Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement
Thank you President Botstein, Provost Marcy, Chair Fisher, members of the Board, and a faculty I know and love.
As was just mentioned, I’m now working for the man. And it’s been my privilege in that capacity to travel the country and talk to young people a lot these last few months. The State Department has sent me. And the White House has sent me. And at schools and community centers across the country I have been introduced with the lines “and from the White House we have…” And then I walk on. And I look into their eyes. And I feel the weight of their crushing disappointment. So let me just clarify something difficult up front:
I am not Barack Obama.
Easy mistake to make.
Look at it this way, you have to be disappointed I’m not Barack Obama for 20 minutes, I have to be disappointed I’m not Barack Obama every day.
So I’m used to apologizing for whom I’m not. And I’m guessing at one point or another, every one of my peers here in this audience have gotten a little too used to apologizing for what they’re not. Not cool enough. Not credentialed enough. Not pretty enough, or strong enough. Not old enough.
Maybe you’re saying that to the world, maybe it’s just a little voice in your head saying that. But we’ve all been there.
I’ve spent my life learning from, being humbled by, people who defy that voice, and the larger voice of society telling them to know their place; to pipe down and wait their turn; to stay in their expected box; or to move at the standard pace the world expects you to.
Yahia's entire family was slaughtered. He survived by hiding among the corpses of his relatives. "I waited with the bodies for hours. And then the bombs started falling around me," Yahia said, gesturing to indicate the falling explosives often unleashed by Sudan government planes in support of Janjaweed attacks. When it was over, he walked seven hours, alone, across the desert before encountering the rebel troops he still calls his family.
Like many other child soldiers among their ranks, Yahia says he was eager to take up arms. “I have no way to be heard but to fight,” he told me.
It is a sentiment I heard echoed in countries across the world, and that I now hear in my current job in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Young people are at ready to be involved in political solutions – using whatever tools available.
But the exciting thing is those tools are changing. It’s not just Kalashnikovs any more. We are seeing young people in tremendously difficult circumstances turn to peaceful tools for reform: to Facebook, to Twitter, to nonviolent protest. The events of recent months, as youth-driven revolutions have swept the Arab world, are a testament to the power of youthful revolution to be not only powerful, but also peaceful.
Now the comforting thing I’ve found coming to the US Government is that America is listening. It is a personal lifelong passion for my boss, Secretary Clinton, who has spent a career championing the rights of children and young people. And it is a priority for our President, who said in his seminal Cairo speech, “to young people of every faith, in every country - you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.”
That’s a truth I’d echo. Now, more then ever, young people are at the very core of changing world events. You are at the core of changing world events.
That is why I’m happy that, at the State Department, Secretary Clinton has launched an unprecedented youth policy taskforce, aimed at refocusing our efforts to engage with young people around the world. Under Secretaries Judith McHale and Maria Otero, both vocal advocates of youth rights themselves, have been championing this, and the lead working group has been led by myself and the head of education at the US Agency for International Development. So we’ve gotten together all the agencies of the US government, and we’re looking at how we can leave behind a legacy with this administration that elevates youth engagement to a level of seriousness it hasn’t occupied before.
This is a moment when our leadership is genuinely prioritizing listening to young voices.
And I would urge you: respond to that challenge. Don’t wait. The future is now, and I am now, and you are now. And we can make a difference for a better now. People are listening – the ball’s in your court.
I look out at this room and I’m excited. Because I see a group of young men and women who are already a part of that moment. Young men and women who have been given the incredible gift of this community, and this institution that is designed around the theme of giving young people the tools they need, when they need them. And a room of people who have already heard that voice - in their heads, from their peers, from their teachers - telling them to slow down, to play it safe, to move at the usual pace, and who said: “you know what – I’m not going to bow to the normal. I’m going to take a leap that’s unusual, and I’m going to do what’s right for me, to have the biggest impact I can with my life right now.”
People like Chanese Forté, who’s graduating here today with a degree in pre-medicine and cognitive psychology. Chanese has been a driving force behind the Pre-Med Society on campus, organizing campus blood drives and rallying others to her cause. Every day I draw strength from those people who are taking the gifts they were given, those gifts Yahia did not receive, and turning them into gifts for the world.
