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SFSU commencement speaker Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, graduates with honors

June 3, 2017

by Mary Kenny

Meet two outstanding San Francisco State University students, Alicia Garza and Michael Bennett, who graduated May 25:

Co-founder of Black Lives Matter and top graduate student at San Francisco State University, Alicia Garza delivered the commencement address on behalf of all graduate students May 25 at the SF State graduation ceremonies at AT&T ball park. To strong applause, she spoke of her years fighting corporate and government poisoning and police terror in Bayview Hunters Point. – Photo: SF State News

While a graduate student in ethnic studies, Alicia Garza co-founded Black Lives Matter, an international organization that began in 2013 to fight violence and racism toward Black people. The organization began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. It has since grown to an international network of more than 40 chapters across North America and the United Kingdom.

Garza was selected as the top graduate student in the College of Ethnic Studies and delivered powerful comments during SF State’s Commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 25, at AT&T Park. SF State News reports that Garza, who spoke on behalf of all SF State graduate students, began by declaring her speech to be “an ode to Black women,” saying, “Thank any Black woman you want for their resilience, determination, audacity, persistence, dedication.” She paid tribute to her mother and the remarkable contributions of generations of African American women.

Garza was selected as the top graduate student in the College of Ethnic Studies and delivered powerful comments during SF State’s Commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 25, at AT&T Park.

Recalling her years with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), where she grew to be executive director, part of that time in an office just two doors from the Bay View, she told the commencement crowd: “Were it not for Black woman, this Black woman standing right here in front of you would not have finished her degree while fighting for the rights of domestic workers and fighting for Black lives all over the world, including my own, and fighting against corporate greed in Bayview Hunters Point, just five minutes from where we sit right now, against the poisoning of Bayview for profit, fighting against kids being shot and killed on the T-train and exposing sewage in public housing, exposing the world that lives within the richest city in the world, exposing police kicking down the doors of Black women looking for their children to put in a cage instead of taking them to a college or a job or a dream.”

“It feels in particular like a very special honor to be graduating from a program that people fought for, and fought really hard for, and a lot of people suffered a lot to make that happen,” Garza said, referring to the founding of the College of Ethnic Studies, the first and only free-standing college in the nation. “It feels especially good to know that not only did I make this individual achievement, but that it is part of a collective achievement. That was part of a group of people’s vision decades ago and it’s still here.”

Garza said it took her eight years to finish her master’s degree, partly because she had so many other projects going on. “I was inspired to begin a master’s program while an active community organizer because I really wanted to document the work I was doing, and I wanted to protect some time to reflect on the work that I was doing, hopefully making it better and sharper,” said Garza. “I chose SF State because it had a reputation of having a stellar Ethnic Studies program that also supported community organizing.”

Michael Bennett, formerly homeless veteran, graduates with honors at age 62

Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett, a longtime San Francisco resident, was a homeless veteran who battled poverty, drug issues and incarceration. At age 62, Bennett was selected by the College of Health and Social Sciences at SF State to represent his peers as the top undergraduate student from his college during commencement exercises on May 25.

Bennett credits the overall mission and spirit of SF State and, more specifically, the Project Rebound program, which helps formerly incarcerated people earn college degrees. Bennett has continued to work full time as a community engagement specialist at Candlestick Point State Park Recreation Area while taking a full load of classes.

At age 62, Bennett was selected by the College of Health and Social Sciences at SF State to represent his peers as the top undergraduate student from his college during commencement exercises on May 25.

He says his recreation, parks and tourism classes have strengthened his commitment to working with marginalized residents, to improving health disparities with wellness opportunities and to providing recreational opportunities to an aging population. That includes his work in Bayview Hunters Point, where people who have lived there for decades are being forced out by rising rents.

Mary Kenny, director of news and new media for San Francisco State University, can be reached at mkenny@sfsu.edu. Bay View staff contributed to this story.

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