David Simas '92, CEO of the Obama Foundation, offered the following wisdom to the Class of 2018 as the speaker at the College's 67th Commencement Ceremony:
I remember 26 years ago when I was last on the quad and here for graduation. [Today] when I look to my right, just like I did on that day, I see my father and I see my mother and I see my sister.
And I want everybody here, before you leave the quad today and even as you’re deeply immersed in this individual achievement, to make sure that you find your parents, your teachers, and your loved ones. Make sure you remember [that moment] because I can assure you, you won’t remember anything that I say. But please sear that into your memory.
Guides To Life
I want to talk to you today about three rules that I have tried to let guide me, but I have to be honest with you, I fail these on a daily basis. Even though you try to aspire to something, there isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t fail at it.
We Are Not Alone
The first lesson for me is to remember that whatever you achieve, you do not do this alone. One of the first memories that I have as a young boy was when my father came to me at my babysitter’s house and he said that my very young mother had been in a terrible accident at work.
From there, we went to the hospital and my immigrant mother and my immigrant father—my mom had been working in a silver factory making forks and spoons and knives. The machine all of a sudden malfunctioned and, in the blink of an eye, a young vibrant, healthy, ambitious woman had lost fingers on her hand.
The courage of an immigrant, the courage of anyone who does something new, to leave everything behind, language, culture, norms, because of that unbelievable hope that something will be better, in that moment—and I was too small to appreciate it then—it could have all come apart.
The memory of my dad saying that to me and then seeing my mother, was the only thing that I could think about 30-plus years later when David Simas from 29 Purchase Street, Taunton, Massachusetts, Stonehill Class of 1992, was shaking in fear walking into the West Wing of the White House.
Being Lifted Up
I sat in that welcoming room and all I could think about was that moment [from three decades earlier]. All I could think about was a baseball coach. All I could think about was a teacher, a [political science] professor here at Stonehill named Charlie Serns. All I could think about were people who, in moments where my life could have taken a different path, lifted me up.
That realization stuck with me every single day as I walked into that amazing building. Whether you serve a Democrat or a Republican, you are an American at that moment. Walking in there I repeated the same thing to myself on the way in in the morning and on the way out at night: “Remember who you are and who you represent.”
You are not here because of any transcendent brilliance that you have. You are not here because you work harder than other people. You are here because your community has lifted you up. You didn’t do it alone. Remember that. Today is an extraordinary day for you. But live deeply in that understanding that you are interdependent—you have been given a gift.
The motto for Stonehill is “Light and Hope.” Education has given you some light to allow you to see, but don’t take that ability to see as some indication that yours is the only path. Which leads me to my second lesson that I try to remember and live deeply.
Connected but Lacking Connection
One thing that I will never forget about those eight years in Washington was, and you’ve all seen this on cable television, people yelling at each other but never listening to one another. People talking at one another, but always waiting in those pauses to rebut and never to hear and to understand.
People so firmly committed that theirs was the only repository of truth, the only way to do anything, to the exclusion of others, has put us in this moment, this deep moment, where, even though we are more connected than ever to one another, we lack connection. Connection where you actually see the person and hear the person to understand them rather than to rebut.
A couple of months ago I was in a room on the south side of Chicago with 20 young people who are community leaders from all over the world. They were engaging in this exercise where essentially two people sit knee-to-knee across from each other, eye-to-eye, and I watched people exchanging their personal story and then the most amazing thing is, I then have to stand up and give the story that I just heard as if I were that person.
Here is what I heard: I heard a young African American man from one of the most difficult neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago stand up and, for that two minutes, he was a young woman from Aleppo, Syria who spent two years in a refugee camp. A young woman who will never see her community. Who lost most of her family. And as he was crying, he ended by saying, “I’m going to devote the rest of my life to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” He was her. He saw her. That young man was that young woman.
I saw another young woman stand up and tell a story about how when she came out as a lesbian woman to her grandfather, that he turned away from her. She hugged him deeply and said, “no matter how you turn away I will always love you deeply.”
And while none of us will ever be able to engage in that kind of deep empathy and exchange on a daily basis, please, make sure that when you hear that inner voice saying someone is automatically wrong, check yourself. Put yourself in their shoes. Understand their perspective. See where they’re coming from.
And the final thing that I want to leave you with begins with a story. I had the unbelievable honor to fly with President Obama, to the 50th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Civil Rights Act in Austin, Texas. And when we got to the Lyndon Johnson library in Austin, and walk into the rotunda, there are these amazing words on the wall: Medicare and Medicaid, voting rights, civil rights, and then I saw the word immigration.
When I saw the word immigration, right there I started to cry. The president looked at me was like, “really? C’mon man.” The reason I did was because it was the immigration act of 1965 that allowed me, this Stonehill grad and a kid from Taunton, to be standing there as an assistant to the President of the United States of America.
I then walked down the hall into a green room and there was a gospel singer, this amazing woman named Mavis Staples, who was watching a video of herself from 50 years before singing at a freedom rally, and standing behind her in that room was a hero of mine, Congressman John Lewis, who was saying in that amazing voice of his, “what a wondrous thing it is that I’m about to introduce Barack Obama on this day.”
An hour later in that same green room, there were ten people who had written letters to the President and as soon as he walked in the door this one woman from Austin saw him, burst into tears, and said, “Mr. President, my little boy is alive today because of you.”
She kept on repeating that and obviously her tears had obscured her vision because she said to me, “young man, do you work for the president?” and I stood up as straight as I could and said, “Yes mam, I do.” She said, “please know that my little boy is alive today because of you.”
Change for the Better
On the flight back to Washington I reflected on that hour and a half of my life, here’s what I realized and want you to remember: It wasn’t a president or a congress that were the driving force behind that immigration act that allowed my parents to move to this country. It was people in communities throughout the country that said things need to change and be better.
Change is never top down, change is always bottom up.
It wasn’t because of a congress or a president that the Civil Rights Act was signed, it was because a 22-year-old named John Lewis, and thousands of people like him, stood on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, knowing that they were going to be beaten and thrown in jail. Why? Because of an idea.
Change begins from the bottom up. And finally, it wasn’t because of me, and certainly wasn’t because of Barack Obama that this woman’s son was alive. It was because people throughout the country said, “things need to be better.”
Citizenship & Hope
And so the takeaway for me is that these are acts of citizenship and these are acts of hope, something that is in short supply. As graduates and as you engage in your communities, understand that you have the responsibility of active citizenship and I don’t mean the piece of paper. I don’t mean the degree and I don’t mean the paper that says you are a citizen. I mean that when you are in a community, don’t just focus on what your rights are, your rights are important, but as important are your responsibilities. And I don’t just mean voting, or registering to vote, that is a bare minimum.
Your responsibility as graduates, as Stonehill graduates—Light and Hope—is no matter where you live and engage, if there is an elderly person down the street and you haven’t seen the person for a week, knock on the door to make sure she’s okay. That’s community. When you see a young boy who lives on your street and is struggling, go to the school and read. That’s community. That’s leadership.
Beyond Shouting Matches
Put aside the left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, constant twitter-fed shouting match that parts people into us versus them, me against you, religion, race, gender.
You have been given an amazing gift. You have a responsibility to engage. Because at the end of the day, I, as someone who graduated from [Stonehill] and have had the great honor to sit across, in the oval office, from the President of the United States, will never forget that the greatest and most powerful office in this country is the office of citizen.
As of today, you have been given light, it’s time for you to fulfill the second part of the motto which is hope. And hope is the belief that our destiny is not written for us, it is written by us. You are the change that you desire. Go out and do it.
Congratulations Class of 2018.