Geoffrey Canada offered what he called a "wondrous opportunity" to graduates at Binghamton University's Fall Commencement on Dec. 13.
"Come join our team," he said. "We're losing."
Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, has devoted his life to helping children break away from poverty and violence in New York City's disadvantaged neighborhoods.
"Those of you sitting here represent the best and the brightest of America," Canada said in a speech that earned a long, standing ovation. "You have proven that you have what it takes to make it. My question to you is: Do you care about those who won't make it without real help?"
More than 700 bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees were awarded in the ceremony at the Events Center. The ceremony also featured comments from President Lois B. DeFleur, doctoral candidate Ida Amelia Jones and bachelor's candidate Anthony Corvino.
DeFleur began the ceremony by calling for a moment of silence in memory of Richard Antoun, professor emeritus of anthropology, who was stabbed to death on campus Dec. 4.
"We have lost one of our most respected scholars in a senseless act of violence," she said. "Professor Antoun exemplified the University's commitment to global scholarship and understanding. He was a role model for all of us and he will be missed."
DeFleur also praised the talents and diversity of the graduates.
"These are times that require exceptional knowledge and talent," she said. "… We are very proud that you are leaving this University with talents that are so sorely needed in the state, country and throughout the world."
Canada, who received an honorary doctorate, urged the graduates to apply those talents for "the betterment of society and not just for the betterment of yourselves."
"It is time to get into the game," he said. "What game? The game of life: a most serious game in which the stakes are high."
Canada emphasized the continuing dangers of poverty and violence in America. People who earn $10,000 a year or less die prematurely at three times the rates of those who earn more, he said. Eight children a day die from gunfire, he said, and 69 pre-schoolers were killed by firearms in 2005.
"Who is speaking up for the children?" he said. "Where is the outrage? Where is the concern?"
Today's advocates need winners who aren't afraid to play for a losing side, Canada said.
"There was a time when our team was winning," he admitted. "In the early '70s, we were engaged in the war on poverty, we fought for civil rights, the women's liberation movement was the right thing to be involved in, the gay and lesbian movement was just starting out. We were winning and it felt good.
"Today, poor people are out and civil rights is been-there, done-that. Self-indulgence is in. Caring about poor children is part of the laundry list of things that you are expected to write a check for.
"But in the end, we are going to win because we are right. There's no way we can rationalize the fact that the richest nation on Earth has so many children living in poverty."
Canada recounted how he played pickup basketball in the South Bronx as a boy. His team wasn't good, but played hard.
"We would be losing and suddenly this wonderful vision would appear on the horizon," he said.
Canada would see his brother, a superior athlete, approach the court. Canada said he would call time-out and get his brother into the game.
The other team's jokes and smirks soon turned into defeat, Canada said.
"There have been many times in my life when I have been fighting for losing causes and I've seen the smirks and heard the laughter," he said. "How I wish I could look up and see that lone figure coming to my rescue."
Canada used the basketball story to offer his future hope: He and his team are fighting to the end against forces seeking to hurt children and reverse the progress made over the past quarter-century. But Canada realizes he can do no more. Defeat is at hand.
"Suddenly I hear a mighty roar," he said. "I turn around and see an army of warriors. They come charging down to meet the enemy. … I'll grab a few young warriors and say, 'Who are you? Where did you come from?' They will say, 'Don't you remember us? We are the Binghamton University class of 2009.'
"I'll know that my time has passed and that better men and women than me will continue the fight."