Katherine “Kate” Brown

Colorado University, Boulder Commencement Address – May 10, 2018

Katherine “Kate” Brown
May 10, 2018— Colorado University, Boulder
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Good morning. I am so incredibly honored to be here with you this morning and so delighted to be back in Boulder. Go, Buffs! [Applause]

Thank You, Chancellor DiStefano, for that wonderful and generous introduction. It's been a long time since I've been on campus, and an even longer time since I lived in Farrand Hall. I love the University of Colorado. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend on this campus, in this city, in this state.

Many of you come from all around the country and even around the world to be educated in this amazing place. I grew up in a suburb of the Twin Cities. My dad was a physician and we led a comfortable, middle-class life. I never had to worry about the heat getting shut off during the sub-zero Minnesota winters. And I always knew that I would be going to college. My parents raised me and my siblings to believe that if we worked hard and played by the rules, we could get ahead and that education was the key to a better life.

Like many Midwestern kids, I looked to the western horizon for my future. Once I toured this campus, I was hooked. I couldn't see past the Flatirons. [laughter] It's funny, because when I started at CU, I started in the political science department. I thought it would be a great background for a budding lawyer. I absolutely hated it. The classes were huge, the lectures droned on – it wasn't a good fit for my skills. I knew I had to find something else. So I started looking around and found out about the environmental conservation program. It was relatively new. The classes were small. And getting out of the lecture halls help me put the things we were learning into focus. But what really set the program apart were the hands-on learning opportunities. We got outside to take what we learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world.

One summer I had the incredible opportunity to spend six weeks in the mountains outside Gerlach, Nevada, studying the behavior of wild horses. It turns out it was useful training for the Oregon legislature. [laughter] We ate only what we could carry. We slept under the Nevada stars. And of course we spent a lot of time in silence – watching, waiting. When they appeared, the horses were extraordinary. Sometimes we saw them for fleeting moments. Other times, we were able to observe them long enough that you could get a sense of their individual personalities, and with that, a sense of place, a reverence for the world that we live in. I loved every single minute of it. It became clear to me that our natural environment isn't just something to cherish – it's a part of who we are. [applause]

I went on from CU to Portland, Oregon, to study environmental law at Lewis & Clark College, but after three years of study I realized I'd taken another wrong turn and it wasn't a good fit for me. So I sought a career in public service with a singular mission to give a voice to the voiceless. For example, it's true that I carry with me every single day the privilege of white skin. I do not know what it's like to experience racism. I do know, however, what it's like to be terrified, going to work every day afraid of losing my job if someone discovered that my partner at the time was a woman. And I know what it feels like to be treated differently and paid less than a man, even though I knew I was doing a better job. [applause]

And on the day I was sworn in as Oregon's 38th governor, I experienced what it's like to be labeled, to have my entire first two decades of public service eclipsed by a single phrase – the nation's first openly bisexual governor. [applause] That phrase appeared after my name in virtually every headline around the world.

I am sure that there are some of you out there today, who over the course of your lives, have experienced stereotyping, discrimination or fear that interferes with your ability to live openly and with dignity. This should not happen. [applause] Not here, not anywhere. Each of us has the right to live with dignity.

I went to law school because I believed a law degree would give me the tools to change the world. After law school, as an advocate for a woman's organization I lobbied the legislature on policies to improve the health and wellness of Oregon women. This included improving domestic violence laws, stepping up child support enforcement and advocating for passage of family medical leave. My work is an advocate led to my appointment to a vacant seat in the House of Representatives, a position I would need to get elected to in order to keep.

But then my predecessor, the state representative who stepped down, changed her mind. She decided to run against me, hoping to get her House seat back. Well, I was doomed. Everyone said so. She was well known. I was not. That made it all but impossible to raise money for my campaign. But I had two things going for me – guts and determination. [applause] If I couldn't out fundraise my opponent, I would outwork her. I became the human embodiment of what it meant to run for office. I ran, sprinting from dawn to dark every single day, knocking on as many doors and talking to as many voters as I could. And yes, in the end, I won by seven votes – seven votes.

