will hear a mighty roar. I'll turn around and see a most glorious sight: an army of better-prepared, smarter, more powerful young warriors. The enemies of truth, of fairness, of liberty and equality are overwhelmed.

"And I will several of these young warriors and ask, 'Who are you? Where did you come from?' And they will say, "Don't you remember us? We are from the Penn Class of 2012."

It may seem somewhat odd or paradoxical to describe the forces of social justice as the "losing team" at a time when Barack Obama is President, the Affordable Care Act has been largely upheld with the partisan defection of Chief Justice John Roberts, minority representation of all kinds is at a record high in numerous fields, educational achievements have never been more widespread, all troops have been pulled out of Iraq and a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is pledged, and the granting of once-unthinkable marriage rights to same-sex couples has beome a question of "when" and not a fact of impossibility.

But economically, it is a different story. For people in poverty, the safety net is being shredded continuously. Governor Corbett pushed through the legislature the total elimination of Pennsylvania's general assistance program, and county social service budgets were slashed 10%, with b;ock grants replacing mandated programs in 20 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. And this is only the latest year of a long retreat going back decades from the highwater level of spending for the poor under the age of 65 in the administration of Raymond P. Shafer, Pennsylvania's last liberal Republican governor.

Even the substantil upholding of the Affordable Care Act shows our current dilemma. The provisions benefitting the middle class were all upheld; expanded Medicaid for the low income was reduced from a mandate to a state by state option, limiting its effect in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

We all know that the experience in Pennsylvania is typical of the vast majority of states. So, in a very real sense, those who care about the people in poverty ARE "the losing team." And we do need a big infusion of "winners" to spend time and resources to turn the situation around and make meaningful progesss to the longstanding national goal of both reducing the incidence of poverty and stopping poverty from cutting off access to a decent life and the ladder of opportunity.

Excellent Speech Does Not Excuse Anit-Union Bias

Despite Canada's excellent speech, his advocacy for the poor has been marred by anti-union bias. He tends to look at unionized salaries, benefits, and tenure protections as representing extra money that could be spent directly for the poor.

But the fact of the matter is that those sectors of public service that are non-unionized--such as mental health, intellectual disabilities, family services for foster children,drug and alcohol addiction, etc.--
and run largely by non-profit corporations continue to face demands for ever more spending cuts even greater than the spending cuts for the unionized services. This year, for instance, Corbett cut all of county welfare spending by 10% (originally he threatened a 20% cut). Further, in up to 20 counties out of 67, the spending will be part of a block grant, so that some programs can be eliminated entirely over time.

Unions give significant number of people a reason to stay in often somewhat frustrating jobs where the salaries are often lower than they could earn elsewhere if they shifted their career focus. They also provide links to elected officials that individual social service agencies often do not have the time or inclination to foster. Sometimes union officials can be too narrowly focused, but that breed is going the way of the dinosaurs. Both Jerry Jordan, the current PFT President, and Ted Kirsch, his predecessor and current President of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, have clearly shown that they get the bigger picture and are willing to address issues of how school performance can be improved.

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