MESSENGERS OF THE ERA
I’ve been curating commencement speeches for thirty years and would like to offer a few words to current speakers.
Right away you have a dramatic challenge: the attitudinal transformation of your audience over these last few years. Students across the world are concerned that their future seems increasingly challenging. Many are, in fact, angry that we, their parents and grandparents, have fostered almost irredeemable catastrophes. We have failed environmentally, politically, socially, morally, and spiritually. Even our air and water are threatened – not to mention we still stockpile weapons that could destroy life on Earth in minutes.
Only the most myopic and self-serving perceive a comfortable and safe future. 2022 graduates faced the harshest reality of any generation in history, more sobering than even the darkest days of World Wars I and II, which essentially were assaults on human dignity, kindness and common sense but did not threaten the habitability of the planet itself.
So now, the context for a graduation speech has changed severely. The reason is precise and unavoidable: if humanity cannot create and agree on solutions to our urgent air, water, food and land crises, graduates may well spend their lives bereft of most blessings now considered “normal.”
Clarion calls for environmental sanity from as far back as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold have been proven real and prescient. Still we cover our ears to scientific fact, not to mention shield our hearts from admitting what a dangerous world we are leaving for our children. In naïve and selfish preference for material welfare at the sacrifice of sustainable life, we are trashing our only home, whistling past the graveyard.
As we lose bees, we destroy the cycle of life. As we heat glaciers, we flood our cities. As we burn coal, we breathe toxins.
Writer Toni Morrison was among the first commencement speakers to address directly the possibility of a diminishing rather than an expanding future. At Wellesley College in May 2004, she stated: “…I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future.”
Environmentalist Paul Hawken followed suit in May 2009 at the University of Portland: “You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”
And Professor E. O. Wilson in May 2011 at the University of North Carolina added: “… this is the time we either will settle down as a species or completely wreck the planet.”
Now, in 2022, this is nothing less than a planetary reckoning. The world may be finally waking to the emergency. In fact, forefront nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee (aiding refugees in crisis) and Ashoka (supporting systemic social change) work at nothing less than sustaining humanity’s viable existence on Earth.
So as you compose your remarks, please consider that you, in effect, are the messengers of this era. Since many speeches now find traction on the Internet, your potential audience has expanded exponentially, making it even less worthy to hide behind the insulting simplicity of bromides and platitudes.
Make no mistake: students worldwide are hearing the sirens. They want to know how to lead transformative change. You have a unique opportunity to help them analyze and clarify the challenges ahead.
So no matter your chosen core message, no matter the style of your delivery, please offer the next generation – and all of us – insight, inspiration and wisdom about how to rescue our awesome but fragile home in these next few crucial years of human evolution.
No pressure there!
~ by Tony Balis
Though some of these speeches below were given decades ago, they are as relevant and important, perhaps increasingly so, as the more current ones. We encourage you to read with abandon and an open heart, recognizing and celebrating your own constant commencement into tomorrow, finding ways to place it firmly within the context of progress for all humankind.
In fact, here’s a terrific video, made in 2017, by Nimo Patel, Nipun Mehta and folks from all over the world, that says it all well: http://www.dailygood.org/story/1597/graduation-a-song-and-speech-for-the….
P.S. I sometimes am asked for the Top Ten Commencement Speeches of All Time. These ten work well as a menu of reflection on how each of us, no matter age or circumstance, might magnify our life.
1/ David Foster Wallace “Real Freedom?” Kenyon 2005
2/ J. K. Rowling “Failure and Imagination” Harvard 2008
3/ Paul Hawken ”The Earth is Hiring” Portland 2009
4/ Barbara Kingsolver “Your Money or Your LIfe” Duke 2008
5/ Steve Jobs “Find What You Love” Stanford 2005
6/ Bono “That’s Not a Cause. That’s an Emergency.” Penn 2004
7/ Vaclav Havel “Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility” Harvard 1995
8/ Toni Morrison “Be Your Own Story” Wellesley 2004
9/ Neil Gaiman “Make Good Art” University of the Arts 2012
10/ George Saunders “Becoming Kinder” Syracuse 2013
Now onward to the speeches:
- Jacinda Ardern, Harvard University, 2022 (Her speech video is directly below. Others have the link in this menu, with full text included below.)
- Oprah Winfrey, University of Southern California, 2018 https://annenberg.usc.edu/news/commencement/oprah-winfrey-urges-usc-annenberg-graduates-seek-truth
- Matt Damon, MIT, 2016 http://news.mit.edu/2016/commencement-day-0603
- Donovan Livingston, Harvard University (Class Day), 2016 https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/16/05/lift
- Michelle Obama, Tuskegee Institute, 2015 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/05/12/michelle-obamas-forceful-speech-on-race-at-tuskegee-university/
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
May 26, 2022
E oku manukura, nga pou haemata o te ngahere.
e Piko o Te Mahuri, tera te tipu o te rakau.
E tipu, e rea, ka puta, ka ora.
Tena koutou katoa.
Governing Boards and deans,
And most importantly, graduates.
In Te Reo Māori, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, I paid tribute to all of the esteemed guests who stand here in this great forest of knowledge. It is a privilege to be here, and I thank you for the honour.
There are some moments in life that make the world feel small and connected.
This is not one of them.
I am used to walking into a room in New Zealand and knowing at least someone. It is one of the beautiful and comforting aspects of living in a small country.
And while this moment feels incredibly daunting to me right now, I do take comfort knowing there are around 30 New Zealanders studying here, and statistically at least one of them will be my cousin.
But then there are some moments that serve to remind you, that despite distance, despite vastly different histories and experiences, there are many things that connect us.
In June 1989 the Prime Minister of Pakistan stood on this spot and delivered the commencement address: titled “Democratic nations must unite.”
She spoke about her journey, the importance of citizenry, representative government, human rights, and democracy.
