Good morning President
Bienen, the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family, friends,
and the Class of 2006. Congratulations on your graduation, and thank
you for allowing me the honor to be a part of it.
A few months ago, I came
across an article in your student newspaper by Elaine Meyer.
Elaine, give me a little
wave if you're out there. There she is. Glad to see you made it
So, Elaine wrote this article
entitled, "Challenge us, Senator Obama." I thought this
seemed like a fair request, so I kept reading. And I noticed that
Elaine set out a few expectations for this speech.
According to the article,
I'm supposed to be inspirational, but not contrived. I'm supposed
to be hopeful, but not cheesy. I should be political, but not too
political. I should be better than John McCain, but not so good
that I have to spend the day with Jerry Falwell.
To further illustrate what
she was looking for, Elaine then very kindly quoted at length from
the commencement address I gave at Knox College in Galesburg last
year - which then completely ruined my plan to recycle that speech
for this year.
Left with no speech and
a lot of pressure, I turned to who else but Elaine for help. And
what she wrote next is precisely what I'd like to talk you about
today. She said,
"When people say they
don't want to hear about politics in a commencement address, they
are in part speaking of not wanting to hear about the outside world
and its problems. We students have been insulated enough for the
past four years that it shouldn't hurt us to be challenged for thirty
minutes, especially on a day that marks our commencement into the
That struck me as an important
statement. And it called to mind a passage from scriptures that
some of you may know:
Corinthians 13:11: "When
I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought
as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish
I bring this up because
there's an assumption in rites of passage like this that growing
up is just a function of age; that becoming an adult is an inevitable
and natural progression.
But in fact, I know a whole
lot of thirty year olds and forty year olds and fifty year olds
who are not yet full-grown. And if you talk to my wife, she'll tell
you that there are times when I do not put aside childish things;
when I continually struggle to rise above the selfish or the petty
or the small.
So even today, as a U.S.
Senator, I have to remind myself of certain lessons from my own
youth - lessons about growing up and being true to my values and
The first lesson came during
my first year in college. Back then I had a tendency, in my mother's
words, to act a bit casual about my future. I rebelled, angry in
the way that many young men in general, and young black man in particular,
are angry, thinking that responsibility and hard work were old-fashioned
conventions that didn't apply to me. I partied a little too much
and studied just enough to get by.
And once, after a particularly
long night of partying, we had spilled a little too much beer, broke
a few too many bottles, and trashed a little too much of the dorm.
And the next day, the mess was so bad that when one of the cleaning
ladies saw it, she began to tear up. And when a girlfriend of mine
heard about this, she said to me, "That woman could've been
my grandmother, Barack. She spent her days cleaning up after somebody
Which drove home for me
the first lesson of growing up: The world doesn't just revolve around
you. There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit.
But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the
ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world
through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry,
the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm
As you go on in life, cultivating
this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There's
no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing
you to care. You'll be free to live in neighborhoods with people
who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools,
and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle.
Not only that - we live
in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often
tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young,
famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too
often encourage these selfish impulses.
They will tell you that
the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there
because they're all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city
children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and
won't learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That
the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes
half a world away are somebody else's problem to take care of.
I hope you don't listen
to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit
of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are
less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because
you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you
are, although you do have that debt.
It's because you have an
obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends
on collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your
wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your
true potential - and become full-grown.
The second lesson I learned
after college, when I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be a
community organizer and work in low-income neighborhoods.
My mother and grandparents
thought I should go to law school. My friends had applied for jobs
on Wall Street. But I went ahead and wrote letters to every organization
in the country that I could think of. And finally, this small group
of churches on the south side of Chicago wrote back and gave me
a job organizing neighborhoods devastated by steel-plant closings
in the early 80s.
The churches didn't have
much money - so they offered me a grand sum of $12,000 a year plus
$1,000 to buy a car. And I got ready to move to Chicago - a place
I had never been and where I didn't know a living soul.
