Michelle Obama Addresses Nationwide Protests and Pandemic in Graduation Commencement Speech

Youtube

While delivering a commencement address during YouTube Originals' 'Dear Class of 2020,' the former first lady addressed the ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd: "What's happening right now is the direct result of decades of unaddressed, prejudice and inequality."

While delivering a commencement address for graduating students during YouTube Originals' Dear Class of 2020 virtual ceremony, former first lady Michelle Obama addressed the ongoing nationwide protests, novel coronavirus pandemic and encouraged students that they are "not alone." 

"I am here today to talk to you, not as the former first lady, but as a real-life person, a mother, a mentor, a citizen concerned about your future and the future of our country. Because right now, all that superficial stuff of titles and positions, all of that has been stripped away. And a lot of us are reckoning with the most basic essence of who we are," Obama said. 

She added: "Over these past couple of months, our foundation has been shaken, not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on, the lines of race and power that are now once again so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with." 

For those who feel "scared or confused or angry, or just plain overwhelmed" by recent events, Obama emphasized that students are "not alone" for she is "feeling all of it" as well. She went on to explain that the recent killings of George Floyd and other unarmed black men and women by police are "not a complete anomaly" or "simply some random coincidence to be dismissed." She said, "The truth is when it comes to all those tiny stories of hard work and self determination that we'd like to tell ourselves about America, the reality is a lot more complicated than that, because for too many people in this country, no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers working against them that just make the road longer and rockier," she said.

Also acknowledging the novel coronavirus pandemic that has left many on unemployment, Obama said it's "almost impossible to move upward at all, because if you were required to work during a pandemic, but don't have enough protective equipment or health insurance from your employer or paid sick leave, what is more essential, your work or your life?" She added, "If you don't feel safe driving your own car in your own neighborhood or going for a jog or buying some candy at 7-Eleven or birdwatching, if you can't even approach the police without fearing for your life, well then, how do you begin to chart your own course?"

For those feeling as if they're "struggling already just to keep your head above water" and "living in a constant state of fear," Obama urged that no one should feel hopeless. "What we finally do have is focus. We see what's happening and start relief. We see how these inequalities are playing out on our streets, and it's not just the communities most affected by these challenges that see it. Now it's folks all across the country who for too long have had the luxury and privilege of looking away." 

Though she doesn't have the "easy answers" for how to truly respond, Obama offered some advice on how to "move forward in these tumultuous times," including remembering that "life will always be uncertain," forging a new path, to "use your privilege and your voice for the things that really matter" and to "share that voice with the rest of the world." 

She added, "It's up to you to speak up when you or someone you know isn't being heard. It's up to you to speak out against cruelty, dishonesty, bigotry, all of it. It's up to you to march hand in hand with your allies to stand peacefully with dignity and purpose on the front lines in the fight for justice." 

She also advised students that it's up to them to "couple every protest with plans and policies, with organizing and mobilizing and voting." 

Spreading the message that "anger is a powerful force," Obama emphasized that should anger be "left on its own, it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out. … But when anger is focused, when it's channeled into something more, oh, that is the stuff that changes history," she said, citing examples such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, César Chavez and "the folks at Stonewall" who were all angry but "driven by compassion, principle and by hope." 

Aware that "our democracy isn't perfect," Obama urged that our democracy is "sturdy," and won't work if we "silence ourselves" and "disengage from the process." 

She said, "If you hear people expressing bigoted views or talking down to 'those people,' it is up to you to call them out. Because we won't solve anything if we're only willing to do what's easiest. We've got to make hard choices and sacrifices in our own lives. 

"Some want to march right up in front. Others prefer to stay back. Some kneel in the pews, others on the street corner. Some canvas their neighborhoods, others run for office. Some do an honest day's work and raise good kids, others chose to focus on their education and use that degree to address these issues and build a better life for themselves and those around them. Graduates, it's all important, and we need every bit of it." 

Obama expressed hope that students not allow any hurt or frustration to "turn us against each other" and "cancel somebody else's point of view if we don't agree with every last bit of their approach. … That kind of thinking only divides us and distracts us from our higher calling." 

She pushed students to stay "open and hopeful, even in the tough times" and channel their "discomfort" into activism. "I know you can do it," she said. 

See Obama's full speech below.