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Ruha Benjamin encourages graduates to embrace the power of imagination

Benjamin used her commencement address to urge students to envision a better future and challenge oppressive structures.

By Karolyn Pearson Published on

Ruha Benjamin, a scholar, award-winning author and founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab used her address at Friday’s master’s degree commencement ceremony to highlight how imagination can play a powerful role in building a more just and equitable society.

Addressing the more than 600 students and their families and friends, Benjamin challenged the notion that facts alone can bring about meaningful change. Instead, she urged the graduating class to dedicate time to envisioning a better future. Many of those who earned their degrees are advancing in their careers as teachers, school administrators, instructional designers, counselors and family therapists. Because USC Rossier students are focused on advancing equity, they move into their next chapters well-equipped to shape the future of civic life.

Benjamin pointed out that our current laws, policies and systems were once imagined and subsequently codified and that it is the responsibility of the next generation to rethink oppressive structures.

“The more steeped I am in ‘the facts’ of inequity and injustice, the more I’ve come to appreciate the importance of imagination as a field of struggle, not an ephemeral afterthought that we have the luxury to dismiss or romanticize. Social imagination. Moral imagination. Decolonial, antiracist and collective imagination … Because schools have the potential to be laboratories of a radically expansive imagination, rather than places where inequality continues to be reproduced, 0ur role as educators is to incubate a better world in the minds and hearts of our students.”

In her remarks, she encouraged graduates to “confront that little voice in your head” that limits imagination and allow themselves to see a brighter future—where every child’s genius is fostered and everyone has access to food, shelter, love and respect. She also reminded the audience that the struggle for justice is not only about creating new policies and laws, but requires individuals to be “spreaders of joy,” transforming the world one act at a time so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Benjamin opened her remarks by sharing that she attended elementary school just a few miles from the USC campus. She joked that, on her first day, she told her mom lunch was her favorite subject and that it must have been a good lunch to keep her in academia for the next four decades. Benjamin is the Alexander Stewart 1886 professor of African American studies at Princeton University. She explores the social dimensions of science and technology, including data sciences, algorithmic discrimination and what she terms the New Jim Code. Her work helps empower people to ask critical questions as they engage with these fields.

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