Hillary Rodham Clinton

Commencement Address at Hunter College - May 29, 2019

Hillary Rodham Clinton
May 29, 2019— New York City
Print friendly

Thank you. Thank you so much. I have to say, this has been one of the most inspiring, heartfelt commencements that I've ever experienced and I am thrilled to be a part of it today.

Madam President—that has a nice ring to it—thank you so much and thanks especially for the very personal descriptions of a few of the members of this class. I think honestly we could be here for a couple of days hearing each and every one of your stories, and I for one would welcome that.

So let me thank President Raab and the trustees—Trustee Schwarz and Trustee Sonenshine—and the CUNY system, the faculty, parents, family members, distinguished guests, but most of all this amazing, brilliant class of 2019.

It is an honor for me to follow in the footsteps of the illustrious speakers who have addressed previous Hunter commencements. Harold and Ken and I were talking about Bella Abzug, who gave a memorable commencement some years ago. Now last year it was an alumnus—Vin Diesel—and you might think that we are an odd pair, but I'm actually a big fan, and I can let you in on this secret—we're going to star in a movie together. It's called "The Fast and the Still Really Furious."

But that's a story for another day, because today we are here to celebrate you. After all, you are the inheritors of a remarkable legacy and a quite radical idea.

When 150 years ago in another time of technological change and demographic shifts and political turmoil, a few wise New Yorkers joined with Mr. Hunter to create this institution because they realized that educating women could change everything. And not just the daughters of the elite, but the daughters of immigrants and factory workers and even former slaves. And the women of Hunter became the teachers of New York. And those teachers shaped generations of students and transformed this city and with it the world. And with the admission of men after World War II, Hunter continued to grow and develop into the world-class college it is today. So those are the shoulders you stand on.

To be a college graduate is a wonderful thing, but to be a Hunter graduate—that is something to shout from the rooftops.

So congratulations to each and every one of you.

And I'm sure that sitting here, you've had time to reflect about the setbacks and the struggles along the way. We heard about some of those and the students' stories, the graduate stories that were described. Some of those setbacks, I'm sure, were quite painful.

But here you are. You are living witnesses to one of the most important lessons in life. It is not whether you get knocked down. It's whether you get back up and keep going.

Each of you is here today because you don't quit, right? You worked harder, you dreamed bigger and you reached higher, and I am so proud of you. I don't personally know any of you who are graduating, but I have to tell you, I've been up there just beaming like I'm related to most of you.

And particularly to the parents, the spouses, the children, the family members who've helped make this day possible—thank you. You are living proof that it really does take a village.

And to the graduates—I will not say today that now you head off into the real world, because you've been living and working in the real world all your lives. But today is a turning point. It is a chance to ask, as the poet Mary Oliver does, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? And it is fitting that this graduation is here in Madison Square Garden, where so many dramatic events have occurred.

Now with all due respect, it has been a long time since an important basketball game was played here, but there's always next year.

But this garden has seen its share of history, from all kinds of championships to concerts, to political conventions. We have seen the best of America here, like the concert for New York and our brave first responders just weeks after 9/11.

But as I was thinking about coming here—because this, too, is a historic event, this graduation—I thought about an event that happened here 80 years ago on February 20, 1939, when instead of the inspirational stories we heard, this arena was filled with 20,000 chanting, stomping Americans rallying in support of Nazi Germany, cheering calls for a quote "socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States." Attacks on Jews, attacks on the press. That's right—20,000 Nazis and Nazi sympathizers right here in the heart of the most diverse city in the world. At that time, it was a warning that America was not immune from the hate running rampant across Europe and it was a call to arms to those who believed that the United States was the last, best hope for freedom and democracy.

Today, I wish that felt like ancient history. After all, it would have made those Nazis so furious to see all of us here and to look out at your faces. In the same hall where fascists once planted their flag, this incredible, diverse, brilliant class of 2019 stands tall and proud and that, my friends, is the real story of America.

Now, we have never been perfect, but we have never stopped striving for a more perfect union. And yet all these years later, our democracy feels far from secure. Last September I had the honor of receiving a Human Rights Award from the American Bar Association at Roosevelt House on the Hunter…

[speaking about international criminal justice lawyer and fellow Eleanor Roosevelt Prize for Global Human Rights Achievement award recipient Benjamin Ferencz]…soldier in World War II. He'd helped to liberate concentration camps. Afterward he served as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and then he worked to create the International Court of Justice. At 99 years of age he was here at Hunter to issue a warning. When he listens to voices in our government who reject the rule of law, he hears echoes of the fascists he worked so hard to defeat and then bring to justice.

