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School of Public Affairs 2019 Spring Commencement Ceremony

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Dean's Address

5:59

SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.

Undergraduate Speaker Address

6:45

SPA Undergraduate Student Speaker Othniel Harris delivered an address for graduates.

Now, to my fellow Graduates, "Apathy is the root of all evil," that is what my AP Government & Politics teacher told my peers and I on our first day of school. He said this because he assumed that most of us in a class about government and politics, were still apathetic when it came to those matters. In fact, he said that if our generation didn’t shape up, get involved, and make our voices heard, then our democracy would perish.

Now, I understand who I’m speaking to. I’m speaking to the students of American University who were ranked the most politically active students on any college campus. Oh, we definitely know how to make our voices heard on plenty of issues.

Whether it was my time on the Black Student Alliance when we protested the racist acts against black women, to students who brought to light the mistreatment of campus employees who work to make our lives and the lives of their families what it is, or students who protested the rise in tuition because education should not lead to life crippling debt. Yes, we definitely know how to make our voices heard.

Being ranked the most politically active, what does that mean? Should we take pride in such a title? (Pause and look around) No, because it means nothing. It means nothing if I go back home to South River, New Jersey and a friend from high school still thinks their vote doesn’t matter. It means nothing if you go back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and your relative doesn’t participate in local government because they’re ill informed on current political issues. It means nothing if we are talking to our co-workers, and we say gerrymandering and they respond, “Who’s Gerry?”

The point that I’m trying to get across is that our democracy is not just built for the most politically active. A democracy is like an airplane, which takes more than just the pilot to get off the ground. Many people say that our system of government is useless, and their hearts have turned cold toward our leaders and the seats that they hold.

Well, Socrates said in The Republic that we should not blame the uselessness of our government on our leaders, but we should blame its uselessness on those who do not make use of it.

My teacher was right when he said that apathy leads to evil because the Bible says in Ephesians 4:19, “they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity…” In a democracy, this scripture would translate to those who chose not to use their voices give themselves over to powerful forces who turn prejudice into policy.

With that being said, I want to challenge each and every one of us to take the knowledge from our successes, and the lessons of our failures, to be true leaders. Ones who educate the people, advocate for the people, and protect the people from forces like these. Now more than ever, it is our duty to not let the flame of hope for a better nation within us die, but it is our duty to spread that flame to others to create a more engaged Democratic Republic.

I say this because if not us, the most politically active students in the nation, then who? There are so many challenges that this country is facing and I believe that we, as the most politically active students in America, should be able to go out into the world, bring people together, and solve these challenges. There is no time to tolerate apathy or cynicism. Change is in our hands, and I believe that the most powerful change for our nation will come from the most politically active combined with a new awakening of the masses.

I can say that I am very hopeful because I know that right here in Bender Arena, I don’t see people who are apathetic. I see people that are ready to bring people together across all lines. I see people that are ready to create the policies and the laws of the future. I see people that aren’t scared of a little turbulence that may disrupt the path toward justice. I see people that will help land our democracy into the blessings of liberty, and the creation of a more perfect union. Now it is our time, and it is time that we sow the seeds that will lead to progress, peace, and prosperity for every American.

Thank you, and congratulations to the School of Public Affairs Class of 2019.

Graduate Speaker Address

5:10

SPA Graduate Student Speaker Julian Cuevas delivered an address for graduates.

Thank you President Burwell, Dean Wilkins, administration, faculty, friends and families.

What a time to be living.

As I was thinking about what I was going to say to you today, I realized how much has changed during our time here at American University.

For starters, when we all began this journey, we witnessed the transition from one of the most historic presidencies in American history.

We witnessed the first woman win the presidential nomination for a major party.

I mean we saw Mariah Carey get up on stage in the middle of Times Square in 2017 and be humiliated in front of millions to then come back the following year and kill it in front of the whole damn world!

We witnessed movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #LoveIsLove.

But we also saw children be separated from their families and detained at the border, and devastated communities from the fires in California to the hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast and Puerto Rico.

From politics to pop culture, our world has shifted. And yet, here we all were preparing to address these types of challenges. Our collective degrees in areas like Justice and Law, Political Science, Leadership, and Public Administration and Policy - are exactly what our quickly evolving society needs.

