Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Deval Patrick to Graduates: 'You Are Enough'

May 24, 2022

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Former Gov. Deval Patrick delivered the keynote address at Brandeis University's 71st Commencement Exercises.


Thank you, Chair Kranc and members of the Board of Trustees, President Liebowitz, and members of the faculty, administration and staff, distinguished guests, Reverend Clergy, proud parents and family and most especially graduates of the class of 2022.

It is good to be together and to be with you this morning to share briefly, I promise, in your milestone. You have worked for, sacrificed for, hoped and prayed for, and most certainly paid for your several degrees, and I congratulate each and every one of you. You have been well-prepared in a range of disciplines and fields, but I hope you won't make the mistake some make about what all of that has been for. Because as important as your career or your job may be, there is more to quality education than preparing employees. The larger purpose, especially in a democracy, is to prepare citizens. To be a citizen in a democratic society. 

To be a citizen in a democratic society is to accept certain responsibilities in exchange for the rights and privileges of democracy itself. These include the responsibility to be informed and discerning, to engage and to be a good steward. A generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit the community is a generation that is not learning what it means to be citizens in a democracy. 

When I was a kid on the south side of Chicago, every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. If you messed up down the street in front of Ms. Jones, she’d go upside your head as if you were hers, and then she’d call home, so you’d get it two times. 

I think what those adults were trying to get across to us was that membership in a community is about seeing the stake that you have in your neighbor's dreams and struggles as well as your own. From the ways families shared food or old clothes, to the looks, the old church ladies cut us if we fidgeted when it was time to get down to the business of worship. You always felt that that community, or in that community, like at some level, we belonged to each other. They were modeling citizenship and democracy fundamentally depends on that. 

When it comes to your citizenship, you're taking responsibility for each other's dreams and struggles, you’d better get busy. Because democracy, here in the States at least, is in trouble. We face two big challenges to our democracy today as I see it. The first is to make it function. How to make it straightforward and transparent to register, stay registered, vote, and have that vote counted. 

This first challenge is serious and it has gained attention from political figures, advocates, and the media in recent months because of the 19 states and counting that have enacted new laws to frustrate, complicate, and when they want to, even overturn the vote. 

The Congress and the Supreme Court have failed to right those wrongs, the Senate, by hiding behind its fundamentally undemocratic filibuster rule and the Supreme Court's so called originalist majority by treating constitutional amendments about equality as not really meaning what they say. So, today's vote suppression measure stand, part of a prolonged trend to encumber American democracy. Other measures include hyper partisan gerrymandering, the widespread purging of registration rolls, the flood of money, much of it dark, into politics and policy-making and the persistent and recently successful efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act. Disinformation amplified by social media is another part of what we're all up against. 

Whether this is all part of a strategy or just a series of unfortunate coincidences, you start to see how we keep treating our democracy as if it could tolerate limitless abuse without breaking and how they add up to constraints on participation and representation that make democracy weaker, so there is important work to do there. But making democracy function is just the first big challenge facing our democracy, the one that has gotten the attention. 

The second big challenge is to make democracy matter, how to make the vote indeed, citizenship itself, meaningful. And on that we hear hardly a word. Fully one third of eligible Americans simply don't vote. Not just because it's harder than it should be to do so, but because they are not convinced that it makes a whit of difference. 

Unkept promises, uninspiring candidates and campaigns, insurmountable odds, impenetrable political establishment, and change that’s slow to come all combine to convince a lot of people, maybe some of you, that your duty as a citizen to vote is a waste of valuable time. I get that, but I can't accept it, and neither can you, because there is too much at stake. 

I mentioned growing up on the south side of Chicago. For me, and for us, a lot of that time was on welfare. We lived in our grandparents' crowded tenement and I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and my sisters, so you go from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor, every third night on the floor. I went to overcrowded, under-resourced, sometimes violent public schools. I don't remember owning a book of my very own until I was 14 years old, when I got my break to go to a boarding school outside of Boston, and then onto college and eventually to law school. I've served as a civil rights and business lawyer, as an executive in two Fortune 50 companies, as an investor and entrepreneur and as a two-term governor. Nowadays I'm called professor. 

My story in many ways is one perhaps like yours, of not being either defined or limited by my circumstances of birth. It's a story not told often enough, but it was once told more often in this country than any other place on Earth. That is an American story. 

But that story is lived less and less often today. Income and wealth inequality, economic immobility, wage stagnation, call it whatever you want. The American dream is further and further out of reach for more and more Americans. It is not because of lack of will, grit, determination, personal responsibility, family, hard work, mental discipline, ambition, and grace all played a role in my own story as they do in everybody else's American dream. Those qualities are in no less supply today than they were in the '50s and '60s when I was coming up. 

My grandmother used to tell me hope for the best and work for it. There is still hope. Individuals still do or try to do their part. But as a society, as citizens, we have stopped doing the work. Like I said, I had grit and determination, but I also had great teachers in my public schools, teachers who were well-prepared and who raised our expectations of ourselves. I took personal responsibility and had family support and encouragement, but we also had housing we could afford and food assistance when we were hungry. I worked hard and with discipline, but I also had scholarships and college loans I could afford to repay. I had ambition, but I also had an economy expanding out, not just up to make a place for me when I was ready and a bus or subway to get me to that job and home again safely. 

