Hi, everybody. Thank you for that beautiful introduction. I could not be more proud of everything you have done in your time with the Obama foundation. And, of course, I could not be more proud of all of you in the graduating class of 2020, as well as the teachers and coaches and most of all, parents and family who have guided you along the way.
Now, graduating is a big achievement under any achievement under any circumstance. Some of you have had to overcome serious obstacles along the way, whether it was illness, or a parent losing a job, or living in a neighborhood where people too often count you out.
Along with the usual challenges of growing up, all of you have had to deal with the added pressure of social media, reports of school shootings, and the specter of climate change.
And then, just as you are about to celebrate having made it through, just as you have been looking forward to proms and senior nights, graduation ceremonies, and let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties, the world is turned upside down by global pandemics. I know as much as you love your parents, the thought of being stuck at home with them, watching boardgames or Tiger King on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year.
Now, I will be honest with you. The disappointment of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick. I don’t remember much of my own high school graduation. I know that not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad. My speeches usually go on way too long. Also, not that many people look great in those caps especially if you have big ears like me. And, you will have plenty of time to catch up with your friends once the immediate public health crisis is over.
But, what remains true, is that your graduation marks your passage to adulthood, the time when you begin to take charge of your own life, is when you get to decide what is important to you. What kind of career you want to pursue, who you want to build a family with. The values you want to live by. And, given the current state of the world, that might be scary. If you planned on going away for college, getting dropped off at campus in the fall, that is no longer a given. If you are planning to work while going to school, finding that first job is going to be tough.
Even families that are relatively well-off are dealing with massive uncertainty. Those who are struggling before, are hanging on by a thread.
All of which means that you are going to have to grow up faster than some generations. This pandemic has shaken off the status grow and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems. From massive economic inequality, two ongoing racial disparities, to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it. It has become a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work. That it does not matter how much money you make, if everyone around you is hungry and sick. And, that our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.
It has also pulled the back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing, it turns out they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world is going to get better, it’s up to you. That realization may be kind of intimidating. But, I hope it is also inspiring. With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you “you are too young to understand,” or “this is how it has always been done.” Because, with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation world to shape.
Since I am one of the old guys, I won’t tell you what to do with this power, that rest in your hands, but I will leave you with three quick pieces of advice. First, don’t be afraid. America has gone through tough times before. Slavery, civil war, famine, disease. The great depression, and 9/11. And each time, we came out stronger. Usually, because a new generation, young people like you, learn from past mistakes, and figured out how to make things better. Second, do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what is convenient, what’s easy, that’s how most kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so- called grown-ups included some with fancy titles and important jobs still think that way. Which is why things are so screwed up.
I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself and values that last. Like honesty, hard work, and responsibility. Fairness, and generosity. Respect for others. You won’t get it right every time. You’ll make mistakes, we all do. But, if you listen to the truth inside yourself, even when it is hard, even when it is inconvenient. People will notice. They will gravitate towards you, and you will be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. And finally, build a community. No one does big things by themselves.
Right now, when people are scared it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, my family, or people who look and think or pray like me. But, if we are going to get through these difficult times, if we are going to take a world where everybody has opportunity to find a job, and for college, if we are going to save the environment, and defeat future pandemics, then we are going to have to do it together.
So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us, sexism, racial prejudice, status and greed, and set the world on a different path. When you need help, Michelle and I have made the mission of our foundation, to give young people like you the skills and the support to leading your own community, and to connect you with other young leaders around the country, and around the globe.
But, the truth is, you don’t need us to tell you what to do, because, in so many ways, you have already started to lead.
Congratulations class of 2020. Keep making us proud.