It’s timely – because the reality is that the America we live in today is not our grandparent’s America. It’s not even our parent’s America. The challenges we face today are so much more complex and require steadfast, innovative thinking that develop people focused, next generation solutions.

I believe it was Thomas Friedaman that said “Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking space, applications were what you sent to college, Big Data was a good name for a rap star, and Skype, for most people, was a typographical error”.

Globalization has changed the playing field. The instant access we have at our fingertips, the ease of online research without having to go to the library and flip through card catalogs, mixing up our commands between Alexa and Siri – and then not understanding why neither one of them are responding.

These are all tools that have made our lives more comfortable, time efficient, and easier to maneuver.

But with such innovation comes its own challenges. New issues to resolve. New concepts to understand. New jargon to adopt.

That’s where we step in. You know, I keep hearing older generations say that millennials messed everything up. That we’re the problem. Well I reject that notion. If anything, we’re here to clean up the mess.

President John F. Kennedy said on this campus some 60 years ago, “Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved”. He said, “And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” Words that could not ring truer today.

So let’s renew this call to action. I’m not suggesting we all set aside our differences – for it’s our differences that I believe bring the diverse perspectives to the table. But I am suggesting that we strive for common ground. That we challenge old habits in the name of improving our systems so that they work for all of us – not just for some. For every generation gets its moment to help define our humanity – to help bend that arch towards justice - to make our union just a little more prefect.

What a time to be living.

To my parents, who immigrated to the U.S. nearly 50 years ago, thank you for the opportunities you provided our family and for your courage in leaving your home to pursue that American dream.

To my family and friends – thank you for always gut checking me and for keeping it real when it was needed.

To my beautiful partner and wife, Jessica, watching this LIVE back home with our 4 week old son, Mateo, thank you for standing by my side and helping me see this through. I love you.

Thank you all, and congratulations.

Keynote Address

24:39

Stacey Abrams delivered the keynote address for Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.

To President Burwell, Dean Wilkins, family, friends and – most importantly – graduates, thank you for having me here today. As a fellow graduate in the work of public affairs, I have had more than 20 years to think about what I intended to do with my degree and where I am today. To cut to the chase, I did not imagine any of the outcomes of the past six months, and I knew precious little about the preceding years. And that’s entirely okay.

I certainly thought I knew what was to come. I’d began plotting my life in granular detail when I was 18, laying out all of the goals I held and the objectives I would pursue. Over the years, I have updated my spreadsheet – yes, I used a spreadsheet – with new information, with new avenues. I’ve deleted some and added new columns, edited entries and ignored some of the items altogether. Now, this is not the way you have to plan your life, but in this process, I have learned ways to prepare to succeed. By knowing what you believe, knowing what you want and knowing it might not work.

Know What You Believe

First, know what you believe. Our ambitions, our decisions and our responses are shaped by what we hold to be true. Beyond the easy labels of party or ideology are the deeply-held convictions that shape those labels. Too often, adherence to conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and hostile action. For today, at least, I urge you to lay aside your labels and explore what your principles say about the world you wish to serve.

Beliefs are our anchors. If they aren’t, we run the risk of opportunism – making choices because others do so, not because we should. But those anchors should never weigh down our capacity for thoughtful engagement and reasonable compromise. 

It is critical to know what you believe because public policy is complicated, balancing the needs and desires and the arguments of many, a cacophony of demands that all seem to have merit. As leaders, you represent not only those who share your core values, but those who despise all that you hold dear. 

Therefore, beliefs – your principles- must be concrete and fundamental and understood. Be willing to distinguish between a core belief and an idea you just like a lot. As public servants, you will impose your beliefs in policy and through action, so take the time to deeply examine those notions you would call beliefs. Be certain that you would ask others to not only share those principles with you, but that you would deny access or restrict another’s freedom to enforce that belief. 

And, no, ancestral teachings or religious tendencies are insufficient cause for belief. I am the child of two United Methodist ministers. And yet, my own parents once warned us that their belief in God wasn’t going to help us get in to heaven. “You have to believe for yourself. We can’t take you with us,” they warned. Harsh, but true. What you hold as belief will be used to shape the world you would see come forth – make sure you mean it.

