To the Class of 2016: Change Happens One Citizen at a Time

This post is adapted from the Colby College Baccalaureate Address, delivered in Waterville, Maine, on May 21, 2016, by Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett.

Thank you, President Greene, for that generous introduction. It was such an honor to work with you at the University of Chicago - you made a tremendously positive impact on the University and city that I love so dearly. So, it is great to see that you are continuing such important work here at Colby.

Receiving an honorary degree without taking a single exam to earn it is very cool, but after even a short time on campus, I know I would have loved spending four years here.

Thank you to Chairman Diamond, the Board of Trustees, and to the faculty and staff, for your dedication to Colby and the Class of 2016. To the parents, family, friends, and loved ones outside watching this ceremony on the big screen, thank you for all you've done supporting these extraordinary young people and helping them reach this point.

And of course, what makes Colby unique is your incredible student body. Class of 2016, from all I've heard and seen, your mix of intellectual curiosity, energy, idealism, passion, grit, and determination is just what our country needs, and I am proud to be a member of your class. Congratulations, this weekend is all about you!

Now, I did have a chance to glance at your senior week schedule.

It is truly a testament to your endurance that any of you are actually here this morning. Between pub crawls in Waterville and Portland, your last Loudness - I know most of you still call it that - and perhaps a final midnight quesadilla - or two - at the Spa, I'm sure you're all feeling some combination of both exhaustion and exhilaration. I hear you, because after seven and a half years in Washington, I feel that way too.

In retrospect, I'm sure the last four years have flown by and it feels like just yesterday when you were first playing Big Blue Moon and meeting your COOT families. When you were figuring out how to gain your bearings, develop friendships, and squeeze everything possible from your Colby experience, all to prepare yourself for this weekend, your well-earned send off to the next chapter of your lives.

After all, you follow in some big footsteps. This is where a young Mary Low shattered a glass ceiling for women's education and demonstrated that women could easily compete with men. Sorry fellas, but you know it's true. Your alum, Elijah Lovejoy, became a leading voice for press freedom and the abolition of slavery. This institution has helped shape many of our nation's leaders.

Class of 2016, you are now a part of Colby's incredible legacy. And there are responsibilities that go along with this mighty privilege.

More on those in a minute.

As you heard from President Greene, I was born and spent the first five years of my life in Iran. My parents and I lived on a hospital compound with Iranian, French, British, and American families. I learned three languages and played freely with children from different cultures, religions, incomes, and races. I discovered that in spite of our apparent differences large and small, we had much in common. That early experience fundamentally shaped my perspective on people, and the world in which we all live.

Similarly, Class of 2016, you are more diverse, better connected, and more likely to see yourself as part of a global community than any generation before you. Your class is from big cities from coast to coast, small towns, and rural communities. You're from 32 different countries - from Brazil and Bulgaria, Sierra Leone and Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Italy, and everywhere in between. And your diversity has no doubt enriched every aspect of your college experience.

It will serve you well into the future, because as you enter the 21st century global marketplace, appreciating and being comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds is not just a strength, but a necessity.

Now, when I was in college, there was no internet and no cell phones, so a face book was another name for a yearbook, a tweet was a sound that birds made, and libraries actually had books in them.

Today, the innovation and technology revolution has been, and continues to be, a catalyst for transformative change, at an unprecedented pace.

You don't need to be born in a foreign country to interact with, and learn about, people the world over. You can do so with the touch of a finger.

A small business in your home town is able to sell its goods all over the world. But, as its potential market expands, so does its competition. So that while understanding the needs of a diverse consumer base is essential, it can also be threatening. For, some of the factors that bring us closer together in a shrinking world are also the very same ones that can drive us further apart.

And, although there is much to be excited about, this new reality is rife with challenges. And require inclusive strategies. From climate change, to growing a healthy economy. From civil wars that cause the outpouring of refugees, to curing and preventing the spread of diseases, to the threat of terrorism, to name just a few. The forced intimacy - the smallness - of our world, where, like it or not, we are inextricably linked, and it tests our humanity, tolerance, and core decency in profound and fundamental ways.

