The ‘Joyous’ Responsibility We Have as Citizens
This is the prepared text of the commencement address given at the University of Memphis, a member of our OASIS Network, on May 6, 2017.
Each of you has worked hard to earn the distinction of graduate from The University of Memphis.
You balanced challenging classes with clubs, sports, and Greek life — and gained lifelong friends. You lifted up groundbreaking research while you held down one or two jobs. You “Instagram-ed” every single one of the 100 tiger sculptures on campus and around town. You marched in the band and you marched in the streets for causes you believe in. And you discovered your mettle in Memphis.
As you prepare to graduate, you may have concerns about our nation and our world.
We see conflict, climate change, and divisive politics in America and around the globe. We see disparities in opportunity that, in our nation, often are drawn along lines of race, class, and gender. In too many communities we see growing inequality and frustration at the “other”: blaming immigrants or people who practice a different faith.
But on this day, as we celebrate all you achieved, we must remind ourselves of all that is possible, and embrace the challenge of making our nation and world better for all.
Indeed, the promise of America is that through hard work and perseverance everyone can lead a thriving life.
Nancy Davis, who is graduating today, embodies this ideal.
Nancy earned her associate degree in 1965. She became a flight attendant, got married, and started a family; and she never stopped pursuing her dream of earning a bachelor’s degree.
Nancy attended four colleges as her husband’s job took the family across the country. Eventually, Nancy put her college dreams on hold so she and her husband could put their kids through school. Finally, Nancy was one semester away from earning her bachelor’s degree. But then Nancy’s husband suffered a stroke, and she became a full-time caregiver. Thankfully, Nancy’s husband pulled through, and because of this university’s Finish Line program, Nancy, at the age of 71, has earned that hard-fought degree.
That is the promise of America — that with grit and determination, all of us can achieve our dreams.
Our nation’s history is the story of that promise being made more real — in fits and starts — for an ever-widening circle of Americans.
From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from women’s suffrage to the continuing fight for equal pay for equal work, progress has been far too slow, but it has been real.
Through your education, you understand our current challenges and our history. But it’s not just what you learn that matters, it’s what you do with what you learn.
I believe that perhaps the greatest value of education is in applying your knowledge and skills to — what should be — one of the most active and important roles of your life: the role of citizen.
So, today, I’d like to talk to you about the joyous — yes, joyous — responsibility we have as citizens to improve our communities and our nation. I’ll strive to show that by approaching your role as citizens with three attitudes — joy, empathy, and hope — you’ll become more engaged in society, give our democracy the attention it needs, and be more capable of making progress on issues you care about.
First, I want to reassure you that you are up to this task. Your education has prepared you for good citizenship.
At the University of Memphis, you learned how to work collectively, solve problems, and appreciate diversity in opinions, ideas, and people. These skills and dispositions are vital to being a contributing member of a community.
You also learned to grapple with hard parts of our history, the legacy of which is with us today — including slavery, racism, sexism, violence, and discrimination. In fact, this university was founded in the spirit of bringing people together through learning.
Through your service learning, you developed a deeper understanding of yourself and the importance of working toward something bigger than yourselves.
Your education has equipped you to become an engaged citizen for good reason. Education’s role in this country long has been to prepare Americans to contribute to our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, through education, Americans must come to “understand [their] duties to [their] neighbors and country … [t]o know [their] rights [and] to exercise with order and justice those [rights they] retain.”
Our founders defined those rights as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While the America of the founders did not reflect the ideal that all are created equal, we can be proud that our nation continues to work toward it.
The thing we must never forget about equal opportunity and our rights is that they exist only through vigilant and active citizenship. When I talk about citizenship as a means of protecting these things, I’m not just talking about marches and protests — although they are essential. Standing up for our rights also means sitting down at community meetings and engaging with neighbors. It means joining campaigns and running for office yourself. It means pulling the disenfranchised up — by providing access to healthcare in impoverished communities or teaching children in struggling schools.