I met Benazir Bhutto in Geneva in June of 2007. We both attended a conference that drew together progressive parties from around the world. Just seven months later she was assassinated.
There will be opinions and differing perspectives written about all of us as political leaders. Two things that history will not contest about Benazir Bhutto. She was the first Muslim female Prime Minister elected in an Islamic country, when a woman in power was a rare thing. She was also the first to give birth in office.
The second and only other leader to have given birth in office almost 30 years later, was me.
My daughter, Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, was born on the 21st of June 2018.
Benazir Bhutto’s birthday.
The path she carved as a woman feels as relevant today as it was decades ago, and so too is the message she shared here. In this place.
She said part way through her speech in 1989 the following:
“We must realise that democracy… can be fragile.”
I read those words as I sat in my office in Wellington, New Zealand. A world away from Pakistan. And while the reasons that gave rise for her words then were vastly different, they still ring true.
Democracy can be fragile.
This imperfect but precious way that we organise ourselves, that has been created to give equal voice to the weak and to the strong, that is designed to help drive consensus – it is fragile.
For years it feels as though we have assumed that the fragility of democracy was determined by duration. That somehow the strength of your democracy was like a marriage – the longer you’d been in it, the more likely it was to stick.
But that takes so much for granted.
It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government – and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.
It ignores that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue, and that even the oldest regimes can seek to control these forums, and the youngest can seek to liberate them.
It ignores what happens, when regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested – when facts are turned into fiction, and fiction turned into fact, you stop debating ideas and you start debating conspiracy.
It ignores the reality of what we are now being confronted by every single day.
Where I come from, we have a parliamentary representative democracy. Without giving you a litany of fun facts on New Zealand you’re unlikely to need again – here’s the brief version.
We have a Mixed Member Proportional system, which essentially means every vote counts, and it’s ensured our parliament better reflects our communities. Almost 50 percent of our parliament are women, 20 percent are Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and our Deputy Prime Minister is a proud gay man and sits amongst several other rainbow parliamentarians.
In the past ten years we have passed laws that include everything from the introduction of gay marriage and the banning of conversion therapy, right through to embedding a 1.5 degree climate change target into law, banning military style semi-automatics and assault rifles, and the decriminalisation of abortion.
These are significant issues, and they have not been without debate and difference. But they are all examples of where we have navigated times of deep change, without, for the most part, leaving deep rifts.
But we have also seen the opposite. Whether it’s democratic elections that erupt into violence, or the COVID crisis exposing mistrust of experts, institutions and governments – western democracies are seeing it and experiencing examples and New Zealand is no different.
Now I will admit to some trepidation entering a discussion on how we strengthen our democracies when this issue is so easily and wrongly distorted into being opposed to free speech. But that fear is overshadowed by a greater fear of what will happen to our democracies, if we don’t act to firm up their foundations.
If we don’t find once again our ability to argue our corners, yes with the passion and fire that conviction brings, but without the vitriol, hate and violence.
If we don’t find a way to ensure difference, that space where perspectives, experiences and debate give rise to understanding and compromise, doesn’t instead become division – the place of entrenchment, where dialogue departs, solutions shatter, and a crevice between us becomes so deep that no one dares cross to the other side.
We are at a precipice, and rather than ask what caused it, today I want to talk about how we address it.
Now I am not an academic. I acknowledge, the robes on this occasion aren’t exactly truth in advertising. Rather, I am a politician from Morrinsville. As a point of geographic reference, it’s right next to Hobbiton. I’m not actually joking.
But in that small rural town of 5000 people where I spent most of my formative years and will forever love for what it gave me, I lived in that important space that sits between difference and division.
I was raised a Mormon in a town where the dominant religions were Catholic, Anglican and Rugby. I was a woman interested in politics, left wing politics, in a region that had never in its entire democratic history, elected anyone other than a conservative candidate.
These differences were a part of my identity, but never a source of isolation.
But I am old. And unquestionably, things have changed.
In fact, mine is the generation that sat on the cusp of the internet age.
I remember the first person in my school who had access to the internet. Her name was Fiona Lindsay and her father was the local accountant. After he had shut the office for the day, we would get the key and log onto his massive desktop computers, with screens so wide that the desks were tiered to fit the whole thing in.
It was the 1990s. The interface and even what you used the internet for in those days was different. For a time it was almost as if the directory for this vast landscape didn’t exist. It was a modern ham radio. You would dial in, and talk to someone. Anyone. It was the spontaneity of connection that in some ways mirrored real life.
But as the opportunities to connect expanded, humans did what we have always done. We organised ourselves.
Social media platforms were born offering the promise of connection and reconnection. We logged on in our billions, forming tribes and sub tribes. We published our thoughts, feelings and ideas freely. We found a place to share information, facts, fiction dressed up as facts, memes, and more cat videos than you ever thought possible.
We found a place to experience new ways of thinking and to celebrate our difference.
But increasingly, we use it to do neither of those things.
I doubt anyone has ever created a group titled “political views I disagree with, but choose to enter into respectful dialogue with to better understand alternative perspectives.”
As humans, we are naturally predisposed to reinforce our own views, to gather with people like us and avoid the dreaded sense of cognitive dissonance. We seek validation, confirmation, reinforcement. And increasingly with the help of algorithms, what we seek, we are served, sometimes before we even know we’re looking.
Now I am not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad. It’s a tool. And as with anything, it’s the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matters.
But social media matters a lot. And perhaps, much more than we thought.
On the 15th of March 2019, 51 people were killed in a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The entire brutal act was live-streamed on social media. The royal commission that followed found that the terrorist responsible was radicalised online.
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. But we also knew that if we wanted genuine solutions to the issue of violent extremism online, it would take government, civil society and the tech companies themselves to change the landscape. The result was the Christchurch Call to Action.
And while much has changed as a result, important things haven’t.
The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it.
That means upholding their own basic terms of service.
