Graduation Speech at U of Pennsylvania May 15, 2016
Monday, May 16, 2016
Thank you Dean Fluharty, and thank all of you for this opportunity to return to the place that for me was not only formative but fun. Most important of all, congratulations to each and every one of you.
I will keep these remarks concise, for many reasons not least of which is a conversation I had with my ten year old son Nate who reminded me in no uncertain terms that it is your accomplishments being celebrated here today, not mine.
Nate had noticed, on a shelf in my closet, an honorary degree from another University whose commencement speech I delivered a few years ago. He asked “dad, did you go there.” I said “no,”. He said “but they gave you a diploma.” I said “no, it’s not a diploma, that’s an honorary degree”. He said, “but you didn’t go there?” “No” I replied. “So you got it for doing absolutely nothing.”
“Well not quite nothing” I offered sheepishly. “I think they hoped my work and words might inspire the graduates.”
“Dad, do you seriously think it is inspiring to go to college every day for four years and see the first degree go to someone who’s never been there a day in his life?” A ten year old’s logic is always hard to contest. “It’s just honorary” I said in retreat. He shook his head and walked out of the room uttering the worn word he uses for all adult pretension: “Sad.”
So, appropriately chastized, I will briefly share only three things and then sit down.
First, as much as I appreciated the generous introduction, that is not really who I am, or at least is only a part of who I am. I am also the son of a loving mother who died from a drug overdose before I completed my education. I was a principal architect of three losing Democratic presidential primary campaigns, one of which spent more than four years paying off debt. I’m happily married, but only after a first marriage that failed. And after I graduated from Penn I went straight to law school and then failed the bar exam. Twice. As the infomercial says, ‘wait, there’s more!’ But I’ll spare you.
I share this not for sensationalism or sympathy, or to hold your attention for the next 9 minutes as desperate as I am to do so, but to persuade you that no life, not even a successful life, perhaps especially not a successful life, is lived as an unbroken string of successes. The shortcomings, failures, and even bad luck that are an inevitable part of being human need not hinder your success if you know what to take from and do with them. Conversely, spend your life or career carefully avoiding any risk of failing and you will almost certainly guarantee it. Vice President Joe Biden, who is present with us today once said “Failure at some point in life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable.”
So try to see the world whole and to let the world see who you really are. Not because it will always be as attractive as your Facebook page, but because in the long run people figure it out anyway. As my wife Rosemary taught me we live longer and healthier if our “on stage” and back stage lives are one and the same, an undivided life. It’s the richest blessing I can wish you.
Second, as diverse as you are in you intellect, appetites, energies, appearance and ambition, you share in common at least one gift and one power. The gift is the ability to share your strength.
The anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization I started in 1984 with a $2000 cash advance on a credit card is called Share Our Strength and was built on the belief that everyone has a strength to share, a gift that you may take for granted but that can be deployed to benefit others. By sharing strength I don’t mean writing a check or volunteering at a soup kitchen. I’m talking about giving of yourselves, of your unique value added as chefs have done by cooking at food and wine benefits and teaching low income families nutrition education, and as have done teachers, corporate execs, authors, architects, journalists, and so many others including low income families themselves working in their communities.
Since then we’ve raised and spent nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to help end hunger in the U.S. We’ve added millions of America’s poorest kids to school breakfast programs, and seen attendance and test scores improve accordingly. We’ve added tens of thousands of summer feeding sites when the schools are closed. We’ve help build the emergency food assistance network of foodbanks, etc. Solving poverty is complex, but feeding a child is not. Our success underscores what can be achieved when, in the words of the writer Jonathan Kozol, you pick battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win.
Although it’s good work, good is not good enough. And we can’t finish what we started without you. There are 45 million Americans on SNAP (food stamps) today and nearly half are children. For the first time a majority of our public school students, 51%, live below the poverty line. 11% of American children live in deep poverty, below 50% of the poverty line.
The gap that exists between what we know and what we do when it comes to investing in children is so large as to be indefensible. It’s a gap that might be thought of as our “full potential gap”. But it’s not only the full potential of children trapped in poverty that is being lost. It is our full potential as well. Yours and mine. We can’t have a strong America without strong kids. You and I won’t achieve the full potential we have – to live in peace, to travel the world freely, to benefit from shared prosperity and robust economic growth if we don’t close this gap.
