Hello, RUSH University. I am so excited to be with you today.
Thank you, Dr. Kennedy, for your kind introduction and thank you to Jordan Cisneros for his inspiring student address. [applause]
I'd also like to thank President Goodman and his leadership team, the Board of Governors, and honorary governors for the invitation to join you for the 51st commencement ceremony at RUSH University.
Most of all I want to say thank you to the graduates. It's an honor and a joy to share this special day with you as we celebrate your achievements and welcome you to an exciting new chapter of your lives.
To the graduates of the College of Nursing, the medical college, the College of Health Sciences, and the graduate college—congratulations to each and every one of you. You made it! [applause]
Being here with you today has me reflecting on the beginnings of my own journey. It was 2005, and I was in the second semester of my freshman year at the University of Michigan. It was 8 a.m. on a Monday morning and I was thrilled to be in class—seriously. It was an honors seminar about health policy and its influences on health disparities, and that course changed my life.
Up until the moment that I bought the policy and politics and nursing and health care textbook for the class, I didn't even realize that I could combine the two things that I felt most passionate about—policy and nursing—into a career. I can tell you honestly, that class is what set me on my path to Congress.
I knew I wanted to be a health care provider since I was a kid. I’d tell anyone who asked that I was going to be a pediatric cardiologist when I grew up. This was, of course, before I could spell pediatric cardiologist and way before I took organic chemistry.
Now let me explain. I was born with supraventricular tachycardia. It's well controlled today, but I spent a lot of time at the doctor's office as a kid, and the care that I received as a child has stayed with me all my life.
As I got older, I found that I was equally passionate about making a difference in my community. I've been a Girl Scout all my life and I was even a member of my community's fair housing commission when I was in high school. But I thought public service was an extracurricular activity, something you did outside of work or school. My nursing and policy class changed that perception for me.
Now fast forward to 2017. I was 30 and wrapping up my absolute dream job at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. I had been appointed by President Obama to help guide the federal response to the Ebola epidemic, the Flint water crisis, and other public health emergencies.
I stayed until the very last day of his administration. I didn't particularly know what was next for me, but I knew that I could not in good conscience stay and help the incoming administration make good on their promise to overturn the Affordable Care Act and take health care away from millions of Americans. [applause] That's not why I became a nurse.
So I returned home to Naperville and it was great. I was minding my own business. I was living my very best millennial life.
But during the same time, the debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act was raging in Washington. My congressman pledged that he would not repeal health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and I honestly took him at his word.
So two weeks later when that now former congressman voted for a version of ACA repeal that jeopardized the health care coverage of 300,000 people in my community—people with diabetes or depression or a heart condition like me—I made a decision. I was running for Congress.
One of the first things that we learn in nursing school is the code of ethics. As health care professionals we are duty-bound to advocate for our patients’ rights. We’re guided by compassion, clinical excellence and a commitment to health care as a human right. So when my community's health care was threatened, I felt a responsibility as a nurse to step up.
Now, that's not to say I wasn't scared. I was terrified. But our professors didn't only teach us clinical excellence, they taught us to be the next generation of leaders.
I soon found out that deciding to run for Congress and actually launching a campaign are two very different things. I didn't have a staff or consultants. I had my friend Sarah, who stepped up as my campaign manager. We were a team of two, and Lauren Underwood for Congress was a very DIY operation.
For months, Sarah and I confronted all the challenges that come with launching a campaign. We built a website, we constructed a policy platform, and we shot a campaign video.
I remember I didn't get any sleep the night before we shared our big secret project with the world because among other things, we were hunting for free background music to use in the announcement video. I told you it was DIY.
So I rode the metro to work the next morning and I felt a shock of adrenaline through as I scrolled through my phone and I saw my announcement in the news. The secret was out. I had no idea how our campaign would be received, but I had absolute confidence that I was doing the right thing. I felt the fear and did it anyway.
In November of 2018, against all odds, my first race for public office ended in a five-point victory. At 32 [applause]…thank you…at 32, I became the youngest black woman to ever serve in the Congress. [applause and cheers]
Now, I know my story is unique, but remember this—you have been prepared for leadership, too.
I'm not saying you have to run for Congress. Health care and public health professionals can be leaders in a clinic, a university, a c-suite, a local elected board—the opportunities are endless. What matters is that you share your expertise, because listen—our communities need your leadership. Your voices and your expertise are critical, especially right now.
It's a difficult thing to step into leadership, to have your credentials examined and your background scrutinized. I'm not going to tell you otherwise. It feels hard because it is hard. But just like I was, you have been prepared for leadership and you already have everything that you need to make an impact.
I know that a commitment to health equity is foundational to the education that you've received here at RUSH and to the careers that you'll be pursuing after today.
That very same commitment is what guides my work in Congress, and I can trace my focus on health equity all the way back to graduate school.
