May 5, 2017
Address to the Class of 2017 Advanced Degrees Commencement Ceremony
Michigan State University
Remarks as prepared
To President Simon; Provost Youatt; distinguished deans; faculty and staff; and—most importantly—to the class of 2017: Congratulations!
I know that over the last two years, or three, or seven, you have worked hard to earn your advanced degree. And as a proud graduate of a public university like this one, I know that this school, and this state, are proud of you.
In addition to a lot of hard work, I imagine these years have required a lot of love, and maybe even a little patience. So, graduates, please join me in congratulating all of your friends and family here today. This is their triumph, too!
I am not a Michigander. But I do think of Michigan as a kind of home.
You see, the Ford Foundation—which I am so privileged to lead—started right here in Michigan, back in 1936. Although our institution is now entirely independent, it began as a product of the Ford family, of the Ford Motor company, and, by extension, of all the hardworking people who made Detroit and Michigan great.
We’ve never forgotten our roots. So, a few years ago, when Detroit was in trouble, we knew we had a special responsibility to serve.
As you probably know, in 2013, Detroit faced the worst case of municipal bankruptcy this country has ever seen. The options looked bleak. Some wanted to liquidate the city’s assets. Others wanted to sell off the collection of the DIA—the Detroit Institute of Arts.
So a group of foundations—including Ford—came together and worked with the DIA, the Governor, and the state legislature, to save the city. The media called it “the Grand Bargain.”
But for all the “Grand” headlines, there was another side of the story that didn’t get much press. I remember, very clearly, I was sitting in the Rivera Court of the DIA, surrounded by leaders from government, and philanthropy, and CEOs of business. But I was most impressed by two retirees sitting quietly at the front of the room.
Their names were not printed in the program. Reporters and photographers weren’t swarming them for interviews before and after the ceremony. They were representatives of the city’s workers, who, along with their fellow retirees, ultimately voted to cut their own benefits for the sake of Detroit.
Their names are Shirley Lightsey and Don Taylor.
And because of their service and sacrifice—and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of hard working municipal retirees like them—Detroit is beginning to thrive again.
Now, why am I telling you this story, on this special day?
Because if you do one thing with your new degree, I hope you find a way to serve others. Because, frankly, America needs your service now more than ever.
Around the world, inequality is rising. Authoritarian governments seek to stamp out democratic freedoms, like the right to protest or have a free press. Even in the United States, essential democratic institutions—including the media, civil society, and universities—are under attack.
And yet, it’s worth remembering that while today’s threats to democracy are unique, they are not unprecedented.
Consider the great threat to democracy of the last century—the Second World War.
In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined what he called the “Four Freedoms.” Then and now, these are the essential freedoms that all people should enjoy:
Freedom of speech.
Freedom of belief.
Freedom from want.
And freedom from fear.
These freedoms inspired a famous series of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. They open the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And these freedoms are central to the grander bargain we made more than two hundred years ago to start the American experiment—a bargain that gave us certain freedoms, but also charged us with upholding them as part of our democracy.
Simply put: “We, the people” means that my freedoms depend on your freedoms. And with these freedoms comes the responsibility to extend them to others.
For example, we have the freedom of speech. But our freedom of speech does not mean much if everyone is shouting over each other—or if no one is willing to listen. So, as citizens in a democracy, we have a responsibility to listen to others—and, in the process, ensure that their freedom of speech has value.
This means that our freedoms and responsibilities are not separate. They are intimately linked. One does not exist without the other.
So, with the freedom of belief comes a responsibility to accept different beliefs.
With the freedom from fear, comes the responsibility to act in opposition to it.
And, finally, with the freedom from want comes the responsibility to serve others.
This last responsibility found expression in the sacrifice of Shirley and Don. So today, Spartans, I’d like to focus on it, because this responsibility to serve is all around us.
But, let’s back up for a moment because when you think about it, “freedom from want” is an odd phrase. We all want something. I want a lot of things—social justice, world peace. I wouldn’t mind doing a little better in the Ford Foundation’s March Madness pool. No pressure, Coach Izzo.
No doubt, we live in a country—and at a time—where if you want something, you can get it pretty quickly. Just go online and you can get almost anything in two days, right to your door.
But “freedom from want” isn’t about material possessions. It goes far deeper than that.
