David Michaels PhD, MPH
Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health
The George Washington University
School of Public Health
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Thank you Dean [Lynn] Goldman, honored guests, distinguished faculty and staff, proud parents and family and – most importantly – graduates...
First off: Congratulations!
Your achievement today, symbolized with diplomas and gowns, calls for cheers and congratulations. Today is a day for celebration, for thanks, and, of course, for a few words of advice.
After years of hard work, you have reached the finish line.
You've survived all the tough courses – even biostatistics. You've handed in mountains of papers and taken what seemed like countless exams. You've completed challenging capstones and arranged practicums and internships. And you should all be very proud of what you've done.
I'm sure that every single one of you understands that you did not get to this finish line alone. You share today's joy and pride with everyone who supported you: your families – your parents, your spouses, and maybe even your children; and with the many professors who challenged you to work harder and produce better work than you ever imagined you could.
None of us get anywhere on our own; each hill we climb is lined by the hands and hearts that helped us on the journey. Today is a time to say "thank you" to those who share in your achievement.
You've hit that finish line today. But don't get comfortable – that finish line is about to move! As you well know, we never finish learning, never finish growing, never finish achieving.
Some of you came to the School of Public Health right out of college. Others are seasoned veterans of public health. Perhaps you've worked for NGOs or government agencies or consulting firms, in remote villages or teeming slums of developing countries, or in our cities here in the United States. Maybe these are places you are heading.
Whatever your plans are, history is being made right now and you will be part of it. You will see it, you will learn from it, and you will shape it.
Today is a day to think about what your future looks like.
There is a weather-worn phrase, attributed to Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." There were many giants in Public Health who saw farther, who advanced the cause of humanity – we think of John Snow and Louis Pasteur, Walter Reed, Jonas Salk and Rachel Carson.
But almost all of those who played central roles in improving the lives of millions have names that do not readily come to mind. They weren't giants and you don't know their names – because many of the great advances in public health have been won through the determination and perseverance of everyday people who built social movements, people who stood together and said "We are going to make a better world" – and then they did.
A century ago, tuberculosis – the scourge of the slums – ravaged our cities. But long before antibiotics, a social movement demanded new housing and sanitation programs that dramatically slowed the spread of TB.
Think of what life was like for working people in this country before the 40-hour week, before the minimum wage, before laws that kept children from working in factories and mines. The labor movement – workers coming together in common cause – fought day by day, year after year so that we could live better lives and longer lives than those who came before us.
The civil rights movement integrated our schools and workplaces, paving the way for an America in which all women and men, no matter the color of their skin, could have a fair shot at a better life.
The women's movement fought for reproductive rights and to refocus medical research. Not so long ago, women were excluded from many clinical trials and the epidemiologic studies that identified chronic disease risk factors.
And it was the activists of ACT-UP who challenged access to AIDS drugs and insisted that HIV-positive people had to be equal partners with medical and public health practitioners in developing HIV prevention and treatment programs.
It's been a remarkable century, don't you think? This country has made amazing progress and it makes you wonder what the next 100 years will bring. Progress doesn't happen on its own. But once gains are made and generations pass, this progress is taken for granted.
You must never forget that the rights that you enjoy today only exist because someone before you fought for these rights. Someone before you died for these rights. Progress does not happen on its own.
Public health has, does, and always will be a vital component of these social movements that continue to fight, day after day, to improve lives in our nation and across the world. One hundred years ago a social movement, propelled by the tragic Triangle shirt waist factory fire on 4th Street in downtown Manhattan, helped win labor rights and workplace safety measures.
That same fight for labor rights and workplace safety is now underway in Bangladesh, where more than eleven hundred garment workers were killed last month in a building collapse. Think about the choice those workers faced when they arrived at work that morning in April. The day before, they heard the loud crackles of their building buckling. They could see the cracks in the walls. Did they really have a choice? They could go to work in that building, or they would be fired and perhaps not feed their children that night. What more compelling evidence is needed to demonstrate that the struggle for labor rights is a vital component of public health?
And the same is true for the struggle for women's rights in India. Thousands of women have taken to the streets to demand public safety – the right not to be assaulted, the right not to be raped! There can be no doubt that the struggle for women's rights is a vital component of public health.
