Commencement Address at Howard University
Greetings, Bisons! It is so great to be back home. President Frederick… members of the Board… distinguished faculty — thank you for this incredible honor. And to the Class of 2017 — congratulations!
And to your families and friends who encouraged you and held you up — thank you for all you did. Let’s hear it for them!
I’ve had the honor of speaking at many commencements. But this one is particularly special for me. Because decades ago, I sat just where you sit now, feeling the embrace of my Howardfamily.
Our Howard family.
And a family, at its best, shares common values and aspirations. A family shares hardships and a connected history. A family looks for ways to support and inspire one another.
Our family includes a young woman who worked her way through school and is graduating as a published poet — Angel Dye. It includes the fourth Rhodes Scholar in Howard’s history — Cameron Clarke. It includes a woman who got elected to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission at 18 years old, the youngest elected official in D.C. history. And she is your HUSA President — Allyson Carpenter.
And our family also includes those who came before you.
Thurgood Marshall and Zora Neale Hurston… Shirley Franklin and Doctor LaSalle Leffall… Mr. Vernon Jordan and Ta-Nahesi Coates… Elijah Cummings and Mayor Kasim Reed. And now, graduates, you are ready to join the ranks.
You are finally at your Commencement. So look around. Capture this moment. Hold it in your heart and hold it in your mind. You’re looking at people you will read about for the trailblazing work they will do. You’re looking at the faces of friends who one day will ask you to Godparent their children.
You may even be looking at someone you’ll grow your family with — even if one or both of you doesn’t fully know that right now.
And graduates, also look back on the experiences you’ve already had.
Remember — those first days on the Yard. Moving into the Quad and Drew. Learning how to navigate the “Howard Runaround” so you could get that dorm room or sign up for a class.
Remember — or maybe even try to forget — all those late nights at Founders… and those other nights at the Punchout or El Rey.
Above all, remember that you are blessed. Wherever you came from, you now have the gift — the great gift — of a Howard University education.
And you are also part of a legacy that has now endured and thrived for 150 years.
Endured when the doors of higher education were closed to Black students. Endured when segregation and discrimination were the law of the land. Endured when few recognized the potential and capacity of young Black men and women to be leaders.
But over the last 150 years, Howard has endured and thrived. Generations of students have been nurtured and challenged here — and provided with the tools and confidence to soar.
Since this school was founded, in 1867, Howard has awarded more than 120,000 degrees.
It has prepared and produced thousands of Black lawyers and doctors, and artists and writers… dentists and pharmacists… social workers and engineers. And most recently, Howardhas partnered with Google to bring more Black students into the tech industry.
It prepared me for a career in public service, starting with my first-ever political race — for freshman class representative on what was then called the Liberal Arts Student Council.
So at this moment, when voices at the highest level of our government seem confused about the significance and even the constitutionality of supporting HBCUs, I say look over here at Howard University!
So now you are all official members of what I call the “Role Model Club.”
And it’s a pretty exclusive club. It includes my distinguished fellow Commencement honorees.
It includes members of the Class of 1967, who today celebrate their 50th anniversary, and who marched and fought for justice when Jim Crow was still the law of the land.
And it includes people like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, who were among my inspirations for going to law school.
History has proved that each generation of Howard graduates will forge the way forward for our country and our world.
And now, it is your turn. And let’s look at the world you are now entering.
You are graduating into a very different time than it was when you arrived a few short years ago.
You are graduating into a time when we see a revival of the failed War on Drugs and a renewed reliance on mandatory minimum prison sentences.
A time when young people who were brought to America as children fear a midnight knock on the door.
A time when throwing millions of working people off their health insurance to give tax breaks to the top 1% is considered a victory to some.
A time when we worry that a late-night tweet could start a war.
A time when we no longer believe the words of some of our leaders, and where the very integrity of our justice system has been called into question.
Graduates, indeed we have a fight ahead. And it’s not a fight between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not rich versus poor or urban versus rural.
It’s a fight to define what kind of country we are.
It’s a fight to determine what kind of country we will be.
And it’s a fight to determine whether we are willing to stand up for our deepest values.
Because let’s be clear — we are better than this.
And you know what I’m talking about.
From the time you arrived on this campus, you participated in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and you students have joined that fight for justice.
You’ve protested. From the streets of Ferguson to the halls of the United States Congress.
You have lived the words of James Baldwin: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”
Indeed, the time is always now. And because you are a Howard graduate, the bar is high.
Which means you must be at the front of the line. You must be the first to raise your hand. You must lead.
The motto of this university is: “Veritas et Utilitas. ” Truth and Service.
And I know sometimes we’re afraid of falling short. It’s not that we don’t know what we should do. It’s that the bar can sometimes feel too high. It takes so much time and effort to reach it, so much sweat and so many tears. And being human, we sometimes fall short. And that’s OK.
But because you went to Howard University, you have a responsibility to keep reaching for that bar. To keep serving.
So, Class of 2017, proud members of the Role Model Club, in these unprecedented times, you must ask:
How will I serve? How will I lead?
Well, I’ve got three pieces of advice on how to answer that question. Reject false choices. Speak truth. And, you don’t think you need a big title to make a big difference.
So let’s talk about each of these.
First, to lead and thrive you must reject false choices. Howard taught me, as it has taught you, that you can do anything and you can do everything.
At Howard, you can be a football player and a valedictorian. You can be a budding computer scientist and a poet. You can have a 4.0, intern on the Hill, and still find time to “darty” on the weekend.
Back in the day, I’d go down to the National Mall to protest the United States’ investment in apartheid South Africa. And I interned in the United States Senate.
I chaired the economics society and was on the Howard debate team. And I pledged my dear sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. (In fact, several of my line sisters came here to be with me today.)
