Good afternoon Yale Class of 2016!
For starters, I think I owe you all an apology. I know what you were thinking. 2014: John Kerry. 2015: Joe Biden. Then 2016 rolls around, and your Class Day speaker still hasn’t been announced, and you start thinking – ok, Secretary of State, then Vice President…who else would follow naturally in the hierarchy…and then, boom! You get the U.S. Ambassador to what? Biggest disappointment since they canceled Safety Dance. Or, as one of your classmates summed it up on Facebook, “How come 2014 and 2015 got Kerry and Biden and we get this rando?”
So, sorry for being the rando.
Since I went to school here, I’ve been blessed to have been able to do some pretty amazing things – none more extraordinary than getting to serve every day as the American Ambassador to the United Nations. But getting to be back at Yale with you is a life highlight. It’s an honor to speak at any university on such an important day. But this is no ordinary university. THIS IS YALE! I’m floored, and deeply humbled.
Three special shout-outs: First, to the parents, step-parents, and other loved ones of the graduates. Let’s give them a huge round of applause for all they have sacrificed to make this weekend – and in many ways, this life – possible for you. Second, I have to give a special congrats to the Davenport grads, because some colleges are more equal than others. And finally, a shout out of commiseration to the seniors from Saybrook, who I gather have had a rough year, especially when it comes to laundry…
When I sat where you are sitting today more than two decades ago – or, as you may think of that time, not long after Homo sapiens began to walk upright, and the tectonic plates came together to form the Himalayas, the Yale Bowl, and Science Hill – I would never have imagined that I – an Irish immigrant and Atlanta public high school grad – would one day get the chance to come back to Yale in this capacity. Indeed, when I was a dazed freshman holed up in Bingham right over there; or grabbing lunch in Commons – sorry, “Commons at the Schwarzman Center”; or spending my senior year as a Freshman Counselor in McLellan, right there – if someone had tried to tell me that I would one day be Yale Class Day speaker, I would have said they had clearly been taking Mory’s punch intravenously. This would have seemed even more unlikely than my beloved Red Sox wining three World Series in a decade; even lower odds than an African American whose first name was one consonant removed from the world’s most infamous terrorist becoming President; and just about as inconceivable as it becoming the law of the land in this country that anyone can marry the person they love.
But somehow, here I am. I have received two monumental breaks in my life, without which I would not be here. The first came when I was nine, and my mother decided to bring my younger brother Stephen and me to the United States from Dublin, Ireland. The second came in 1988, when I arrived home from high school basketball practice in Atlanta one day to find that my then-13-year-old brother had laid out all the college admissions letters on our dining room table – including a thick manila envelope with the capital navy “Y” and a New Haven return address – telling me that, against all odds, I had been accepted here. At the time, I had never before visited the Northeast.
I was far from a superstar at Yale. I had been an avid basketball player in high school, but I wasn’t good enough to play on the Yale Varsity team. (Though now, thanks to Ben and Katayon, I can wear the jersey and tell people I did.) Since I didn’t make the cut, I became a fanatical intramural sports player – I was actually voted by my senior year Davenport classmates not “Most Likely to Succeed,” but “Most Likely to Come Back from the Intramural Fields with Bloody Knees.” I also tried my hand at sports reporting for the Yale Daily News.
Now, you might be thinking: Samantha Power – eventual Economist and New Yorker contributor – turns to writing and discovers she’s a natural. Well, thanks to the Internet, we can let some of my early reporting speak for itself.
Here’s how I opened my first article, in September 1988, just having arrived on campus: “Volleyballs aren’t the only things high up in the air this week for the women’s volleyball team; so are expectations and spirits.” Youch. Or consider this zinger from March 1989, “[The a capella group] ‘Something Extra’ sang the national anthem before Saturday night’s Yale/Cornell women’s basketball game, and the Blue were well aware that it would take ‘something extra,’ or rather, ‘something extra-ordinary’ for them to win.”
