That was a nice introduction. But honestly, it missed perhaps the most important thing on my resume: My first job. I got my first paycheck working in Westside Video in Port Angeles. It was a great job. Though I got paid less than minimum wage…but, hey… free rentals.
Because of that job and the 11 hours a week I spend commuting to and from DC, it’s quite possible that I’ve seen more movies than nearly any other member of Congress – even though I’m a couple decades younger than the other members of Congress.
I love the movies. I love all of it. Popcorn. Milk Duds. Milk Duds in my popcorn. LOVE IT! For me, it’s all about the movie franchises. You can learn a lot from movie franchises.
The Harry Potter movies. Great lessons on the power of friendship. On the ability of an ordinary person – even a little boy who lives under the stairs – to accomplish great things. And of course important lessons about not trusting anyone named Draco Malfoy. Seriously, what a creepy kid.
The Avengers movies and XMEN Movies… Both powerful allegories regarding the ability of people of diverse backgrounds and capabilities to come together for the common good.
The Fast and the Furious films … also powerful allegories about . . . the dangers of driving fast . . . and furiously. I can tell you all about it when I see you again.
From Star Wars, I learned everything. I learned that even the most evil bad guy can be redeemed. Sorry if that was a spoiler. I learned that there is, in fact, a force that, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. And I learned the value of having an awesome, hairy copilot. I suppose this is an appropriate time to introduce my wife, Jen, who’s with us today. Just kidding, honey.
But here’s what I’ll tell you… there are some film franchises that really have no life lessons… The Paranormal Activity movies, for example. There’s nothing to be gained from those movies…unless you want to watch your congressman wet his pants in fear in the middle of a movie theater.
Now, my remarks are entitled Transformers 2016. And, despite the title, I believe that the Transformers movies fall into the category of cinematic franchises from which you will truly learn nothing. As a kid, I admit, I enjoyed watching an 18 wheeler transform into a giant robot that could save the planet from evil. But the movie franchise: Completely unredeemable. Not the CG. Not Mark Wahlberg. Certainly not Shia Lebouf. Just do it! Nothing.
But one word came to mind when I thought about this ceremony: Transformers. Not the movie. But the idea. The idea has a lot to offer.
You, my friends, have gone through an amazing transformation as graduates and have the power to transform this world. And there are four kinds of transformation I want to touch on with you in the time we have together today.
First, I want to talk about the transformative power of what you’ve just accomplished – graduating. Two and a half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin, wrote “An investment in knowledge pays the greatest interest.”
The investment you’ve made in your own education is transformational. Today you graduate from the nationally recognized University of Puget Sound. This university has invested in you – its faculty, its staff, its administration, including my friend – the tremendous President Ron Thomas for whom this is a final UPS graduation. Let’s give them a round of applause.
Having taken classes here, having developed relationships here, having graduated from this top-notch school means you’ve transformed into a more capable person – and a more attractive asset in this economy.
This may be my only real applause line of the day. You ready? Here goes: The investments that you and your families have made in your college education will dramatically increase the likelihood that you will be employed and will have higher pay. Go ahead. . . you can clap for that.
Now parents. This one is for you….Parents, as a consequence of the hard work of these graduates and the support you’ve given them, it means these graduates are substantially less likely to end up living in your basement. So you can clap too. Graduates, no pressure.
Not every job is going to require a college education. But we know that 60 percent of the jobs in the next decade -- 19 of the 20 fastest growing occupations – will require some higher education. If we want to do something about income inequality and make sure more people are employed rather than unemployed, then we’ve got to put educational transformation within reach.
So become advocates for education – for that incredibly powerful transformer.
As a representative, I’m a believer in the notion that education is the door to opportunity. And for a lot of families, including mine, financial aid is the key to that door.
That’s why I’m working to get Congress to strengthen financial aid -- to expand Pell Grants, to get loan rates on student loans down, to enable students to refinance their loans.
And President Thomas has been one of this nation’s best advocates for education. He’s been an educational transformer. Superintendent Santorno, who you honored today, is an education transformer.
But we need more voices singing in that choir. Each of you can be one of those voices. Demand that your elected officials be champions for education -- so more people have the transformational opportunity that you did.
That’s important…. And it gets to a second kind of transformation….
