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‘We are at a precipice’: New Zealand prime minister talks about gun control in address to Harvard grads

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed graduates during Harvard University’s Commencement speech.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned Harvard’s graduating class Thursday morning to be wary of the “scourge” of disinformation that surrounds them as she gave her address for the school’s 371st commencement ceremony.

Ardern opened her speech with a tribute to the “esteemed guests” before her in Te Reo Maori, the language of the Indigenous people of New Zealand, and then spoke of democracy, disinformation, and kindness.

“In the overwhelming challenges that lay in front of us, in our constant efforts to reach into the systems, the structures, the power, don’t overlook the impact of simple steps that are right in front of you. The impact that we each have as individuals. To make a choice to treat difference with empathy and kindness,” she said.

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Ardern wore a kakahu, a Maori cloak, which had been woven by more than 250 women from across New Zealand, and faced a sea of black and red as she looked over the graduates filling in rows of foldable chairs under a canopy of trees in Harvard Yard. Beyond them, friends and family found seats in chairs set in front of Jumbotrons and on the steps of the Widener Library.

The Memorial Church bell tolled before a moment of silence was called by Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, for the lives lost at Uvalde, Texas. Then the ceremony began with the traditional call to order by the sheriff of Middlesex County.

Ardern spoke about her country’s efforts to curb gun violence in the aftermath of two consecutive mass shootings by one gunman in 2019 at two mosques in Christchurch.

“We are at a precipice, and rather than ask what caused it, today I want to talk about how we address it,” said Ardern, citing the role social media played in the Christchurch terrorist attack, which was partly livestreamed and left a total of 51 dead. “In the aftermath of New Zealand’s experience, we felt a sense of responsibility. We knew we needed significant gun reform, and so that is what we did.”

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Many graduates carried objects and wore garments that highlighted their personal and school pride.

Some wore gold, red, green, or multicolored stoles over their gowns that gave indications of their identities — whether they were first-generation graduates, Black, Latino, or LGBTQ.

Others brought props related to their degrees. Public policy graduates held blow-up globes, architecture grads had Legos clipped to their caps, while law school grads waved gavels above their heads.

Graduates from the School of Public Health celebrated during the class of 2022 commencement.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Brianna Townsend received a bachelor of arts in engineering sciences Thursday after attending the Black affinity graduation on Tuesday. Harvard hosted six affinity ceremonies that allowed students from historically marginalized and underrepresented communities to celebrate their culture and values along with their graduation.

“I have my mom, my little brother, and my grandma coming in from Texas, so it’s really good to see them celebrate with me,” she said. “It just like means a lot to be a part of ... such a historic event.”

Over her gown she wore two stoles signifying that she was a Black graduate and a part of the Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Bacow, urged the graduates to use their degrees to help amplify others voices.

“Today I want to challenge members of the Harvard Class of 2022 to save a seat for others, to make room for others to ensure that the opportunities afforded by your education do not enrich your life alone,” he said. “You will have more chances than most to make differences in the world, more opportunities to give others a chance to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.”

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Bacow announced the conferring of honorary degrees upon Ardern, world-renowned chef and philanthropist José Andrés, Congolese microbiologist Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, distinguished professor emerita of history and Chicano/Latino studies Vicki L. Ruiz, writer and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and Geyser University professor emeritus William Julius Wilson.

Gloria Steinem acknowledged applause during the commencement.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As the commencement address came to a close, Ardern urged the graduating class to “make a choice to treat difference with empathy and kindness.”

“We are the richer for our difference and poorer for our division,” she said. “Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy — let us reclaim the space in between. After all, there are some things in life that make the world feel small and connected, let kindness be one of them.”


Grace Gilson can be reached at grace.gilson@globe.com.