And I knew what he meant. Over the past two years, we've seen people wearing Nazi symbols once again marching in American cities, carrying torches and chanting hate. In Charlottesville, Virginia, they killed a brave young woman named Heather Haier. We've seen a surge in hate crimes across America—shootings and arson at synagogues, mosques and churches; Americans targeted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

And instead of standing up against bigotry and white supremacy, this administration has too often worked to tear down hard-won civil rights. They've banned Muslims from entering the country, ripped away protections for transgender Americans, waged war on voting rights for people of color, poor people and young people.

And our government is tearing children from the arms of their parents at the border and locking them in cages. Recently we learned about a sixth child to die in federal custody, a ten-year-old girl from El Salvador. It took eight months for the truth to come out about what happened to her. How many more children are suffering right now? How many more have gone missing or died and how many will never see their parents again?

Now I'm not talking about disputes over politics or policy. We can and we should have vigorous disagreements in our country. But this is something different. There may not be tanks in our streets, but make no mistake—we are witnessing an assault on the rule of law and the foundations of our democracy.

Just today before this graduation ceremony started, we heard from the special counsel Robert Mueller who said there were multiple, systemic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.

But what we've seen from the administration is the complete refusal to condemn a foreign power who attacked our democracy or to take even the most basic steps to protect our voting systems for the future, despite the fact that all of the professionals who study this say more attacks are coming. And it's so clear that there is a real challenge to get to the root of that problem. In fact, it seems clear—it seems absolutely clear—that we've got to deal with what has been investigated and reported.

Now when I think about the future, I think about what do we do when people in positions of authority are not held accountable? When they defy request from the Congress, when they spread misinformation online.

Now why do I bring this up at this joyous occasion of your graduation? Because the future of this democracy truly does depend on you. And I know that's asking a lot and it can be tempting to read the news and throw your hands up and conclude nothing matters, nothing will change, so why even bother.

But it does really, really matter and this is no time for apathy. Instead it should be a time for action because the question for each of us to answer—especially you, graduates—is will the symbol of this troubled age be the cynic's shrug or will it be the raised hand of the volunteer, the activist's rolled up sleeves, the linked arms and marching feet of people who demand justice and democracy? The answer is up to all of us and yes, it is up to you.

And the spirit you've shown fills me with such hope. The big-hearted, hard-working, expectations-defying spirit that earned you these diplomas is exactly what this country needs right now. And to guide you as you begin to chart your own future, here are just a few lessons I've learned in the trenches over the years.

First, citizenship is not a spectator sport. You've got to get in the game. And in a time when we are beset by lies and propaganda, it is more important than ever to seek out credible sources of information and to use the critical-thinking skills you learned at Hunter to decide what is important and what is true.

And it is even more critical to hold leaders accountable, not only the wrongdoers but the others who fail to act. Most of them know what needs to be done, they just lack the political will to do it. Now, in the Congress, the House of Representatives has already passed sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights and crack down on corruption, but the Senate won't act unless it feels real pressure from the public or unless enough of the obstructionists in the Senate are retired by the voters in the next election.

And then we can act on what nonpartisan experts tell us we need to do to protect future elections from foreign interference. We need hand-marked paper ballots, mandatory cybersecurity audits, better training for state and local officials. But it will not happen unless voters send the message they actually care.

And similarly, the big social media platforms know their systems are being manipulated by foreign and domestic actors to sow division, promote extremism, and spread misinformation. But they won't get serious about cleaning up their platforms unless consumers demand it.

And we saw why it's so important just last week, when Facebook refused to take down a fake video of Nancy Pelosi. It wasn't even a close call—the video is sexist trash and YouTube took it down but Facebook kept it up. So let's send a message to Facebook that those who are in Facebook's communities would really like Facebook to pay attention to false and doctored videos before we are flooded with them over the next months.

You know the motto of the Washington Post is "Democracy dies in darkness," but you could also say "Democracy suffocates in silence." And the only way to breathe new life into this great republic of ours is to make such a racket that no one can ignore us. That's our job as citizens, and as Hunter graduates you have the tools and skills you need to be forceful voices on behalf of truth, integrity and democracy.

And here's the second lesson—progress is not a straight line, so don't lose heart. We all falter as individuals, as parts of movements for change. I've stumbled many times and you know, there were days after the 2016 election when all I wanted to do was scream into a pillow or disappear into the woods. Not just because of the personal disappointment I felt, but because of what it meant for the country and for the many millions of people whose lives would now be affected adversely.

But again, the important thing is don't quit. Turn your failures into fuel. Turn your pain into purpose. And if you want inspiration, look at your classmates. Look at the profiles of your fellow graduates that we have just seen.

Look at the students from Parkland, Florida, who have campaigned for common-sense gun-safety reform. They have cut through all the tired, old talking points of the gun lobby and their lackeys in Congress. They channeled their trauma and their loss into an activist infrastructure that will continue driving progress long after the cable news cameras have moved on.

Groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety are organizing, fundraising, registering voters, supporting candidates and legislation. And the enthusiasm and energy of the Parkland students and so many other young people has turbocharged these efforts.

And that kind of activism is not always glamorous but it is how you make progress, step by step, year by year, door by door. Because you need to change both hearts and laws. You have to stir up public opinion, put pressure on political leaders, shift policies and priorities, and win elections.

So yes, we have a way to go but 2018 was a pretty good start and for the first time the gun lobby was outspent in elections and states passed more than three times as many gun safety reforms as they did the prior year. And people who stood for common-sense gun safety beat incumbents who boasted about their ratings from the NRA.

And one of the unlikely winners was my friend Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida. Lucy and a group of other grieving moms formed an organization known as the Mothers of the Movement. They spoke in churches and community centers all over the country, and today Lucy Macbeth is a United States congresswoman.

So as scripture tells us, let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. So try, fail, try again, lean on each other, hold on to your values and never never give up.

And third and finally—progress does not come just from grand aspirations or speeches. It comes from the small gestures and the habits of our hearts.

You have honored me today with an award named for one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, and as you already heard, one of the wisest things Eleanor ever said is that human rights start not in the gilded halls of palaces or courthouses, but in small places close to home—neighborhoods, schools, offices, factories, farms—in the hearts and daily interactions of people everywhere. That is where all great social movements start. It's where democracy starts and is sustained.

You know, one of the most perceptive observers of our early democracy was the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote about America in the 1830s, and he used a phrase that I particularly love. He used the phrase "habits of the heart" to describe what he found here—a nation of rugged individualists who still deeply believed in community.

Like Benjamin Franklin, who formed the first volunteer fire department because he figured out if your neighbor's house is on fire it's your problem, too.

Americans join clubs and civic organizations and congregations and political parties, and that volunteer spirit made America's great democratic experiment possible.

And what's the 2019 version of that? Well it's going to Puerto Rico to help rebuild after the hurricane, as some of you have done. It's volunteering at the local women's shelter or helping refugees who just moved in settle down the block, as some of you have done that, too.

It's doing what generations of Hunter graduates have done—teaching in schools where students are desperate for mentors who can give them a fighting chance to succeed, nursing in hospitals and other settings where people literally will live or die because of your care, practicing social work in some of the darkest most desolate places that need your light and skill.

This country was built by people who had each other's backs, and the future depends on you and us summoning that same spirit. Even after everything that's happened and all the challenges we face, I have great faith in this country and in our and your future.

There was a dark, dark moment that I mentioned earlier that happened 80 years ago, but 20 plus years ago right here I had a much happier memory. It was at that time in 1992 that I was here at the Democratic convention and my husband was nominated for president.

It was certainly a turning point in my life, because before that summer night here in New York, I was a lawyer in Arkansas. I was an advocate for children and families and improving education. I was a mother to a wonderful twelve-year-old.

And then afterward, I was a public figure with the opportunity to work for change on a global scale. But I also had the challenges of living, working and raising a daughter in the very bright spotlight. I never could have imagined all those years ago where my life would take me, that I would one day run for office myself; serve our country as secretary of state, representing America across the world; that I would become the first woman nominated by a major party.

If you had told me that back in 1992, I would not have believed you. But if you had come to see me in Madison Square Garden that night and said, right now here in New York and across America there are children being born. They will grow up in a time of turmoil, terrorist attacks, a Great Recession, staggering inequality—but they will be the most diverse, open, generous generation in the history of this nation and they will save our democracy and build a better future for our country. If you had told me that I would have smiled and said yes, because that's America. That is the promise of America. That is the American dream.

Your stories, class of 2019, are the story of America in the 21st century. Many of you are the first in your family to go and graduate from college. You are immigrants and the children of immigrants. You are workers and parents and activists and organizers. You are strivers and seekers. You are lifting up yourself and your families and your communities, and your success is the testament to the persistence and power of the American Dream.

Yes, the motto of Hunter is "The care of the future is mine." So take that as your charge. The future is yours to claim but also to care for. Do us and yourselves proud. I believe in you and I believe in the future that awaits you and that you will help to shape.

Hunter class of 2019, congratulations and good luck.