We are undergoing a startling economic transformation. Just think about this…the video store that I worked in as a teenager no longer exists. By and large, video stores don’t exist. Video cassettes don’t exist. The words “Be kind, please rewind” mean nothing to you graduates. You have experienced the awesome on-demand world of iTunes, Netflix, and Youtube. On demand at a video store was finding a new release in the return bin that hadn’t been put back up on the shelves and getting to rent it before someone had the chance.
When I was a kid, my family would shop at Kits Cameras in Port Angeles. A store that no longer exists. It sold Kodak products. At its peak, Kodak employed 160k people in this nation. And now… it employs 4% of that… because everyone has a camera on his or her phone.
When I was a kid, I used to love to go to Tower Records. A chain that had a billion dollars in sales and filed for bankruptcy 5 years later.
When my kids were little… on Sundays, we’d go to church and then head over to Borders Books. At one point there were 1,000 Borders shops with over 35,000 employees. Four years later it liquidated.
That economic transformation, in many respects, has changed our lives. It’s made things more convenient. It’s opened up new avenues for information, for entertainment. It’s put information at our finger tips. It’s made us more productive. In some respects, it’s connected us more. I can FaceTime with my kids from Washington DC. My daughter Sophie can play Minecraft with her cousin in Kansas.
But the rapid change that is a fact of your lives can also be scary. Because the days of someone graduating school, getting a job, and having that job for the next 30-40 years are over. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
But here’s the deal. By getting a college education, you’ve made it more likely that you will work in a field that won’t be made obsolete. Your college diploma is valuable currency.
It gives you the power to transform our economy. Certainly UPS grad Jeff Brotman and the folks at Costco have transformed the way we shop – demonstrating that you can give people affordable products – including a $1.50 hot dog – and give your employees decent wages and benefits. UPS alum Dale Chihuly has transformed the arts and made an extraordinary mark on the economy of downtown Tacoma. UPS grad Mike Bair worked at the Boeing Company, spearheading the Dreamliner, transforming aviation toward greater fuel efficiency.
The experiences you’ve had at UPS have taught you to think critically, to respect diverse opinions, and to embrace change. Every time I visit this campus, I come away totally psyched about you. I met an environmental studies student who wants to improve access to clean water. I visited a class focused on education policy – and met people who will be awesome teachers. I met students studying political science – and I pray for them. I challenge you to use what you’ve learned here to become economic transformers. To not let change happen to you but to be a change agent. Not to be a victim of economic transformation but to be a driver of opportunity.
To come up with the next innovative way to build a bridge, to protect our water, to cure a disease. Develop the next software app to make us more productive…or to help me crush candy when I’m killing time.
More importantly, become be part of an economic transformation that enables us to have an economy that works better for everybody – where people can have more stability and better pay and benefits. Where workers can be better respected. Where people feel less squeezed and have more opportunity. And where local communities and our planet can benefit.
Beyond transforming our economy, I hope you will engage in a third kind of transformation – the transformation of civic engagement. It can be disheartening to watch our government in action – that’s both inaction and in action. Our nation is so much better than our current politics.
We’ve heard political candidates speak in ways that would get my 6 year old suspended from Artondale Elementary School. Even in our discourse with one another as citizens, we often show less respect for each other than Jay Z showed for Beyonce.
But listen… We’ve faced these moments before as a nation. When there were concerns things might go off of the rails. In all these moments but one, the Civil War – Americans of good hearts and good minds and honest convictions said “We’re not going to let our differences divide us. We’re committed to building a more perfect union -- to revitalizing our democracy.”
As Abraham Lincoln prepared his second inaugural address, some encouraged him to use divisive rhetoric. To spike the football. He was told it would benefit him politically to rub the South’s face in it. Instead Lincoln gave a speech, a sermon really, that described the blood that was spilled during the Civil War as a punishment from God for the sin of slavery– not just to the South but to the North as well. And then, he said “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” it was time to “bind up the wounds of our nation.”
After his speech, he received a letter from a supporter asking “What on earth were you thinking? Don’t you know your political interest was better served by saying something divisive?” And Lincoln’s response was transformative. He said, “I said what I said because it was the truth . . . and it needed to be said.”
How much better off would we be with transformational leadership? With those who told the truth when it needs to be said? What would our nation look like if our political leaders didn’t define success as making the other party look stupid? If they sought to bring us together for progress rather than to divide us?
