The small Heartland town of Oberlin, Ohio, was the venue Monday, Memorial Day 2015, for the presence and prescience of two distinguished speakers, First Lady Michelle Obama and Commencement Speaker Marian Wright Edeleman, who each delivered powerful messages to the 695 graduates, 75 of whom were Ohioans, who were awarded degrees.
Mrs. Obama, wife of the 44th President of the United States who twice won Ohio in 2008 and 2012, addressed the students, their parents, family, friends of Oberlin College 50 years after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King addressed the graduating class of 1965, the same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act into law.
The presence of King and Obama at Oberlin College is significant. In 1835, Oberlin became the first college in America to adopt a policy to admit African American students. In 1841, the small liberal arts college made history again when it became the first college to grant bachelor’s degrees to women in a coeducational program. Academically, Oberlin is consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts schools, and is home to the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States, which was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama in 2009.
Mrs. Obama selected Oberlin College as part of her Reach Higher initiative’s “Near-Peer Mentoring College” Challenge, which was directed at college communities and institutes of higher education, urging them to share via student-produced video the ways that they are creating college immersion experiences for high school students. According to research, students connecting with other students, or “near-peers,” can make a significant difference in motivating them to make higher education a reality.
Run To The Noise
Oberlin’s 14th president, Marvin Kislov, introduced Mrs. Obama, who took the podium at 10:41 in the morning and spoke for about 24 minutes amid cloudy skies that turned sunny during her remarks. President Kislov introduced the first lady as a “role model for women and for everyone, an advocate for poverty awareness, higher education and healthy eating and living.” The common thread running through her career and life, he said is the steadfast belief that education, hard work and service to ones community and country will improve the individual and will make society better and stronger. He observed that those values also reflect the values of Oberlin and the community, located about 50 miles southwest of Cleveland. Mrs. Obama received the degree of Doctor of Humanities before she spoke.
“Hi,” Mrs. Obama said to the thousands seated outside hoping the cloudy skies wouldn’t also rain on their parade, “Look at you. You made it. You’re looking good!” She noted that Oberlin would have been the only college she could have attended nearly two centuries ago. Because the ceremony took place on On Memorial Day, Mrs. Obama, who along with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have taken on the cause of military families, starting in 2011, paid tribute to the brave men and women who served this nation so everyone present today could enjoy peace, rights and freedoms others around the world can only dream of.
She quoted Dr. King who told his graduates-to-be audience, “Today you bid farewell to the safe security of the academic environment. You prepare to continue your journey on the clamorous highways of life.” You might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls, she said of the name calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. “You might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life,” she said, sympathizing with those who might want to run the other way as fast as they can, in order to tune out all the noise. “In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself — run!”But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise.”
She counseled them to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized and gridlocked places they can find, for its those places where progress really happens. She talked about women’s suffragette Lucy Stone, who she reminded people was screamed and spat upon. With a hint of humor despite the serious topic, she said the notion of women voting then was called “unnatural” and, with wry humor, said some believed that women voting would lead to social ills.
Another noisy time for progress came with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan for Social Security. Before he signed it into law in 1935, it was called “Socialist…the fraud of the working man.” Social Security is now 80 days away from being 80 years old, and only because of it can seniors lead lives secure that retirement won’t be a time of want and neglect for life’s basic necessities.
“If you think today’s gridlock is bad, it took a century between the Emancipation Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. “Don’t let ugliness or obstacles deter you,” she cautioned, “This is how Democracy operates, it’s loud, messy and not particularly warm and fuzzy. I know this from personal experience. Most of the clamor comes from just a handful of really loud folks on the extremities. Most people are open minded and big hearted and smart enough to see through that noise.”
As messy as it has been, Mr.s Obama said it’s worked, the country is more equal, more inclusive, more fair, more free. “My life and so many of your lives are a testament to these truths because people left the comfort zone.” She reminded her listeners that in the early days at Oberlin, people attended anti-slavery meetings and equal suffrage leagues…leading to civil rights marches, organizing exchange programs with historical black colleges and universities. “Policies matter, laws matter, electing the right folks matters,” she argued, telling everyone today to get involved in civic life.
“Don’t turn away from politics, volunteer at the local homeless shelter but also attend city council meetings so zoning doesn’t shut that shelter down.” She talked about rallying for marriage equality on the steps of the Supreme Court. “Elect a president that shares your values,” she said, reminding the graduates that protests can be powerful. “It will be hard, stressful and frustrating…make compromises along the way,” she said, again using the example of FDR who agreed to Social Security even though it only covered 60 percent of workers. “But it was better than zero percent.” Taking the first step is key because it moves in right direction. “Dramatic change is hard,” she said. “In the real world, if you want to change their minds, you can’t just shut them out, you need to persuade them, compromise with them.”
She told them they don’t have the luxury of being cynical, not when the earth is warming and oceans are rising, when women still make less than men for the same work. “Economic inequality, human rights, criminal justice, these are the revolutions of your time,” she said, adding, “It’s your responsibility and power to wake up and play your part in our great American story…it’s still possible to make a difference…it’s happening right now, today, in our lifetimes.” Only ten years ago, she said, only one state allowed gay marriage, now it’s legal in 37 states plus the District of Columbia.
“I want you to turn your attention outward and brave the noise, be a concerned generation. I want to be very clear, every city ordinance, every ballot measure, every law on the books in this country, that is your concern, from dogcatcher to president, that is your concern. Don’t be afraid, and get out and vote in every election, that is how you rise above the noise and shape the revolution of your time. I’m confident in your ability to do amazing things.”
Marian Wright Edelman, an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life and the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, spoke about poverty and democracy.
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