Kirsten E Gillibrand

Vassar College Commencement Address - May 26, 2013

Kirsten E Gillibrand
May 26, 2013— Poughkeepsie, New York
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Sen. Gillibrand's remarks begin at 5:05 in the video.

Thank you to Acting President Chenette, my dearest friend and the person who invited me, Gerry Laybourne, the board, the faculty at Vassar, all of the proud parents that are here, our alumnae and our alumni, and all the distinguished guests. And to the Vassar Class of 2013 – many congratulations.

Vassar truly stands as a beacon of hope and opportunity that continues to inspire all of us. You have shown a strong sense of justice, community, and bold activism. Although I know there is always more work to be done, you have shattered many glass ceilings here...women have always been in leadership …you are advancing LGBT equality and acceptance, and you do have a campus that’s diverse in more ways than ever before!

The education that you receive here at Vassar is a precious opportunity, one that tens of millions of young people across the world are denied every single day due to poverty, violence, prejudice and injustice.

But I know that someday we can actually change that – with students like you leading the way. Students who stood up to the bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church. You did not stand quietly by. You created a national conversation. You raised over $100,000, and you made your voice heard, inspired action in others, and produced real results.

My hope for this class is that this determined courage, this spirit of activism, this fierce opposition to hate will be the rule, not the exception.

So I’ve come here to ask you today, each and every one of you, just one question: How are you going to take the lessons that you learned here at Vassar, and carry on this legacy of making a real difference?

I hope that each one of you finds the opportunity to do public service, and truly have an impact on the lives of so many others.

So I want to tell you all a little bit about my own journey to public service. I was very lucky because I grew up in a family that had a very strong role model. The role model was my grandmother. She started her career as a young woman…never went to college…she worked as a secretary in our state legislature in Albany.

She had this very bold idea that women’s voices should be heard. There were very few women in elective office 75 years ago. She wanted to have a say, and she wanted to have an impact.

And she knew something instinctively that all of us know now, that to speak in one voice is very important, but to speak along with many voices is far more powerful. She asked all the women in the legislature and all the women she knew in Upstate New York to get involved in politics.

Together they created an organization of activism, where these women ran campaigns for about fifty years. They did all the door to door work, all the envelope stuffing, all the kinds of things it takes to win modern day campaigns. And that is why they were able to have a voice. They were able to elect people who shared their values, who shared their concerns, and wanted to have the same impact on their community that they did.

So what that taught me as a young girl watching her is that not only do women’s voices matter, but what you do with your time matters. Grassroots activism matters. Fighting to make a difference matters.

After I went to college and law school, I saw myself working in New York City in a big law firm, and I watched our First Lady, then Hilary Rodham Clinton, go to China.

Now if you remember, she went to China in 1995, and she gave her historic speech on women’s rights. She said, “Let it be known that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Now I was incredibly inspired by her at that moment because I’d been to Beijing, I had studied there, I had learned Mandarin, and I knew how powerful it was for her as the First Lady to be giving that speech at that time to that audience. They were still killing girl babies in the countryside and I know that she was making a dramatic impact on the world at that moment.

And I thought to myself, what am I doing with my life and am I making a difference? And I thought if I was going to ever be with her at that conference in Beijing, I would have had to be involved in politics. And that’s what spurred me to get off the sidelines and focus on making a difference. And that’s when I engaged in politics.

So of course I followed in my grandmother’s footsteps. I started working on campaigns. I started organizing other women and doing the tough work it takes to elect candidates. And the more I got involved, the more I realized that I really love grassroots activism, and I decided I wanted to leave the law and do some form of public service.

I tried all sorts of ways to get there, and my way wasn’t clear. First I tried the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I did not get the job. Then I tried a bunch of charities in New York. I didn’t even get an interview.

Then Hillary Clinton decides to run for Senate, and I say, “This is my chance! I will get a job on her campaign.” I couldn’t get a paid position, so I couldn’t afford it.

So I went to a large event, and our then-secretary of housing and urban development, our now-governor Andrew Cuomo, was giving a speech, a speech not unlike this about public service. And I went up to him afterwards and I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, I’ve been trying to get into public service, and it’s not as easy as you say.”

Andrew being Andrew, our great governor, says, “Well, would you move to Washington?” And of course, determined, I said, “Yes, I will move to Washington.” Truth be told, I had no interest in ever moving to Washington. But, I did in fact take that opportunity, and I wound up going to Washington and serving as his special counsel.

Now, never in my life have I gotten out of bed as quickly as I did over those few months, because I loved helping others. And when the administration lost the next election, there were no more jobs in Washington. And so I thought long and hard. And I said, “Could I run for office? Could I actually serve?” And over time, I said, “Why not?”

Why shouldn’t I serve? Why shouldn’t I make that jump? So I talked to a friend of mine who is a pollster. His name is Jeffrey. He’s still my pollster. And I go to him and I say, “Jeffrey, could you just look up this district for me? I’m thinking of running in Upstate New York where I’m from.” And he looks it up, and he says, “Hmmm. That is a two-to-one Republican district. You have no chance of winning.”

And I thought, really? No chance? “What happens if I run the perfect campaign? Can’t I win then?” He said, “No.” He said that there are more cows than Democrats in that district. I said, “Well, what happens if I raise two million dollars and really get my message out?” He said, “No, Kirsten, I’m sorry. You just can’t win.”

I said, “Well, what happens if this guy gets indicted? He’s a trouble maker. I could surely win then.” And he said, “Well, it depends what he gets indicted for.”