That means recognising the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments that we’re in. That algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us – what we see and where we are directed – and that at best this means the user experience is personalised and at worst it means it can be radicalised.
It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment.
We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. And we have every reason to do it.
Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms – because the time has come.
But tech companies, they are only part of the answer.
What we do as individuals in these spaces matters too. Our willingness to recognise our own preconceived ideas. The level of critique we apply to what we engage with. And how we uphold our basic sense of humanity when interacting with others.
There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot – keyboard warrior. It’s used to refer to someone who makes aggressive or abusive posts online, often anonymously. I like the name. In my mind, when I read something especially horrific on my feed, I imagine it’s written by a lone person unacquainted with personal hygiene practices, dressed in a poorly fitted super hero costume – one that is baggy in all the wrong places.
Keyboard warrior or not though, it’s still something that has been written by a human, and it’s something that has been read by one too.
I ‘do’ my own social media. I always have. After all, it has been described as the new ‘town square’. But we all know that it’s more than just news and information being shared these days.
Recently I had the privilege of joining ex German Chancellor, Angela Merkel on a panel. I have long been in awe of her leadership, not least for her endurance. She was in power for 16 years. I once asked her how she managed it, her response was “things have changed a lot.” In the panel discussion, she reflected on some of that change, by commenting that: “In the old days we had certain events that happened within our societies, and television reported it, and the next day everyone talked about it.”
Today, even that simple act has changed.
What we consider to be mainstream media outlets have proliferated but ownership structures have not.
Mainstream media have layers of accountabilities and journalistic expectations that others, who also present information to us, don’t.
There is competition for advertising revenue with subscription services and paywalls, all to aid in the survival of the fittest – with fittest now defined by how easy it is to monetise your content.
And in amongst all of that, lies the fact that we’re not just talking about how we access information to inform debate, but whether you can call it information at all.
There are those far more learned than I who will argue where the source of the scourge of disinformation lies.
Within your own campus, you have those who will argue that the current problems of disinformation are not the result of algorithms or trolls, but of “asymmetric media structures decades in the making.”
I am not here to argue either way. Because at its heart, what we are in the middle of isn’t really new.
Thomas Rid argues that the modern era of disinformation began in the early 1920s “during the Great Depression, in an era of journalism transformed by radio, newly cut throat and fast paced” and that what has followed since has come in waves, including in mid-2010, “with disinformation reborn and reshaped by new technologies and internet culture.”
Others point to the acceleration of the information and disinformation flow that comes with each new technology that enables mass duplication and distribution – from photocopiers to cassette tapes. The only thing that has changed perhaps, is speed.
But as Rid concludes, either way, “the stakes are enormous – for disinformation corrodes the foundation of liberal democracy, our ability to assess facts on their merits, and to self-correct accordingly.”
I accept the picture I am painting may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But I am an optimist at heart. And while we cannot change everything about the environment we are in – we can change ourselves.
To build greater strength and resilience, in spite of the headwinds around us.
And I see examples of that every day.
Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson were two young students from a public school in New Zealand called Otorohanga College. They couldn’t understand why every young New Zealander didn’t learn at school about New Zealand history including the New Zealand Wars, the conflict between British and colonial troops and Māori in the 19th century.
These two students pushed for change, presenting a petition to parliament. And they succeeded. Next year, for the first time, our young people are universally learning about their past, their culture, and their history.
But what is important here is not just what our young people learn, but how.
In a disinformation age, we need to learn to analyse and critique information. That doesn’t mean teaching ‘mistrust’, but rather as my old history teacher, Mr Fountain extolled: “to understand the limitations of a single piece of information, and that there is always a range of perspectives on events and decisions.”
Our history shows us the importance of this. But so too does our present.
You are, and will always be surrounded by bias. You will continue to be exposed to disinformation. And overtime, the ‘noise’ you are surrounded by will probably only get worse.
And perhaps that is why, when your own constitution was adopted, Benjamin Franklin was asked what had been created and replied “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If YOU can keep it.
Yes, diversity of voice in mainstream media matters. The responsibility of social media matters. Teaching our kids to deal with disinformation and the role we play as leaders all matters.
But so do you.
How you choose to engage with information, deal with conflict, or confront debate, how you choose to address being baited, or hated – it all matters.
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.
Those values that exist in the space between difference and division. The very things we teach our children, but then view as weakness in our leaders.
The issues we navigate as a society will only intensify. The disinformation will only increase. The pull into the comfort of our tribes will be magnified. But we have it within us to ensure that this doesn’t mean we fracture.
We are the richer for our difference, and poorer for our division.
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.
“Be The Truth!”
Born in a small Mississippi town in 1954, Oprah Winfrey has become an Influential and highly respected talk show host, author, philanthropist, actress and media personality. She plays a key role in modern American life, helping shape cultural trends and fearlessly promoting civil and human rights.
The Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California USA
MAY 11, 2018
Born in a small Mississippi town in 1954, Oprah Winfrey has become an influential and highly respected talk show host, author, philanthropist, actress and media personality. She plays a key role in modern American life, helping shape cultural trends and fearlessly promoting civil and human rights.
Here are some highlights:
“Everything around us, including and in particular the internet and social media, is now being used to erode trust in our institutions, enter fear in our elections, and wreak havoc on our infrastructure. It hands advertisers a map to our deepest desires, it enables misinformation to run rampant, attention spans to run short, and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets. We have literally walked into traffic while staring at our phones.”
“The good news is that there really is a solution. And the solution is each and every one of you, because you will become the new editorial gatekeepers, an ambitious army of truth seekers who will arm yourselves with the intelligence, the insight, and the facts necessary to strike down deceit. You are in a position to keep all of those who now disparage real news … you all are the ones who are going to keep those people in check. Why? Because you can push back, and you can answer false narratives with real information. And you can set the record straight. And you also have the ability and power to give voice … to people who desperately now need to tell their stories and have their stories told.”