FDR defined freedom from want, in part, as the ability to secure what he called “a healthy peacetime life”. That “healthy peacetime life” means security, and contentment; the very reasons why so many people from around the world are drawn to the United States, and why so many have come here to Michigan—to communities like Hamtramck and Dearborn.
This “freedom from want” is beautifully depicted in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting by the same name. It shows a family gathered around a dinner table, ready to eat. But it’s not the food that’s striking. It’s the faces. Every one of them is glowing. Happy and content.
This is freedom from want. Sitting with friends and loved ones. Celebrating what we have, and what we can be grateful for. It’s a feeling we are privileged to enjoy, and one I see on so many of your faces today.
Now, I know it’s sometimes hard to think we enjoy “freedom from want.” How can you have freedom from want when you just want freedom from your student loans? How can we talk about economic security, when so many people in this country feel so economically vulnerable?
I know sometimes it may not seem like it, but I promise you, this is a freedom you are lucky to have. You have an amazing education from a great public university in a subject you care about. And you have choices, and freedoms, that most people around the world do not.
That makes you one of a lucky few—because “freedom from want” is not guaranteed.
I was born in a poor Louisiana town. I started life in a little shotgun house in rural Texas, raised by a single mom. Needless to say, growing up wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot. And as a gay black man, there have been times in my life where I felt I did not belong at that Norman Rockwell dinner table.
And yet, I, too, have been lucky to enjoy freedom from want. But it didn’t happen by itself.
I was very fortunate my mother moved me out of that poor town in Louisiana where I was born.
I was fortunate that, in 1965, a young woman asked my mother to sign me up for the first class of Head Start.
I was fortunate to attend good public schools, to learn from good teachers, to receive Pell Grants and private scholarships to pay for college.
In other words, I was fortunate because people in my life—and my community—took the initiative to sacrifice and serve, and benefitted me, and many others, in the process. And because of their service, I was able to experience freedom from want.
If you, too, are privileged to experience freedom from want, it’s because people in your lives—especially here at Michigan State—did the same for you. And if you experience freedom from want, you have the obligation to serve—to serve others—especially those who do not have the privilege of a Michigan State degree.
Let’s be clear: not everyone experiences this. “Freedom from want” is not just some 1940s, depression-era idea. There are plenty of people across this country and around the world who do not enjoy that “healthy peacetime life.”
People in Flint, where the water is literally harmful to your health. In Macomb County, where too many middle-class jobs have disappeared.
Not everyone enjoys freedom from want on the streets of the south side of Chicago, where people yearn for an end to violence, and for economic opportunity. Nor in the mountains of Appalachia, where poverty keeps people from rising. Nor on the tribal lands across the American west.
In these places—and too many others—we have the responsibility to serve.
Otherwise, that grander bargain we made with one another—the social contract that lives in our founding documents and holds us all together—that social contract starts to unravel. As inequality grows, our agreement with ourselves—and one another—comes undone.
So, “We, the People” must serve one another in order to preserve our freedoms for future generations.
That’s what Shirley and Don and the city workers did for Detroit. They made a choice that was not in service of themselves, but in service of others. And they were not alone.
It was also the choice of firefighters, and police officers, and the civil servants who, once again, showed up for duty and served their city. The choice of journalists, like Curt Guyette, who reported on the Flint water crisis and made it a national conversation, and of public-health officials like Dr. Pamela Pugh, who is working to ensure a tragedy like the one in Flint never happens again.
And so, class of 2017, here is my challenge to you: Continue this state’s proud legacy of service.
Whether your degree is in medical science, or music theory, you can serve.
You newly minted engineers and business entrepreneurs, you can serve.
Whether you are a steward for our environment, or preparing our next generation of students, you can serve.
Because when we serve others, we serve our democracy. We make “We, the people” stronger than before. And we create the conditions for our democracy to be healthy and vibrant, to continue and thrive.
This is your responsibility—what our freedom requires of us and demands we do for others.
So, let us embrace this responsibility, and all those responsibilities that come with the great gift of your freedom.
And as you leave this great university and take the next steps on your journey, do all you can to give that gift of freedom to others through your service.
So Michigan State Class of 2017: We can’t wait to see how you will change the world through your service. Congratulations!