- Mayor Lori Lightfoot is a lawyer and the current mayor of Chicago, and the first openly gay Black woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the US.
- In her 2020 commencement address, she challenges Northwestern University graduates to get energised in the name of public service and says that serving and engaging is a responsibility everyone shares.
- Lightfoot also shared a personal request to new grads: to spend some time in their lives serving directly in government itself.
- She closed by asking graduates to build bridges and to be guided by empathy, and cautioned that democracy will fail if we do not see the humanity in each other.
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I am deeply honoured to be joining you on this very special occasion to celebrate the Northwestern University’s 2020 graduating class, as well as this remarkable institution.
I want to first give my thanks and gratitude to President Schapiro and the Board of Trustees for showing true moral courage in inviting an alum of a certain other academic institution here to give this year’s commencement address.
Morty, you know that I am a partisan when it comes to my undergraduate alma mater. But I have come to embrace the purple pride. Because of your leadership, your friendship and stewardship of this great institution in these most challenging times. Thank you.
And yes, these are challenging times.
It would be enough if we only had to contend with a global pandemic, the likes of which no one living has ever seen before. And to be clear, COVID-19 is still very much a part of our present and our foreseeable future. This pandemic has shown both our strengths, but also our profound vulnerabilities. There is a lot to be learned, and for my city, this experience has created a sense of urgency around righting past wrongs and areas of neglect so that we can continue to build strong, healthy neighbourhoods.
It would be enough if we were only forced to reckon with just the brutal murder of George Floyd, but of course that crime has brought us back to the original sin of racism or COVID-1619 as some have called it.
Or in the wake of both of these events, we have unfortunately seen a rise in increasingly divisive rhetoric from all sides which speaks to pain and anger, but not key cornerstones of our democracy – solutions forged in compromise.
Yes, we’ve all been through a lot recently.
Given the difficulty and pain of these events, it would be natural for us to focus on what we’ve lost.
And we’ve lost a lot.
Lives. Opportunities. Events. Jobs. Freedom of movement. Our own sense of security. And our own sense of certainty in what tomorrow will bring.
But even in all this, we’ve also gained a lot as well – hard as it may seem at times.
All these events have been extremely difficult. All extremely traumatic. All revealing intense fissures in our society. And all experienced intensely by all of us.
And I mean All. Of. Us.
It is fitting, too, that we are meeting on “Juneteenth,” the annual celebration marking the end of slavery in America…
But more than that, this day stands as a watershed moment in our nation’s long – and still incomplete – journey toward full equality and justice that we are feeling so vividly in this moment.
The events of the past few months have forced serious, personal and collective reflection on what matters, what counts, what’s important, and how we ensure those things become our priorities.
It’s there where we find what we’ve gained. Because it’s there where we find our direction points – our north stars – from which we chart a better course for ourselves individually and collectively.
For me – as someone who believes in public service – that challenge rests in thinking about how we serve… what it means, and how it’s done.
As our Medill grads can tell you, the slogan to The Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
That’s true. But if I may, I’d like to expand that definition to say that “Democracy Dies in Disengagement.”
Disengagement from the public. Disengagement from facts. Disengagement from reality. And disengagement from ourselves.
The events of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd speak to the importance of engagement through service in two seemingly separate, but powerful and reinforcing ways. COVID-19 forced us to rethink and redefine the very notion of public service. To move it beyond its traditional governmental realm, and expand into every role we play.
Following the transmission of that virus from one person to the next, from one community to the next, from one country to the next, COVID-19 demanded that we realise just how connected we are, and how much impact we have on each other’s lives.
And likewise, called on us to accept the responsibility that came with that knowledge and power.
I am proud to say, that’s exactly what I saw in my own city. Since the very first days of the crisis, I have been personally overwhelmed by the countless individuals who stepped up – in ways big and small – to offer help and assistance for those in need.
We all know of our health care workers, first responders, and essential workers. But it didn’t end there. It included small businesses owners – who themselves where hurting badly – to CEOs, to neighbours and residents volunteering at food pantries.
We saw people repurpose their businesses and their lives. We saw people every single day focus on how we can come together and stand against this unprecedented threat.
Public service transformed from a set role, and into the motivating force that shaped every role we hold.
