Kamala Harris

San Francisco State University Commencement Address - May 26, 2007

Kamala Harris
May 26, 2007— San Francisco, California
Print friendly

President Corrigan, distinguished faculty, families and friends, and of course you, the members of the class of 2007, I'm so pleased to say 'you did it.'

And I know it was a team effort, including your family and your friends and of course Facebook and Red Bull and PS3s.

And I know today is the kind of day where I should talk about where you are going. But first, I'd like to spend a few moments talking about where you've been. This spring, one and a half million students will sit in ceremonies much like this at thousands of universities and colleges across the country. But I can assure you from where I stand, very few of those ceremonies will look like yours.

After all, this is San Francisco, a city where 100 different languages are spoken, where one-third of us were born in another country, and where many more of our parents, like mine, were born in another country. And you, San Francisco State graduates, are just as diverse and energetic as the city itself. This is the city and the school that has produced countless leaders and activists.

These are people who broke barriers, people whose names we know because they broke barriers -- and in many different ways by persevering, working hard, and achieving your goal of graduation, you have broken barriers. And there are many more barriers you will face and break -- and must face and break -- to achieve your dreams.

So I want to talk to you today about that, about breaking barriers to achieve your dreams and our dreams for your future. And it's more than a notion. To do it, you may have to break some rules. And I'm not talking about the kind of rules that I prosecute, so don't get any ideas. But I am talking about the old rules and ways of thinking about who can lead, what they look like, who their family is, and what neighborhoods they're from. I'm also talking about the barriers of belief that suggest that things cannot be changed and that problems cannot be solved.

When you graduates break all of these barriers, you will open up new possibilities and create new solutions to our challenges. You will become the new leaders with new perspectives and a new way of thinking about how to create solutions that no one thought possible.

And let me tell you, by definition, breaking barriers will take you on paths that you never thought imaginable.

Frankly, that's what happened to me.

I faced a barrier of traditional thinking about how to be a fighter for civil rights. When I was growing up, as President Corrigan said, my parents were deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the '70s in Berkeley, and I grew up surrounded by people who were constantly marching and shouting at the top of their lungs for equality and for justice. And of course, I was right there marching with them, in a stroller, but I was there and marching for the justice that needed to exist and should be demanded.

By the time I got to Howard University, I wanted to continue that fight. And the traditional thinking was that you could only do civil rights work in organizations such as the ACLU or the NAACP. The thinking was that you had to work from the outside in, but I believed it was important to be at the table where decisions and important decisions were being made, and that's why I decided to become a prosecutor. And yes, it was about the farthest thing from my parents' mind, so you can imagine when I told them that I was going to be a member of law enforcement, I pretty much had to defend the decision like a thesis.

But they understood.

You see, their march for civil rights led me on a path to a courtroom where I stood before a jury of 12 people arguing for justice for an abused child, arguing for justice for a battered spouse, arguing for justice for a victim of hate crime. And following that passion for civil rights has been the greatest reward of my career.

As you grow in your career, you'll experience similar barriers of traditional thinking and also other barriers, for example, the limits that others set for you, barriers that place a ceiling on what you can accomplish and who you can be.

And I've been there, too. When I decided to run for district attorney, it was considered a man's job, even here in San Francisco. No woman had ever been elected district attorney in San Francisco, no person of color had ever been elected district attorney of San Francisco.

And I remember the day that I got my first poll results. I was sitting in a small conference room and a little nervous, but also hopeful, and then I read them. I was at 6 percent in the polls. And you can imagine that didn't feel good. In fact, I felt pretty small. And then I was told what you have all probably heard at some point in your life and will certainly hear in your future. I was told that I should wait my turn. I was told, "don't put yourself through all of that." I was told that I should give up. I was told that I had no chance.

And I didn't listen.


And I'm telling you, don't you listen, either. Don't you dare listen when they try to tell you you can't do it or it hasn't been done before. I know that every one of you here has quietly and privately thought and believes that you can do something great. Nurture and cherish that belief. Own that vision.

And surround yourself with people who will support you and will encourage your ambition. And don't listen when people say it hasn't been done before.

Armed with the belief in yourself and surrounded by those who believe in you, I know you will have the creativity and the independence to say yes where others have said no, where others have seen risk, to see opportunity and where others have felt fear, to find courage.

And it's an extraordinary time in which to graduate.

Consider down how we can now break barriers and create new possibilities. Right now in our city and our country, we are facing enormous social, political and economic challenges. For example, our civil liberties are under fire, and our federal government is not just failing to enforce them, but is frankly contributing to their deterioration. And we can stand against that with passion and conviction.


In politics, for the first time, barriers are being broken by men and women from every walk of life. Just think: for the first time ever, three of the strongest candidates for President of the United States are a woman, a Latino, and an African American. And we can elect a new kind of president.

Across the world, new frontiers in civil rights are emerging as the forces of globalization connect our lives in real-time with citizens of every country, rich and poor. We can be the ones to fight for human rights and stop the genocide in Darfur. And we have a growing environmental crisis around the world, our air, our water, our oceans, we can be the ones to protect them. We can be the ones to find new solutions. And here in San Francisco, there are over 2,400 children who have been designated as chronically truant from our schools. Over 700 of them are elementary school students. We can be the ones to mentor them. We can be the ones to make sure that we get them in school. We can make sure that in ten years, they are sitting where you are sitting today.

In times like these, it is dangerous to stay quiet and stay on the sidelines. Times like these call for people like you to stand up, to be inspired and to act inspired. To break barriers, to drive change, and to roll up your sleeves instead of throwing up your hands.

So I ask you, who's going to stand up and defend a woman's right to reproductive freedom?

Who's going to insure that environmental justice occurs so we stop dumping and polluting in our poorest neighborhoods and communities of color?

Who is going to speak up against the torture in Guantanamo Bay?

And who is going to register people to vote and work on a campaign and help us elect a president who will end the war in Iraq? The answer is that you, you, you graduates of 2007 will be at the heart of these great struggles. So follow your passion, eat your Wheaties and get on out there because today you graduate and tomorrow, there is no barrier on what you can do.

Thank you!