Question: You've been asked to give a commencement speech to this year's college graduates about their role as future leaders. Give us the two or three key paragraphs from your address.
In my church in Georgia in the 1960s, which was a time of great division and unrest in our country, we sang a hymn whose words struck home then, and they still do today: “We are living, we are dwelling in a grand and awful time. In an age on ages telling, to be living is sublime.” Half a century later, we find ourselves again in an era with divisions as wide as any canyon. The grandness and awfulness of this time is your generation’s challenge.
Frank Rich wrote about it best in a New York Times opinion column last march. He compared the social climate of early Tea Party rallies that protested the health-care bill to a similar climate that followed the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As Frank Rich reminded us, the act “made some Americans run off the rails” because it “signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance.”
So, too, Tea Party events were composed of mostly white Americans who were upset long before health care emerged as a rallying cause. And while some of today’s rage may still be pointed at health care, as Frank said, it isn't really about that issue at all; it’s about an African-American president, a woman speaker of the house, a Latina on the Supreme Court, a powerful gay congressional committee chair and a demographic picture that in a few decades puts white people in the minority in the United States. In a word, it is about difference. When Tea Partiers and others say they want to “take back our country,” I ask, from whom? From what? The answer is more than obvious if you dig an inch deep.
There is an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of our nation and its leaders. And while we know through research that diversity of thought, experience and origin are absolutely vital in a world where the problems are enormously complex, the current hostile climate has brought us a strong anti-immigrant, pro-gun backlash -- one that begs for creative ways to pave a highway to the fears and biases that drive today’s hysteria and deliver a way to move people beyond them.
Moving people through fear is a job that cannot be accomplished without reaching into people’s hearts. The language of the heart speaks to us in so many ways: Stories and songs, films and documentaries, plays and poetry. President Obama used that very language when, as then-Senator Obama speaking at the 2004 Democratic convention, he spoke of the true relationships that cross boundaries of race, class and gender. As he addressed that crowd and the television audience beyond, you could almost feel the Earth spinning faster from the movement of so many hearts.
And that brings me to the grandness and the awfulness of your generation’s challenge: To help a country that is hungry for its heart.
At a recent White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington, the master of ceremonies told President Obama that there was only one person who could beat Obama 2012, and that’s Obama 2008, the man who spoke to our hearts. How right he is.
But words are only one way into the heart; actions, as they say, can often be louder.
About five years ago, The White House Project held a gathering for international women leaders to discuss how to shift the current security paradigm. Dr. Sarah Sewall, then head of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told a story about the genocide in Rwanda that gripped the group. A group of armed rebels came into a school of 12-year-old girls and said to them, “Divide yourselves. Tutsis and Hutus. Divide yourselves!”
The girls, knowing very well how this story would end, looked at each other and did not move.
Again the order: “DIVIDE YOURSELVES!”
The girls looked at these men who would surely kill them (if they were lucky) and said, “We will not be divided.” They stood together.
That is your challenge: To unite us again in this grand and awful time, to use the language of the heart to help us bridge the many dramatic differences in our society that, to some, are quite terrifying. I believe with all my heart that you can and you will.
View all panel responses to our discussion about the best words of wisdom to give this year’s graduates. Here are some of them:
Marie Wilson | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM