I’m deeply honored to be joining you on this very special occasion, to celebrate the Northwestern University’s 2020 graduating class, as well as this remarkable institution. I want to first give my thanks and gratitude to President Schapiro and the board of trustees, for showing true moral courage and inviting an alumni of a certain other academic institution to give this year’s commencement address. Morti, you know that I’m a partisan when it comes to my undergraduate alma mater, but I have come to embrace the purple pride – because of your leadership, your friendship, and stewardship of this great institution in these most challenging times. I want to thank you personally.
And yes, these are challenging times. It would be enough if we had to contend with a global pandemic, the likes of which no one has ever seen before, and to be clear – COVID 19 is still very much a part of our present and our foreseeable future. This pandemic has shown both our strengths but also our profound vulnerabilities. There is a lot to be learned, and for my city, this experience has created a sense of urgency around righting past wrongs and areas of neglect so that we can continue to build strong, healthy neighborhoods.
It would be enough if we were only forced to reckon with the brutal murder of George Floyd, but of course that crime has brought us back to the original sin of racism. Our “COVID 1619,” as some have called it.
Or In the wake of both of these events, we unfortunately have seen a rise in, increasingly decisive rhetoric, from all sides, which speaks to pain and anger to be sure. But we must not forget, the key corner stones of our democracy – which are working towards solutions, forged and compromised. Yes, we’ve all been through a lot recently. Given the difficulty and pain of these events, it would be natural for us to focus on what we’ve lost, and we’ve lost a lot. Lives, opportunities, events, jobs, freedom of movement, our own sense of security, and our own sense of certainty about what tomorrow will bring. But even in all of this, we’ve also gained a lot as well. Hard as it may seem at times to recognize it. All these events have been extremely difficult, all extremely traumatic; all revealing intense fissures in our society, and all experienced intensely by all of us. And I mean all of us.
It is fitting too that we are meeting on Juneteenth, the annual celebration marking the end of slavery in America. But more than that, this day stands as a watershed moment in our nation’s long, and still incomplete journey, towards full equally and justice that we’re all feeling so vividly in this moment. The events of the past few months have forced serious personal and collective reflection on what matters, what counts, what’s important, and how we ensure those things become our priorities. It is where we find what we gain – because it’s there where we find our direction points, our north stars, from which we chart a better course for ourselves individually and collectively. For me, as someone who believes in public service, that challenge rest and thinking about how we service, what it means, and how it’s done.
As your Madill grads can tell you, the slogan of The Washington Post is, quote, “democracy dies in darkness”. That’s true – but if I may, I’d like to expand that definition to say “democracy dies in disengagement” – disengagement form the public; disengagement from facts; disengagement from reality; and disengagement from ourselves. The events of COVID 19 and the murder of George Floyd speak to the importance of engagement through service in two seemingly separate but powerful and reinforcing ways.
COVID 19 forced us to rethink and redefine the very notion of public service. To move beyond its traditional governmental realm and expand into every role we play. Following the transmission of that virus form one person to the next, from one community to the next, from one country to the next, COVID 19 demanded that we realize just how connected we really are, and how much impact we have on each other’s lives. And like wise, this moment called on us to accept the responsibility that came with that knowledge and power.
I am proud to say that’s exactly what I saw in my own city. Since the very first days of the crisis, I’ve been personally overwhelmed by the countless number of individuals who stepped up, in ways big and small to offer assistance and help for those in need. We all know of our healthcare workers, first responders, and essential workers. But it didn’t end there. It included small business and owners, who themselves were hurting badly; to CEOs and neighbors and residents volunteering at food pantries. We saw people repurpose their businesses and their lives. We saw people every single day focus on how we can come together and stand against this unprecedented threat. Public service transformed from a set role and into the motivation form that shaped every role we hold.
Even the act of staying home, which we know is easier said than done. Many members of this graduating class will go onto jobs outside of government, many more will go onto jobs where you make lots of money. Many will leave Evanston and Chicago and never come back, but of course, I hope you change your mind on that one. My challenge to all of you is to use this collective moment, to energize all whatever you do around the notion of public service and the responsibility that we all share.
Whether it's the CEO of a fortune five hundred company or a community based organization; whether it’s a company you for or the company you start; or as you telework or participate in a virtual commencement address. We can’t separate the roles anymore. This virus laid bare the impact each of us make on each other. It’s now on us to make sure that impact makes everything better.
But as I said, that’s just half of the story. While COVID 19 forced us to redefine public service, the murder of George Floyd forced us to recognize its urgency. If we are to make our democracy thrive, we all have to do more to engage in our political process. We are, at our core, a participatory democracy, and thus engagement is our life blood. So in addition to my challenge to you, I also have a personal request. Spend some time in your life serving government itself.
That doesn’t necessarily mean running for elected office, though I fully encourage you to do so; and it doesn’t necessarily mean making a career out of it, though that would be wonderful as well. My ask is that you simply do it. It can take the form of joining your local school board, serving in a federal department, or working as a staff member for a mayor like me. Folks, make no mistake, when you look at me, you are looking at an army of talented and passionate staff members who stand behind me and, importantly, lift me up.
As I’ve told them many times, I may get the credit but they’re the ones doing the work. And while I ask is that you do this at some point in your life, there’s no better time for you than now, when, to coin a phrase, you’re young, scrappy, and hungry.
If you studied health and medicine, spend a year or so working for a public health department. If you studied sociology, spend a year or so helping an elected leader craft their public policy. Or if you studied business, help a mayor lead and expand economic opportunity in neighborhoods left behind; like my deputy mayor Samir Mayekar, one of your alumni, who is doing exactly that right now. If you have a passion for education or building a healthy ecosystem for our youth, turn that passion into purpose, like former Northwestern professor and now deputy mayor Dr. Sybil Madison, who works to build capacity and support for young people in and outside of schools alongside the work of my wife, Amy Eshleman. If you studied law, spend time working in a public attorney’s office like I did. Or use your law degree to help completely transform police union contracts from bringing roadblocks to road maps for reform and accountability; like your alumni, Michael Frisch, does for me every day as a senior advisor in my office.
Whatever it is, just do it. And if serving the public isn’t reason enough, you’ll also get a wealth of experience and a fulfillment of being at the center of how things get done and how they can get done better. The immutable fact is public policy will happen. Decisions will get made. Bills will get passed. But being a democracy means that what policy is, and how that decision is made, and what law gets passed depends on whether or not we’re part of the process. Meaning it matters whether a diverse group of voices and experiences are at the table. If you’re not engaged, you’re absolutely yielding your power to someone else. So be at the table. Put yourself in the place where your voice and talent can be felt and do your part to serve the public, to serve us.
And one last thing I must say in this moment – being engaged doesn’t mean screaming the loudest. It doesn’t mean issuing a set of demands and then villainizing anyone who doesn’t immediately pledge allegiance to your favorite manifesto. The public square should be about robust debate, working to muster the facts and arguments to persuade. Building coalitions, finding common ground, and of course, leaning into what you believe.
Yes, that’s all part of what makes this continuing, evolving, American experience with democracy great and enduring. But it is premised upon breaking down barriers that would otherwise separate us. Democracy will fail, it will utterly fail, if we do not see the humanity in each other.
And let me assert something that may sound blasphemous to some ears. Solutions to big, seemingly intractable challenges, are not found in 40 characters at a time, behind anonymous monikers or some other form of social media, which unfortunately have become the breeding ground for conspiracy theories, targeted misinformation campaigns, and, unfortunately, just pure hate. Real life, real life exists here and here, in your head and your heart. And as you move into the next chapter of your life, be guided by a sense of purpose, a passion, and empathy. I urge you, build bridges over which others can travel to you and you to them.
Congratulations, once again, to the entire Northwestern class of 2020 on this incredible moment on this incredible day. God bless you all, and thank you, and good luck.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.