Debbie A Stabenow

Ford School Commencement Address - May 2, 2015

Debbie A Stabenow
May 02, 2015— Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Well, thank you. Thank you and good afternoon.

The first question I have is, where do I get my Men of Ford calendar? [laughter] OK, I'm going to get one. And one pie a month? What was that? I want it. I tell you, there is creativity in this room. This is great.

It really is wonderful to be here with you.

And to Dean Susan Collins, who laid out such a wonderful picture of what is happening and all of the amazing things happening that are represented here on stage, as well as with all of you. It just reminds me of just how proud I am of this wonderful Ford School.

And I want to thank also Dean Janet Weiss. Thank you for your leadership. I look forward to having the opportunity to work with you in Washington as you come in to talk about children and what we need to do to lift children out of poverty and give them an opportunity to succeed. So I'm looking to your voice and the opportunity to do that.

To all of the great faculty who have been mentioned and the staff who have taught you and challenged you and supported you, thank you for doing that.

And having sat in the audience as a parent here at the University of Michigan, I have to say thank you to parents and families, and friends who are here to celebrate with you as well.

And most importantly to each of you, way to go. Congratulations. You did it. [applause]

I so admire all of you and the leadership here at the Ford School for your deep commitment to public policy which I share. And I'm excited about having the opportunity to work with the dean to create more opportunities in DC for students to be able to come in and be part of what is happening.

And the dean went to all kinds of things that are being focused on and the expertise here. I just want to add a couple of areas that I'm very passionate about and have been proud to be a partner with the university on and that's the-- from the battery hub that is on campus; to the center for lightweight materials in Corktown; to all the advance manufacturing alternative energy efforts going on that literally are going to change the world that are happening right here; to the world class medical research that is happening right here on campus, breakthroughs and everything from Alzheimer's to clinical depression, from diabetes to cancer.

I want to thank this university for understanding that when we talk about healthcare we need to include healthcare above the neck, as well as below the neck. The whole body is something that we need to be focused on. [applause]

So if you want to think about inspiration, all you have to do is walk through campus and there is inspiration all around.

I've also been really pleased to hear about so many other things that you're doing internationally. The Ford School students who are able to go to Rio to learn about the challenges that comes from Brazil's economic development and the social issues they face. I've had the opportunity myself with my agriculture hat on to be able to do the same.

And I have to say I am in awe and greatly admire the sixteen Ford students who made the film about race, drawing on your own personal stories and reflections. It was a powerful testimony and I will not forget it. Thank you for your courage. [applause]

As Ford graduates, you have a group of alumni that you will join who are doing amazing things. And I know all of you, whether you are going from here to the private sector or nonprofit or NGO sector or of course in public service in government, that you will make a difference.

You'll have different titles. You'll have different opportunities, but today I want to speak just for a moment about a title that we all share. A title you share with your parents, your family, the faculty, you and I together. And that is American citizen.

There is not a more powerful title that we share than that of citizen. Through your identity as a citizen of this country, you have a voice and a responsibility to be engaged in the important debates all around us on so many things, but particularly about the proper role and the functions of our democratic government together.

Franklin Roosevelt once told the country to remember that government is ourselves, not an alien power over us. And the ultimate rulers of our democracy are not the president, they're not senators, they are not members of Congress, but the voters of the country, the people who choose to participate as voters.

President Lincoln expressed the sentiment even more concisely in the words that we all know. The ideal of government is of the people, by the people, for the people. Easy to say, but a lot of hard work to make that a reality.

We get so wrapped up in politics and certainly where I am in Washington that too often we forget why we have this democracy. Why we have this thing called government. We need to remind ourselves that we have it because there are certain things that we need to do together because it's impossible to do it by ourselves.

Now, there's lots of great things we can do as individuals and that doesn't undermine anything in terms of our own individual hard work, our ingenuity, our freedom to have new ideas, create ideas, develop businesses, develop all kinds of entities.

But there are some things that we can only do together and our democratic form of government is the process. It's not a thing. It's not a evil thing, a great thing. It's a process, the organizational structure through which we make decisions about those things.

