Alumni Highlight: 2017 Merrill Commencement Speaker Kris Perry

kris-perryMerrill College was thrilled to welcome Kris Perry as the 2017 Commencement Speaker.  A Merrill Alumnus herself, Kris was recently awarded the Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award this past Spring for her decades of work as a social worker, director of social service programs, and most recently as lead plaintiff in the effort to overturn California's Proposition 8.   Kris' bio can be read on the First Five Years Fund website, a Non-profit of which she is the Excecutive Director. 

The transcript of Kris Perry's commencement speech can be found below:

Saturday June 17th, 2017
 
"Thank you Provost Abrams, Campus Provost-Executive Vice Chancellor Lee, faculty, staff, honored guests, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends old and new, and most of all the graduates of the class of 2017.
 
It is a tremendous privilege to be with you today. I am moved by your warm welcome and by the distinguished honor of speaking to you today, 31 years after graduating from Merrill myself, and just hours before I will watch my own son, Elliott Perry receive his degree from Rachel Carson College.
 
31 years. 31 years of trying to put my UCSC education to good use. I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I asked myself what I wished I had known at my own graduation, and what I feel are the most important lessons I have learned in the some 372 months that have expired between that day and this.  The good news is that indeed there have been a few.
 
But first, let me take you back to a time without cell phones, laptops, or google.  In the fall of 1982, I left my childhood home of Bakersfield, deep in the heart of California’s Central Valley and a world away from Santa Cruz. Arriving at the circular drive in front of Merrill in the family pick-up truck, then rolling slowly into the moat was exciting. After shooing my parents away, I quickly settled into Dorm A, atop a very steep and foggy hill AND I LOVED IT!
 
When it came time to register for classes, I rushed to enroll in Candace West’s Language and Gender class, Bettina Aptheker’s Feminism 101, Elliot Aronson’s  Cognitive Dissonance and later Bill Domhoff’s Political Power. I was intellectually challenged in ways that still cause me to feel great awe, but back then gave me more than one moment of anxiety. 
 
I was also humbled by the realization that my writing needed improvement.  It was in the required Core Course where I learned how to really write from Professor Julianne Burton. She was both terrifying and electrifying.  That course was the greatest educational gift I could have received, indeed I learned to write.
 
Within months of pursuing my love of Psychology, two other realizations emerged.  First, how much I also loved sociology, but more importantly, how much I loved my roommate.  I was fully engrossed in learning about the effect of human behavior on systems, and the effect my roommate had on me.  By the end of my first year, I knew I would double major in Psychology and Sociology, that I was a lesbian, and I was killing it at first base on the co-ed Merrill softball team.  Life was good!
 
Four years later, during my own commencement, Ronald Reagan was president, Bill Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas, and Cleve Jones was creating the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in San Francisco. The first PC virus started to spread, Pixar studios opened, and Lady Gaga was born.
 
In four short years, the world had changed.  I had changed too. I had gained knowledge and life-long friends, but shortly after graduation, I endured the greatest loss of my life.  My younger sister Karin, a freshman at UC Santa Barbara lost her battle to brain cancer that summer.  I was educated, but heartbroken. The last photo I have of us together; is at my commencement in the Quarry, me holding my degree, my sister beaming by my side.
 
I knew I had to keep going, to move forward with my education and slowly heal my heart. Armed with the same milk crates from freshman year, but now filled with my favorite dog-eared, sociology books, I headed to San Francisco State University to pursue my social work degree while sharing a flat in the Mission.
 
My first year there, I pursued my love of public policy as an intern for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, chaired by the legendary Phyllis Lyon, where I staffed her meetings at San Francisco City Hall. That year, I powered through my classes and through grief. I allowed myself to cry in the shower every morning, and again when I went to bed. And slowly, I began to heal, and to grow.
 
I had fallen in love with a woman, and a field of study, but now I was falling in love with government and public service. Immediately after graduation, I began a 25 year career as a public servant, supporting vulnerable children and their families in the Bay Area and eventually California.
 
From that day until now I have worked on solutions to foster better environments for children, where they are loved by their families, protected from abuse, and supported through effective public programs to reach their highest potential.
 
I now work in Washington DC with members of Congress, and am navigating the current administration to increase and protect federal investments in young children.  I love my work, but my heart is heavy with the chaos and confusion swirling around us all since November.
 
Today, you are moments away from tossing those caps in the air, toasting your achievement, and saying goodbye to your undergraduate years. Your years here at UCSC have helped prepare you to be successful in life, in ways both expected, and perhaps unexpected. 
 
This morning I want to share two takeaways from my own life. The first is the profound importance of love. The second is, simply:  life is work, and work is life.
 
