…for the caged bird sings of freedom.

Alan Dettlaff
5 min readMay 12, 2023

A message to the 2023 graduates of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Dear Graduates,

Congratulations to each you on this important moment. This is my last opportunity to be your Dean and I want to leave you with something that I hope inspires you to stay in the fight and to do the work necessary to bring about justice.

When I think about what it will take to bring about justice, I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I think of Dr. King addressing a crowd of over 250,000 people in 1963, when he spoke of a dream he had for the future to give hope to those listening and to provide direction in the face of ongoing and persistent oppression. As he closed that speech, he dreamed of a future where we would be able to look to one another and say — we are free. We are free at last.

Now I’d like you to think of the world you are about to embark on in 2023, exactly 60 years from that moment, where despite all the progress that has been made, that dream is still not a reality. In fact, that dream is not even close to becoming a reality.

I also think of the words of Maya Angelou who, 20 years after Dr. King, wrote about the vast gaps that exist in our society. She wrote,

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

That poem was written 40 years ago in 1983. And just as Dr. King’s dream is not yet a reality, the words of this poem resonate today because there are still many in our society who are not free. In fact, the reality is that although we are here today to celebrate tremendous success, most of us here are not free.

If you are a birthing person, you are not free. If you are a birthing person, you are not free to make decisions about your health or your body because your constitutional right to privacy and your right to a safe and on demand abortion have been taken from you. We now live in a country where you will be forced by the government to give birth, regardless of the circumstances or the outcome that will result.

If you are a member of the transgender community, you are not free. If you are transgender, you may not be free to use the restroom without fear of being jailed or fined for doing so. And in Texas, if you are a transgender young person, you are not free to access health care without fear of being forcibly separated from your family and sent to foster care.

If you are a person of color, you are not free. If you are a person of color, you are not free to exercise your right to vote. Today we live in a society where Voter ID laws, redistricting, and mass criminalization by a criminal punishment system that disproportionately targets Black and Latinx people all result in suppression of your right to vote.

And if you are a person of color, particularly if you are Black American, you are not free to safely walk down the street without fear of being murdered by the police.

There are some who say it is the police who keep us safe. But we know this is not true — we know this is not true because we know the names of those whose lives they have taken —

Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, John Crawford, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Korryn Gaines, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, William Chapman, Sam Dubose, Jeremy McDole, Ricky Ball, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Jordan Baker, Stephon Clark, Jordan Edwards, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, and George Floyd.

And despite the increased awareness of police violence the murder of George Floyd brought, we know the names of those whose lives have been taken by the police in the years since his death —

Rayshard Brooks, David McAtee, Kamal Flowers, Julian Lewis, Damian Daniels, Anthony McClain, Walter Wallace Jr., Jonathan Price, Kenneth Jones, Rodney Applewhite, Bennie Edwards, Devon Gregory, Patrick Warren Sr., Casey Goodson, Daunte Wright, Amir Locke, Jayland Walker, and Tyre Nichols.

Each of these men, at the time of their murder, was not under investigation for any crime and was not the target of any investigation. Yet they were each shot to death by the police. We have all seen images of Black men shot in the back, gunned down, and choked to death by the police. While at the same time we have seen images of White men armed with assault weapons walking freely in public. And they will continue to do so.

As you are about to embark on this new journey, think about the world around you and of the injustices that occur around you on a daily basis. Think about how far from freedom we are. As social workers, it is our responsibility to stand up against injustice and to act. And as social workers, we must be clear in our goal —

That goal is liberation.

Those of us who share this goal know that it is within our power to achieve it. We hold the power to bring about the world we wish to see. And this power is greater than those who wish to oppress us. Using our power requires risks and will come with backlash.

Yet we know that we will continue. We will continue because we must — because we understand that our current reality cannot continue.

I want to close with a quote from the woman who has inspired me throughout my time as Dean, the woman who helped me understand what is needed if we are to become free — Assata Shakur — who wrote:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

To my graduates —

rise up

resist

get in formation

and be the change you wish to see.

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Alan Dettlaff

Professor | Author | Abolitionist | Co-Founder of the upEND Movement to abolish the Family Policing System