I want to congratulate
all of you at Campus Progress for the work you've been doing to
build a new generation of progressive leadership in this country.
At a time when too many in the media have written off your generation
as apathetic or uninvolved, you're proving not only that you care
very deeply about the future of this country, but that you're willing
to do something about it.
I could stand up here today
and talk about that future - about our vision for America - but
I know that we share similar views on this and that you're pretty
well-versed on the issues anyway.
So instead I'd like to
talk a bit about what comes next for all of you - what happens after
you leave the confines of college and head out into the real world.
It's a scary thought, I
know, but I also remember that by the end of my four years in college,
I may have had a vague idea that I wanted to go into community organizing,
but no clue how I would go about doing that or whether it was even
the right choice for me.
I have a feeling that many
of you might be in a similar boat when it comes to politics and
organizing and activism after college, and so today I'd just like
to offer you a few pieces of advice that might be able to help you
on your way.
The first is to take risks.
When I told people that
after college, I planned on being a community organizer and working
in low-income neighborhoods, they thought I was crazy.
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. And so I went.
This is harder than it
sounds - and it will be for all of you. With all the work you've
done and the organizations you've been involved in, you'll have
boundless opportunities when you graduate. And it's very easy to
just take that diploma, forget about all this progressive politics
stuff, 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.
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 next piece of advice comes from a lesson 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
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 an important lesson:
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.
The last piece of advice
is to cultivate a sense of empathy.
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 room.
The fact that you're here
and participating in Campus Progress means that most of you have
already done this better than most ever will. But 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.
As I think about all of
the good each of you has the potential to do in this world, I'm
reminded of this image. It's the image of 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 maybe they would've heard the news the day those
four little girls died when someone threw a bomb into their church.
Instinctively, they knew
that it was safer and smarter to stay at home; to watch the movement
from afar. But somewhere in their hearts, 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. And so when the buses pulled up
for a Freedom Ride down South, they got on. And they rode. Thousands
of them. And they changed the world.
We need you to do the same.
As Robert F. Kennedy once told a crowd of South Africans no older
than you, "The world demands the qualities of youth; not a
time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality
of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of
the appetite for adventure over the love of ease."
Today, I want thank each
of you for demonstrating these qualities through your service to
the people of this nation, and I wish all of you a future that is
hopeful, dedicated, and ever youthful. Thank you.