“The problem is everyone is meeting hysteria with more hysteria, and we just are all becoming hysterical. And it’s getting worse. What I’ve learned in all these years is that we’re not supposed to match it or even get locked into resisting or pushing against it. We’re supposed to see this moment in time for what it is. We’re supposed to see through it and transcend it. That is how you overcome hysteria, and that is how you overcome the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices, the out and out hatred. You use it. Use this moment to encourage you to embolden you and to literally push you into the rising of your life.”
“So your job now is to take everything you’ve learned here and use what you’ve learned to challenge the left to challenge the right and the center. When you see something, you say something, and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it. Here’s what you have to do: you make the choice every day, every single day, to exemplify honesty. Because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth.”
“The truth exonerates,and it convicts. It disinfects, and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption our shield against greed and despair the truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here … to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth. Be the truth.”
Massachusetts Institute of Techology June 2016
Thank you, President Reif — and thank you, Class of 2016!
It’s an honor to be part of this day — an honor to be here with you, with your friends, your professors, and your parents. But let’s be honest — It’s an honor I didn’t earn.
Let’s just put that out there. I mean, I’ve seen the list of previous commencement speakers: Nobel Prize winners. The UN Secretary General. President of the World Bank. President of the United States. And who did you get? The guy who did the voice for a cartoon horse.
If you’re wondering which cartoon horse: that’s “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”
Definitely one of my best performances … as a cartoon horse.
Look, I don’t even have a college degree. As you might have heard, I went to Harvard. I just didn’t graduate from Harvard. I got pretty close, but I started to get movie roles and didn’t finish all my courses. I put on a cap and gown and walked with my class; my Mom and Dad were there and everything; I just never got an actual degree. You could say I kind of fake graduated.
So you can imagine how excited I was when President Reif called to invite me to speak at the MITcommencement. Then you can imagine how sorry I was to learn that the MIT commencement speaker does not get to go home with a degree. So yes, today, for the second time in my life, I am fake graduating from a college in my hometown.
My Mom and Dad are here again… And this time I brought my wife and four kids. Welcome, kids, to Dad’s fake graduation. You must be so proud.
So as I said, my Mom is here. She’s a professor, so she knows the value of an MIT degree.
She also knows that I couldn’t have gotten in here. I mean, Harvard, yes. Or a safety school — like Yale. No, I couldn’t have gotten in here, but I did grow up here. Grew up in the neighborhood, in the shadow of this imposing place. My brother Kyle and I, and my friend Ben Affleck—brilliant guy, good guy, never really amounted to much — we all grew up here, in Central Square, children of this sometimes rocky marriage between this city and its great institutions.
To us, MIT was kind of The Man … This big, impressive, impersonal force … That was our provincial, knee-jerk, teenage reaction, anyway.
Then Ben and I shot a movie here.
One of the scenes in Good Will Hunting was based on something that actually happened to my brother. Kyle was visiting a physicist we knew at MIT, and he was walking down the Infinite Corridor. He saw those blackboards that line the halls. So my brother, who’s an artist, picked up some chalk and wrote an incredibly elaborate, totally fake, version of an equation.
It was so cool and so completely insane that no one erased it for months. This is true.
Anyway, Kyle came back and he said, you guys, listen to this … They’ve got blackboards running down the hall! Because these kids are so smart they just need to, you know, drop everything and solve problems!
It was then we knew for sure we could never have gotten in. But like I said, we later made a movie here. Which did not go unnoticed on campus. In fact I’d like to read you some actual lines, some selected passages, from the review of Good Will Hunting in the MITschool paper.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, Will was me, and Sean was played by the late Robin Williams, a man I miss a hell of a lot.
So I’m quoting here: “Good Will Hunting is very entertaining; but then again, any movie partially set at MIT has to be.” There’s more. “In the end…,” the reviewer writes, “the actual character development flies out the window. Will and Sean talk, bond, solve each other’s problems, and then cry and hug each other. After said crying and hugging, the movie ends… Such feel-good pretentiousness is definitely not my mug of eggnog.”
Well, this kind of hurts my feelings. But don’t worry: I now know better than to cry at MIT.
But look, I’m happy to be here anyway. I might still be a knee-jerk teenager in key respects, but I know an amazing school when I see it. We’re lucky to have MIT in Boston. And we’re lucky it draws the people it does, people like you, from around the world.
I mean, you’re working on some crazy stuff in these buildings. Stuff that would freak me out if I actually understood it. Theories, models, paradigm shifts. I’ll tell you one that’s been on my mind: Simulation Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you took a class with Max Tegmark.
Well, for the uninitiated, there’s a philosopher named Nick Bostrom at Oxford, and he’s postulated that if there’s a truly advanced form of intelligence out there in the universe, then it’s probably advanced enough to run simulations of entire worlds — maybe trillions of them — maybe even our own.
The basic idea, as I understand it, is that we could be living in a massive simulation run by a far smarter civilization, a giant computer game, and we don’t even know it. And here’s the thing: a lot of physicists, cosmologists, won’t rule it out. I watched a discussion that was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of the Hayden Planetarium, and by and large, the panel couldn’t give a definitive answer. Tyson himself put the odds at 50-50.
I’m not sure how scientific that is, but it had numbers in it, so I was impressed. Well, it got me to thinking: What if this—all of this—is a simulation? I mean, it’s a crazy idea, but what if it is? And if there are multiple simulations, how come we’re in the one where Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee? Can we, like, transfer to a different one?
Professor Tegmark has an excellent take on all this. “My advice,” he said recently, “is to go out and do really interesting things… so the simulators don’t shut you down.”
But then again: what if it isn’t a simulation? Well, either way, my answer is the same.
Either way, what we do matters. What we do affects the outcome.
So either way, MIT, you’ve got to go out and do really interesting things. Important things. Inventive things. Because this world … real or imagined … this world has some problems we need you to drop everything and solve. Go ahead: take your pick from the world’s worst buffet.