We can't protect the air by ourselves. We can't take this room and divide up the air and say, "OK, you are responsible for that air and you're responsible for that air." And so on. We can't do that.

We can't protect the Great Lakes--our beautiful Great Lakes that for those of us who live in Michigan are in our DNA. We can't do that by ourselves.

We can't protect our water and make sure it's safe to drink by ourselves.

We can't build roads and bridges by ourselves. You can't just build the road right in front of your house and hope somebody connects it to something else.

We can't stop a major house fire or forest fire by ourselves.

We can't keep our country safe from terrorist attacks by ourselves.

And we can't perform life-saving medical research that saves lives like what is being done here at this university by ourselves.

We do these things together because one way or the other, we all benefit.

Finally, in America, our government has been given the responsibility to make sure our public policies match our public values.

We believe in freedom and equality, but we had to fight a war to end slavery. Pass laws to give women and people of color the right to vote. Civil rights laws and voting rights laws and equal pay for equal work, all of which we are still struggling to make a complete reality today. And access to economic opportunities, so everybody not just a few but everybody, has a fair shot to work hard and make it in America. We all benefit from that.

We believe in the value of education, yet too many of our children walk through unsafe neighborhoods to get to schools that don't have the basic tools they need to be successful. We need to fix that together.

We believe in the need for higher education, yet way too many students graduate buried in debt that stops them from buying a house or starting a business or economically moving ahead. We need to fix that together. Are we true to our American values when we spend more of our tax money in a young person in prison than we spend on a young person being able to go to college?

We need to tackle the issues of climate change and continue to tackle access to healthcare and mental healthcare.

We need to tackle the balance and have the debate about the balance between national security and personal privacy, which gets tougher and tougher all the time, and the challenges of keeping our middle class strong while competing successfully in a global economy.

We have a responsibility together to tackle all of these and more through the democratic process called government and public policy. And to solve these challenges, we really do have to be able to listen to each other, respect each other's views, and find common ground.

For example, if I want to find common ground with each of you, I probably wouldn't start by talking about the fact that I went to Michigan State University. [laughter] But I would instead, as you noticed earlier, talk about my son who went to the University of Michigan and how we both can't stand the Buckeyes. [laughter and applause] That's common ground.

Now, I know that when I'm talking about working together, Congress may not be the first image that springs to mind. [laughter] And I will be the first to admit, members of Congress don't work together nearly enough, even though I try hard every day and have had some successes.

But while it's popular to talk about how our political leaders used to be civil toward one another, I just want to put that a little bit in perspective and challenge it based on our history.

Look at the two leaders in the United States Senate, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. They may have fierce arguments over policy but their rivalry has never escalated into an actual gun duel. [laughter] Like it did in 1804, between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Now imagine this. Hamilton, one of our founding fathers and the secretary of the treasury, shot Burr dead, and he was the vice president. I don't think House of Cards could even come up with the plot twist quite like that.

There are intense floor speeches today but nothing compared to what happened in 1856 when a congresswoman from South Carolina violently beat a senator from Massachusetts with a cane and sent him to the hospital.

The war of words today between Republicans and Democrats has not erupted into a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans as the debate over slavery did in Lincoln's time.

So, I have to remind myself that we really have made some progress, even though it feels like it's hard sometimes to see it.

And while government will never be perfect, with the involvement of all of us, with you, it can and always will be better.

The key will be focusing on your title of citizen. If we can stay focused on our rights and responsibilities as citizens, then we can have the debates that are necessary to find common ground on the most challenging issues that face us.

It's also important not to allow yourself to be discouraged by problems that are complicated and hard to solve. I've been involved in public service for many years and I know firsthand that when people of good will come together and want to solve a problem, it can be solved. We have to create that political will and resolution and willingness to come together to solve the big problems in front of us.

And that's why I'm so pleased to be here with you today. Not just at any graduation or with any graduates. I've spoken at a lot of graduations but I'm so glad to here with you, because to me, you are special because you have chosen to focus your time, your intellect, your energy on public policy – the process of making our communities, our families, our country, our world better.

We need you now more than ever. And I am very excited about the differences you are going to make.


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