Keynote Address by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren
2017 Undergraduate Commencement of the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Friday, May 12, 2017
McGuirk Alumni Stadium, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Good afternoon and thank you to Chancellor Subbaswamy and to the Board of Trustees for inviting me to be here with you today.
I always love visiting this campus and seeing the great work being done by students and faculty. I also have a lot of UMass Amherst grads on my staff, so I get to see first-hand exactly how terrific a UMass Amherst education really is. You are turning out a lot of smart people! I know. I hire them!
It’s also great to see State Senate President Stan Rosenberg and your state legislative delegation here. What a great team you have working for Western and Central Massachusetts.
I was a law professor for many years, so this is not my first commencement speech. But if I go longer than 20 minutes I know it will be my last. I understand that every extra minute I speak is that much longer before you can hit the bars.
Not that some of need to hit the bars, of course. Imagine my surprise last week when I got my daily news roundup and right there, the front and center headline was: “Elizabeth Warren’s Commencement Speech Drinking Game.” I have to say, the timing was perfect. I was suffering from some writer’s block and the drinking game got me going.
The downside, of course, is that I now know what you’re hiding under those robes. So, let’s get it out there right from the beginning. If you learn nothing else from this speech, know this: Fireball is a nickname that Donald Trump uses on Twitter, not a beverage to be consumed by distinguished college graduates.
Alright. So let’s get to the commencement part of this. First, to the graduates: You worked hard, and we’re here to celebrate your success. Congratulations to all of you! Way to go!
And to all of the parents and the grandparents, the family and friends, the teachers and advisors: You helped make this day possible. So congratulations to you as well. Congratulations to all of you!
Graduates, this is a day for celebration. You’ve earned it. But I know that this is also a day that is tinged with sadness. You’ve gone to your last party in Southwest. You’ve had your last late-night slice at Antonio’s. So a truly existential question bears down upon you: Will you ever feel joy again?
So what does come next? Some of you may be worried that you haven’t gotten it all figured out. Believe me, I get it. My own path had plenty of twists and turns. Heck, I dropped out of college, got married at 19 to the first boy I ever dated – so a lot of you are already doing better than I did.
But I’m here today to make a pitch for the work that you do going forward. I’m here to ask you to get more involved in our democracy.
Some of you are already headed into public service. I’m looking out at future teachers and firefighters, nurses and social workers. Some of you will work directly in government, some will work in non-profits. And, of course, many of you will work for small businesses. Many of you will start your own businesses. Many of you will join big corporations. But my pitch is for something different—it’s to get more directly involved in the democracy of policy.
Policies matter enormously and I’m just going to give you one small reminder – and yes, this one counts for a small nip of Smirnoff. Anyone here have a student loan? I know, that’s like asking does anyone here wear a funny hat. The interest rate on your public loans was set by your elected officials. And your tuition and fees—and how much you needed to borrow to make it to this day—were heavily influenced by the funding your University received from the Commonwealth and from the federal government – funding that is set by your elected officials. As a practical matter, how much you owe, and who has access to the kind of first-rate education you have received here, is set in part by a handful of people who, in a democracy, are supposed to answer directly to you.
It’s easy to say, “I don’t like politics” or “I don’t like any political party.” I get it. I never even considered running for student government when I was your age, and I already had grandchildren by the time I ran my first Senate campaign. And believe me: there are days when I leave work so frustrated that I want to spit. But the decisions that get made by your government are important and far reaching. And it is no longer possible to assume that democracy will work if most Americans simply wait until election time to learn a little about the candidates and otherwise ignore what’s going on.
I am not here to make a pitch just to Democrats—or to Republicans. Yes, I’m a Democrat. I am a proud Democrat. But my point applies to Ds and Rs—and to independents, and to libertarians, and to vegetarians...and to Big Mac-atarians. The point I want to make is a point about democracy.
Our country – our democracy – is not a machine that will run on its own. It needs you out there fighting for what you believe in. And here’s why: If elected officials don’t hear from people like you, then the policies will be set by the people they do hear from. And, believe me, they hear plenty from corporate CEOs, from Wall Street, from giant corporations and from others who spend buckets of money to make sure that their interests are heard. And here’s the thing, your elected officials are increasingly working only for the few, the very wealthy few, and they are setting policies only to benefit the few, the very wealthy few. And if that doesn’t change soon, then this country will fundamentally change. It is your world, your future, that is on the line.