As historical boundaries and traditional social norms give way, we see those uncomfortable with, or threatened by change, desperately holding tight to the status quo. Building barriers - both literally and figuratively - to try to regain their sense of identity, certainty, and stability, while all the while the ground is shifting seismically under our feet.

And then, of course, there's the polarization of our domestic politics. My world - and one of my greatest disappointments. Rather than being a space where we can negotiate the needs of a strong and diverse country, in a globally competitive world, our politics has become pathetically tribal. The inevitable differences in a richly diverse country are increasingly cause for scorn and suspicion, rather than, as you learned here, curiosity and yes, compromise.

But, here's why, even after my long and painful class in toxic politics 101, I am still optimistic about our country's future. There is no better time to be alive than right now. Think about it. Those technologies that connect us the world over, can bring together our best minds in a way that's never before been possible. While many of our problems require global cooperation, we also have a stunning capacity to come together as a country and a world - from the unprecedented international responses to stop the Ebola epidemic, to a global climate change agreement with 195 countries, to cutting our unemployment rate from 10 to 5 percent! More citizens live in democracies. Fewer people live in extreme poverty. More Americans are graduating from college. And you, my classmates, are entering the best job market since 2007. And I am optimistic because of you.

My hope is our challenges motivate you to use your talent and skills to be positive agents for change. We are counting on you.

And so, in my remaining time, I'll share four tips that I urge you to consider.

I. Citizenship

First, fully embrace the responsibilities of citizenship.

That starts with voting. In every election. Not just Presidential elections.

Your elected representatives are responsible for tackling many of the challenges I mentioned earlier. Yet, in the 2014 elections, less than 20 percent of young people voted. Twenty percent! Your voice will not be represented in our democracy, unless you vote. Do not disenfranchise yourselves.

And before and after you vote, engage with your government. The responsibilities of your citizenship do not begin and end at the ballot box.

Government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people, requires your representatives to engage with you, but you must be willing to reciprocate.

If you don't engage, you run the risk that they will make decisions based on the narrow self-serving priorities of those special interests that spend a lot of money lobbying. The best and most painful example was our inability to pass sensible gun legislation to keep guns out of the hands of those who are a threat to themselves or others. About 30,000 people die from gun violence each year, and two-thirds commit suicide. In the wake of the Sandy Hook mass murder of 20 six- and seven-year olds and six adults, 90 percent of the American people supported our proposed legislation. But the senators who voted against it said they had not heard strong support for the legislation from their constituents.

If you are unwilling to honestly and fairly engage with, and yes, challenge, your government, how can it possibly reflect your values and priorities? Ours is a big and diverse country. We are strongest when every voice speaks up - when we do more than passively love our country, but when we actively help perfect it.

In addition to voting and engaging with your government, citizenship in our democracy is its strongest when our most talented serve in its government. So without any reservation, I also encourage you to join the arena. Serve in government - local, state, or federal - or run for office yourself. Any office. For they all have the potential to improve the lives of your fellow citizens.

The mark of true citizenship is also importantly defined by how well you engage with, and relate to each other. It's about our obligations, service, and fidelity to one another.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." That is only more true today.

Our government simply reflects our country. If our communities are divided, our elected leaders will be too. If we have no respect or compassion for the needs of others, then those values will infuse our politics.

II. Build bridges

Which brings me to my second tip: build bridges.

Engage your fellow citizens with genuine curiosity. With a near insatiable hunger to understand their perspectives.

I know an important issue on Colby's campus, as it is at colleges around the country, is how we create an inclusive community where all voices are heard. The manner in which we surface historical injustices that linger in our society. From the mistreatment of students of color, to the painful reality of the sexual violence epidemic on college campuses, to the homophobia and transphobia still present in our schools and our communities.

Those conversations are vitally important. But as you've seen, they are hard, and even painful. It takes work to ensure that we make it safe for diverse perspectives to contribute to a community's richness, rather than deepening its divisions. This challenge will grow harder when you leave a campus where the leadership helps facilitate these conversations. You must now be the leaders.