Even the act of staying home – which we know is easier said than done.
Many members of this graduating class will go on to jobs outside of government. Many members will go on to jobs where you make lots of money. Many of you will leave Evanston and Chicago and never come back. (Though I hope you change your mind.)
My challenge to all of you is to use this collective moment to energize whatever you do around the notion of public service and the responsibility we all share.
Whether as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a community based organisation. Whether at the company you work for, or the company you start. Or as you telework from home, or participate in a virtual commencement address.
We can’t separate the roles anymore.
This virus laid bare the impact each of us make on each other. It’s now on us to make sure that impact makes everything better. But as I said though, that’s just half of the story. While COVID-19 forced us to redefine public service, the murder of George Floyd forced us to recognise its urgency.
If we are to make our democracy thrive, we all have to do more to engage in our political process. We are at our core a participatory democracy and thus engagement is our life blood.
So in addition to my challenge to you, I also have a personal request: Spend some time in your life serving directly in government itself.
That doesn’t necessarily mean running for elected office – though I fully encourage you to do so. And it doesn’t necessarily mean making a career out of it – though that would be wonderful as well.
My ask is that you simply do it.
It can take the form of joining your local school board, serving in a federal department, or working as a staff member for a mayor like me. Folks, make no mistake, when you look at me, you’re also looking at an army of talented and passionate staff members who stand behind me and lift me up. As I’ve told them many times, I may get the credit, but they’re the ones doing the work.
And while my ask is that you do this at some point in your life, there’s no better time for you than now, when you’re “young, scrappy, and hungry.”
If you studied health and medicine, spend a year or so working for a public health department.
If you studied sociology, spend a year or so helping an elected leader craft their public policy.
Or if you studied business, help lead a mayor expand neighbourhood economic development, just like my Deputy Mayor, Samir Mayekar, one of your alumni, is doing right now.
If you have a passion for education or building a healthy ecosystem for our youth, turn that passion into purpose like former Northwestern professor and now deputy mayor, Dr. Sybil Madison, who works to build capacity and supports for our young people in and outside of schools.
If you studied law, spend time working in a public attorney’s office, like I did. Or use your law degree to help completely transform police union contracts from being roadblocks to roadmaps for reform and accountability like your alumni, Michael Frisch does for me every day as a senior advisor.
Whatever it is, just to do it.
And if “serving the public” isn’t reason enough, you’ll also get a wealth of experience and the fulfillment of being at the centre of how things get done – and how they can get done better.
The immutable fact is public policy will happen. Decisions will get made. Bills will be passed.
But being a democracy means what that policy is, and how that decision is made, and what law gets passed depends whether or not we’re part of that process. Meaning, it matters whether a diverse group of voices and experiences are at the table. If you’re not engaged, you are absolutely yielding your power to someone else.
So be at the table. Put yourself in the place where your voice and talent can be felt. And do you part to serve the public – to serve us.
One last thing I will say. Being engaged doesn’t mean screaming the loudest.
It doesn’t mean issuing a set of demands and then villainizing anyone who doesn’t immediately pledge allegiance to your favourite manifesto.
The public square should be about debate, working to muster the facts and the arguments to persuade. Building coalitions, finding common ground and of course leaning into what you believe – yes that’s all part of what makes this continuing, evolving American experiment with democracy great and enduring.
But it is premised upon breaking down barriers that would otherwise separate us. Democracy will fail, will utterly fail if we do not see the humanity in each other.
And let me assert something that may sound blasphemous to some ears – solutions to big, seemingly intractable challenges are not found in 140 characters at a time, behind anonymous monikers or on other forms of social media which have become the breeding grounds of conspiracy theories, targeted misinformation campaigns and just pure hate.
Real life exists here [point to head] and here [point to heart].
As you move into the next chapter of your life, be guided by a sense of purpose, of passion and empathy.
Build bridges over which others can travel to you, and you to them.
Congratulations to once again to the entire Northwestern University Class of 2020 on this incredible moment and this incredible day.
And God bless you all.
Lori Lightfoot is the mayor of Chicago and a member of the Democratic party. She is the first openly gay Black woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the US. Prior to becoming mayor, Lightfoot worked as a federal prosecutor and served as president of the Chicago Police Board.
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