Early in my sophomore year, I was briefly given a sports column called “Power Play,” whose name – judging from my abuse of puns in other articles – was probably my idea. Mercifully, it seems only to have run a couple times.
But instead of throwing myself into journalism, I mostly held back. I wrote articles the way I wrote my class papers – last minute, without investing the time or energy it takes to get better. When you risk little, you can’t be disappointed if you don’t excel. You are not failing to thrive; you just aren’t trying. These were my unconscious alibis.
And then, at the end of my freshman year, a pair of lightning bolts hit.
The first came in a class. During my freshman spring, Professor Victor Luftig was teaching an advanced seminar on Modern Irish Literature, which I’d managed to talk my way into. I had signed up for the course because I’d already read most of the books and figured I could coast through on…well…being originally Irish.
At the end of the year, I walked to the Professor’s office right over there in LC, and fished my paper out of the pile. I found a long handwritten note on the last page.
The note was utterly eviscerating. Professor Luftig called me out for never making a serious effort, questioning why I’d fought for a seat in a class where I didn’t care to do the work. He talked about how disrespectful it was to the other students, to the literature, and – most of all – to myself.
I walked into the Professor’s office and held up his note. “This is harsh,” I said. “You deserved it,” he shot back. Of course, he was right. And his judgment really could have been made about my entire freshman year. I hadn’t put my heart into it. Although I wasn’t conscious of doing so, I was keeping myself at a distance. I could remain the carefree outsider, never getting hurt because I would never make myself vulnerable by going all in.
The second lightning bolt struck just a few weeks later, when I was back in Atlanta, where I had lined up a summer internship with the local CBS sports affiliate. I was sitting in a video both taking notes on a Braves-Padres game, when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye, coming from another live feed. It was from Tiananmen Square in China, where students my age had gathered to ask their government to grant them fundamental freedoms. And I watched – frozen, clipboard in hand – as tanks rolled into the square and soldiers opened fire on the protestors.
Watching those students – who were risking their freedom and even their lives for their rights – brought home just how little I had put on the line. I knew that I wanted to be all in for something, and to do what little I could to help people who were fighting for their dignity and freedom. And while I didn’t yet know what that meant, or how I was going do it, my compass had been reset. So when the iconic photo of the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square appeared on the cover of Time magazine, I tore it out and put it up in my dorm room as a reminder of what it meant to take real risks. The worst that could happen to me at Yale was that I would study zealously and end up with a middling grade. What was so risky about that?
I share this personal experience with you because when someone’s introduced at an event like this one, the bio often implies that they have walked a linear and pre-ordained path to get where they are. Nobody tells you that your Class Day speaker wrote a remarkably mediocre sports column with a lame name in the college paper that was discontinued. Your class chairs didn’t open: “Samantha Power spent her freshman year at Yale mailing it in and wondering whether she deserved to be here.” But everyone has voices in their heads that tell them that everyone else is more capable. I even have a name for the place where those voices live – I call it my Bat Cave. Call it what you want, everyone’s got one. A healthy dose of self-doubt is a good thing – it is the sister of humility. The trick is not letting the voices that live in your Bat Cave hold you back from pursuing your path.
And that was what I realized at the end of my freshman year: I didn’t want to go through my time at Yale or anywhere else giving myself alibis for not trying to change my little slice of the world. Especially when there were people out there who were risking so much more. But my question was: how was I going to do that? That’s what I want to speak to you about today. And my message is – no matter what you choose to do with your life, if you truly want to live fully and leave the world a little better than you found it, you have to get close.
The great photographer Robert Capa, who shot some of the most iconic photos of the Second World War, put it this way, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Rest assured, parents, the message of your child’s graduation speech is not: go stand in front of a tank, or go report on a civil war. But the message is that if you want to have a deep impact on what matters to you, don’t do things at remove. Invest yourself fully. Get close.
Now, what does that even mean?