I share this story with you because today your voices matter more than they ever have. In March of this year, Conor Lamb won his House seat for the House of Representatives by a mere 627 votes. In January, control over the Virginia State House was decided essentially by a flip of a coin. And last July, the U.S. Senate came within one vote of taking away health care from millions of Americans. Politics is not a spectator sport. We must all do our part. [Applause]

We have made a lot of progress since I was a student. I would argue, however, we still have a long way to go. When I was here in school, we were studying Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." We worried about the issue of the time – overpopulation – but underlying it, obviously, was the threat that humans are posing to our own planet. Today it's very clear to us – or at least most of us anyway – that climate change poses an existential threat to our entire way of life. Future generations will judge us not on the fact of global climate change but what we've done to tackle it. [applause]

When I was a student here, we were still reeling from Watergate, the damage that Nixon's dirty tricks and his Southern Strategy had done to our politics. In Mississippi, Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for president in 1980 talking about states rights. Back then, the principle of states rights was a subtext for the politics of fear that had reordered our political landscape. It was driving a new wedge between us, pitting rural white voters against urban communities and communities of color. Unlike climate change, that crisis is visible today in a way that I think few of us expected decades ago. The subtext has become the literal text.

It is time for new voices to rise up. It is time for some fresh faces. And I am so proud that many of you here at CU are already making your voices heard.

Let me tell you about Gabby. Gabby started going to school as a third grader after her family relocated to the United States from Mexico. By the time she was in high school, college wasn't an option because of her immigration status. However, in 2012, the federal government launched DACA, giving her a path to college and the opportunity to live her childhood dream to become a doctor. [applause] It gets better. She applied to every single college in Colorado, and she got accepted to each one. She chose CU. [cheers and applause] However, with the current administration and the push to end DACA, Gabby's newfound security is threatened. "It felt like my whole world was coming down," she said. Last December, Gabby stood up and she pushed back. She went to Washington, DC, to urge Congress for a permanent legal solution for Dreamers like her. Last month, once again, another court has ruled against the administration, saying that DACA can't be unilaterally rescinded. [applause] Unfortunately, it's probably not the last word.

Gabby is just one of many Dreamers at CU, some of whom are on the field today. And just by being here, they are advocating for the changes they want to see.

Jesús was brought to the United States when he was three. This is the only home he has ever known. His mom taught him that education was the key to a better life, and he has never let that go. This fall, Jesús will be pursuing graduate studies in student affairs, making sure that future students will have a champion in their corner. [applause]

And in their classrooms, you'll find Brenda. She came to the United States from Ensenada, Mexico. Because of her immigration status, she didn't think college was an option. But she didn't give up. Once Brenda got to CU, she found her passion. She's planning a career as a fifth grade teacher. She says – yes, give her a round of applause [applause]. Brenda says she wants young people to understand that they can accomplish anything if they pursue their dreams and stand strong.

We must keep fighting for justice to make sure that our Dreamers are able to stay in the land of their dreams. [applause]

Being here to today is a wonderful reminder of my very sunny times in Colorado and what inspired me to enter public service. It's also a reminder of the power that each and every one of us has to change the world. Many of you are already doing that. All of you have spent the last four years – some of you, maybe five, a few of you, six – learning about the world and hopefully seeing the possibilities ahead of you. There is absolutely no question that one person – one dedicated person with good ideas – can change the world… [applause]…and I believe that person is you.

The world is your home. Commit yourself to home improvement. There is no shortage of projects. Pick one – a child, an elderly person, a cause, a candidate. Reduce hunger, ignorance, poverty. Build community. Foster hope, progress and innovation. Shine your light into difficult places, and look around you. You aren't alone. You are part of a generation that's poised to change the world. You will put us on a path toward ending global climate change. You will put us on a path toward justice. And you will put us on a path toward a better world.

Thank you, and go Buffs!