Ms. Sheila C. Johnson
Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 17, 2008
Thank you, Laura, for that wonderful introduction. And thank all of you for inviting me to speak to you today, and for the privilege of being able to stand before you on such a momentous occasion. I know you've got a lot to do today and celebrate, and I could stand up here all day and speak to you on many subjects, from owning sports teams to global poverty. But for the next 20 minutes, I want to talk to you about two things. One is a global issue; the other a domestic one. But make no mistake, they both will have a direct impact on your lives.
When I was your age I was taught a handful of absolute truths. I was taught, for example, that a college education guaranteed you an opportunity in life. I was taught to try to find a job with a big company, because the bigger the corporation the more secure it was. I was taught that working hard for one company your whole career was possible if you simply showed up every day, worked hard and did your job well. Well, I could stand up and tell you all those things now, then send you on your way. But I don't want to do that. You see, this is 2008 and the rules I was brought up by and the rules I just outlined are worth about as much as those pennies jingling in bottom of your pockets. Those rules are yesterday's rules; and they exist only in the memory of those of us old enough to remember them. Ours was an America with a self-contained economy, one that could serve up both supply and demand. We had not only an enormous appetite, but a staggering ability to manufacture whatever it took to satisfy everyone.
Today's world is a far different place. It is a world fueled by an economy which relies less on any one country and more on open and free trade between countries. It is a world whose financial model is not merely global, but ultra-competitive. Where we find ourselves today is not unlike where we found ourselves during World Wars I and II, two global conflicts in which young men and women were asked to fight and die for the future of this country. You see, during those wars the very survival of the U. S. was at stake. It was life or death, and there was no guarantee that after the smoke cleared the United States would even be here. For the generations of World Wars I and II losing was not an option, because to lose either of those wars would have meant to lose this country and in turn, the principles upon which it was founded. Well let me tell you – that is exactly where we find ourselves today. What is happening out there is a global competition for jobs. I am talking about a shifting global economy. I'm talking about innovation, initiative and ideas. It is a competition for jobs… It is a competition for growth… And as sure as I am standing here; it is a competition for economic survival.
Like it or not, everything that this country is and holds dear is at stake – and if it's not at stake, then it's certainly for sale. In his book, "The World Is Flat," Thomas Friedman writes about young men and women from all across the globe, particularly Asia and Europe. He says of them: "Young Chinese, Indians and Poles are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top. They do not want to work for us; they don't even want to be us. They want to dominate us. He goes on to explain these young people don't want to work for big companies. They want to start big companies; companies that business people the world over will admire and want to emulate. Companies whose power and reach will dwarf even the most well-armed nations… Companies that will become your generation's Google or Microsoft – only bigger. Well, let me tell you, America did not become the country we are today by graduating young people whose greatest desire was to work for someone else. We became a world power by graduating young men and women whose goal in life was to have thousands of people working for them!
But as we have become more cavalier about hard work and dedication… More willing to convince ourselves that good enough is, indeed, good enough… More willing to believe that to demand excellence is, somehow, elitist … And more and more caught up in a web of entitlement; convinced of our own superiority, for no other reason than the fact we happen to be Americans… We have in turn painted a collective target on our backs – and believe me when I tell you this, hungry young entrepreneurs the world over are taking aim. Your competition is no longer just sitting next to you. In fact, a big part of your competition is not even in this country yet. The people you have to beat out for that job, that promotion, or that career – no longer share your background. They are no longer a product of the same educational system as you. But here's the problem! The competition that you are going to be battling wasn't taught to think that way. Many of them were classically schooled, using traditional teaching methods.
As high schoolers and college undergraduates, many were taught to mine deeply, to solve problems creatively, and to consider broad and infinite possibilities when given even the most menial tasks. Their minds were trained to sift through large quantities of information, synthesize it, and then use it to deepen their understanding. Your competition wasn't so much taught what to think, but how to think. And believe me when I say this, your competition was taught mental discipline, the kind the world is going to reward as it realigns itself less around geographic lines and more around economic ones.
