Michelle Obama on Sunday urged 2020 graduates to channel their experiences and anger into moral and political action — to not only call out systemic injustices but to vote and create policies that could change history.
“For those of you who feel invisible: Please know that your story matters,” the former first lady said in a virtual address that was also published in The Washington Post. “Your ideas matter. Your experiences matter. Your vision for what our world can and should be matters.”
“Don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you that you’re too angry, or that you ‘should keep your mouth shut,’ she added. “There will always be those who want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard, or maybe they don’t even want to see you at all. But those people don’t know your story, and if you listen to them, then nothing will ever change.”
Obama highlighted how systemic racism and inequality were exposed, and linked, by events simultaneously taking hold of the nation: the coronavirus pandemic and demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and generations who’ve suffered from police brutality. She assured graduates that if they were “scared, or confused, or angry, or just plain overwhelmed by it all,” they were not alone.
“For too many people in this country, no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers working against them that just make the road longer and rockier. And sometimes it’s almost impossible to move upward at all,” she said.
If you have to work during the public health crisis, but don’t have enough protective gear, health insurance or paid sick leave, you’re stuck with a nearly impossible choice: “your work or your life,” she said.
“If you don’t feel safe driving your own car in your own neighborhood, or going for a jog, or buying some candy at 7/11, or bird-watching — if you can’t even approach the police without fearing for your life — well, how do you begin to chart your own course?” she added.
Hearkening back to her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech — “When they go low, we go high” — Obama told graduates to confront “cruelty, dishonesty, (and) bigotry” head on, with hopefulness and respect for others.
“Dr. King was angry. Sojourner Truth was angry. Lucretia Mott, César Chávez, the folks at Stonewall — they were all angry,” she said. “But those folks were also driven by compassion, by principle — by hope.”
She argued, ‘Treating people right will never, ever fail you.’
Obama — whose husband recently blasted the Trump administration — said she was “not naive. I know that you can climb a long way up the ladder selling falsehoods and blaming others for your own shortcomings, shunning those with less privilege and advantage. But that is a heavy way to live. It deadens your spirit and it hardens your heart. It may seem like a winning strategy in the short run, but trust me, graduates, that kind of life catches up to you.”
Obama said it was up to graduates “to march hand-in-hand with your allies, to stand peacefully — with dignity and purpose — on the front lines in the fight for justice.”
She also said it was vital for young Americans to “couple every protest with plans and policies, with organizing and mobilizing and voting.”
“Graduates, anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force,” she said. “But left on its own, it will only corrode, and destroy and sow chaos — on the inside and out.”
During a youth activist summit last year, former President Barack Obama said he sensed that “among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’ Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
Similarly, Michelle Obama on Sunday said that while “hashtagging and posting right now” was useful, particularly during coronavirus, it was “only a beginning. Go further.”
She urged students to not only register to vote but to “send all your friends a link to register to vote” and to pay attention to politics from the White House down to the local level.
“Ask yourself: Do you know where your polling place is? Do you know when your primary elections are held? Do you know how to request a mail-in ballot?” she said. “We won’t solve anything if we’re only willing to do what’s easiest. We’ve got to make hard choices and sacrifices in our own lives.”
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