On the first day of my public health master's program, I met my friend Dr. Shalon Irving. We bonded quickly and I valued her friendship deeply. Shalon went on to serve as a lieutenant commander in the United States Public Health Service Commission Corps, where she applied her dual PhDs to ending health disparities in the United States.
As my time in the Obama Administration was coming to a close, Shalon was preparing to have her first child, and in January of 2017 her beautiful baby girl named Soleil was born. Just three weeks later we lost Shalon. She died from pregnancy-related complications at just 36 years old.
Shalon's death was devastating and it added to a tragic and unacceptable national trend. The United States has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths of any high-income country in the world, and black moms die at three to four times the rate of white moms.
It's a crisis that's only getting worse. A recent report found that the number of maternal deaths in the U.S. in 2021 was nearly 80 percent higher than the number of deaths in 2018.
The causes of this crisis are multifaceted. They include both clinical and non-clinical drivers. We see implicit bias and racism in the care that people receive throughout the perinatal period. We see shortages of nurses, midwives, physicians and doulas. And we see the role of social determinants of health like housing, transportation, and nutrition that are leading to these terrible maternal health outcomes and disparities.
I knew when I ran for Congress that this was a health equity crisis that I was going to tackle head on if I won. And so when I was sworn in in 2019, I got right to work.
I partnered with a fellow black congresswoman, Dr. Alma Adams of North Carolina, and we gave ourselves the name the Black Maternal Health Caucus, and I'll be real—I thought Dr. Adams and I would be a team of two, but my friends, the Black Maternal Health Caucus now includes more than 100 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans [applause], and together we've introduced a package of 12 bills to comprehensively address the maternal mortality crisis in America, the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act.
And in 2021 I stood next to President Biden as he signed the first piece of the momnibus into law, and I won't stop until we've enacted the entire package. [applause]
Advancing maternal health equity and health equity broadly across our country is going to require comprehensive efforts like the momnibus, and it's going to require people like you. People who will provide high-quality clinical care, advance cutting-edge research, engage in meaningful policy advocacy, and go out and lead in communities across Illinois and throughout the country.
For many of us, this work is personal. We understand how important the work is because we've lost friends or cousins or sorority sisters or neighbors. We understand the need to have a diverse healthcare workforce because we've seen the difference it can make in our own families when we have doctors and nurses who speak our language and understand our culture.
It's why I am so inspired by our student commencement address speaker. Jordan is a founding member of Together We Thrive, working to support first-generation medical students, many who come from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are underrepresented in today's healthcare workforce and are needed now more than ever.
Jordan's work continues RUSH’s long-standing commitment to health equity, a commitment that can be traced all the way back to 1847 when Dr. David Jones Peck became the first black man to ever receive a doctor of medicine degree from an American medical school, history that was made right here at RUSH.
I know that our graduates…yes, RUSH. [applause]
I know that our graduates here today are going to carry that history-making legacy forward from today's ceremony, not only as health care leaders but as the citizens that our democracy depends on.
Because let's face it—our values are on the line right now. There are people who think that the whole idea of health equity is too “woke.” If you say you want to reduce maternal mortality that's fine, but as soon as you talk about black maternal health they don't want to engage.
The focus on health equity has been my priority in Congress and yours throughout your time at RUSH is something that they hope will fade away and fall out of fashion. But there's a difference between a fad and a value.
As leaders, you can't allow your values to be compromised. You must keep your eyes trained on the horizon, doing the work with justice and joy, wellness and hope, agency and peace as your north stars.
It's my responsibility to remind you that without your active engagement, American democracy will falter. Our democracy is too precious, too essential to let it slip away.
Most everything that you'll do in health care, from the treatments you administer to how long a patient can stay in your unit to how much you're getting paid, involves political decision making.
And as healthcare professionals, we can more effectively advocate for ourselves, for our patients, and for our communities when we understand how policy decisions shape our lives. So we need your voices, we need your expertise and we need your leadership.
I know how challenging this moment is for people entering the healthcare profession. We're still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 as we also confront long-standing and newly emerging challenges, from youth mental health to the public health crisis of gun violence.
You may have felt your commitment and courage pushed to the limits already by the magnitude of the work that needs to be done, but let me assure you—you are uniquely prepared for this moment. You are ready to drive transformational change in your communities.
Before I close, I want to encourage you to recognize the community that you're graduating with. These are your lifelong friends and colleagues, the people who will inspire you professionally and be by your side on the biggest days of your life. Some of my most trusted confidants are the friends I made during my nursing education. Today, they are my people. Please look around—these are yours.
I decided to mount my unlikely campaign for Congress because I felt that people of conscience needed to stand up for our shared values. I believe that to be even more true today and that this moment specifically requires your leadership.
Stepping into leadership has a ripple effect. You show others what's possible and you inspire them to tap into their own strength. That's the power that you hold and the responsibility that you carry. I know that you'll make the most of it.
Thank you again and congratulations everybody. [applause]
RUSH University. “RUSH University Commencement 2023.” YouTube video, 2:50:07. May 3, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An10SheKUPM