And understanding those outside of our immediate community, is more complicated by the way we consume information. The high standards that your academic writers face are much lower in today's 24/7 media world. With its nearly infinite range of sources and uneven quality filters, it's easy for anyone to drift - consciously, or unconsciously - toward biased, uninformed opinions, or those with which we simply agree. So resist following the crowd and always question what you consume. Colby taught you how to do that. Carry that muscle memory wherever you go.

III. Compromise is not a dirty word.

And now, my third tip.

Even though today's political climate makes compromise seem weak or ideologically unfaithful, it is essential to a robust, healthy, and diverse democracy.

Let's take health care reform for example, or Obamacare as many so fondly call it. For decades, one of our country's great tragedies has been that too often, if you couldn't afford health insurance, you simply went without it, and suffered the consequences. And even if you could have afforded it, you might have been discriminated against because you had previously been sick, or charged more just for being a woman. Yes, indeed.

When President Obama ran for office, it was with the promise that he would prioritize reforming our health care system to make it an affordable right for all Americans. Turned out to be easier said than done.

We spent months negotiating with members of Congress, making concession after concession to secure support. For the President faced the choice of either passing a good - though not perfect - bill, or passing no bill.

The President chose compromise. Today, 20 million additional people now have insurance - many of them for the first time. All of you can stay on your parents' plans until you turn 26. Insurance companies may no longer discriminate against you for pre-existing conditions. All insured women have access to preventive services, health care rates are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And for the first time ever, more than 90 percent of Americans have health coverage.

Our health care system is undeniably better. Much better.

And as the President said recently, "I'll take better any day of the week."

And keep in mind, major legislative initiatives are never perfect at the outset - programs such as Social Security and Medicare initially had flaws, but, over the years they improved and reflect essential values of our democracy, upon which tens of millions of Americans now depend.

IV. Take the long view

Which leads to my final piece of advice: take the long view.

Not only is our world much smaller than it was when I was your age, but it spins much faster. We seemingly have everything we need literally at our fingertips, and attention spans tend to be about the length of our smart phones. Let's face it, we expect everything right when we want it.

But remember that although technology has accelerated our efficiency, the toughest problems require not just solutions from our government, which can take longer than they should, but cultural change - changes in attitudes, habits, and hearts. And frustrating as it may be, that takes time in order to be truly sustainable.

And believe me, I know, it's hard to see injustices and not want immediate solutions. But change requires patience, perseverance, and resilience - truly.

And yes, disappointment, failure, rejection, and setbacks hurt. Welcome to my daily world, or just look at my Twitter feed. But what defines you is how you learn, bounce back, and continue to push forward.

A great example is same sex marriage. Now known simply as marriage. When President Obama took office, same sex marriage was legal in only two states - Massachusetts and Connecticut. Two. And as you know, last June, the Supreme Court ruled that it is now the law of the land. All that progress in just the years since you started high school. Seemingly like a thunderbolt. But to see progress in just six years ignores the decades that people spent fighting for LGBT rights and laying the foundations for the change we see today.

Remember, for a range of both understandable or unjustified reasons, there are people deeply invested in the status quo. And even if you do not benefit from the status quo, fear of the unknown is a powerful emotion that causes inertia.

Change happens not just because we vote in one election. Or put our hopes in one leader.

Change requires a sustained effort over time, learning to absorb the pain of setbacks along the way, yet remaining resolute.

For as Dr. King also said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

That spirit is what has made our country, with all of its flaws, the greatest country on earth.

Mary Low could probably barely imagine a time when more women would graduate from college than men. That didn't stop her from breaking the glass ceilings she faced in her day. Elijah Lovejoy could only have dreamed of the world we now enjoy. But that didn't stop him from laying down a marker for freedom. You, Class of 2016, stand on their shoulders.

President Greene has already described the incredible things that some of you have done during your short time at Colby. They stepped up because they understand what I said at the outset - that there are responsibilities that go along with the privilege of your Colby education. And they are not alone. Many of you have already stepped up too.

That's how change happens.

One citizen at a time.

And in closing, as Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Colby Class of 2016, congratulations! Never doubt. You are what we need. Now go out and change the world.