Even people who didn't
know me were skeptical of my decision. I remember having a conversation
with an older man I had met before I arrived in Chicago. I told
him about my plans, and he looked at me and said, "Let me tell
something. You look like a nice clean-cut young man, and you've
got a nice voice. So let me give you a piece of advice - forget
this community organizing business. You can't change the world,
and people won't appreciate you trying. What you should do is go
into television broadcasting. I'm telling you, you've got a future."
I could've taken my mother's
advice and I could've taken my grandparents advice. I could've taken
the path my friends traveled. And objectively speaking, that TV
thing might have made some sense.
But I knew there was something
in me that wanted to try for something bigger.
So the second lesson is
this: Challenge yourself. Take some risks in your life.
This may be difficult for
all of you because one of the great things about graduating from
Northwestern is that you can now punch your own ticket. You can
take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the
big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other
things that our money culture says you should buy.
But I hope you don't. Focusing
your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It
asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled.
I often think about the
young Americans - teenagers and college kids not much older than
you - from all over the country, watching the Civil Rights Movement
unfold before them on their television sets.
I imagine that they would've
seen the marchers and heard the speeches, but they also probably
saw the dogs and the fire hoses, or the footage of innocent people
being beaten within an inch of their lives; or heard the news the
day those four little girls died when someone threw a bomb into
Instinctively, they knew
that it was safer and smarter to stay at home; to watch the movement
from afar. But they also understood that these people in Georgia
and Alabama and Mississippi were their brothers and sisters; that
what was happening was wrong; and that they had an obligation to
make it right. When the buses pulled up for a Freedom Ride down
South, they got on. They took a risk. And they changed the world.
So don't let people talk
you into doing the safe thing. Listen to what's inside of you and
decide what it is that you care about so much that you're willing
to risk it all.
The third lesson is one
that I learned once I got to Chicago. I had spent weeks organizing
our very first community meeting around the issue of gang violence.
We invited the police; we made phone calls, went to churches, and
passed out flyers. I had been warned of the turf battles and bad
politics between certain community leaders, but I ignored them,
confident that I knew what I was doing.
The night of the meeting
we arranged rows and rows of chairs in anticipation of the crowd.
And we waited. And we waited. And finally, a group of older people
walk in to the hall. And they sit down. And this little old lady
raises her hand and asks, "Is this where the bingo game is?"
Thirteen people showed
up that night. The police never came. And the meeting was a complete
disaster. Later, the volunteers I worked with told me they were
quitting - that they had been doing this for two years and had nothing
to show for it.
I was tired too. But at
that point, I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in
a vacant lot across the street, tossing stones at boarded-up apartment
building. And I turned to the volunteers, and I asked them, "Before
you quit, I want you to answer one question. What's gonna happen
to those boys? Who will fight for them if not us? Who will give
them a fair shot if we leave?" And at that moment, we were
all reminded of a third lesson in growing up: Persevere.
Making your mark on the
world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's
not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty
of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid
this failure, because you won't. it's whether you let it harden
or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether
you choose to persevere.
After my little speech
that day, one by one, the volunteers decided not to quit. We went
back to those neighborhoods, and we kept at it, sustaining ourselves
with the small victories. And over time, a community changed. And
so had we. Cultivating empathy, challenging yourself, persevering
in the face of adversity - these are the qualities that I've found
to be important in my own life.
But what's true for individuals
can also be true for nations.
For what America needs
right now, more than ever, is a sense of purpose to guide us through
the challenges that lie ahead; a maturity that we seem to have lost
somewhere along the way; a willingness to engage in a sober, adult
conversation about our future.
When we measure our greatness
as a nation by how far the stock market rises or falls instead of
how many opportunities we've opened up for America's children, we're
displaying a preference for the childish. When we believe that force
is the only way to accomplish our ends in the world, when our leaders
exaggerate or fudge the truth, we haven't set aside childish things.