Nobody wants or needs government to solve every problem in everybody's life. I'm talking about government doing its part to help us help ourselves. Government as the name we give … Government as the name we give, as former Congressman Barney Frank used to say, to the things we choose to do together. I'm talking about investing in public education and housing, transportation, health care, and all of the kinds of initiatives that enable private investment and personal ambition. 

For most of the last 40-plus years, we've substituted that working formula for trickle-down economics, including its central myth that tax cuts create jobs. And the narrative of radical individualism. Despite common sense and decades of evidence to the contrary, these and similar fictions have become accepted political wisdom. And the consequence is that the American dream itself is in jeopardy. 

None of this, by the way, is the unique challenge facing black and brown people, if it ever was. I always knew there were other kids on the south side, just as creative and ambitious as I was who never got that chance. Now I see those kids everywhere. I always knew when the steel mills closed on the south side that folk felt abandoned and even betrayed by a nameless, faceless, short-sighted economy. Now I sense that feeling everywhere. I've always known what it was like to have opioids fill the vacuum because they moved into our own home; now, they've moved in everywhere. 

Cheery economic indicators have never told the whole story. Today, gas and grocery prices keep going up. But when inflation was reportedly low, it seemed like nobody was counting the cost of rent or healthcare or college tuition. Unemployment is low today, so long as you count both, or all three, of the low wage jobs an awful lot of people work just to survive and to which many a post-pandemic worker just won't return. Today, white, rural, and working-class folks experience the same economic insecurity and social isolation, the same suicide or addiction rates as black people have experienced for generations. See the poor have been stuck in poverty for a long time. Now, the middle class are one or two paychecks away from being poor and desperately anxious about it. 

All of this was true before the pandemic made these realities so much harder to overlook. When our leaders relentlessly focus on the next election or news cycle or the next poll instead of the next generation. When substance, integrity, duty, and honor seem always secondary to political performance art, small wonder that so many have lost confidence in democracy as a path to change. 

Now here's where you come in. Citizenship is an act, a thing you do, not just a thing you are. Its privileges and responsibilities are interdependent, each one making the other possible and meaningful, so act like it. Make your citizenship personal. Don't let your stake in your neighbor's dreams and struggles be a purely abstract idea. Bring it to life in the way you behave and the things you do. Despite what a lot of so-called leaders seem to want today, challenge yourself to turn to each other rather than on each other. No one person and no one party has a corner on all the best ideas, so learn to listen, in the words of Robert Frost, without losing your temper or your self-confidence. Examine more closely the choices some of our would-be leaders would have us make and ignore the false ones. No, it turns out you don't have to hate business or the wealthy to work for social and economic justice, or to crash the economy to have a livable planet. You don't have to shun the outcast and the vulnerable to secure the border, or to hate police to believe Black Lives Matter. 

Of course, we need laws and rules and norms that make it easier to register to vote and to have that vote count. That's the least we must do to show our respect for participatory and truly representative democracy. But to address the challenge of making that vote meaningful, we need you as citizens to claim your voice. We need you to push through the noise and your own discouragement and frustration to quit confusing cynicism and indifference for sophistication and act like citizens. Because only you acting like citizens, working together in the spirit of community, can choose leaders who are prepared to deliver the promise of democracy, to leave things better for those who come behind. I'm not asking anybody to be merely transactional without values or conviction; far from it. I'm asking you to have strong conviction alongside humility, to be woke, in the words of Anand Giridharadas, but to leave room for the still waking. 

That's not just a better way to govern, though it isn't is the only way to restore meaning to our democracy, for you and citizens like you to take a chance on your own political and civic aspirations. I want you to know one last thing. You are enough. 

That infamous draft opinion leaked from the Supreme Court a few weeks ago, said that those who objected to a decision to abandon reproductive freedom could take it up with their state legislatures and vote for a change. Of course, it was deeply cynical to hear from the same justices who had gutted the Voting Rights Act a few years ago and recently authorized states otherwise to suppress the votes. Cynical, indeed, even sinister. But still perhaps inescapably true. But you are still enough. Democracy needs you to register to vote right now, well ahead of the deadlines and to get five or six others to do so too. To get each of them to get five or six others because you are enough. Democracy needs you to make a plan for how, where, and when you will vote on election day and to bring five or six others with you that day to cast their own votes. Because you are enough. Democracy needs you to talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your classmates, that cranky uncle whom you love but whose politics you think you hate. Because you have to model, at the end of the day, that we don't have to agree on everything before we work together on anything. Because you are enough. Democracy needs you to vote for a candidate in every race on that ballot from the offices that the media pay attention to, to the ones that seem to you obscure, because you are enough. 

I am not telling you for whom to vote. Just to choose and to lead others to choose candidates who serve you, for you. Not for the cameras and the Twitter- and meta-verse. Who spend their political capital to help you get your next job. Not to help them keep or get theirs. Choose the candidates who bring conviction and humility, who treat the conditions we all face, and the aspirations we all have for our own American dream as the challenge, not their competitor as the enemy. Because to save democracy itself, America needs you to put your cynicism and your frustration down and to overwhelm the inconveniences and outright barriers thrown up to frustrate you and make you cynical. What's at stake, I believe is the last hope for your own and your neighbors' American struggle and story. The moment is now and you are enough.

Hope for the best, Class of '22, and good luck. God bless you.

Visit Commencement 2022 for full coverage of Brandeis' commencement day for the classes of 2022, 2021 and 2020.