If we listened to and respected diverse views even if we didn’t agree with them? If our engagement with one another as citizens didn’t come off like an episode of Mean Tweets? Imagine if we could reduce the role of special interests and big money in our politics. Imagine if as Americans, we did a better job of showing up… If we did better than in 2014, when nearly 2/3 of Americans didn’t vote. When less than 20% of young voters cast a ballot.
Faith in government has diminished for a reason. I’m certainly conscious of that. According to a recent poll, Congress is now less popular than head lice, colonoscopies, and Justin Bieber. And yet, you still invited me to be your commencement speaker…. Thanks!
But, folks, we have a choice. Do we agonize or do we organize? Do you get frustrated… or do you get motivated to transform it? To fix it? People-powered politics have ended wars, empowered people who have been disrespected and disenfranchised. Citizen action has expanded women’s rights – including the right to vote. Voters here in Washington have expanded LGBT rights and passed marriage equality.
People powered politics gave us leaders like UPS alum Rosa Franklin, the first African American woman elected to the Washington State Senate. A nurse, the youngest of 12 kids. A woman who transformed our state’s approach to health care and affordable housing. Who was respected by people regardless of political party because she respected people – regardless of political party.
Leaders like Lyle Quasim, a UPS alum and trustee, who led our state’s Department of Social and Health Services and was Chief of Staff for this county. Lincoln said, “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change government.”
My encouragement – honestly, my plea -- is to direct some of your transformational powers to changing government – to revitalizing our civic life. For some of you, that may mean running for office or being involved in campaigns. For others, it may be going to a community meeting, joining a community group, or advocating for local change. For all of you, it should mean exercising your civic obligation to vote and participating in a civil discussion about how to make your community and your country stronger.
And that brings me to the final type of transformation… the transformation of our community.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And then he wrote, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
We all know the underlying meaning: We are all in this together.
It’s why your generation – and this graduating class – is so special and has such potential.
When you see a problem you take action. There is a reason that UPS graduates are more likely than those at nearly any other school in the nation to participate in the Peace Corps, to participate in Teach for America, to leave this campus and go make a difference.
As I considered what to talk about today, I thought of an observation made by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. She was asked, “What is the first sign you look for to tell you of an ancient civilization? How do you know they were civilized? Was it some instrument, a tool, an article of clothing?
And she responded by answering, “a healed femur.”
As she explained it, in ancient times, when someone broke a femur, they were pretty well cooked. They couldn’t hunt or gather or flee from danger. And most, importantly, that person couldn’t fix it on his or her own. They needed someone to care enough about them to help them heal.
A healed femur indicated that someone else helped that person, rather than abandoning them. That there was enough “civilization” to care. That’s where we transform from random wanderers to a civilized society.
My friends, we have a lot of broken femurs in our world. And it is this graduating class that has the power to heal them.
So, whether you invest in educating a young person or healing a sick person, whether you provide services for the vulnerable or housing for the homeless, whether you work to make peace or protect our planet, whether you build a socially responsible business that takes care of its workers or develop a new innovation that solves big problems, thank you for all you are going to do to transform your community – and your world.
Whatever you do next, you will be called upon to take what you learned here and put it into action.
A transformational leader once said: “Fate rarely calls on us at a moment of our choosing. You may lose your faith in us. But never in yourselves. From here, the fight will be your own.”
Of course, those are the words of Optimus Prime from the Transformers movie. Sorry… I couldn’t resist. Congratulations and good luck.
The first essay I ever wrote for Puget Sound, was on the common application. It asked, “What is the role of an educated citizen?"
At the time, four years ago, I thought being a citizen meant being patriotic, and I thought being educated meant making informed decisions… But what did I know?
I had no idea that everything I imagined about America, everything I thought I knew about college, would turn out to be a far cry from the truth.
Today I want to share the single truth that has stayed with me over these years, and hope that it can help as we embark into a world full of conflicting messages.
For instance, the United States of America perpetuates many ideals.
Since the foundation of this nation, we have proclaimed to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yet, how can we prize life, when we brought people to this land on a sea of death,
How can we value liberty, while we comfortably benefit from slavery
How can we glorify happiness while so easily denying it to those who are undocumented
Even though we were all undocumented at some time.