So the notion of rejecting false choices that Howard taught us has carried me throughout my career — as the District Attorney of San Francisco, as the Attorney General of California, and now as a United States Senator.
And in my career, the conventional wisdom was that people were either soft on crime or tough on crime. But I knew we should be smart on crime.
I was told prosecutors don’t need to focus on recidivism — people said, “that’s not your job, just keep locking folks up.” But as DA, I launched an initiative to help first-time offenders re-enter society and not go back to prison.
I was told prosecutors shouldn’t focus on the needs of children. But we created a Bureau of Children’s Justice, that took on elementary school truancy.
So, graduates, I share all of this with you to make the point that there is no limit to what you can do when you detect and reject false choices.
You can advocate for Environmental justice, and you can be the CEO who commits to cutting your company’s carbon footprint.
You can march for workers on a picket line, and you can be their voice inside the Department of Labor.
You can call for greater diversity in the arts and entertainment, and you can be like Howard’s own Taraji P. Henson on the screen, bringing to life those “hidden figures.”
You can march for Black lives on the street, and you can ensure law enforcement accountability by serving as a prosecutor or on a police commission.
The reality is on most matters, somebody is going to make the decision — so why not let it be you?
Because, if we’re going to make progress anywhere, we need you everywhere.
And, sometimes to make change you’ve got to change how change is made.
So do not be constrained by tradition.
Do not listen when they say it can’t be done.
And do not be burdened by what has been when you can create what should be.
Like Baldwin said, the time is always now. So no false choices.
My second piece of advice is that you must speak truth.
And let me be clear, speaking the truth is different from telling the truth. Telling the truth means separating fact from fiction.
The earth is round. The sky is blue. Howard University is the REAL H-U.
But unlike telling the truth, speaking the truth means you must speak up and speak out. Even when you’re not being asked, and even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Let me give you an example. Just a few years after I left Howard, I was working as a prosecutor during the crack epidemic in the 1990s. It was the height of gang violence in LA, and California had passed what were known as gang enhancement laws, which meant longer sentences if a person was affiliated with a gang. And because these laws were new, prosecutors were trying to figure out how to prove these cases in court.
So one day I was in my office at the courthouse, and I heard my coworkers talking outside my door. They were talking about how they’d prove certain people were gang-affiliated.
So they mentioned the neighborhood where the arrest had occurred — the way the people were dressed, the kind of music they were listening to.
And hearing this conversation, well you know I had to poke my head outside my door. And I looked at them and I said:
“Hey, guys. You know that corner you were talking about? Well, I know people who live there.”
“You know the clothes you were talking about? I have family members who dress that way.”
“And that music?” — and now I’m about to date myself — “Well, I have a tape of that music in my car.”
And in case you all are wondering, that tape was of Oakland’s own Too Short.
So they looked up, a little embarrassed. And needless to say, they realized they needed to think differently about who does what and where.
So Howard encourages us — expects us — to use our voice.
And I promise you, as you leave this place, you will often find that you’re the only one in the room who looks like you, or who has had the same experience as you. And you’re going to feel very alone.
But wherever you are — whether you’re in a courtroom, a board room, or a tech incubator, whether you’re in Washington or Wichita — you must remember: you are never alone.
Your entire Howard family, past and present — everyone here — will be in that room with you, cheering you on, as you speak up and speak out.
The time is always now. Speak truth.
Here’s my third piece of advice and final story. You don’t need a big title to make a big difference.
So after my second year of law school, I was a summer intern at the Alameda County DA’s office, and there had been a big drug bust. And working on the case, I realized that among those arrested was an innocent bystander.
But it was late on a Friday afternoon, and most people had gone home. Which meant the case wouldn’t get called until Monday. Meaning this innocent bystander would have been held all weekend. And then I learned she had young children.
Now, no innocent person should spend a weekend in jail. And I knew what it would mean if she couldn’t get home, including that she could even lose her children. So I sat right there in the courtroom and I waited. And waited. And waited.
I told the clerk we had to call the case. I pleaded for the judge to come back. I wouldn’t leave until the judge finally gave in. And when that happened, with the swipe of a pen, this woman got to go home to her children.
It would be years before I would run a major prosecutor’s office… before I would create policies and write legislation that would be adopted at the state and national level.
And I didn’t realize it at the time. But that Friday afternoon in that courtroom, in Oakland, California, that woman taught me that when you see something in front of you that’s wrong, you can just go ahead and do what you know is right. And it will make a difference. Even if nobody but you and she knows.
The time is always now. You don’t need a big title to make a big difference
So, graduates, as you begin this next phase of your life, I have one request of you. When you get your diploma later, take a good look at it. Remember what’s on it? “Veritas” and “Utilitas.” Truth and Service.
That is your duty — the duty of your degree. That is the charge of a Howard graduate.
So whatever you plan to do next — whether you want to design the latest app or cure cancer or run a business. Whether you’re going to be a dentist, a lawyer, a teacher, or an accountant — let your guiding principle be truth and service.
At a time when there are Americans — disproportionately Black and brown men — trapped in a broken system of mass incarceration… Speak truth — and serve.
At a time when men, women, and children have been detained at airports in our country simply because of the God they worship… Speak truth — and serve.
At a time when immigrants have been taken from their families in front of schools and outside courthouses… Speak truth — and serve.
And at a time of incredible scientific and technological advances as well… when we’re dreaming of a mission to Mars… and unraveling the mysteries of the brain… and entrepreneurs in my home state of California are even starting to test flying cars…Speak truth — and serve.
We need you. Our country needs you. The world needs you.
Allyson, your HUSA President, said to me, “Boy, we can’t wait until we’re in charge.” Well, guess what — I can’t wait either. And neither can our world. So get out there.
And your Howard family will be with you every step of the way.