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IT WAS A WORD TOO FREQUENTLY co-opted for use in the War on Terror, yet for some reason it came to mind as I keenly watched the faces of over 300 students at Fanshawe College’s graduation.

Jane and I were deeply appreciative to be given an honourary diploma that day (the first shared diploma in the college’s history), and we talked about the message we would give to the graduates. Jane, as always, was awesome, yet when my turn came that word “radicalization” popped into my head again. “This isn’t the end of your formal education,” I said, “but the start of the radicalization of it.”

I used the word purposely because it means more than how some terrorist groups seek to recruit young members. Kenyan writer, Shadrack Agaki, has called for the radicalization of African youth into social innovation as the only way of keeping them from being pulled into something criminal and sinister. Blogger John Grant writes in Counterpunch of how he became radicalized by the extremes of America’s war on Iraq and called for key American political figures like Dick Cheney to be tried in regular court.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the term as, “To cause someone to become an advocate of radical political or social reform,” and gives as an example the opposition of younger Americans to the Vietnam War. At times the impulse can turn overtly violent and should be shunned, but on other occasions radicalization results when people become agitated enough to speak out against injustices or current practices that are deemed no longer acceptable.

The students seated before us that at Fanshawe College were rich in potential, coming from Autism and Behavioural Science, Early Childhood Leadership and Education, Human Services, Recreation, and Social Services. In other words, most were about to be pressed into service on the margins, in those places where so many citizens struggle to be recognized despite the many odds against them. Ironically, for many, they were about to enter fields that were in the process of getting worse, not better. Funding in many areas is getting cut, the numbers of those at risk get greater, and society’s understanding of the challenges is increasingly lost in an economic and political order that talks about human needs but refuses to adequately fund efforts to find effective collaborative solutions.

The students before us that day were about ready to enter a world of hurt – not theirs necessarily, but that of individuals and families in various and diverse kinds of conflict and scarcity. Those remarkable young women and men were heading into global service to provide essential care and understanding.

But that is no longer enough. It’s like watching poverty grow or climate change be ignored. To work in such fields is commendable, but the overall structures require fundamental reform. And so that day Jane and I asked them to use their voice, not just their hearts; to use their convictions and not merely their compassion; to fight for adequate public policy and not just public care; to fight for justice and not just charity. They must speak up before the silence becomes deafening.

Judging from their reaction during the graduation and after, many of those with diplomas were already radical in their outlook, believing in the need to fight for their clients or patients instead of merely serving them. Some, who through emotion thanked us for the speech, said they were now ready to change their world and we fully believed them.

As author and writer Derrick Bell plainly put it: “Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” Those students are now out in a world starving for reform, equity, and understanding, radicalized in their empathy for others and determined to bring them compassionate justice.  Fanshawe had served them well.