Today, too often, people think of citizenship as a dusty relic.
But this challenge isn’t new. John Dewey, an early pioneer in American education, wrote, “The trouble … is that we have taken our democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation.”
That is what I am calling upon you — graduates — to do: to refresh and redefine for a new generation what it means to be a good citizen.
I mentioned earlier that I had three suggestions for how to do this.
First, recognize the duty of citizenship as joyous.
The core value of this country is that you can make of your life whatever you will. What is that if not an uplifting notion?
But it is in our most basic civic duties that we often fail to find joy or fulfillment, and we miss out on how empowering our citizenship can be. Here, I’m going to challenge you.
How many of you have grumbled at paying taxes?
It might be a stretch for me to encourage you to be jubilant when you file your tax returns each April. But exercising this civic obligation is vital for delivering to us things that we value — from schools, to the protection of our military, to services that keep us healthier and, I daresay, happier.
How many of you have complained about our politics, but neglected to vote?
We have to realize the importance of exercising this duty — in presidential elections and in contests that decide who represents us in city hall, the statehouse, and Congress.
America has some of the lowest voter participation rates in the free world, especially among youth. But voting is one of the most powerful things you can do as a citizen. Election results won’t always please you, but your act of voting should be cherished since it’s a right people fought and died to secure.
And how many of you have dreaded jury duty?
Our nation’s justice system depends upon people who serve. And juries aren’t just for deciding guilt; they provide a review of how the law can be applied to everyone. In this way, as a juror, you can uphold equity and fairness — an important task you can and should feel good about doing.
Law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson has written about these duties saying, “Citizenship is not always grand and soaring, but involves daily, ordinary actions of maintenance.” And I would argue that in these actions, we can find joy in making our democracy work.
My next suggestion for renewing your role as a citizen is to exercise empathy.
That can be hard to do. It can be difficult to put yourself in another person’s place, to appreciate someone else’s perspective and experience, and to be inclined to care for a stranger. Until we begin to understand and respect people whose lives are different from our own, divisions in our communities and country will only grow.
Standing here, not far from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, I think of Dr. King and his final speech here in Memphis.
In it, he recounts the story of the good Samaritan. As the story goes, two men passed another man in need on a dangerous road. Neither man stopped to help the man in need. A good Samaritan approached the man who required help, and, despite the threat of being attacked by thieves, the good Samaritan assisted the man who struggled. Dr. King notes the good Samaritan did not ask himself, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Instead, he reversed the question, and asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Good citizenship requires that we challenge ourselves and assist others. When we empathize with all who struggle, we glimpse the bonds we share.
My final piece of advice is to approach your vital, joyful, and empathetic role as a citizen with a sense of hope.
Our democracy can be slow to change. But you cannot let that discourage you from pushing our country toward its highest ideals.
In this, I’m reminded of my uncle. Haldane King grew up in New York City when America was deeply segregated. Yet my uncle loved his country and defended it as a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first African American pilots in the U.S. military.
Even while he served, my uncle faced racism from his fellow servicemen and countrymen. After the war, my uncle applied for accounting jobs for which he had training, but that he couldn’t secure because of his race. He chose to again risk his life for his fellow citizens as a firefighter before returning to a career in the Air Force, including service at the Pentagon.
My uncle experienced intense discrimination. Yet he maintained hope that the injustices he endured would give way to the righteous American ideals he fought to make real.
That sense of unwavering hope is what will sustain you, too.
As you prepare to throw your graduation caps in the air, know that if you exercise your role as citizen with joy, empathy, and hope that you can meet these days of challenge and opportunity — and all the days ahead — with a deeper sense of purpose. You can develop a more profound appreciation for your neighbors. And you can approach the world with a better understanding of how you can improve it.
To the Class of 2017, it has been my honor to speak with you. Congratulations!
Photo credit: Kandi Hill-Clarke, dean of the college of education at the University of Memphis