For those in this election year debating what it will take for America to win again, one thing on which we can all agree is that America doesn’t win if our kids don’t win when it comes to nutrition, health, literacy, inequality, and opportunity. James Baldwin: “These are all our children and we shall either profit by or pay for whatever they become.”
The other thing you have in common, the greatest power on the planet, which each of you has in equal measure, is the power to bear witness.
I went to Ethiopia during a devastating famine more than a decade ago, to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to Haiti after the earthquake. I had less of a sense that I could effect change than that I would be changed by what I saw and felt, by the emotions – sadness, sympathy, despair, anger, outrage, and ultimately hope – that are the inevitable response to such a situation.
When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change.
Bearing witness makes us complicit. What we’ve seen can’t be unseen – and we are left with a profound choice: do something or do nothing.
Take the opportunity to bear witness in your own way and time. Go somewhere you haven’t been and see something you haven’t yet seen. Look until you feel something and then tell someone what you’ve seen and felt. This is what it means to bear witness. This is what it takes to change the world.
Third, and finally: Don’t wait. Martin Luther King once said “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs.” These are more than eloquent words. I went to Ethiopia during the onset of a terrible famine there in 2000 and met a 13 year old girl at a school we were supporting and where we were helping to build a hospital next door. Her name was Alima Dari and we stayed in touch, exchanging letters and photos.
But one day a colleague of mine went to Ethiopia and I gave him a letter to give to Alima, but didn’t hear from him for ten days. He wrote and said “I hate to tell you this but Alima died of cerebral malaria. She’s been misdiagnosed with Tuberculosis, the hospital we were building was not yet finished, and by the time they got her to Addis Ababa it was too late.” Dr. King’s very words.
You don’t have to go to Ethiopia to find your Alima. She is here in Philadelphia, or Memphis, or L.A. Share your strength on behalf of an Alima somewhere in this world. The time we’re allotted to solve problems is limited and precious. Don’t wait!
Don’t wait until the mortgage is paid, or until you get the promotion, or until it stops raining. No one conveys this better than the commencement speaker you are fortunate to hear tomorrow, Lin Manuel “I am not throwing away my shot” Miranda. I’ve been lucky enough to see Hamilton twice. One this past week with Lin in the starring role, and a month ago, on a Sunday, with his understudy’s understudy who had his first and only star turn on Broadway and gave the performance of a lifetime. You never know when your moment to shine will arrive. Be ready. Don’t wait.
Most important of all, when your intentions meet the inevitable obstacles don’t just wait. Jaywalk if you can, break a window if you must, pick a lock.
What distinguishes Share Our Strength, and other effective social change efforts. Every time a door closes we pick the lock. In the Baltimore school system the answer to everything we wanted to do to feed more kids was to check with the director of school food and nutrition. And who is that person we would ask? “Oh, the position has been vacant for two years.”
When told “We can’t afford the salary”, we replied, “we’ll pay it.”
When told “we’re not allowed to hire a search firm”, we replied, we will hire them.
I could give you a thousand similar examples. Social change is not about having a good plan. It’s not about being well funded. Though that helps. Success at social change is about knocking down the obstacles between you and your plan which arise more often than the clock strikes the hour. Often the key is in picking the lock.
I gave my son Nate the first words and so I’ll give him the last.
It had long been his fantasy that he and I would “camp out” in the living room of our apartment in Washington DC. I said we could do it, but only once, and we used the fireplace as a campfire and I sang him songs and we put some sleeping bags under a tent made of blankets and kitchen towels. He slept like a rock and I tossed and turned all night. The next night he wanted to do it again but I said “Oh no, I’m sleeping in bed with mom”. He was disappointed, even angry with me, and said “fine but I’m sleeping out here.” I walked down the hall to our bedroom and before I could even pull back the covers he was standing in the doorway, blanket in one hand, teddy bear in the other and said: “Who am I kidding, I wouldn’t last a minute out there on my own.”
Well who among us would truly make it on their own? Where would we be without our classmates, our teammates, our professors, our parents, our-coworkers, our lovers, and our friends? Where would we be without extending our hand or reaching for one? If anyone has ever helped you in any way, you are now in a position to honor it as you leave here by committing to bear witness and sharing your strength.
I know I wouldn’t have lasted a minute on my own. But after Penn I was never really on my own again because I had the benefit of my wonderful years here and the community that surrounded me. You do too. Congratulations.
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