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An Alternative Commencement to Remember

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On Thursday, April 26, 2007 a remarkable thing happened that was barely noticed by the mainstream media.

The headlines instead were of the warm welcome Vice President Dick Cheney received (including an honorary degree) in a packed arena of 22,000 people at the BYU Marriot Center in Provo, Utah. Or of the "quiet protest" down the street, once again limited to two hours with no speaking or chanting, and once again portrayed by the media as nothing but a sideshow.

"I think all the protests were for nothing," BYU student Nathan Brown told the Associated Press "I thought [Cheney's address] was very non-political and applicable to our lives."

Explaining the standing ovation Cheney received from the large Mormon crowd, another student remarked, "I think there were a lot of people making up for the controversy surrounding his attendance."

Lew Cramer, whose nephew Stephen John Pearson delivered a speech on behalf of his fellow graduates, called Cheney's speech "a home run." (Deseret News)

In fact, Cheney's speech was nothing spectacular. It ran 15 minutes, avoided anything close to the war, and was filled with pandering pleasantries and commencement cliches.

The only quote that made it into the Associated Press article from the estimated 200 students and faculty on the corner of campus participating in the university's second political protest in the past 15 years (the other one took place three weeks earlier): "The war has been mishandled."

As the late great Kurt Vonnegut put it: So it goes.

But the real story, the story that was largely ignored by the media, took place later that night at the McKay Events Center in Orem, Utah (about 15 minutes north of BYU campus) where close to 1,500 people came together to make a powerful statement that democracy is still alive in this reddest of red states, that alternatives and dissent should be celebrated, not scorned.

It might have been the first alternative commencement in American history (we're still searching for a precedent). It was certainly the first one in BYU history.

Ralph Nader coined the roughly 25 students who put the alternative commencement together as the "BYU 25."

In his opening speech, student coordinator Eric Bybee laid out in numbers just what the BYU 25 were able to accomplish:

  • 25- Number of students who planned and coordinated the event through basic grassroots mobilization

  • 10- Number of days to make it happen

  • 15- Number of meetings in a crowded Provo living room

  • 24- Number of venues we contacted that turned us away

  • 100- Roughly the number of finals we took in the midst of our preparations

  • 10,000- Number of fliers we printed and distributed

  • 20,000- Estimated number of dollars we needed to host the commencement

  • 24,000- Number of dollars we raised in less than ten days (including $12,000 in just four hours thanks to the readers of Daily Kos)

  • $6,000- Amount of leftover money we plan to donate to local charities

"A lot of people said we couldn't do this, or that we shouldn't do this," said Eric Bybee in his speech. "We've received ridicule, threats, been called names. Many people have laughed and jeered. But here we are."

Why all this effort in the middle of the last two weeks of the semester? Why did 25 students from the reddest campus in the reddest county in the reddest state in the country feel so strongly about making their voice count? Why an alternative commencement?

"We wanted to do something constructive," said Bybee, who emptied his personal bank account to help make the commencement happen. "We wanted to do something different and unique. We wanted to invite people to speak and share ideas about an alternative vision for our country."

Co-coordinator Ashley Sanders, who submitted herself to medical tests to help raise funds for the cause, explained further: "A lot of people have asked me just like they've asked Eric: 'If you disagree with what BYU or the government does, why don't you just go some place else?' A favorite suggested location is Berkeley.

"I only know one way to answer them, which is to tell them that I love this place and I want it to be what it can be.

"After I answer this, there is always another question: 'If you love it, why do you critique it?' My answer is the same: Because I love it. And because I believe that integrity requires [it]."

To read the rest of Ashley's brilliant and poignant speech, click here.

From former Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Pete Ashdown (the man with the audacity to challenge Orrin Hatch), we were urged to "respond to the entrepreneurs of war by being an entrepreneur of peace."

"Every day think about peace," he advised students. "Every day think about service. Every day believe that people can coexist no matter our cultural differences. Every day question your political leaders no matter the party and do not fear to speak your mind."

"This gathering is more than a response," he concluded. "This gathering is the future."

Human rights activist and former director of Amnesty International Jack Healey (who is one of the most inspiring men I've ever met) told students that their courage warmed his heart and gave him hope for America. He advised the graduating class: "Take your voices and turn them into thunder. Take your candle and turn it into a bonfire -- and revive this nation to who we say we are and what we want it to be!"

And finally, there was Ralph Nader, who I had the privilege of introducing.

You can read his personal account of the experience here .

"I've spoken to a lot of commencements," Nader began. "This is the first alternative commencement that I've spoken to."

"Moral courage," he continued, "is what it took to bring this together on the part of the students. . .but the fact that you have to engage in moral courage in order to make a statement of conscience or utter a statement of truth is not just a reflection of a morally courageous person, it's a reflection of a suppressive context. You have to have great moral courage to utter a statement of conscience in a dictatorship, but in a free society it shouldn't take a demonstration of courage in order to utter a statement of conscience or truth.

"So while we pay tribute to the students, we have to ask ourselves: What is it about their environment that led them to do this? Was it a lack of reflection on the campus? Did it touch on something my father asked me when I was ten years old and I came home from school, and he said to me, 'What did you learn today, Ralph? Did you learn to believe or did you learn to think?'"

To listen to Ralph Nader's speech in its entirety, click here.

The BYU Alternative Commencement was certainly a night I'll never forget and feel privileged to have been a part of. There was an energy in the building that's hard to describe. Hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, alumni and community members so frequently marginalized, so frequently told to shut up and leave, finally felt acceptance, felt among friends, felt some sense of freedom

There was a spirit of righteous dissent, of activism and revolution. To some that might sound silly, but as George Orwell once put it, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

The music ranged from a stomping, harmonica-playing hippie to the sobering strings of a violinist. When the 50 or so graduates and faculty members marched in, the hair stood up on my arms. Of several thousands graduates and several thousand more faculty at BYU, these few were willing to put it all on the line: their jobs, their relationships, their reputations. These few marched in with their heads held high, remembering the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

So while the mainstream media decided to focus on the vice president's "warm reception" or even the "polite protests" down the street, they missed what at least 1,500 people can testify was history unfolding.

NOTE: A documentary by the creators of This Divided State and a book by Free Speech 101 author and BYU 25 member Joe Vogel more deeply chronicling and exploring the events described in this article are currently underway. Visit their websites for updates/more information.