Washington, DC | July 12, 2006
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 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 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.