Mindy Fullilove, MD, Hon AIA
2017 Commencement Address
Dr. Mindy Fullilove
Dean, faculty, families, friends and, especially, the graduates:
It is an honor to share this commencement with you. As a psychiatrist, I am keenly aware of the preciousness of these liminal moments—we hover in-between, at the threshold. We are neither here nor there, we linger, happy and afraid, longing for both sides. How bittersweet to leave the joys of these years, these friends, these teachers, these studies, but how enticing to move into the future for which you have been training.
You have probably by now designed doorways and passageways and memorials—all liminal spaces—and you have thought, “What is it that the space should offer at such a moment?” As you answered the question, you used that exercise to ponder the feelings that your design would support. And so for me in this moment—the joy of designing a doorway for you.
One might ask, “Why would PennDesign choose a psychiatrist at this moment?” Surely if they thought you needed psychiatric help, they would have called me before now. I think, instead, it is that I am a social psychiatrist—dubbed by The New York Times the town shrink. It is not you but our times that are crazy and I am here to give you some words of advice, sort of the equivalent of “don’t forget your umbrella, it’s going to rain today.” In this moment of ambiguity, I think I’ve been asked say something to you that will orient you to your new life in crazy times.
You are emerging from a safe space that allowed you to explore your ideas, join a new family of people who supported your development and shared your enthusiasm, and immerse yourself in the accumulated wisdom of design traditions. This has been a space in which the iconic forms of such teaching have been enacted, a dance that dates back a thousand years, and which we honor today with our robes and hats.
You are exiting into a howling, frenetic scene of the growing gridlock of problems we may be able to name, but can’t seem solve. We are facing inequality in wealth likely to outstrip anything this country has ever seen. We are watching our climate change. We daily hear and see shocking expressions of hate.
In sum, you are emerging from the cocoon of learning into the maelstrom of profound disturbance in our collective life.
This transition has, I believe, particular meaning for you, because these times are your times. I don’t mean the times of your generation or the times of your group defined by race or class or gender. But your times as graduates of PennDesign—who you are—people who can see what others cannot, people who fill emptiness with ideas, people who can layer system upon system. You are the people whose special talents put you at the center of the drama of our nation.
Let me say a bit about each of these qualities.
Seeing what others cannot. Those of you who studied urban planning and landscape architecture are probably most familiar with the work of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, who transformed Paris from a medieval city to a modern industrial one. The reorganization of space was shocking to the people who lived there. It was at that moment that the Impressionists began to paint the boulevards, the bridges, the parks—the new openness that had never existed before. Their paintings helped people envision what these new-fangled parts of the city were and what they were supposed to do with them—boat, picnic, stroll, ogle the pretty ladies, enjoy. In these times of collapse and disintegration, we desperately need people who can see and who can show us the tangle of policies and practices that have paralyzed us and turned us against one another.
People who fill emptiness with ideas. You tackle the blank page, the empty canvas, the vacant lot. You imagine waves of grasses and trees where there are only weeds. You can load a car to the amazement of your friends and family. In this turbulent moment, we are suffering from an emptiness that threatens human existence, and that is the chasm of disaffiliation that has opened, separating us by race and class and religion and gender and sexual orientation, until we are so fragmented every bit of our potential for social solidarity is erased. You—you who see the possibilities in emptiness—you are the ones who can teach us how to come back together.
People who can layer, system upon system. Alejandro Aravena, curator of the Venice Biennale, said, “We would like to widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond, adding explicitly to the cultural and artistic dimensions that already belong to our scope, those that are on the social, political, economical and environmental end of the spectrum.” The ability to juggle systems is fundamental to the solution of the problems we face—the economic system, educational system, health system, water system, transportation system, food system, international relations system, climate system—these are all broken. I think it is only a vision of fixing them, not one by one, but all at the same time, that can get us out of this muck before we make fatally bad decisions. And that is where your genius and your training are the essential elements if we are to have a common future.
In this moment—your moment—you carry the hope and dreams of all of us. We are eager for your leadership, but also frightened. Your ideas will be so foreign to the system of silos that we won’t hear you. We will fight to maintain petty fiefdoms. We will try to chain you in the mind-numbing idiocy of completion and bureaucracy. We will holler and yell and complain and resist. We will not be easy to save. But, please, do it anyway.
I ask you, at some quiet moment in this day of passage, to close your eyes and think of a time here at PennDesign, when your art and your skill and your hopes for the world came together and you thought to yourself, “This is why I’m here.” Imprint that moment in your heart, as you emerge into the maelstrom, so that you will always know who you are: the problem-solvers of our era. I am so grateful to be present as you step across the threshold, to begin to see what needs to be seen, to fill the chasms that must be bridged, to layer the systems that must be understood as one. You are PennDesign 2017.
Mindy Fullilove, MD, Hon AIA, is Professor of Urban Policy and Health at the Milano School for International Affairs, Management & Urban Policy in New York City. Dedicated to the psychology of place, her research started in 1986 when she linked the AIDS epidemic with place of residence and she continues to focus on the health problems caused by inequality. For the past 30 years, Dr. Fullilove has been investigating how broken connections between different sections of cities harm public health and explores ways to reconnect them. Previously, she taught at Columbia University and was a lecturer at Parsons. She has published numerous articles and six books including Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, and House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place. She has received many awards, including inclusion in many “Best Doctors” and two honorary doctorates (Chatham College, 1999, and Bank Street College of Education, 2002). She received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and her MS and MD degrees from Columbia University.