So I am here today to ask you to get engaged. Not engaged like I did back at 19 -- but engaged with some issues.
And the kind of issues I’m talking about are policy issues. I know that some of you are already deeply committed to fights that matter to you. And I want to say thank you for that. So my message to you is, please don’t quit after you leave school. We need you. But I’m also here to try to expand the circle, to ask more of you—to ask all of you—to expand your post-graduation to-do list to include engagement and advocacy for an issue that you really care about. And I want to give three very serious suggestions for how you might do it.
The first, is start with something that’s at the core of who you are. It’s a lot easier to engage on an issue if you take the time to think through who you are – if you know what you believe in and if you are willing to fight for it.
Figuring out who you are is not as easy as it sounds. I think Conor was right on this. No one can do it for you. The list of possible issues that move you is long.
You can with the cost of college. Free speech Animal rescue Nuclear weapons. Access to voting. Free flights to Hawaii. I put that in to make see if you’re still listening. OK back to the real list. Criminal justice reform. Military veterans. Clean water.. National Parks. Homelessness. Hunger. Bullying. Prenatal care.
And I’m trying to keep this apolitical, but I can’t help myself and I have one more – the principle that no one, no one, in this country is above the law. We need a Justice Department, not an Obstruction of Justice Department.
But regardless of who you are politically or who you vote for, you have to think hard about what really matters to you—not to your mom and dad, or to your girlfriend or to your dog— although your dog may have a strong opinion on this. And don’t just pick whatever cause that Emma Watson or Taylor Swift are supporting this week – no matter how much you want to be in their squad. No, you’ve got to figure out what makes your heart flutter and your stomach clench. Whatmakes wake up ready to go and what makes you wish you didn’t have to move. (And, no, I’m still not talking about Emma Watson and Taylor Swift.) You are a lot more likely to follow through if you really, deep-down care about an issue. So that’s my first.
Second, do a little studying. I know I just made myself the least popular graduation speaker anywhere in America by telling graduates who have just finished your last assignment from your professors and turned in your last research paper, to study a little more, but I’m not trying to win Miss Popularity. I think so long as Mitch McConnell is running the Senate, that’s out of reach for me. So I’ll say it: study up because knowing something about an issue makes a difference. So go online and read the facts. Not the alternative facts, the real facts. I have to say, I never thought we would need a modifier for “facts” – like how do you distinguish them now: facty facts, or the factiest facts? But you’ve got to get to the facts.
Third, join with others. Find a group that is engaged on the issues that you care about. A group makes a difference. More good ideas. More information. More ways to get your voice heard. One voice is powerful, but two voices are more than twice as powerful, and ten or ten thousand voices create a force to be reckoned with. It’s not as easy to join a group when there aren’t weekly club meetings and a table at the campus center concourse. You have to try. Really try. But please do it.
Because America needs you.
Each generation must rebuild democracy to serve its own time and its own needs. The World War II generation faced challenges that were different from those of the Vietnam era generation—and each shaped and rebuilt democracy differently. Your generation faces huge challenges—sharp differences that divide this nation along deep fracture lines, intergenerational challenges that have saddled young people in this country with an unprecedented $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, an economy that is producing great wealth for the top ten percent and locking everyone else out.
If democracy for you simply means leaving it to others, letting others set the terms of the political debate, and surrendering the policy decisions to people faraway in Washington, then our country will work better and better for a smaller and smaller number of people. But if democracy for you means connecting up, studying, making hard decisions and defending them with intelligence and commitment, then this country will flourish.
America needs your commitment, and, here’s the thing, you need the commitment. Advocacy— getting involved in issues you care about and fighting for them—can reshape our country, and I guarantee it will reshape you. No matter what other work you do every day, if you find the issues that matter to you and you get in the fight, you will build a life with more heart flutters and fewer “don’t make me move” moments. You will build a life that is deeply worthwhile. Take it from me, someone who wakes up every day energized and ready to jump in! Except the morning after I played the Elizabeth Warren drinking game.
Class of 2017, you’ve built the right foundation for your success with a UMass Amherst education. I believe you can make great things happen. For our country, and for yourselves.