Kirsten E Gillibrand

Commencement Address at New England College - May 11, 2019

Kirsten E Gillibrand
May 11, 2019— Henniker, New Hampshire
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Thank you very much, President Perkins, thank you for inviting me here. I appreciate the invitation. Dr. Lesperance, the Board of Trustees, the faculty and the entire administration. And thank you to all the graduates today who inspire me every day.

Congratulations as you enter this next phase of your life, a phase that is exciting, rewarding and maybe just a little bit intimidating. But as you step into the world, you are doing so prepared with the knowledge and skills that come from a great education here at New England College, an opportunity that has the power to lift us up and open doors, no matter where we've come from.

But as many have said, with great power comes great responsibility, and you all have been given a responsibility that is both inspiring and heavy. Right now starting today, each of you has a chance to step into the unknown and do things to make the world a better place.

As you embark on your next adventure, my hope for all of you is that determined courage and the spirit of activism will be the rule and not the exception. After all, the actions of brave individuals willing to reject the status quo, make a change, has defined our nation's history.

Writing the Declaration of Independence was an act of bravery. It was a bold, collective stand against the British crown, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, that made clear that they were willing to sacrifice so that every citizen could be free from oppression and could achieve life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It meant putting everything on the line and standing up to do what was right.

Our Constitution was an act of bravery, too. It was the boldness to create a new system of government unlike anything the world had ever seen. And that act of bravery began centuries of conversations that have allowed us to grow and adapt in our efforts to form a more perfect union.

In our best times, bravery is the thread that has tied our entire history, the fabric of our country, together. And in our worst times, cowardice takes over.

In fact, our star-spangled banner ends in a question: "Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

It's not just a yes or no question. It's a challenge. We have to take action, step up, get off the sidelines and answer it for ourselves. We decide whether brave will win.

Brave wins through actions, big and small. You don't have to start a revolution or create a new government – which is good because you're probably a little tired from your exams. In fact, it's the everyday bravery of the people sitting here today and our neighbors across the country that have built the best of America. There are so many examples of courage all around us that can provide an example to each of you today.

You can find a fundamental wrong in our society and decide to organize and march and speak out until it's rectified, like the student activists organizing the March for our Lives fighting against gun violence. You can decide to put your education and your talents to a righteous cause and do whatever it takes to help the most vulnerable among us, like the volunteers and lawyers and advocates working to reunite our families at the border. Or you can use your voice to fight for our future, no matter how loud the opposition, like fighting back against global climate change or taking on the opioid crisis in our communities.

Each of you has something, something to offer that will make this country better. And no matter how uncertain you feel about the path ahead of you, I can tell you now as someone who has spent the last 12 years in public service hoping to make my own contribution to that goal, that you are valuable. Your voice is important and your bravery can and will make the difference.

If you need some help, picture a hero you have. For me, the hero whose everyday bravery inspired me and much of my life is my grandmother. She redefined what women can accomplish in the political sphere, and she was brave enough to force open doors into spaces where women were not invited. Hi, Grandma.

My grandmother was a secretary and she never went to college but she had a vision, a vision about what she wanted for her future. She wanted to help shape the political debate. She wanted to make her voice heard in local government. That voice wasn't always delicate. In fact, she was a firebrand who cursed like a sailor, but she understood the same thing that former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards did about women in America. Quote, "One of us can be ignored, two of us can be dismissed, but together we are a movement and we are unstoppable." So my grandmother organized. She engaged the women in the New York state legislature and created an organization that would successfully run campaigns for fifty years, going door to door, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors, doing everything to win campaigns for the people who shared their values. Seeing my grandmother do this year after year taught me that all voices matter, that what you do with your time actually matters, that grassroots activism matters, and most of all that fighting for what you believe in matters.

We all need someone to tell us that our voice matters. And it's the lesson from my grandmother that led me down the path that I'm actually on today. I didn't start out in public service. I began my career working as a young lawyer at a law firm in New York City. It wasn't until I heard Hillary Clinton give that famous speech in China in 1995 where she said, "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all," and that's when I decided that it was time for me to make a change.