Like you I had the privilege of learning about both life and work, at UCSC.  I hope your personal beliefs and passions will be hopelessly intertwined with your careers and vice versa.  That you will feel incomplete and uneasy if you are not honored and respected at work and at home.  That you will seek growth, challenge, beauty and passion in ALL of your relationships, because, life is work and work is life.  And never forget to make love a part of both.
 
Love was the driving force behind the decision my wife and I made to sue the state of California to overturn Proposition 8 in the spring of 2009.
 
In 2008, most of you were in eighth grade during the historic election of Barack Obama to be the 44th President of the United States.  That was also the same day California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8 to change the California Constitution to exclude LGBT couples from marriage.
 
Twenty years earlier, we had watched our 42nd President, Bill Clinton, approve the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Act Don’t Tell, but our four sons hadn’t seen politicians much less a majority of voters take away our rights before, and were shocked by the vote. 
 
That historic night, we celebrated our new President, but were sickened by the reality that our fellow Californians voted to take away a fundamental right from a group of citizens. On inauguration day, we stood in full salute of our new President, but as second-class citizens.
 
Fortunately, we weren’t alone in our fury. Some months later, a small group of constitutional lawyers, and political strategists would devise a plan to challenge Prop 8 in Federal court.  Sandy and I were asked to be plaintiffs in the case, and just days before our twins graduated from eighth grade, we filed our lawsuit.  As a gubernatorial appointee, I effectively sued my boss.  The case was named Perry v Schwarzenegger.
 
Voters, Presidents, Congress, and state legislatures had all passed laws relegating LGBT individuals to the status of second class citizens.  Now it was time for the courts to weigh in, and to address whether the United States Constitution protected us.  Were we, in fact, equal in society?
 
We ultimately went to trial and testified under oath about the harm Prop 8 was causing us and young people growing up in places like Bakersfield.  I described my childhood as ordinary girl realizing that I was different, my struggle to fit in to the confining social structure of high school, of later finding love and then wanting to marry the woman that I loved.  I simply wanted what the rest of the world took for granted. 
 
Our legal team was headed up by the same lawyers who faced off in Bush v. Gore, Ted Olson and David Boies, and they were brilliant.  Our argument was bolstered by the testimony of 17 expert witnesses, including social scientists who educated the court on history of marriage, the economic and social impacts of marriage and of discrimination, and how the political process had worked against us.  Many months after the three week trial ended, we celebrated our victory, relishing every word of Judge Vaughn Walker’s opinion that indeed the US Constitution applied to us.  We were equal.
 
I’m still astonished to admit that it took a straight, republican lawyer from the Bush administration to convince me that not being able to say “I do” was unacceptable. I had internalized the law of the land, and learned to cope with discrimination, to assume that I would never be equal.  Ted convinced me otherwise.
 
Ted and David helped us all fall in love with US Constitution from that first victory, through appeals that eventually took us to the United States Supreme Court.
 
On June 26th 2013, just days after our twin’s graduation from Albany High School, we returned to the Supreme Court to hear the decision on not just our case, but also DOMA.  It was a remarkable day, a double victory.  DOMA and Proposition 8 were officially struck down. Tears ran down our faces when we got a call from Air Force One just minutes after the ruling; President Obama congratulating us on our victory. The Supreme Court was awash in pride that day!
 
Two days later with our son Elliott as our best man, we were married by now United States Senator Kamala Harris on the balcony of San Francisco City Hall. The Gay Men’s Choir serenaded us as we were cheered on by hundreds of strangers.
 
Months later we would meet the president in person at the White House, and thank him for his support. 
 
It seems miraculous and random.  But it wasn’t. Our victory was the result of thousands of people, fighting hundreds of laws over many decades. All of those individual contributions added up to profound social change. 
 
Today our memoir, Love on Trial, is published and the quote on the cover is from Chelsea Clinton. The full circle from her father’s policies to her support is particularly meaningful to me.   
 
In one generation, we went from living with DADT, DOMA and Prop 8, to their demise. I went from believing I could never be married, have children or be legally protected to in fact have all of those today. Life is good.
 
You are in the very same place I was 31 years ago. You too will live a big, messy, authentic life, filled with joy and sorrow, opportunity and challenge. You will seek answers and fix problems. You will be change makers.  
 
Have empathy. Lift other people up. Fall in love, then fall in love again. Fall in love with people, and work, and progress. Work in the public sector or for a non-profit. Support committed candidates, hold office and VOTE!
 
Commit yourself today to live a meaningful life: A life where you don’t just to make a dollar, you make a difference; you don’t just settle for personal happiness; you fulfill a noble purpose.
 
Expect the unexpected.  Embrace it.  You just might end up in the White House one day.
 
Today I invite you to embody the values, spirit and generosity you want to see take root in the world, because frankly it has to be you.  If not you, than who? Do all of that with love, and you’ll be fine.
 
Thank you, and congratulations!"

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