You know, I labored back and forth about what I wanted to say to you today. I asked friends, colleagues, and parents of this graduating class! Collectively they urged me to tell the Class of 2008 that to achieve financial success will be harder, and the stakes higher for them, than at any time since the settlers first set foot on this land. So I tell you all these things, not because I want to scare you or intimidate you, but because I care deeply for you and for the future of this country. And I have faith in you; faith born in the teachings of the late economist, Milton Friedman. Friedman believed that all human behavior can be anticipated with a deep understanding of the laws of economics. If Friedman were here, he would tell you without question you will be mentally tougher and more determined than my generation ever was – because market factors and the global economy will force you to be so. He would tell you that, due to heightened competition, each of you will become a lifelong learner -- and you will constantly be replenishing your knowledge and adding to your skill sets for as long as you live. You will be far more innovative and resourceful than he ever was, or as your parents ever thought of being. And the reason why is because seismic shifts in the wealth of nations will dictate you must be.
(Shift in tone) Now … I'd like to shift gears and talk to you about some current history. And this history – which is truly history with a capital H – is being written by the junior senator from Illinois; a man named Barack Obama. Before I say any more – I want to make myself perfectly clear. I am not endorsing or forcing any political candidate – instead, I want to introduce Senator Obama as a teacher. A teacher who spoke on a topic that we as Americans treat as the elephant in the room. Senator Obama's speech should go down in history as the greatest intellectual discourse on race relations in this country. It ranks as one of the seminal moments in the history of American oratory. The reason I call his speech historic is because the man had the guts to do something political experts for a hundred years have been telling candidates they should never do. He took a complicated issue – arguably, the most inflammatory and divisive one in the history of this country – and called it for what it was; complicated. After so many years of "dumbing down" issues – here was a candidate who trusted us; who had enough confidence in us to not pander to our most basic emotions, but to appeal to our collective intellect. To many, what Obama did was political suicide.
But unlike so many of today's hatchet men, bottom feeders and hired guns who trade on base emotions like fear and anger, the Senator appealed to something more noble in us. He appealed to our minds. He asked us to consider something we have always known. What we heard, for the first time ever in the course of a national politics was someone willing to put into words our anxiety over a dark and murky part of our past. For the first time ever, someone was willing to admit that people, like life, can be flawed and amazingly complex… That any one person is a complicated being… And that inside all of us, good and/or evil…right or wrong…wise or foolish…can all coexist, often at the same time. Ironically, even though Senator Obama was talking about race, he was saying that life is not so much "black and white," but made up of countless shades of grey. And what I found myself most excited about as I sat there transfixed was that Senator Obama was saying… IT IS OK!
He was saying let's not be afraid to acknowledge the fact that there are people from another day and time who live among us… People whom we love and who love us… People a generation or two older than we, who gave of themselves so that we might have a better life than they did… People who nursed us when we were ill, who gave us shelter when it stormed, and who calmed our fears in the middle of the darkest nights… Yet people who grew up in a vastly different America than the one we know today; people whose attitudes about race were shaped by very real, very personal and sometimes very tragic events – many of them born out of downright hatred. Their views may be from another time, said the Senator, but that fact doesn't make these people bad. It just makes them different. It makes them complex. It makes them real.
What Senator Obama did to this country was to treat us, not like a child, but like an adult. He threw down the gauntlet and challenged us to get over our racial differences. He challenged us to do what Dr. King asked nearly a half century ago – to judge a person, not by the color of his or her skin, but by the content of their character. But then the Senator - went Dr. King - one further by explaining to us that character is – and always will be – not so much adherence to a strict code of ethics, but the sum total of a person's thoughts and deeds. And, truth be told, it was because Obama wasn't being a politician, he was being a teacher. He was about unity. He was about hope. And so when the Senator finally found himself forced to confront race, he spoke to us, not as a collection of red and blue states, but as a nation under God. And in doing so, he stood face-to-face with the dragon and said, in essence, "Bring it on." He defied centuries of campaign logic and conventional wisdom… He defied the hordes of media hacks desperate for blood… And he ended up proving himself to be a man willing to act not in his own best interests. But to act in our best interests. And by doing so, he not only laid to rest – if only for a moment – race as an issue, he did it with grace. He did it with dignity.