Economic inequality, there’s a problem … Or how about the refugee crisis, massive global insecurity … climate change and pandemics … institutional racism … a pull to nativism, fear-driven brains working overtime … here in America and in places like Austria, where a far-right candidate nearly won the presidential election for the first time since World War II.
Or Brexit, for God’s sakes, that insane idea that the best path for Britain is to cut loose from Europe and drift out to sea. Add to that an American political system that’s failing… we’ve got congressmen on a two-year election cycle who are only incentivized to think short term, and simply do not engage with long-term problems.
Add to that a media that thrives on scandal and people with their pants down … Anything to get you to tune in so they can hawk you products that you don’t need.
And add to that a banking system that steals people’s money. Like I said, I’m never running for office!
But while I’m on this, let me say this to the bankers who brought you the biggest heist in history: It was theft and you knew it. It was fraud and you knew it.
And you know what else? We know that you knew it.
And yeah, OK, you sort of got away with it. You got that house in the Hamptons that other people paid for … as their own mortgages went underwater.
Well, you might have their money, but you don’t have our respect.
Just so you know, when we pass you on the street and look you in the eye … that’s what we’re thinking.
I don’t know if justice is coming for you in this life or the next. But if justice does come for you in this life … her name is Elizabeth Warren.
OK, so before my banking digression, I rattled off a bunch of big problems.
And a natural response is to tune out, turn away.
But before you step out into our big, troubled world, I want to pass along a piece of advice that Bill Clinton offered me a little over a decade ago. Well, actually, when he said it, it felt less like advice and more like a direct order.
What he said was “turn toward the problems you see.”
It seemed kind of simple at the time, but the older I get, the more wisdom I see in this.
And that’s what I want to urge you to do today: turn toward the problems you see.
And don’t just turn toward them. Engage with them. Walk right up to them, look them in the eye … then look yourself in the eye and decide what you’re going to do about them.
In my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually going and seeing things.
I owe this insight, like many others, to my Mom. When I was a teenager, Mom thought it was important for us to see the world outside of Boston. And I don’t mean Framingham. She took us to places like Guatemala, where we saw extreme poverty up close. It changed my whole frame of reference.
I think it was that same impulse that took my brother and me to Zambia in 2006, as part of the ONECampaign — the organization that Bono founded to fight desperate, stupid poverty and preventable disease in the developing world. On that trip, in a small community, I met a girl and walked with her to a nearby bore well where she could get clean water.
She had just come from school. And I knew the reason that she was able to go to school at all: clean water. Namely, the fact that clean water was available nearby, so she didn’t have to walk miles back and forth all day to get water for her family, as so many girls and women do.
I asked her if she wanted to stay in her village when she grew up. She said, “No! I want to go to Lusaka and become a nurse!”
Clean water — something as basic as that — had given this child the chance to dream.
As I learned more about water and sanitation, I was floored by the extent to which it undergirds all these problems of extreme poverty. The fate of entire communities, economies, countries is caught up in that glass of water, something the rest of us get to take for granted.
People at ONE told me that water is the least sexy aspect of the effort to fight extreme poverty. And water goes hand-in-hand with sanitation. If you think water isn’t sexy, you should try to get into the shit business.
But I was already hooked. The enormity of it, and the complexity of the issue, had already hooked me. And getting out in the world and meeting people like this little girl is what put me on the path to starting Water.org, with a brilliant civil engineer named Gary White.
For Gary and me both, seeing the world … its problems, its possibilities … heightened our disbelief that so many people, millions, in fact, can’t get a safe, clean drink of water or a safe, clean, private place to go to the bathroom. And it heightened our determination to do something about it.
You see some tough things out there. But you also see life- changing joy. And it all changes you.
There was a refugee crisis back in ’09 that I read about in an amazing article in the New York Times. People were streaming across the border of Zimbabwe to a little town in northern South Africa called Messina. I was working in South Africa, so I went up to Messina to see for myself what was going on.
I spent a day speaking with women who had made this perilous journey across the Limpopo River, dodging bandits on one side, crocodiles in the river, and bandits on the other. Every woman I spoke to that day had been raped. Every single one. On one side of the river or both.
At the end of my time there I met a woman who was so positive, so joyful. She had just been given her papers and had been given political asylum in South Africa. And in the midst of this joyful conversation, I mustered up the courage and said, “Ma’am, do you mind my asking: were you assaulted on your journey to South Africa?”
And she replied, still smiling, “Oh, yes, I was raped. But I have my papers now. And those bastards didn’t get my dignity.”
Human beings will take your breath away. They will teach you a lot… but you have to engage.
I only had that experience because I went there myself. It was horrible in many ways, it was hard to get to … but of course that’s the point.
There’s a lot of trouble out there, MIT. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. I hope you see both.
But again, the point is not to become some kind of well- rounded, high-minded voyeur.
The point is to try to eliminate your blind spots — the things that keep us from grasping the bigger picture. And look, even though I grew up in this neighborhood — in this incredible, multicultural neighborhood that was a little rough at that time — I find myself here before you as an American, white, male movie star. I don’t have a clue where my blind spots begin and end.
But looking at the world as it is, and engaging with it, is the first step toward finding our blind spots. And that’s when we can really start to understand ourselves better … and begin to solve some problems.
With that as your goal, there’s a few more things I hope you’ll keep in mind.
First, you’re going to fail sometimes, and that’s a good thing.
For all the amazing successes I’ve been lucky to share in, few things have shaped me more than the auditions that Ben and I used to do as young actors — where we would get on a bus, show up in New York, wait for our turn, cry our hearts out for a scene, and then be told, “OK, thanks.” Meaning: game over.
We used to call it “being OK thanksed.”
Those experiences became our armor.
So now you’re thinking, that’s great, Matt. Failure is good. Thanks a ton. Tell me something I didn’t hear at my high school graduation.