First, getting close means moving beyond approaching an issue through the screen of your laptop or phone, or the filter of someone else’s interpretation, and instead finding a way to get to know individuals whose lives are impacted. By hearing people’s experiences first hand – whether those are your students if you become a teacher, the people who live in your buildings if you become an architect, the people who work for you if you run a small business (or a big one for that matter), or the people who are suffering injustice if you become a part- or full-time advocate – you will see what cannot be unseen.
You don’t have to look far for models of how to do this; I found mine in my own home. My mother is a kidney doctor, and I’ve never seen anyone relate to the people she is treating the way she does. When I was a kid, she would come home and share such vivid details about the lives of her patients – details that had nothing to do with their physical condition – that it was as if the patients themselves were telling jokes and sharing their sagas at the dinner table with us. My father is retired, but, always a devourer of history, he became a Continuing Education student at Columbia, and decided to explore the history of Islam. When he stays over in my apartment, I can hear the loud and persistent scrape of his pencil on his history and theology texts from the next room, deep into the night. He brings his professors and classmates to the UN gallery when we have public sessions of the Security Council on Syria or Iran.
I’ve been lucky enough to wear a number of different professional hats over my career. And with each one, getting close has made me care more about – and get better at – what I worked on. Soon after I graduated from Yale, I became consumed with the conflict at the time in the Balkans and decided to move to Bosnia to try to report on the war’s devastating human consequences. As a journalist there, I had occasion to interview Bosnian families, religious leaders, and militias, as well as UN peacekeepers and humanitarians. When I was an academic researching American foreign policy responses to genocide, getting close meant interviewing hundreds of policymakers who had made the decisions I was studying, in order to try to understand their calculus. And of course as a diplomat, I try to get out to the field as often as I can to meet with people whose lives are affected by U.S. and UN policies – whether that is the doctors and nurses running an Ebola treatment clinic in Liberia, or a Nigerian girl struggling to rebuild her life after being abducted by Boko Haram.
This brings me to my second point: to really get close to an issue, you must seek out ways to see the world and its problems from a radically different perspective. This is hardly a new challenge. For example, a previous Yale Class Day speaker lamented the fact that, “We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” That was John F. Kennedy, in 1962. But the problem has only gotten worse. From the Facebook and Twitter feeds we monitor, to the algorithms that determine the results of our Web searches based on our previous browsing history and location, our major sources of information are increasingly engineered to reflect back to us the world as we already see it. They give us the comfort of our opinions without the discomfort of thought. So you have to find a way to break out of your echo chambers.
This is tougher than it sounds – especially when it comes the issues you care most about. But it’s in your interest to engage the people you disagree with, rather than shutting them out or shutting them up. Not only because it gives you a chance to challenge their views, and maybe even change them. But also because sometimes they might just be right.
When I started as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN nearly three years ago, I made up my mind that – since I wouldn’t be able to travel to every country in the world, truly getting close – I’d at least try to visit as many ambassadors from the 192 other UN member states as I could. I decided that I didn’t want to go into the meetings with a set of “asks”; I just wanted to get to know a little more about the issues that mattered most to them, how they had become diplomats, what books and keepsakes they had brought with them from home, and the art and photos they had chosen to put up on their walls. So far, I’ve visited the ambassadors of 164 countries.
The Ambassador from Zambia told me how HIV/AIDS had ravaged her country. A pediatrician before becoming a diplomat, she said that at the peak of the epidemic, she could hardly rally herself to go to work in the morning, because, as she put it, “there was nothing I could do to help my babies.” But she cared too much to quit. At the Cuban mission to the UN, which I was the first U.S. Ambassador to visit in half a century, photographs of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro still lined the halls. The ambassadors of many small island nations have told me about witnessing climate change transform their countries in their lifetimes – seeing the villages where they grew up completely flooded. One brought the stakes home to me unforgettably: “I just don’t know where all of my people will go. Who will take us?”