I am telling you this because I want you to form your own opinions and I want you to make up your own minds – and not just about politics, but in all aspects of your life. We have to stop acting like so many lemmings, and start behaving more like the free-thinking, independent-minded people who built this country. But I do want you to do this. I want you to consider Senator Obama's speech for what it was – a noble discourse, based in reason and logic, and one that demanded something more of those of us who heard it. And just as that speech demanded something more of us, I want you to start demanding more too. I want you to demand more from our politicians than reconstituted halftime speeches, overwrought patriotism, and simplistic, all-or-nothing policies. I want you to demand more from the media than pack journalism, tabloid headlines and obsession with smokescreen issues. Why? Because, politically, I'm afraid of where we're heading as a country.
Consider how dismissive we are of certain candidates, and how willing we are to fall in lockstep behind certain "anointed" politicians who represent nothing more than the safest, easiest and most well-worn path. Consider too how intolerant we've become to innovative thinkers, of rugged individualists and of people unafraid to speak their minds. And how, for all our talk of racial, gender and cultural diversity, this country is letting slip through its fingers the most important diversity of all – the diversity of ideas. In fact, consider the person who founded this institution; a man whose brilliance and leadership helped build this country – yet a man who, history has shown had as many human frailties as you and I – and ask yourself this one simple question: What if Thomas Jefferson (or "TJ" as you affectionately call him) were running today? Think about that… What if Thomas Jefferson were running for president today? What if one of the most brilliant, important and influential political leaders in history wanted to be President of the United States in 2008? Could he win? Or more importantly, would we let him win?
My friends, it is not my job today to supply you that answer. My job today is simply to ask you the question. It is your job to answer it. Why? Because the moment you walk off these grounds, this system of government stops becoming my system of government… Or your parents' system of government. The moment you walk off these grounds, it officially becomes yours. This legislative process, this judiciary, this set of laws – they all become yours. Yours to do with, what you will. Yours to place in the hands of others…or yours to adopt and to safeguard. Just as the world that waits for you, will suddenly become your world…so too - the government that runs this country will become your government. And just rolling your eyes… burying your head in a video game…or dismissively calling politics "boring" … just won't cut it anymore. You have to decide what kind of country you want to live in, and what kind of world you want to inhabit – then you have to go out and build it. Because, as I said, the stakes are higher than they've ever been before.
The dreams that fueled my generation, and the generations that came before me – like owning a house, taking regular family vacations, or sending your children to college – will be that much harder for you to realize than they ever were for me. You dreams will come with a price – a steep price. Sometimes you'll pay in sweat; other times in blood. But mark my words: at some point in the very near future payment will come due on each and every one of your dreams. It's not that financial and professional success won't be out there for you to achieve – because it will. In fact, it's waiting out there in abundance. It's just that there will be so many more people seeking success – so many more talented, driven and focused people from this country and beyond – that the price tag of success will grow higher and higher with each passing year.
Now, let me be very clear about one thing – what I've just told you? That's both the good and the bad news. But while that's the extent of the bad news, I do have some additional good news. And that is this: no generation in my lifetime is more ready for the challenge of a global marketplace than you. The things that terrified my generation – the speed of change, the uncertainty of a volatile, shifting marketplace, the insidious nature of terrorism – are all things you've grown up with; things you've not only survived, but stared down without even blinking. My generation could never do that – not the way you have. And I couldn't be prouder of you. You are so much more prepared for this world than your parents, or your teachers, or me, that I can't think of anyone I'd rather lead this country than your generation. You can do it. I believe in you. And you see all these people around you seated here today? They believe in you too.
You are this country's future. And while I know there is uncertainty out there, and there is competition, the likes of which this country has never seen, the only way we will ever get past all this uncertainty is for you and others your age to bury it once and for all. Bury it under a mountain of achievement… Bury it under a mountain of excellence… Bury it under a mountain of promise fulfilled. Because as I said before, when it comes to faith in you – the Class of 2008 – to turn your dreams into reality, I take a back seat to no one.
But remember: time is short, the world is getting smaller, and tomorrow is promised to no one. I challenge you to be leaders. Because as Thomas Jefferson said, "Leaders invite us to imagine greater goals and to stretch ourselves beyond what we think we can achieve. They challenge our limitations and inspire us to do more." Now go out there, do us proud and whatever you do, don't ever lose sight of – or take for granted – the greatness that lives within you.