To which I say: OK, I will!
You know the real danger for MIT graduates? It’s not getting “OK thanksed.” The real danger is all that smoke that’s been blown up your … graduation gowns about how freaking smart you are.
Well, you are that freaking smart! But don’t believe the hype that’s thrown at you. You don’t have all the answers. And you shouldn’t. And that’s fine.
You’re going to have your share of bad ideas.
For me, one was playing a character named “Edgar Pudwhacker.”
I wish I could tell you I’m making that up.
But as the great philosopher, Benjamin Affleck, once said: “Judge me by how good my good ideas are, not by how bad my bad ideas are.” You’ve got to suit up in your armor, and get ready to sound like a total fool.
Not having an answer isn’t embarrassing. It’s an opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I know so much less the second time I’m fake graduating than the first time.
The second thing I want to leave you with is that you’ve got to keep listening.
The world wants to hear your ideas — good and bad. But today’s not the day you switch from “receive” to “transmit.” Once you do that, your education is over. And your education should never be over. Even outside your work, there are ways to keep challenging yourself. Listen to online lectures. I just retook a philosophy course online that I took at Harvard when I was nineteen. Or use MITOpenCourseWare. Go to Wait But Why … or TED.com.
I’m told there’s even a Trump University. I have no earthly idea what they teach there. But whatever you do, just keep listening. Even to people you don’t agree with at all.
I love what President Obama said at Howard University’s commencement last month: he said, “Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.”
I heard that and I thought: here is a man who has been happily married for a long time.
Not that the First Lady has ever been wrong about anything.
Just like my wife. Never wrong. Not even when she decided last month that in a family with four kids, what was missing in our lives was a third rescue dog.
That was an outstanding decision, honey. And I love you.
The third and last thought I want to leave you with is that not every problem has a high-tech solution. I guess this is obvious. But: it is really?
If anybody has a right to think we can pretty much tech support the world’s problems into submission, it’s you. Think of the innovations that got their start at MIT or by MIT alums: the World Wide Web. Nuclear fission. Condensed soup. (This is true! You should be proud.)
But the truth is, we can’t science the shit out of every problem.
There is not always a freaking app for that.
Take water again as an example. People are always looking for some scientific quick fix for the problem of dirty and disease-ridden water. A “pill you put in the glass,” a filter, or something like that. But there’s no magic bullet. The problem’s too complex.
Yes, there is definitely, absolutely a role for science. There’s incredible advances being made in clean water technology. Companies and universities are getting in on the game. I’m glad to know that professors like Susan Mercott at D-Lab are focusing on water and sanitation.
But as I’m sure she’d agree, science alone can’t solve this problem. We need to be just as innovative in public policy, just as innovative in our financial models. That’s the idea behind an approach we have at Water.org called WaterCredit.
WaterCredit is based on Gary White’s insight that poor people were already paying for their water and they, no less than the rest of us, want to participate in their own solutions. So WaterCredit helps connect the poor with microfinance organizations, which enables them to build water connections and toilets in their homes and communities. The approach is working — helping 4 million people so far — and this is only the start.
Our loans are paying back at over 99 percent. Which is a hell of a better deal than those bankers I was talking about earlier.
I agree it’s still not sexy… but it is without a doubt the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
So, graduates, let me ask you this in closing: What do you want to be a part of? What’s the problem you’ll try to solve? Whatever your answer, it’s not going to be easy. Sometimes your work will hit a dead-end. Sometimes your work will be measured in half-steps.
And sometimes your work will make you wear a white sequined military uniform and make love to Michael Douglas.
Well, maybe that’s just my work.
But for all of you here, your work starts today.
And seriously, how lucky are you?
I mean, what are the odds that you’re the ones who are here today?
In the Earth’s 4.5 billion year run, with 100 billion people who have lived and died, and with 7 billion of us here now … Here you are. Yes, here you are … alive at a time of potential extinction-level events … a time when fewer and fewer people can cause more and more damage … a time when science and technology may not hold all the answers, but are indispensable to any solution.
What are the odds that you get to be you, right now, The MIT class of 2016, with so much on the line?
There are potentially trillions of human beings who will someday exist whose fate, in large part, depends on the choices you make … on your ideas … on your grit and persistence and willingness to engage.
If this were a movie I were trying to pitch I’d be laughed out of every office in Hollywood.
Joseph Campbell himself — he of the “monomyth,” the ultimate hero’s journey — even he wouldn’t even go this far. Campbell would tell me to throttle this down … lower the stakes.
But I can’t. Because this is fact, not fiction. This improbable thing is actually happening. There’s more at stake today than in any story ever told. And how lucky you are — and how lucky we are — that you’re here, and you’re you.
So I hope you’ll turn toward the problem of your choosing … Because you must.
I hope you’ll drop everything … Because you must And I hope you’ll solve it. Because you must.
This is your life, Class of 2016. This is your moment, and it’s all down to you.
Ready player one. Your game begins: now. Congratulations and thanks very much!
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
MAY 25, 2016
Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin,
Is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” – Horace Mann, 1848.
At the time of his remarks I couldn’t read — couldn’t write.
Any attempt to do so, punishable by death.
For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.
Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys —
The guardians of information.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen more dividing and conquering
In this order of operations — a heinous miscalculation of reality.
For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time.
How many times must we be made to feel like quotas —
Like tokens in coined phrases? —
There are days I feel like one, like only —
A lonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises.
But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice.
Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction.
With a passion that transcends the confines of my consciousness —
Beyond your curriculum, beyond your standards.
I stand here, a manifestation of love and pain,
With veins pumping revolution.
I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree.
I am a DREAM Act, Dream Deferred incarnate.
I am a movement – an amalgam of memories America would care to forget
My past, alone won’t allow me to sit still.
So my body, like the mind
Cannot be contained.
As educators, rather than raising your voices
Over the rustling of our chains,
Take them off. Un-cuff us.