Once you know what you believe, try to not believe in too much. I am loathe to follow folks who are absolutely certain that they already know everything. The ones who have a definite opinion about every headline, and who give you the answer before you ask the question. And if you can’t point out who in your circle of friends is that person, it just might be you.

Public policy – usually – isn’t good or evil, or even that interesting. It is mundane, routine and it cuts across neighborhoods, nations and ideologies. But when your lens only allows for a single myopic focus, a solitary filter that has no room for debate, you miss the true role of government and of public policy. And you miss the chance to learn and to become better people.

I do have core beliefs, but I don’t have an unshakeable position on every issue. I do not believe taxes are good or evil. I do believe that poverty is an abomination and that freedom of speech must be held sacrosanct. Most of all, I accept that I may not know enough about an issue to render immediate judgment, which is why I attend study and read everything I can, especially the counter-arguments to my positions. 

Which is why we must always seek to understand what others believe and why. You must be truth seekers, and that requires a willingness to understand truths other than your own. The truest road to good decision-making is the acknowledgment that the other guy might have a point. Even if it’s not yours.

And if it turns out that new information alters your thinking, the terrifying reality may lead to accusations of “flip flopping” – a term that has become a death sentence to ambition. As a society that seeks to champion knowledge, we must accept that a person can change what he or she believes, as long as that change is authentic and grounded in true examination of philosophy and reality. Changing who you are to accommodate others or to advance your cause or career is a craven act not worthy of real leaders, but evolution based on investigation and interrogation should be celebrated and welcomed. It makes us smarter. It makes us better.

As you enter the world of public affairs, for the first time or on a return ticket, be careful to know if you are evolving or caving, because the internet will never let you forget.

Whether you leave here destined to be an administrator or a policy maker or an active citizen, always keep clear in your minds the difference between principle and policy, between belief and behavior. Policy is what you should do. Principle, belief, is why you do it. So know what you believe, why you believe it and be willing to understand the other side.

Know What You Want

Some of you may have heard that in 2018, I ran for Governor of Georgia. In the first weeks after I declared my candidacy, I reached out to friends and family to start to raise what would be $42 million over the course of the campaign, the most raised by any candidate in Georgia history. However, when I started, I called folks I’d known for years, and more than once, I heard this refrain: “Stacey, you’d make a great governor, you’re so qualified. But you’re a black woman.” They whispered it like a terminal diagnosis. My response was, “I know.” But after the 10th then 20th conversation with women and men I’d known for years, who had invested in me and supported me, I started to wonder if maybe they were correct. Especially the ones who told me to wait until Georgia was ready for me. To support someone else, and ask for a job in her administration. To aim lower.

I listened to their doubts, and I started to internalize their diminution of my capacity. Until I reminded myself that I knew what I wanted and I had a plan to get it. When you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong. But do not edit your desires: Want what you want, regardless of how big the dream – you may have to get there in stages, but the journey is worth the work. Do not allow logic to be an excuse for setting low expectations: This occurs when we allow ourselves to be less because we think if it were possible, it would have happened. The fact that no one has doesn’t mean you can’t. I became the 1st black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in our nation’s 242 year history. I did not become governor, which is a topic for another day. Do not ask “why hasn’t anyone else done it.” That’s the wrong question. Instead, the frame should be – it is possible, how do I do it?

How? By making a plan and writing it down. If it’s an idea in your head or a title on a roster, it’s meaningless. If you know what you want, force the question by plotting how you get there. By knowing what you believe, you have the reason. And by knowing what you want, you can draw the map.

Know It Might Not Work

However, you must also accept that it might not always work. Our beliefs may close off avenues available to others. Our ambitions may be too audacious or different for traditional paths. And our very persons may challenge the status quo more than quo is ready to accommodate. Plus, you might just screw up and have to try again.

Opportunity is not a straight road and to take full advantage, you must be prepared to fail, to stumble or to win in a way that looks nothing like you imagined. For those of us not guaranteed access, we must realize not all worlds operate the same. We are required to discover the hidden formulas to success – and often, opportunity looks like less than we expected.

