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Bronx, New York – Thursday, June 4, 2015
Remarks as prepared

To President Dr. David Gómez; to the leadership of CUNY; to the deans, faculty, and staff; and, most importantly, to the Hostos Community College Class of 2015: Congratulations! I’m so proud to share this day with each of you. I’m humbled to celebrate your extraordinary achievement. And I think each of us owes a special debt of gratitude to this momentous day’s unsung heroes.

Graduates: Please stand and join me in, once again, thanking your parents and grandparents, your spouses and partners, your brothers and sisters, your godparents and mentors, your friends of every kind and category. None of us walks our unlikely journeys alone. This milestone belongs as much to them as it does to you.

Over the years, I’ve been to more than a few commencement ceremonies…in more than a few places. And I’m very proud that just a few subway stops away from our offices at the Ford Foundation in Midtown, there is a school that rivals almost any othe—a school that stands out for both celebrating diversity and encouraging excellence.

Of course, a lot changes between 43rd Street and 149th street, between Grand Central Station and Grand Concourse…even just between Manhattan and the Bronx. It’s sometimes unbelievable to think how different worlds can exist in the same city…or in the same country.

I don’t need to belabor the observation that, for the United States, this is a seminal moment—a period of profound (and not always equal) change. Indeed, the America of your college graduation day looks, and feels, and sounds very different than the America of mine. Consider this: A half-century ago, 17 out of every 20 Americans were of European descent. A half-century from now, we’ll be well on our way to the opposite. In other words, with each passing day, America looks more and more like the South Bronx! And taken together, what this means is that your perspective matters more than ever before.

Look around, and you’ll see that you are waves of a rising tide. Your lived experience is shared by a growing plurality of Americans. Look around, and you’ll see Raisa Valerio: The first member of her family to attend college, let alone receive a degree. The proud mother of a 6-year-old son. Raisa has been accepted to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as Hunter College, and is considering a career within the Department of Corrections. Raisa, congratulations!

Look around, and you’ll see Diana Eusebio: Diana started life with her family in Mexico—but came to the United States and New York as DREAMer. She’s pursuing her interest in science, while advocating for herself and others like her inside and outside of school. Today she is a Lincoln Academy Student—and has earned her Regents Diploma and an Associate Degree from Hostos. Congratulations, Diana!

Indeed, I am looking around, and I see all of you. Your hard work. Your triumphs. And I stand in awe of each of you. Because I started my journey in your very seats.

You see, as a young boy, raised by a single mom, I wasn’t supposed to go to college. As a young man totally unprepared for the world, I wasn’t supposed to graduate from a top-flight law school. As a young professional, with no experience in finance, I wasn’t supposed to cut it on the trading floor of a major New York bank. And when I started in philanthropy, there the skeptics and cynics were again. They told me to lower my sights. They said that because I went to public schools, not private schools, that because I had on-the ground experience, not a Ph.D., that because I had never worked in the venerated halls of old, stodgy foundations, I couldn’t effectively manage seasoned, polished, buttoned-up executives.

My point is: In the eyes of so many, I wasn’t supposed to have the opportunities I did—and I certainly wasn’t supposed to seize them. And every time I think about how I was not supposed to be where I am, I remember how I almost was not here at all. My childhood friends were cousins?—?boys with talents, and passions, and potential no different from my own. They found themselves caught in the same cycle of despair and injustice that has trapped so many of our young black and brown men. By my count, five of them have spent significant time in prison.

It reminds me exactly why days like these are so special…and so important…and so precious. Because there are insidious systems at work—entrenched systems that stack the deck against people like us… that make it harder to go from aspiration to achievement. But then there are institutions at work for good—institutions like Hostos—that advance, rather than hinder, opportunity.

Graduates: Look around. Here we all are… sharing this auspicious day. And what was true for me is true for you: You have to push forward, with courage and resolve, with poise and patience, with gratitude and grace. You have to represent these institutions of good, with excellence. And you already know exactly what this takes—better than most.

Many of you are the first in your families to graduate college—blazing a trail for generations to follow. And most of you attended class, while holding down a job, and raising a family. You woke up early. You worked and studied… and then worked some more. You did not coast. Cruise control was not an option. You took nothing for granted. And, as a result, you remind us all that anything… that everything… is still possible.

Graduates: You embody excellence—because of where you are; because of how hard you’ve worked, and how far you’ve come. Immigrant… native. Straight… gay. Wealthy in means… rich only in resolve and resilience. Daughters and sons of proud families. Mothers and fathers of children, who will lead better lives because of your talent and your toil. Because of your sacrifice.

And so, I ask you—I implore you—don’t stop. Keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep pushing forward. But keep reaching back, too. Start a business. Join a community association. Sign a petition. Serve on the PTA. Vote. The onus is on you. To stand up. To speak out. To use the weapons that Hostos has given you to fight for social justice.

Let me close with this: As coincidence—or maybe fate—would have it, today marks the 50th anniversary of another seminal commencement ceremony, the 1965 Howard University commencement at which President Lyndon Johnson delivered one of his greatest speeches. In it, he said—and I’m quoting here: “We seek not just freedom, but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity, but human ability. Not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

For my part, I believe that inequality is the greatest challenge we face as a society. But the opposite of inequality is not just equality… it is justice. And justice is what we must fight for, each in our own way but all together at the same time. For some of you, the fight may be here in the South Bronx. For others, it may be wherever else your family calls home. But your location does not trim your responsibility. Indeed, we are bound together—by pride in our history and our desire to make better our shared future.

Graduates: Your final class assignment is one that you must carry with you always. Demonstrate your excellence every day. Climb the ladder up, and when you do, don’t lift it behind you. This is a moment you will remember and cherish forever. Earning a degree from Hostos is a great achievement. But do not let it be your greatest achievement. Because there is much work to be done. Because your work is just beginning. And I cannot wait to see what you accomplish next.