While always true, it has been especially the case this past school year: Young people are at the center of political action nationwide. Students from Parkland, Florida, mobilized to stop gun violence. Graduate students marched to stop a potential tax hike that would increase the already debilitating cost of college. More than 1,000 students at Howard University staged a nine-day sit-in for better campus housing, tuition, and improved reporting on sexual violence—and succeeded.
Over the past month and into the next, commencement speakers provide words of advice for outgoing students. Not all commencement addresses feature sexist remarks, empty rhetoric from former government officials, or a racist demagogue—some really do acknowledge youth’s power and the urgency of this political moment. And some potential speakers have done so by refusing to speak at all: US Senator Kamala Harris and US Representative Ted Lieu both withdrew their addresses in solidarity with University of California workers.
The Nation collected excerpts from 10 speakers across the country who offered their advice and guidance in a world that needs to change to a generation with the passion, smarts, and will to bring it.
Chokwe Lumumba—Jackson State University, April 28
Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi
“It is a sobering reality that your degrees cannot shield you from injustice, but you hold the potential to change the world far beyond our wildest dreams. We must fight against a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and exploitation. We must demand no one be brutalized in the streets, the workplace or public spaces. As the nation turns its focus on high school shootings from coast to coast, I long for the day whereas black people we have as many rights as a gun does in this country.”
Ronan Farrow —Loyola Marymount University, May 5
New Yorker journalist recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses.
“In hindsight, it’s always clear whether or not your choices were the right one. In hindsight, you know whether it was right to stick to your guns or right to turn the other cheek. Whether it’s right not to give up on a story or right to give a little to get along and move on. Not necessarily because you’re cowardly, but because there are other stories and there is only so much you can do. But, in the moment, you don’t know any of that.”
Leymah Gbowee—Eastern Mennonite University, May 8
Liberian peace activist, women’s-rights advocate, and 2011 Nobel Peace laureate who led the women’s-rights movement that helped end the Second Liberian War in 2003.
“Who will stand up and reinforce unity and diversity to our young children and say to them, ‘Regardless of the tone of your skin, your ethnic group, your social class, and your political and sexual identity, we need to co-exist for the good of our world’? Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, there’s an urgent need for individuals to rise up for the cause of peace and justice. You may contend, ‘I live in Harrisonburg, my community is free of armed conflict and war.’ Well, I will contend with you, that as long as there are people sleeping on cardboard boxes in your streets, you need to rise up.”
Carla Hayden—Roosevelt University, May 11
Fourteenth Librarian of Congress and first African-American woman appointed to this position.
“What you know now and all of the things you learned might not be what you need to know in the future. But what you have learned is how to learn and how to preserve. As you continue to invest in yourself and to continue learning, you can find meaning in purpose in work you might not even imagine now.”
Chadwick Boseman—Howard University, May 12
Star of Black Panther, currently the highest-grossing superhero movie in the United States.
“Many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization. The fact that you have struggled with this university that you love is a sign you can use your education to improve the world you are entering.”
Chance the Rapper—Dillard University, May 12
Chicago rapper, producer, and social activist.
“All of us have a responsibility to be greater than the people who came before us. We have a responsibility to be not as good as them or live up to their example, but to actually surpass them even if it seems scary. We have to overcome that fear and be greater than our role models.”
Deeyah Khan—Emerson College, May 13
Film director and human-rights activist.
“I hope for you to understand the power that you have. You might feel afraid, you might feel worried and stressed about what’s next and how is your life is going to pan out. What I can tell you is don’t worry too hard. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Abby Wambach—Barnard College, May 16
Retired US soccer star and all-time leading scorer in international soccer history.
“Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the ‘other,’ about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless. And these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Anita Hill—Rutgers University, May 17
American attorney and academic whose 1991 testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas paved the way for sexual harassment cases today.
“In an age of harsh and sometimes immediate backlash that could be delivered nearly instantly and anonymously online with a click of a mouse, challenging the status quo is still risky. So I want you to think about the courage that you have witnessed in your time and think about what it has meant about your life.”
Jean Steve Mfuranzima—Pima Community College, May 17
Graduate of Pima Community College who came to the United States seeking asylum from his home country, Burundi, which he actively spoke against.
“We are challenged with the responsibility to transform our lives, our families, our communities and our humanity in general. See yourself as the reflection of the person sitting next to you, the starving child somewhere, the homeless person that you pass by on your way to work, the woman who continues to endure suffering due to a male-dominated society, or the millions of immigrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea seeking a better life somewhere.”