To hack this very real possibility, first, look for unusual points of entry: I began my career by learning the various jobs it would take to get me to my ultimate goals. I needed to know how to manage a team, how to raise money, how to make tough choices. So I volunteered to fundraise when others hid, I showed up in places I wasn’t expected and I asked to do the jobs others avoided. Each of you harbors a dream that seems outsized, maybe even too big to admit to yourself. But if you can’t give yourself space to admit it, do the next best thing and plan for it. Take the job or the internship that pays less than you expected but puts you close to your target. Accept the grunt work that allows you to prove your mettle. And dare to want more than you previously imagined.

To get there, utilize your networks: you are joining an extraordinary community of graduates from American University. While you may not know everyone, most of the help you need is only a few degrees away. Ask for it. And if you don’t get what you need, ask again. Broaden your understanding of who knows whom and who can help – not just the CEO or the director of an institution, but the administrative assistant or the IT guy. Never convince yourself that title and power are the same. Title is what a person is called. Power is what they can accomplish. We forget it’s the admin who can squeeze you into the calendar or the intern you ignore who can help you with that last minute project. Regardless of status, those who share our space can be part of our network. Show them respect and they can show you the way.

Lastly, embrace the fail and search it for new opportunities. In the wake of my campaign for governor, I wallowed in my despair and then I reminded myself why I got into this in the first place. I’m an introvert giving speeches, a tax nerd debating energy policy. When I did not reach my goal, I excavated my beliefs and my ambitions to reignite my opportunities. In the process, I redirected my commitment to voting rights by founding Fair Fight Action. We are combatting the scourge of voter suppression, and I can effectively serve our democracy in this non-elected capacity. I also launched Fair Count, drawing on my understanding of reapportionment and resource allocation to bring more Georgians into the 2020 Census count. Neither role is where I expected to be today, but I continue to move forward with prospects I had not imagined would be before me.

When life doesn’t work, when the fail seems permanent, acknowledge the pain but reject conclusion. Our principles exist to sustain us. Our ambitions are there to drive us. And our stumbles exist to remind us that the work endures.

Public service is a passion play. It is the drama of how we shape daily life, how we allocate resources and raise hopes and ground dreams in robust reality. The architects of our better lives are not those who cavil and fret and watch. They are we – the ones who step forward and claim the awesome responsibility for grand aspirations like the end to poverty, the equality of educational access and the effective response to climate change and the more mundane tasks of working sewer systems, bilateral international agreements on fisheries and synchronized traffic lights.

You sit here today because you have accepted your destiny as public servants, as leaders for this current age. But where you enter public service, not if, is the challenge you face now. Our nation is grappling with existential questions and our allies and enemies watch us to see how we will respond. The tension of elections pulls against the urgency of governance. You might be tempted to harden yourself, to cast your lot with what you know and wall yourself off from those people and ideas that challenge your direction. But you are here, in this school, because you understand the deeper calling of our obligations – to serve the grace that is our joint contract to build a better world. And that you are the embodiment of the most deeply held of beliefs – one that American University, that the School of Public Affairs, that your family and friends and classmates and I all hold today. We believe in you.

Congratulations on your graduation and thank you.

Commencement Speaker

Stacey Abrams

Former Georgia House Democratic Leader

Receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws

Stacey Abrams is a New York Times bestselling author, nonprofit founder, and political leader. After serving in the Georgia House of Representatives for eleven years—seven as minority leader—Abrams became the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. The first black woman to be nominated by a major party for a gubernatorial campaign in the United States, Abrams won more votes than any other Democrat in the state’s history.

Following the 2018 election, Abrams launched Fair Fight, a political action committee dedicated to ensuring that every Georgian has a voice in the election process. Over the course of her career, Abrams has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national levels. She is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the 2012 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, and a current member of the board of directors of the Center for American Progress.

Abrams holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, economics, and sociology from Spelman College; a master of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin; and a juris doctor from Yale Law School. Her book Minority Leader: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change was published in 2018 and was just re-released as Lead from Outside as a paperback in March 2019.

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