Sometimes you find that lesson in unexpected places. In Kabul, Afghanistan, in the relative luxury of my US Embassy “hooch” – basically a 6’ by 17’ steel box - I remember scraping the bottom of my rucksack and stumbling on a slim childhood volume I hadn’t realized I’d packed. A minor work of CS Lewis, Out Of The Silent Planet is a Jules Verne-esque steampunk romp in which a mild-mannered academic – modeled after Lewis’s friend, JRR Tolkien – is kidnapped and taken via flying saucer to Mars, which is a verdant paradise inhabited by, of course, sentient otters.
Bear with me here.
And as he’s chased by his ne’er-do-well kidnappers he learns a little bit about man’s inhumanity to man while stumbling upon, essentially, the true meaning of Christmas.
The man could do ham-fisted allegory.
There’s a moment in which our hero, having been taken in by his rational and un-fallen otter friends, ruminates with one on the origin of human regret and desire. And they run up against an impasse: the otters don’t understand why one would regret a bad experience, or yearn to repeat a good one. Because as they conceptualize it, “a pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.”
“You are speaking as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing into something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then--that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”
The majority of any moment, we’re told, comes as a person “remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.”
And that speaks to a mission that I think has become my own – and that I urge each and every one of you to. To take the gifts you have been given, and each experience you have had, both positive and negative, and to spend a lifetime turning them outward to benefit the world. Turning them into poetry.
Whether you have a passion for botany, like Lindsay Longway, who’s graduating today. Or for researching military history, like Jeff Dietrich. Or if you’re a lyric soprano, like Brianna Gonyea. You each have your own form that poetry will take. But find a way to give it back to the world.
That little passage is also a liberation from some of the obstacles to that mission. Because thinking of each experience we’ve had as a living breathing thing that evolves as it’s remembered inside us, as it shapes us, and as we turn it outward and teach it to the world, means it’s never too late. Means you’re never too much or too little of anything - because of who you are, or how old you are, or what your place in life is – to have an impact.
You are what you make yourself, and the sum of your experiences, into.
And that voice – that “You can’t. Here’s what you’re not. Here’s what you’ve done wrong” voice – is powerless once you realize that. We can’t change the cards we’re dealt; can’t control whether we’re born into Yahia’s life, or we’re lucky enough to go to one of the best colleges in the United States. But we control how we process our deck, how we let it shape us, and how we pay it forward. And in that realization, there’s complete freedom.
So be who you want to be, no matter what people tell you you are. When my sister Quincy was 5 years old, she announced: “I wanna be a doctor, a mermaid, a ballerina, and a man.”
I have to applaud my mother, who said “you follow those dreams, sister.”
That continues to be my philosophy – don’t ever feel boxed into a single career or pursuit; remain curious; explore every axis and every front in the battle to make a difference. Our only limitations are the ones we ourselves begin to believe in.
And again, be impatient. I was raised by a mother who, in a later era, would have been heavily medicated for the world’s worst case of ADHD. ’60 Minutes’ was never more than 20 in our household.
And that was before the dawn of TiVo.
I remember throwing my hands up in exasperation once, as she flicked through a movie at breakneck speed, and accusing her of impatience. And she said, without missing a beat: “You say it’s a vice, I say it’s one of my most winning qualities. Who ever hoodwinked people into thinking patience is a virtue?
Yup. Evil corporations and dictatorships.”
And you know, there’s a fundamental truth there. The people who are making a difference are those who refused to wait. The individuals driving youth revolutions to the forefront of the global stage are young people who wouldn’t wait for their rights to be honored.
You have the tools to take your bundle of experiences, and turn them into something of impact, now. You have the chance to be part of a moment in history where people are ready to listen – and where how we listen will be critical to the state and security of the world. So don’t wait to grab it.
So I’m not 45. I’m not a rock star or a comedian. And no, I’m not President Barack Obama. But you and I have been given tools to make change happen right now. And I believe with every fiber of my being that yes I can, and yes you can, and together yes we can.
I believe in you and I’m excited to work together in the coming years as you all take your gifts, and turn them into your own forms of poetry.
Congratulations, class of 2011.