Why did that moment impact me so strongly? I had lived in Beijing. I had been an Asian studies major at Dartmouth and I learned to speak Mandarin from dorms there, so I knew what it meant for her to give that speech at that time from that place. And I asked myself, why wasn't I there? Why wasn't I invited? Why wasn't I part of that conversation? Why was I still on the sidelines?

I realized then that what I was doing at the law firm wasn't a right fit for me anymore, so I followed my grandmother's footsteps and started working on campaigns – not running myself, but putting in the work to try to support candidates whose values I believed in. I started organizing other women to get involved, urging them to make their voices heard and to fight for their values.

And the more I worked on other people's campaigns and pushed more people to get involved, the more I realized I needed to practice what I preached. So for a long time after, I tried to find a job in the not-for-profit public service world and I kept failing. I couldn't get the jobs that I wanted. They kept telling me I wasn't qualified, didn't have the right resumé or the right experience.

So I took matters into my own hands and I moved to my home district in upstate New York and I ran for Congress. Now it was not an easy fight. I took on an established, eight-year incumbent in a red, red, red district that no one thought I could win. People told me, "That district has more cows than Democrats. You just can't win." But I did. Miracles do happen.

And I won running on my values. I ran on Medicare-for-all before it was a household term. I ran on getting our troops out of Iraq. I worked hard, I listened to people and I learned a lot about how to be an effective member of Congress. And the next election I won again, and that time I won by 24 points.

The years I've spent as a congresswoman and as a senator have been fulfilling in a way that I never could have imagined, because I have been working to make a difference in the world around me.

I'm only telling you my story because I want you to understand that the path to public service isn't always clear and it isn't always direct. You sometimes can't see the path in front of you. It can be risky. It can be scary. And there will always be people who doubt you. Sometimes – let's be honest – oftentimes you'll be the one doubting yourself. But it's worth it.

And now that you've heard the beginnings of my story, I want to talk more about your stories and the mark that you will make on this world. I'm here to ask you only one question: how are you going to be brave?

Bravery means making a choice. It means refusing to accept that things can't or won't change simply because others tell you that's the way it's always been done. It means taking on the big systems of power and breaking them apart and building new ones that represent you and others in this country better.

I hear that excuse every day in Washington – it can't be done, it's never been done, it's not done that way – but it makes me more determined than ever to find the way.

The truth is, brave hasn't always won and it's not winning right now and it won't unless all of us collectively work to fight for the ideals of this country – opportunity, equality, compassion and justice.

At too many points in our history, too many people have been unwilling to stand up to the powerful and fight what's right, and turned to fear and division instead of courage and compassion. That's when we are our smallest. It's when we are our weakest as a country.

It's on all of us in every generation to resist that complacency and reach out for something better. Brave only wins when we are willing to walk through fire and stand up for what's right even when it's hard – especially when it's hard.

As you graduate, you are entering a world that has so much to offer and a future that is so bright. But you are also walking into a world with some very big problems that must be fixed.

Health care is still a privilege and not a right. We still face massive income inequality, especially for women and black and Latino Americans. We face rampant gun violence in our schools. And LGBTQ and transgender friends and neighbors still don't have equal rights.

Each of these challenges require action. These are the issues that are worth fighting for. And you our generation and this class from New England College will play an essential role – if you choose it.

Think back to those documents and declarations that started our nation's story. This is and will always be the home of the brave. The lesson of our history is that justice, fairness and truth are possible, but only if we are willing to put everything we have on the line to achieve it. Only if all of you demonstrate extraordinary courage, determination and compassion.

So choose brave. Choose to be brave as you find your place in the world knowing it won't be easy but relishing the challenge. Choose to be brave as you find your voice and use it often and loudly. When others try to stifle it, raise it that much louder. Use your voice for what you believe in and speak up for what's right. Choose to be brave in the pursuit of the goals you set that will make the world around you better – more equal, more just.

Commit to something bigger than yourself. Don't be afraid to break the mold if it needs to be broken.

I know looking out at all of you, you bright accomplished graduates, you are up to this challenge and our country is in good hands. I believe that brave will win.

Thank you so much for welcoming me today.