Well, the story goes, I did win that election. And it was something that no one thought was possible. In fact, even the New York Times called me a “dragon slayer” because it was such a tough district to win.

So that taught me a few things. It taught me to always challenge conventional thinking. It taught me to think and dream big and certainly never give up. And the truth is, there’s nothing too big for any one of you here today to achieve. You just have to believe in that dream, even if no one else but your mother believes in it with you. Because you can go as far as your vision will take you and as far as your hard work will take you.

So now you’ve heard the beginning of my story. I am far more interested in your story. I’d like to know what your path will be? What will you accomplish in your life? What will you set out to change?

I challenge you to refuse to accept that things can’t change simply because others tell you so. I hear that excuse every single day in Washington, and it makes me even more determined to find a way.

I am incredibly humbled to serve in a Senate seat that was occupied by great giants in our American history: my mentor, friend and trailblazer, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the brilliant scholar-turned-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the iconic civil rights hero Robert F. Kennedy.

RFK once quoted George Bernard Shaw and said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

I love those words, and I think they apply so much to all of us here today. There are those who look at all of you as Generation Y. I look at you and see Generation Y-Not.

Your generation is poised, like none other in history, to challenge every single notion of equality, justice and opportunity for all.

You have a history of saying “why not!” here at Vassar. In 1861, the Civil War was about to commence when Matthew Vassar asserted, “Why not create a women’s institution for learning equal to men’s” -- a thought that seemed absolutely revolutionary, even dangerous to some, a dream that was fully realized here.

By 1969, Vassar College, in a sign of its strength, made the decision to become a coeducational institution, rejecting an invitation to move to New Haven and join forces with Yale, declaring: “Why not become a coeducational institution, where strong women’s voices are heard and men who are comfortable with strong women’s voices are heard equal to them.”

Men like Bill Plapinger, your board chair from the class of 1974 sitting right here, the legendary class of 1974 that led you to this important next stage. And Bill seems to have survived the experiment more or less.

So because of such groundbreaking leadership, we have actually achieved educational parity in this country. More than half of our college graduates and our advanced degrees are given to women. But the question is, how far have we come in reaching our goal of economic or political parity for women?

Looking from my commencement in 1988 to now, there were only two women in the Senate when I graduated. Today there are 20. There are only 18 percent women in the House of Representatives.

When I graduated from college, there were three women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Today there are 20--only 4 percent.

Frankly, these numbers pathetic. So what are we missing? Is it leadership? Vision? A call to action?

This has prompted none other than Warren Buffet to recently call on both men and women to address the imbalances – saying there is not just an ethical argument, but a very pragmatic one: everyone will benefit when we fully tap into the underutilized talents of half our population.

And it’s true. When women serve on corporate boards, the return on investment and return on equity are higher.

When there’s at least one woman on a corporate board, that company is 40 percent less likely to have to restate their earnings. I wonder why?

When women are at the table in Washington, there are a whole set of issues that are raised and very different solutions that are offered. There’s often much more common ground found and more consensus built, and it’s not surprising that it took a woman as the chair of the Personnel subcommittee on the Armed Services Committee to hold the first hearing in ten years on sexual assault in the military.

Clearly, women’s equality is not just about women. LGBT equality is not just about our LGBT community. Poverty does not only impact the poor. Immigration reform is not just an issue for immigrants.

When you approach the world with an eye towards justice, equality, and opportunity as core, common values, suddenly we start to look at something that is better for the greater whole. The whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts, and we become a stronger nation for it.

Fighting for women’s equality not only challenges the status quo but compels the fundamental question, “Why not seek justice for all and opportunity for everyone?”

In the U.S. today, nearly 50 million Americans are living below the poverty line, including one-in-five American children, and more than a quarter of black and Hispanic communities. A third of households headed by single women are below the poverty line. It’s unbelievable and unacceptable that this is the world we’re in today.

Even as women are out-earning men in college degrees and advanced degrees, and are a growing share of primary household earners – men still out-earn women in salary.

The key to a growing economy… the key to a thriving middle class… the key to an America where every family has a chance at the American Dream… is unleashing the potential of all of us, including women.

That’s why I’m fighting so hard in the Senate. In honor of today and in honor of this generation, we are calling it our Why Not Agenda – it will equip anyone with an American Dream with the tools to reach it and guarantees that opportunity for all.

·  Why not increase the minimum wage?

·  Why not expand paid family medical leave?

·  Why not provide universal pre-K?

·  Why not make quality affordable daycare accessible?

·  Why not demand equal pay for equal work?

If we just paid a woman a dollar on the dollar for the exact same work, America’s GDP could grow by up to 9 percent.

If we just took the time to raise the minimum wage and get so many wage earners out of poverty, our GDP would grow by another $30 billion in just three years, creating up to 100,000 new jobs.

When every woman has paid family leave, 40,000 more new mothers will stay in their jobs and continue to advance their careers throughout their lifetime.

You, as Vassar’s great heirs to their revolutionary experiment, can realize this vision and turn this opportunity into a bold, powerful reality.

Standing so close to where she made her home, I am very inspired by the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look at fear in the face….You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

So I’m asking you to find it in yourselves not just to meet the demands of a new era, but to lead us there. Lead us to new discoveries and new ideas. Lead us to the dream that Vassar was founded on. And when met with a challenge of tired, outdated, status-quo thinking, it is my hope that you will not see the world as it is, but you will see it as it could, and should, be, and say, “Why not?”

Thank you, and congratulations!

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