Terri Sewell

Alumni Medallion Acceptance Speech - April 14, 2016

Terri Sewell
April 14, 2016
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Jennifer, thank you so much for the opportunity to really thank 4-H. I do accept this award in honor of Miss Harriet Ramsey Bates who was my extension agent for Dallas County for more than 40 years who retired in 2003. She recruited me to be a 4-Her, and I'll never forget how she recruited me. She came to my junior high school where I was running for class president under the slogan of “Mouth of the South,” and she said, “your mother told me that you were a bundle of energy. Well I know what to do with that bundle of energy, would you think about joining 4-H where you can learn about public speaking, where you can do science projects…” She just went on and on about 4-H, and she took me to my first 4-H camp and I was sold.

So in many ways I have to tell you Jennifer, I owe you all, the 4-H organization, this award. It's your return on investment because at the end of the day you invested in this little girl from Selma, Alabama and you told me that I could be someone and I believed it. And even in the darkest night when I was at Princeton and let me just say, I grew up in Selma, Alabama. Now I know many of you know about Selma because of the Selma to Montgomery March and the movie Selma, but it's a town of 19,000 people and I get to proudly represent them in Congress, and I chose to come back home after- being educated abroad and everywhere else because of the investment that that community made in me. It was people like Harriet Ramsey Bates who told me that no matter where I went I could always come back home and home would be welcoming of me and in fact that was true.

And so I say to all of the young folks who are 4-Hers out there, my mom used to have a saying. My mom is actually 40 years a librarian at Selma High School, my dad was the high school basketball coach at Selma High School, and my hometown only had one public high school that was Selma High School so it's a good thing that I was smart because I got no dates. At any rate, my- my mom had a saying, “bloom where you're planted” and I have to tell you that every day I get to advocate on behalf of my home district Birmingham, Selma, Tuscaloosa Roll Tide and War Eagle to my extension friends. I get to represent Birmingham, which is an urban big town the largest city in the state of Alabama, and I get to represent nine counties that are part of what Alabama calls the black belt region, and it is the poorest counties in the state of Alabama.

But here's what I know that what we lack in economic prosperity in my district where the average income for a family of four is $32,000, I know what's possible with a little bit of resources and a whole bunch of opportunities from this district. I know that what we lack in economic prosperity we more than make up for in heart and in spirit and in fight, and every day I get to live the creed of 4-H. I get to pledge my head, my heart to those wonderful people back home, and I know that the advocacy that I got comes directly from the wonderful investment that people made in me at 4-H.

So while I am not from Texas, um I will hold up this pledge card, I will hold a pledge card because I- I hope that you all see me as your return on investment, and in order to pay it forward, we all have to each one teach one, and I think it's so important that we pay it forward. So I know that to all the young folks who are in the audience who are waiting to run for something, look, you can bloom where you're planted and make a difference exactly where you are. You don't have to be a public figure, you don't have to run for an office, you do have to give back and that's what 4-H stands for. It's giving back.

I'd be remiss in closing if I didn't say that one of the proudest moments for me as a member of Congress was having an opportunity to welcome the world to my hometown last year for the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. I got a chance to welcome President Barack Obama, who was my classmate in law school, go figure. I got to welcome George W Bush that- I got to welcome over a hundred members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats- Democrat. And, former senator Daschle, we had a kumbaya moment as we walked across that bridge, but I had to remind my colleagues that it's not about celebrating the past, it's about what we're willing to do for the future. Right now, the right to vote is in jeopardy. It's in jeopardy because there's so many people who are being systematically denied that right to vote because of very pernicious laws.

And so I have my work cut out for me, the next generation of folks from Selma, to make sure that I pay it forward to make sure that every American has the right to vote. So I remind my colleagues so we don't have time for the bickering that is so real in Congress. We can talk about things that are our common interests and in everyone's interests it's finding better opportunities, economic opportunities, for the people that we represent.

So I say in closing, that it's so important that you give back and I hope that in some small way I have back to 4-H because 4-H has given me such an amazing opportunity. It was a place where I won my first public speaking contest, now I don't know if Mrs. Bates would- would say that- that was the blessing because I haven't stopped talking since, but- but it was also the place where I had the compassion, where I grew to love my community, and knew that I can make a difference in my community. And so I got an opportunity to bring to- as I speak as- a my special guest in the state of the union the 104 year old Amelia Boynton, who died recently, but last year I got to have her as my special guest at the State of the Union.

She was one of those freedom fighters that marched across that bridge and was bludgeoned on Bloody Sunday. And as we waited in the small vestibule for the president to come in, she was so excited to meet the first African-American president. And as we were waiting for her, she was just beaming and aura of just I don't know angelic. Angelic because I think she realized that it was a full circle moment in some ways, and when the president came in he kneeled down beside her and he said, “Mrs. Boynton, I’m about to give a speech as the President of the United States of America, and I could not have done it if it were not for the bravery that you and so many back on Bloody Sunday exhibited.”

Now, I'm in tears. Everybody in the little small room holding room was in tears, and she looked up with- looked up to him and said, “make it a good one!” So I say to all the 4-Hers out there, we should make each and every opportunity that we're given a good one. We should seek to help our communities be the best that they possibly can, and in doing so help our great nation be as wonderful and a blessing to others as we know it can be. So I thank you for this great honor and I say, go for it.