When we run our budget into red ink for things that we want instead
of things that we need, we're indicating that we're not yet full-grown.
For a brief moment, there
was the hope that this kind of politics would've ended after 9/11.
There was a sense of unity born from the rubble of those buildings
- young people signing up to serve; political leaders of both parties
working together; people asking new questions about our world, hungry
for the answers.
But at some point, we began
to drift. Republican and Democrat alike went back to procrastinating
about problems that we now have to face. We sent young Americans
to fight a war without asking anyone back home to sacrifice their
time or their tax cut. We argue about the inconsequential, and caricature
our opponents to score cheap political points. Our media returned
to covering the sensational and feeding our ever-shortening attention
And in the meantime, our
problems are left to fester.
We have a global economy
that's forcing us to compete like never before. In today's world
a job can now travel anywhere there's an internet connection and
a worker who's smart and skilled. And if China and India keep educating
their kids better and longer than we are, that's where the jobs
We can meet this challenge
if we fix our schools, if we make college affordable, if we train
our workers, if we invest more in research and technology. We know
what needs to be done. What's lacking is the political will.
We have a health care crisis
in this country that's left 46 million Americans uninsured; that's
left millions unable to deal with rising co-payments; that's left
businesses near bankruptcy.
We can meet this challenge
if we modernize our health care system, if we improve quality, if
we pool our resources to bargain for affordable insurance. What's
been lacking is the political will.
We have an energy crisis
that's keeping gas prices high; destroying our climate, and forcing
us to send billions of dollars to the very countries who want to
cause us harm.
We can meet this challenge
if we harness alternative fuels and build cars that go further on
a tank of gas. But we need to find the will to make it happen.
We need new strategies
to fight the war on terror. In a world where terrorists can hide
and blend into any city on the planet, we can't just believe - as
Bill Clinton says - that we can kill or jail every single one of
We can meet this challenge
if we realize this isn't just battle of armies but also of ideas;
if we rebuild our institutions and strengthen our alliances as Truman
and Acheson and Keenan and Marshall did after World War II; if we
bring hope to those pockets of desperation where a jihad is a better
bet than a job.
But what's lacking is that
Each and every one of these
challenges call for an America that is more purposeful, more grown-up
than the America that we have today. An America that reflects the
lessons that have helped so many of its people mature in their own
lives. An America that's about not just each of us, but all of us.
An America that takes great risks in the face of greater odds. An
America that, above all, perseveres.
Over one hundred and fifty
classes have sat where you sit today, some in good times, others
in bad. Some were years that just rolled into the next, and others
would mark a turning point in our nation.
The class of 1860 would
find their country torn apart by civil war in less than a year.
Many of them would listen to their President tell them that a house
divided cannot stand, and they would answer the call to save a union
and free a people.
The class of 1932 would
look out a nation in mired in depression; a nation ill-fed, ill-clothed,
and ill-housed. They would hear a man who could not lift himself
from his wheelchair lift a nation by telling us that it was only
fear itself standing in our way. And they would answer the call
to conquer that fear.
The class of 1960 would
find themselves at the beginning of a decade where social and racial
strife threatened to tear apart the very fabric of the nation. They
would hear a young President urge them to ask what they could do
for their country. And they would answer the call to sit at lunch
counters and take those Freedom Rides; they would march for justice
and live for equality.
And now it is 2006. And
here you sit facing challenges as great as any in the past. And
the choice is yours. Will the years pass with barely a whisper from
your generation? Or will we look back on this time as the moment
where you took a stand and changed the world?
Time will tell. You will
be tested by the challenges of this new century, and at times you
will fail. But know that you have it within your power to try. That
generations who have come before you faced these same fears and
uncertainties in their own time. And that if we're willing to shoulder
each other's burdens, to take great risks, and to persevere through
trial, America will continue on its magnificent journey towards
that distant horizon, and a better day.
Thank you so much to the
class of 2006, congratulations on your graduation, and Elaine -
I hope I did okay.