Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Let the Commencement Commence!

Good afternoon graduates, faculty, administration, families, friends, and distinguished alumni. I am very pleased to have been asked to give this year's commencement address at this fine institution, even if I was a last minute replacement following the protests that accompanied your first several choices.

I am even more pleased that every single one of this year's graduates has chosen to move on to a career in the human services sector. I don't know if your parents, who paid for your education, are pleased, but I am.

I suppose I should start with some sort of inspirational quote. Some platitudes along the lines of, "This is America, and anybody can do anything they want, and as long as you want success, by gosh, you shall have it!"

But that would be an insult.

An insult to each of you, to imply that a good attitude is all it takes to succeed, and that your own hard work, personal attributes, and family connections have nothing to do with it.

But more to the point, it would be an insult to many of the people who are about to become your clients. As if to say, "You wouldn't be in this mess if you just learned to whistle your troubles away."

The reality is that not everybody has access to the same set of choices that you've had. Not everybody is even aware of the choices they do have. External factors, from the physical to the mental, from geographic to economic, have limited their options.

If they have a defeated attitude - and you will soon learn not to assume "low-income" as synonymous with "bad attitude" - it's only because they have earned it.

Everybody wants decent jobs and a decent place to live, and enough food that their children don't suffer. Yes, they want success. That's why they're about to show up in your new office asking for assistance.

You want an inspirational quote? How about Woody Allen: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

The rest is hard work. And, boy, are you going to work hard! You will toil long hours in uncomfortable settings for low pay and you're going to love it. Because it's meaningful, or something like that.

Here's another quote for you: "I don't think I'm alone when I look at the homeless person or the bum or the psychotic or the drunk or the drug addict or the criminal and see their baby pictures in my mind's eye. You don't think they were cute like every other baby?"

Dustin Hoffman said that one, and it's good advice. Each time you see (or smell) an approaching client and you're tempted to roll your eyes, give a sigh, and regret taking on a career in the human services, do your best to find the innocent babe within their eyes.

And, yes, I have now twice defined your future employment as being in "the human services." Don't let the scope of your employment limit your mission to a single task. You may find yourself providing housing assistance, or job training, or maybe something related to health care. But your job is to help that individual person, the whole person, whatever they may need.

That means go the extra mile. Refer them to services you don't provide. Take a minute to reach deeper, and find out how you can truly help beyond processing them from one point to the next.

I'll leave you with one more bit of inspiration, this time from Mark Twain: "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."

You figure that one out for yourself.

Well, that's all I've got for you. I know your grandmother is waiting to take a picture of you with your cap and gown on and I don't want to disappoint her.

Good night, congratulations, and good luck.

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