But you don't have to go overseas to be on the front lines of public health. You can walk right out of this hall and join the movement for immigration reform spreading in fields and factories and construction sites across this nation and right here in Washington, D.C. Immigrants are leading a massive national movement to bring legal status to 11 million people living and working in the shadows, right here in the United States.
Legal status will give these immigrant workers the ability to earn more money, and for the first time many will be paid legal wages rather than having to acquiesce to the wage theft so prevalent among low road employers who hire undocumented workers. This alone will lift countless families out of poverty.
Legal status will give these workers the right to refuse dangerous work without fear of deportation. Legal status will give immigrant construction workers the right to demand safety harnesses when they are installing a new roof. Legal status will give the farm workers who pick the crops we eat every day the right to stay out of the fields while deadly pesticides are being sprayed.
Legal status will allow immigrant parents to go back to their country to visit children, and it will allow children to visit parents without risking their lives crossing dangerous borders. Immigration reform is a social movement with enormous public health consequences.
In each one of these social movements, public health practitioners have played an important role – often a leadership one.
Sometimes, we support these movements just by going to work – whether at a government agency, an NGO, a consulting company, a union or a corporation, or if you're doing the policy development or research that will drive the work of these institutions.
But clocking in and out isn't enough. Each one of us – each one of you – can be forceful, effective advocates for change. Here at this great university you have acquired some of what you need to be that change agent and to help motor the next great social movement.
You've completed your Masters', or for some you, your Doctorate. You have accomplished much in preparing yourself to succeed and thrive in public health. You've chosen a discipline through which you can help transform millions of lives. Don't observe history – be bold! Make history!
At this moment, as you stand at the beginning of a new, exciting phase of your life, I hope you'll allow me to share a few lessons I've learned along the way – things I wish I'd known as I was embarking on a career in public health:
Keep challenging yourself.
I've lost track of the number of times I've testified in front of Congressional committees; but before today, I had never given a Commencement Address. When Dean Goldman invited me to speak today, I knew it would be a challenge because this is out of my comfort zone – and that is one of the reasons I agreed to do it.
Wherever we are in life, we need to grow, keep taking on new challenges, and risk failing – because if you don't fail some time, then you haven't been aiming high enough.
Another life lesson: Keep learning.
You have no doubt absorbed a huge amount in your studies here at GW, but the world is changing fast – faster than ever – and you must keep learning if you want to keep up. There is a wonderful quote from the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer:
"In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
I hope that today you are able to think more critically than when you first enrolled in public health school. This doesn't mean you have become a skeptic, but when you read scientific papers and reports be prepared to be skeptical. Make sure the assertions you read are supported by valid methods and rigorous analyses. Please don't forget the old adage: What the conclusions giveth, the methods taketh away.
In this age when money speaks so loudly, it is no surprise that polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products have taken the road pioneered by the tobacco industry, paying mercenary scientists enormous sums to author studies purporting to show that climate change is imaginary, or toxic chemicals are not actually harmful.
So when you read scientific and policy papers, always consider the source of funding and who benefits from the results.
By continually honing your skills, absorbing more knowledge, teaching and mentoring, your influence and credibility grow. You don't have to be a leader, but you owe it to yourself to be very good at what you do!
Another important observation: Love your work. Love your work
Along with expertise, if you bring passion and joy to your career, you will be more successful, and you will be able to stick with it – and that's so important because, with perhaps a few exceptions, the work of public health is a marathon, not a sprint.
Finally... Stay balanced.
Always keep your job in perspective. Let your work in public health invigorate you, but never let your career consume you or diminish your spirit. Take care of yourself so you can stay positive, pace yourself and gain perspective, because the people of this planet need you to finish that marathon.
And please remember not to take yourself too seriously. As Charles de Gaulle said, "The graveyards are full of indispensable men" – and now women, too.
And if I haven't said so, I want to say it now: Thank you...Thank you for your commitment to public service. You wouldn't be here if you weren't dedicated to making the world a better place. You have chosen a noble path and I hope – no, I know – you will have many great adventures along the way.
I wish you boundless joy and success.