Third, if you really want to make change, it’s rarely enough to get close yourself. You also have to bring other people close with you – helping them see issues that can otherwise feel far removed or invisible in their daily lives.
Consider the work of your classmate, Sarah Yazji. A Syrian-American, Sarah made multiple trips to volunteer in refugee camps and clinics along the border with Syria, where she witnessed firsthand all the needs that were going unmet, from undersupplied medical clinics to schools that didn’t have room to take in more kids. In her sophomore year, she and other students raised more than $30,000 to aid Syrian refugees and support hospitals still operating in Syria. But Sarah and her fellow students didn’t just rally support, they also brought what was happening to Syrians close to people at Yale. Like the time in December when they blanketed the quad at Cross-Campus with miniature flags, each of which represented approximately 50,000 displaced Syrians. Or like the time when they drew the chalk outlines of footsteps along walkways all around campus, making visible the millions of miles that Syrians have traveled to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Through these and so many other actions, Sarah and other students made people see the millions of Syrian refugees not as abstract masses, but as individuals just like them, and in doing so motivated more people to get involved.
My fourth and final point is that getting close – and staying close – requires patience and impatience at once. Look at the history of any great rights struggle and you will see that when it moved forward at all, it was always in a two-steps-forward, one-and-a-half steps back fashion. Or as the late great UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello once put it, “History is not in a hurry.” So if you are setting out to make a slice of the world better, you must go in knowing that real change often requires a long struggle. That doesn’t mean being patient in the face of injustice. Because while history may not be in a hurry, you can – and must – speed it up. Indeed, the struggle to advance basic human rights has almost always been driven by people who refused to accept that any one of us should have to wait until tomorrow for the dignity that every one of us deserves today.
It is because history is not in a hurry that we must always bring a healthy skepticism to claims that the great rights struggles are behind us, and that we have mostly achieved the equality we seek. Few have rebutted this myth more eloquently than Franklin. And here I’m not talking about Benjamin Franklin…or Aretha Franklin…but the late African-American historian John Hope Franklin.
Born in 1915, John Hope Franklin played a key role on the NAACP team that brought the case for Brown v. Board of Education, but his greatest contribution was his life’s work documenting the history of slavery and its enduring – and deeply corrosive – impact on American life. Here’s what Franklin said in 1992, not long after the police’s beating of Rodney King set off the L.A. riots: “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States, and never has existed. Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.” Again: “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”
That was true in 1992 – and it is true in 2016. And it applies not only to enduring racial issues that have been brought to the surface in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, but to so many other persistent forms of inequality and prejudice.
Take the ongoing struggle for women’s equality. Now, no one can dispute the progress made – in the world, in this country, in this university. Here’s what the freshman handbook said in 1970, two years after Yale first admitted women: “Treat Yale as you would a good woman. Take advantage of her many gifts, nourish yourself with the fruit of her wisdom, curse her if you will, but congratulate yourself in your possession of her.” Wow. Simply – wow.
Yet while so much has changed, consider this: while Yale was founded roughly three-quarters of a century before our nation declared its independence – Yale, like the United States, has never had a woman President, except for the great scholar Hanna Gray, who held the role temporarily for a year when her predecessor left suddenly. Another data point: since I graduated in 1992, only four other women have been invited to speak at Class Day. Which makes sense, in a way, because it’s not as though there are any amazing women out there who graduated from Yale. I mean, it’s not like the first ever Latina Supreme Court Justice went to Yale, or the first woman to chair the U.S. Federal Reserve, or the woman who designed our nation’s transcendent Vietnam War Memorial. So – point taken – amazing Yale women grads are hard to find. Perhaps more importantly, of the 669 women graduating today, I am willing to bet that every one of you knows what it feels like to be treated differently because you are a woman.