It is self-evident that these ideals are far from the realities.
At Puget Sound we also have conflicting messages.
Our school has four ideals. These ideals are written on each side of the obelisk. Justice, science, faith, and liberal arts.
Yet, how can we value justice, when some of us don’t consider equity to be part of our education when we can turn our backs to activists and pretend protests are presumptuous? How can we uphold science, without deconstructing its approval of racialization, black subjugation and the assault against the transgender body? How can we endorse faith, when the spirit has been removed from the curriculum and too many of us have no connection with our spiritual life? How can we promote the liberal arts, when it essentially means learning about whiteness from various disciplines?
The reality is, we have not yet reached our ideals. Today we will earn our degree in a liberal arts education, that has taught us to be critical thinkers, and problem solvers…we’ve learned how to learn.
But simply fulfilling the liberal arts, does not mean we have reached the ideal of this school, because, in fact, all of these ideals are connected.
And on a glorious day like today, this is a pinnacle, this is a high mark of achievement. But there is more that we must learn and grow, in order to reach our potential as a graduating class.
Just because classes are over, it does not mean we are done learning. A professor recently told me schools are a mere reflections of society. And I want to complicate that a little further by saying, schools and society are a mere reflection of the people in them.
Each of our lives and narratives have an impact, it effects our school and effects our society.
Our experiences as the class of 2016 are linked to the life and narrative of the person sitting next to you. Your potential as a student, your research opportunities, your class offerings, was linked to the potential of this school. And your potential as a citizen is inextricably linked to the potential of society.
For example, my class of 2016 experience was profoundly shaped by the life and narrative of Rachel Askew. And I may have held the highest student role on campus, but it took until 2015 for our school’s potential to elect the first African American female as an ASUPS President. And today, if I wanted to run for President of the United States, it’s going to take some stretching for us to get there as a society. Your potential is linked to the space you are grounded.
And when I look out at all of you today, and think about where you’ve come from and how far you’re going in this world, I would be remiss to skip over the biggest truth I’ve learned in my life. It matters where you are grounded.
If all you can see is what’s in front of you naturally on this earth, your potential will be capped to the realities of this world. And the realities of this world are far from their ideals.
People often ask me, Nakisha Renee, how did you do it? How did you overcome and advocate and stay so involved all four years? My answer today is the same as it would be four years ago, “Not of myself, for by grace I have been saved through faith.”
I would not have overcome my depression if it had not been for grace, I would not have overcome my suicide ideation if it had not been for grace, and I would not be standing before you today, without the grace of God.
Faith is the missing link between our Puget Sound ideals and realities, and the missing link between America’s ideals and realities.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So if we want to fully reach our invisible ideals, we all need some faith in order to get there.
Faith has sustained me, a mighty long way, and it’s the foundation that has kept me alive in such a broken world. We are all about to enter this broken world.
But if you survived Puget Sound, you can survive America. If your reality was less than ideal on this campus, you can push through the reality of America. Your spiritual potential has no boundaries, has no limitations, and can supersede the capacities of this earth.
Faith is the missing link that can close the gap between our realities and our ideals. As we graduate, we are going back to our home communities and cities and states, but we will always remain connected to Puget Sound. After all, once a Logger, always a Logger.
Graduation is simply the beginning of a new relationship with our school as alumni, and a new relationship with America as an educated citizen.
We end where we begin.
As alumni, we can use our voice to help Puget Sound reach its ideals. We can volunteer, mentor, and give our time or money to this school. Our Puget Sound education has equipped us to be critical thinkers, so think before you give, think about how you want to impact students after us.
As citizens, we can use our voice to create an ideal society. We can vote, serve in government, and give our time or money to people doing the work of justice in this country. Our Puget Sound education has equipped us to be problem solvers, and your degree can help solve the problems of this world.
This world is full of conflicting messages. If I had to re-write my first essay on the role of an educated citizen, I would say it is our duty to push against the realities of America, against the realities of this school, so that these institutions can stretch to their potential.
Class of 2016, congratulations on making it to this point. As we take the next step, our role is to emulate the ideals of a Puget Sound education. To emulate justice, science, liberal arts and faith in order to create societies that are ideally equitable, peaceful and loving wherever you go.
Learn, grow, get liberated, and stay woke. Because our school, and our society, is a mere reflection… of you.