Unencumbered by the lumbering weight
Of poverty and privilege,
Policy and ignorance.
I was in the 7th grade, when Ms. Parker told me,
“Donovan, we can put your excess energy to good use!”
And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.
She gave me a stage. A platform.
She told me that our stories are ladders
That make it easier for us to touch the stars.
So climb and grab them.
Keep climbing. Grab them.
Spill your emotions in the big dipper and pour out your soul.
Light up the world with your luminous allure.
To educate requires Galileo-like patience.
Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations.
If you take the time to connect the dots,
You can plot the true shape of their genius —
Shining in their darkest hour.
I look each of my students in the eyes,
And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt
And the pyramids of Giza.
I see the same twinkle
That guided Harriet to freedom.
I see them. Beneath their masks and mischief,
Exists an authentic frustration;
An enslavement to your standardized assessments.
At the core, none of us were meant to be common.
We were born to be comets,
Darting across space and time —
Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.
A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here —
An indelible impact that shook up the world.
Are we not astronomers — looking for the next shooting star?
I teach in hopes of turning content, into rocket ships —
Tribulations into telescopes,
So a child can see their potential from right where they stand.
An injustice is telling them they are stars
Without acknowledging night that surrounds them.
Injustice is telling them education is the key
While you continue to change the locks.
Education is no equalizer —
Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
So wake up — wake up! Lift your voices
Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.
Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.
I’ve been a Black hole in the classroom for far too long;
Absorbing everything, without allowing my light escape.
But those days are done. I belong among the stars.
And so do you. And so do they.
Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
For generations to come.
No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.
“You’ve Got It”
Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama USA
MAY 9, 2015
Michelle Obama is First Lady of the United States.
Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama USA
MAY 9, 2015
Thank you all. Thank you so much. Let’s let our graduates rest themselves. You’ve worked hard for those seats!
Let me start by thanking President Johnson for that very gracious introduction, and for awarding me with this honorary degree from an extraordinary institution. I am proud to have this degree – very proud. Thank you. Thank you so much.
I want to recognize Major General Williams; Congresswoman Sewell; Zachary; Kalauna; to all of the trustees, the faculty, the staff here at Tuskegee University. Thank you – thank you so much for this warm welcome, this tremendous hospitality. And I’m so glad to be here.
Before I begin, I just want to say that my heart goes out to everyone who knew and loved Eric Marks, Jr. I understand he was such a talented young man, a promising aerospace engineer who was well on his way to achieving his dream of following in the footsteps of the Tuskegee Airmen. And Eric was taken from us far too soon. And our thoughts and prayers will continue to be with his family, his friends, and this entire community.
I also have to recognize the Concert Choir. Wow, you guys are good! Well done! Beautiful song. And I have to join in recognizing all the folks up in the stands – the parents, siblings, friends – so many others who have poured their love and support into these graduates every step of the way. Yeah, this is your day. Your day.
Now, on this day before Mother’s Day, I’ve got to give a special shout-out to all the moms here. Yay, moms! And I want you to consider this as a public service announcement for anyone who hasn’t bought the flowers or the cards or the gifts yet – all right? I’m trying to cover you. But remember that one rule is “keep mom happy.” All right?
And finally, most of all, I want to congratulate the men and women of the Tuskegee University Class of 2015! T-U!
I love that. We can do that all day. I’m so proud of you all. And you look good. Well done!
You all have come here from all across the country to study, to learn, maybe have a little fun along the way – from freshman year in Adams or Younge Hall – to those late night food runs to The Coop. I did my research. To those mornings you woke up early to get a spot under The Shed to watch the Golden Tigers play. Yeah! I’ve been watching! At the White House we have all kinds of ways.
And whether you played sports yourself, or sang in the choir, or played in the band, or joined a fraternity or sorority – after today, all of you will take your spot in the long line of men and women who have come here and distinguished themselves and this university.
You will follow alums like many of your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles – leaders like Robert Robinson Taylor, a groundbreaking architect and administrator here who was recently honored on a postage stamp. You will follow heroes like Dr. Boynton Robinson – who survived the billy clubs and the tear gas of Bloody Sunday in Selma. The story of Tuskegee is full of stories like theirs – men and women who came to this city, seized their own futures, and wound up shaping the arc of history for African Americans and all Americans.
And I’d like to begin today by reflecting on that history – starting back at the time when the Army chose Tuskegee as the site of its airfield and flight school for black pilots.
Back then, black soldiers faced all kinds of obstacles. There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men’s brains were smaller than white men’s. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were “childlike,” “shiftless,” “unmoral and untruthful,” and as one quote stated, “if fed, loyal and compliant.”
So while the Airmen selected for this program were actually highly educated – many already had college degrees and pilots licenses – they were presumed to be inferior. During training, they were often assigned to menial tasks like housekeeping or landscaping. Many suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their instructors. When they ventured off base, the white sheriff here in town called them “boy” and ticketed them for the most minor offenses. And when they finally deployed overseas, white soldiers often wouldn’t even return their salutes.
Just think about what that must have been like for those young men. Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day – flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart. Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody – as if their very existence meant nothing.
Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings. But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely – surely – they could eat at a lunch counter together. Surely their kids could go to school together.
You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a “double duty” – one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans.
One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way. He said that a takeoff was – in his words – “a never-failing miracle” where all “the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.”
And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here – the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them – to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.
And in so many ways, that never-failing miracle – the constant work to rise above the bumps in our path to greater freedom for our brothers and sisters – that has always been the story of African Americans here at Tuskegee.
Just think about the arc of this university’s history. Back in the late 1800s, the school needed a new dormitory, but there was no money to pay for it. So Booker T. Washington pawned his pocket watch to buy a kiln, and students used their bare hands to make bricks to build that dorm – and a few other buildings along the way.
A few years later, when George Washington Carver first came here for his research, there was no laboratory. So he dug through trash piles and collected old bottles, and tea cups, and fruit jars to use in his first experiments.