Many of the same dynamics play themselves out at the UN. Of the fifteen permanent representatives sitting on the UN Security Council – where I have the privilege of representing the United States – I am the only woman. The UN is currently in the process of selecting a new Secretary General – a position that, in its seventy-year history, has never been held by a woman. Not long ago, I was discussing the race with another ambassador to the UN, and I made the point that it is important that women be encouraged to apply. In response, the Ambassador asked: “Do you want to look at a pretty girl or do you want someone who can actually get the job done for women?” I was shocked. But perhaps I should not have been.
My point is not that the UN or Yale have done a particularly poor job of advancing women’s rights. My point is that the enduring inequalities we see in institutions like these reflect systemic injustices that persist in our societies – to the detriment not only of the people who are subjected to discrimination, but to all of us. And acting as if we have overcome these entrenched biases is part of the problem.
To the vast majority of you, this is obvious. To some of you, it is something you have experienced personally. You may come from a country where you cannot openly practice your religion without risking attacks or persecution. You may have felt it on this campus – when the gate to your residential college was closed and locked as you walked toward it. You may have felt it living in a college named for a man who once argued that enslaving your ancestors was a “positive good.” You may have felt it upon hearing U.S. politicians call on our country to ban people of your faith. So when you hear people claim that the work is finished, you say: Not for me, it’s not. Not for us.
And some of you who have poured a lot of yourselves into these and other struggles over the past four years might look at all that remains unchanged and feel discouraged. Whether that’s inside Yale, with the name of a college that did not change, or a faculty that does not look nearly as diverse as you and the rest of America do. Or outside Yale, in the horrific situation faced by refugees, whose situation only seems to get worse despite all that you and your peers have done to try to make it better.
But whether serving others is your full-time job or a part-time vocation – setbacks like these are not just probable, they are inevitable. And the more you get close, the more of yourself you put into these struggles, and the more you make yourself vulnerable – the harder those setbacks will hit you, the more they’ll hurt.
But the progress that you make in advancing the rights of others – and you will make progress – will more than sustain you. Because in fighting for the dignity of others, you will find a humbling yet profound sense of your own worth.
That is a lesson I take from the life of Pauli Murray, a Yale grad who dedicated her life to struggles for equality and human dignity. I admit that I hadn’t heard of Murray before Yale decided to name a residential hall in her honor. In learning about her, what struck me was not only how ahead of her time she was in the struggles for equality she waged. It was also how often she lost, despite being on the side of what was right. In 1938, she applied but was denied admission from the University of North Carolina, because she was black. In 1940, she refused to move to the back of a bus, and was detained; and then refused to pay a fine for disobedience, and went to jail. Not long after, she joined the legal defense team of a black sharecropper who she believed had been unjustly sentenced to death by an all-white jury; they lost the case, and then lost the appeal, and the man was executed in 1942. Those are just a few of the painful losses Murray endured; there were so many more.
Yet while it often looked in the moment like Murray had lost, history shows us that, even in these losses, she moved the struggle forward – bringing injustice out into the open, exposing its ugliness, and chipping away at its foundation, little by little.
Let me read you something Murray said in an interview later in her life, reflecting back on these efforts: “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed. But I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”
“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”
Many of the struggles for equality that Murray dedicated her life to are ones we continue to grapple with to this day. Who better than you to carry them forward?
So, graduating class of 2016, as you embark on what I hope will be a life of embracing struggles like these, this is my message to you: Get close. Go all in. Get close to the people affected by your work. Seek out perspectives different from your own. And work to bring others close with you. Know that history is not in a hurry, but that you can speed it up. And recognize that while the journey will be long – and you will lose and lose again – it is the struggle itself that will define you.
Do that and you will not only find yourself fulfilled, but you too will live to see many of your lost causes found.
I thank you.
Read more 2016 commencement speeches:
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- What Trump Knew About January 6
- Follow the Algae Brick Road to Plant-Based Buildings
- The Education of Glenn Youngkin
- The Benefits and Challenges of Cutting Back on Meat
- Here's Everything New on Netflix in July 2022—and What's Leaving
- Women in Northern Ireland Still Struggle to Access Abortion More Than 2 Years After Decriminalization