Bryan Stevenson addresses graduates at 2021 virtual commencement

Stevenson urged graduates to ‘change some of the narratives that are sustaining inequality and injustice across the globe’

The Class of 2021 Commencement took place June 4 through a two-hour live webcast streamed on the commencement website. In the 2020–2021 academic year, MIT awarded 1,027 bachelor’s degrees, 1,793 master’s degrees, 10 engineer degrees, and 568 doctoral degrees, according to the registrar's website.

Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer, social justice activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, currently a law professor at New York University School of Law, addressed the Class of 2021 as their commencement speaker.

In his speech, Stevenson spoke about the “justice deficit” in our country. He said that we are living “in a time when there are many, many problems that threaten the health and safety and hope of communities across the planet.”

Stevenson challenged graduates to “recognize that the hard work is not over.” He also urged graduates to “find new ways to get proximate to those who suffer” and “apply the same tactics, the same strategies, the same commitment to a better way to the problems of inequality and injustice as we apply to the problems of science and technology.”

Stevenson reminded students that he “would not be here without that commitment to proximity” a generation ago if “lawyers didn’t come into my community and open up doors.” He also urged graduates to “change some of the narratives that are sustaining inequality and injustice across the globe.”

“I believe that if we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger, we’ll tolerate things we should never tolerate,” Stevenson said. “We’ll accept things we should never accept.” Stevenson explained that MIT graduates should “change the narrative.”

“A third thing I need you to recognize is that you need to stay hopeful,” Stevenson said. He pointed out that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

In closing, Stevenson reminded the graduates that in order to “make the world a better place,” they have to be “willing to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things” even though “humans are biologically and psychologically programmed to do what’s comfortable.” Stevenson commended the Class of 2021 and said he will be “cheering for you as you do the important work that lies in front of all of us.”

President L. Rafael Reif, who spoke next, began his speech by remembering the late Institute Professor Millie Dresselhaus, a National Medal of Science and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner recognized for her pioneering work in science and engineering. “The Improbability Walk,” the space on the other side of the Great Dome, is named in her honor, as she has often called her journey “improbable.”

As the months before the Class of 2021’s graduation is “transformed by the intense struggles and losses of a global pandemic,” Reif explained that this means the class is “stepping out into the world with an ‘improbable journey’ already under your belt.”

Reif also commended the graduates that “through immense effort, self-discipline, creativity and compassion,” have “found a way to rise to the demands of this historic challenge together.”

He was confident that the Class of 2021 has also “found an ingenious way to transform an unfamiliar atmosphere into rocket fuel for future expeditions.”

Reif also asked graduates, as he has at previous commencements, to “hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT” and to “try to heal the world” as well.

Reif said that an in-person commencement will be held at MIT at “some safe point in the future.” He also said that digital diplomas have been delivered to students who requested them through the Blockcerts Wallet app.

Madeleine Sutherland G, president of the Graduate Student Council, spoke after Reif, and reflected on the past year of “living through myriad forms of disaster” and commended students for adapting to virtual learning, researching “the present monster of COVID-19” and “21st century’s other big challenges,” and solidarity.

Sutherland reminded students that when “nothing feels real anymore, remember to keep calling on each other and your friends within MIT.”

President of the Class of 2021, Kofi Blake ’21, spoke next, bringing the focus back to the past. “The greatest problems of our generation: climate change, wealth inequality, global poverty must be solved using the technology of the future with the resolve of the past,” Blake said.

Blake also addressed the Class of 2021: “the choice is up to you to be leaders and builders, to be visionaries and problem solvers.” Blake led the turning of the ring, which was accompanied with a digital video version of the turning of the Brass Rat.

Daniel Lowenstein G, PhD student in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program, spoke about his journey post-college, revealing that “for almost three years, I worked as an oyster farmer, a baker, a line cook, and a sous chef … after 20 applications, I got a phone call and the chance I had waited for.” He told students to keep in mind that “an MIT education allows for you to do incredible things and to go to places you never dreamed possible.”

MIT Alumni Association President Charlene Kabcenell ’79 spoke last, offering a salute to the Class of 2021: “the entire alumni body, now over 143,000 strong, joins me in congratulating all of the 2021 graduates and officially welcoming you into our alumni family, your infinite connection to MIT.”

The commencement ceremony ended with a performance of the school song “Arise All Ye of MIT” and a sing-along of “Take Me Back to the Tech,” both led by the Chorallaries of MIT.

During the hour preceding and the hour after Commencement, Dylan Sleeper ’21 and Annie Yun ’21 hosted a pre-program and post-program show, featuring videos submitted by students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the MIT community congratulating and commemorating the graduating class.