Generation after generation, students here have shown that same grit, that same resilience to soar past obstacles and outrages – past the threat of countryside lynchings; past the humiliation of Jim Crow; past the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. And then they went on to become scientists, engineers, nurses and teachers in communities all across the country – and continued to lift others up along the way.
And while the history of this campus isn’t perfect, the defining story of Tuskegee is the story of rising hopes and fortunes for all African Americans.
And now, graduates, it’s your turn to take up that cause. And let me tell you, you should feel so proud of making it to this day. And I hope that you’re excited to get started on that next chapter. But I also imagine that you might think about all that history, all those heroes who came before you – you might also feel a little pressure, you know – pressure to live up to the legacy of those who came before you; pressure to meet the expectations of others.
And believe me, I understand that kind of pressure. I’ve experienced a little bit of it myself. You see, graduates, I didn’t start out as the fully-formed First Lady who stands before you today. No, no, I had my share of bumps along the way.
Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover – it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.
Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a “terrorist fist jab.” And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited “a little bit of uppity-ism.“ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s “cronies of color.” Cable news once charmingly referred to me as “Obama’s Baby Mama.”
And of course, Barack has endured his fair share of insults and slights. Even today, there are still folks questioning his citizenship.
And all of this used to really get to me. Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom.
But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself – and the rest would work itself out.
So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about?
And the answers to those questions have resulted in the woman who stands before you today. A woman who is, first and foremost, a mom. Look, I love our daughters more than anything in the world, more than life itself. And while that may not be the first thing that some folks want to hear from an Ivy-league educated lawyer, it is truly who I am. So for me, being Mom-in-Chief is, and always will be, job number one.
Next, I’ve always felt a deep sense of obligation to make the biggest impact possible with this incredible platform. So I took on issues that were personal to me – issues like helping families raise healthier kids, honoring the incredible military families I’d met on the campaign trail, inspiring our young people to value their education and finish college.
Now, some folks criticized my choices for not being bold enough. But these were my choices, my issues. And I decided to tackle them in the way that felt most authentic to me – in a way that was both substantive and strategic, but also fun and, hopefully, inspiring.
So I immersed myself in the policy details. I worked with Congress on legislation, gave speeches to CEOs, military generals and Hollywood executives. But I also worked to ensure that my efforts would resonate with kids and families – and that meant doing things in a creative and unconventional way. So, yeah, I planted a garden, and hula-hooped on the White House Lawn with kids. I did some Mom Dancing on TV. I celebrated military kids with Kermit the Frog. I asked folks across the country to wear their alma mater’s T-shirts for College Signing Day.
And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting – all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.
So, graduates, that’s what I want for all of you. I want you all to stay true to the most real, most sincere, most authentic parts of yourselves. I want you to ask those basic questions: Who do you want to be? What inspires you? How do you want to give back? And then I want you to take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world.
Maybe it feels like you’re supposed to go to law school – but what you really want to do is to teach little kids. Maybe your parents are expecting you to come back home after you graduate – but you’re feeling a pull to travel the world. I want you to listen to those thoughts. I want you to act with both your mind, but also your heart. And no matter what path you choose, I want you to make sure it’s you choosing it, and not someone else.
Because here’s the thing – the road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.
The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day – the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives – the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” – and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day – those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen – for some folks, it will never be enough.
And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter – that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.
But, graduates, today, I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.
But here’s the thing – our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together – then we can build ourselves and our communities up. We can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together – together – we can overcome anything that stands in our way.
And the first thing we have to do is vote. Hey, no, not just once in a while. Not just when my husband or somebody you like is on the ballot. But in every election at every level, all of the time. Because here is the truth – if you want to have a say in your community, if you truly want the power to control your own destiny, then you’ve got to be involved. You got to be at the table. You’ve got to vote, vote, vote, vote. That’s it; that’s the way we move forward. That’s how we make progress for ourselves and for our country.
That’s what’s always happened here at Tuskegee. Think about those students who made bricks with their bare hands. They did it so that others could follow them and learn on this campus, too. Think about that brilliant scientist who made his lab from a trash pile. He did it because he ultimately wanted to help sharecroppers feed their families. Those Airmen who rose above brutal discrimination – they did it so the whole world could see just how high black folks could soar. That’s the spirit we’ve got to summon to take on the challenges we face today.
And you don’t have to be President of the United States to start addressing things like poverty, and education, and lack of opportunity. Graduates, today – today, you can mentor a young person and make sure he or she takes the right path. Today, you can volunteer at an after-school program or food pantry. Today, you can help your younger cousin fill out her college financial aid form so that she could be sitting in those chairs one day. But just like all those folks who came before us, you’ve got to do something to lay the groundwork for future generations.
That pilot I mentioned earlier – Charles DeBow – he didn’t rest on his laurels after making history. Instead, after he left the Army, he finished his education. He became a high school English teacher and a college lecturer. He kept lifting other folks up through education. He kept fulfilling his “double duty” long after he hung up his uniform.
And, graduates, that’s what we need from all of you. We need you to channel the magic of Tuskegee toward the challenges of today. And here’s what I really want you to know – you have got everything you need to do this. You’ve got it in you. Because even if you’re nervous or unsure about what path to take in the years ahead, I want you to realize that you’ve got everything you need right now to succeed. You’ve got it.
You’ve got the knowledge and the skills honed here on this hallowed campus. You’ve got families up in the stands who will support you every step of the way. And most of all, you’ve got yourselves – and all of the heart, and grit, and smarts that got you to this day.
And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country. And as the years pass, you’ll feel the same freedom that Charles DeBow did when he was taking off in that airplane. You will feel the bumps smooth off. You’ll take part in that “never-failing miracle” of progress. And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world – free.
God bless you, graduates. I can’t wait to see how high you soar. Love you all. Very proud. Thank you.