Thank you, Dr. Eddinger, for your decades of leadership in our nation’s community colleges, and for your total dedication to serving this community.
Bunker Hill Community College Class of 2021, congratulations!
I’m honored to be a part of today’s celebration. And I hope you can take a moment to let this achievement sink in.
For many of you, the past year and a half tested you like never before. Even before the pandemic, you were fitting your studies into a demanding set of responsibilities. Working full or part-time. Caring for kids or parents – or both. For those of you who are international students, school and work happened far away from families and communities.
Then COVID made everything harder. Some of you lost your jobs or had your salaries cut back; or you were asked to take on more hours because your work was considered essential. For the three in five of you who are parents, when schools and daycares closed, you suddenly had kids at home too.
Some of you may have thought about putting your education on hold, because it felt nearly impossible to keep going.
I’m so glad you didn’t.
Today is your day. But it’s not yours alone. It also belongs to the people who matter most to you, and who helped make this day possible.
So let me take a moment to join you in applauding the parents, spouses, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, children, friends, and BHCC faculty and staff who supported you on your journey and who take so much pride in seeing you graduate.
Days like these – and times like these – have a way of getting us to ask big questions about who we are and who we want to be.
Other commencement speakers might talk to you about the importance of pursuing your dreams or learning from failure. And those are really important pieces of advice.
But for me, one of the biggest lessons of the past year has been one of the simplest: be decent.
Decency is treating others well – not because you think you might get something in return, but simply because you should. It’s rooted in empathy – putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.
It’s about dignity – recognizing the innate worth of every person, no matter who they are.
The opposite of decency is cruelty. Indifference. And cynicism. And that last one in particular can be pretty hard to resist.
Too often, people believe that to get ahead and get things done, you have to be cynical about what you can achieve and who you can trust. That if you want to climb up, you have to push others down.
I’ve seen a fair amount of cynicism in three decades working in Washington. I’ve seen it in other countries too. In too many places, people lead by fear and intimidation. They think an effective leader is a bully, and that only by making some people feel small can we achieve big things.
But in my own experience, that’s just not true.
Take my boss, for example. He’s got a fairly new job title – President Joe Biden. Part of why I’ve kept working for him for more than 20 years is because he’s a profoundly decent man. And no one could claim that being decent has held him back. It’s one of the reasons so many people trust him to represent and lead them.
At our best, that’s true for the United States, as well. I have the privilege of representing our country around the world. And consistently, the people I meet – from heads of state to activists to ordinary citizens – count on us to be decent.
We see that when others seek our help to fight a deadly virus or look to us when a natural disaster strikes. There’s a belief out there that America will do the right thing – or at least try to. And that actually makes us stronger. It helps us bring others along and bring them together. And it helps us shape a world that comes a little bit closer to reflecting our ideals.
Now we don’t always live up to those ideals or those expectations. In many ways, our history is the story of striving for the ideal of who we want to be – while constantly reckoning with how we come up short.
We experienced that during the last year in the long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd. When Darnella Frazier – the girl who was just 17 years old when she filmed the horrific killing – said at the trial, “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, my brother, my uncle because they are all Black. I look at that and I look at how that could be one of them,” well she was speaking for so many people in America.
As with so many pivot points in our history, it took being confronted with that stark inhumanity to bring millions of people out in the streets to demand justice and the structural changes that are long overdue.
That’s America, too. And that’s why people around the world believe in us. Not because we’re always good, but because there are always so many Americans pushing us to do better. We do that work out in the open, for all to see. Even when it’s painful. Even when it’s ugly.
That ‘s what sets America apart. That’s the spirit of trying to form “a more perfect union.”
To see it in action, we need only look at what the students of Bunker Hill Community College have done for others during the pandemic.
You opened your homes to classmates who couldn’t make rent.
When hundreds of students fell out of touch in the first months of COVID-19, you worked the phones to find out if they needed help – and how to bring them back.
When students didn’t have wi-fi or laptops to attend classes online, you raised money to buy them.
When students couldn’t put food on the table for themselves or their kids, your food pantry delivered groceries straight to their homes.
When winter came and the city’s homeless shelters filled up, you turned your gym into a 48-bed shelter for women.
And after the killing of George Floyd, you came together as a community to share your own painful experiences.
That included BHCC’s police chief of almost 20 years, Bobby Barrows, who shared for the first time that his father had been jailed in a prison that used to sit where the college is today. It was learning about his father’s brutal and dehumanizing experience that led Bobby to vow to become a police officer, to try to build a better justice system.
And when Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander classmates were targets of aggression on and off campus, you stood with them too.
I’m inspired by how this community has come together. It reminds me a little bit of a passage in the novel The Plague about a city overtaken by a deadly virus. Maybe that sounds familiar?
At the peak of the outbreak, a journalist and a doctor are talking about how the community is going to make it through. The journalist says, it’s going to take heroism.
No, says the doctor. “The only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
Commencement addresses are often full of advice. But everything you need to know about decency, you’ve already demonstrated in your time here.
And I hope that you keep doing it throughout your lives, because our country and our world need you.
One powerful way you can do that is through public service. You’re going to have many paths to choose from – but I hope that you will give serious thought to serving your community, city, or country through a career in government. It can be an incredibly powerful way of doing good for others and being part of forming a more perfect union. And in my experience at least, there’s nothing more rewarding. So consider joining the U.S. State Department. We’d love to have you on our team.
Years before COVID-19, the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit studied how communities responded in the aftermath of modern disasters. There was an assumption that those crises would bring out the worst in people – individualism, selfishness, cruelty. She actually found the opposite was true.
People were communal, altruistic, creative – even when government was not.
People took care not just of loved ones, but also total strangers – and through good acts, they experienced great joy.
These responses, Solnit writes, give us “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be, and what else our society could become.”
I look at this class, and at Bunker Hill Community College, and I see so many examples of who we may be, what our society can become, and how you all may lead it.
It gives me a profound sense of hope.
So thank you for your decency. And congratulations on this remarkable achievement.