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My Commencement Address at Bronx Community College

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This post originally appeared on Strength.org

Today I had the privilege of delivering the commencement address at Bronx Community College. The speech was an opportunity to share the success of No Kid Hungry, to encourage this new generation to more deeply engage in community, and to lay out the arguments for why hunger is also an education issue, and a health care issue and an issue that impacts our economic competitiveness. Below you can read the full text of the address.

Written Commencement Address at Bronx Community College, June 1, 2012

Thank you President Berotte Joseph and congratulations to each of you.

I intend to keep my comments concise for a variety of reasons including a sobering conversation I had with my seven-year-old son. Let's leave aside for a moment the improbability of my having a seven-year-old son. He's misbehaved with his babysitter and my wife Rosemary called me at work and said I had to come home right away so that we could talk to Nate about his character, and his purpose in life and the choices he makes. I went straight home and the three of us talked but it was mostly a monologue with Rosemary doing most of the monologuing. After she had the good sense to say: "Nate, do you in turn have anything you'd like to say to us?" And he looked us dead in the eye and said, "Thank you for your little presentation." To avoid evoking that reaction, I will say only three things to you this morning about my experiences and your opportunities, and then sit down.

First, as much as I appreciated that generous introduction, you should know that while everything that President Joseph said is true, that is not who I am. At least it is not, and of course could not be, all of who I am. Yes it is true that I worked in government and started Share Our Strength and that we've raised more than $360 million, but that is only part of who I am.

I am also the son of a loving mother who died from a drug overdose before I'd completed my education. I was a principal architect of three losing presidential campaigns, one of which spent more than four years paying off its debts. And oh, after graduating law school I failed the bar exam. Twice. I tell you this not for sensationalism's sake or to gain sympathy, but to persuade you that no life, not even a successful life, perhaps especially not a successful life, is lived as an unbroken string of successes. And indeed the shortcomings, failures and even bad luck that are an inevitable part of being human need not hinder your success in the least if you know what to take from and do with them.

Whenever you think you know someone, try to remember that you usually only know what they have chosen to let you know, or what others have told you about him or her. You won't and can't know what they carry with them, what St Exupery referred to when saying: "What's essential is invisible to the eye," and whether it has made them stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, better or worse. Being ever conscious of this may not make you more successful but it will make your life richer in immeasurable ways.

Second, as diverse as you are in your intellect, appetites, energies, appearance and ambition, you share in common three world-changing powers: to share your strength, to create community wealth and to bear witness.

Share Our Strength was built on the belief that everyone has a strength to share, sometimes a gift that you may take for granted but that can be deployed to benefit others. I'm talking about something more than writing a check once you are financially successful, or occasionally volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter. I'm talking about giving of yourself, of your unique value added, as chefs have done by cooking at food and wine benefits or by teaching nutrition and food budgeting skills to low-income families. In the same way we have engaged authors, architects, public relations and marketing executives, and numerous others.

As a result we have helped to build the emergency food assistance network in the country, distribute 2.4 billion pounds of food, launched the No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by ensuring that the 21 million kids who get a free school lunch also get breakfast, food stamps and other nutrition assistance to which they are entitled, and we've made a life and death difference in places like Haiti and Ethiopia.

What we are doing may sound good. But good is not good enough. Martin Luther King once said "In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs."

To me these have always been more than eloquent words. I went to Ethiopia during the onset of a terrible famine there in 2000 and 2002 and met a 13-year-old girl at a school we were supporting, and where we were trying to build a hospital next door. Her name was Alima Dari and we stayed in touch for several years, exchanging letters and pictures. But one day a colleague of mine went to Ethiopia on a trip I couldn't make and I gave him a letter to give to Alima but then didn't hear from him for many days. He finally wrote to say " I hate to tell you this but Alima died of cerebral malaria. She's been misdiagnosed with Tuberculosis and by the time they realized it was malaria and got her to Addis Ababa it was too late." And there again were Martin Luther King's words.

But you don't have to go all the way to Ethiopia to find and meet your Alima. Alima is in Boston, and in the Bronx, in Denver and Detroit, and wherever kids are at risk, vulnerable and voiceless. Despite our success there are still too many children for whom we are too late. The spectacular results we are getting in Arkansas have not found their way to Texas. The progress we've seen in Maryland, has not reached Mississippi.

As graduates you will soon be in a position to share your strengths and I hope that you will share at least some of them on behalf of an Alima somewhere in this community, our country or our world.

You graduate at a time when child poverty is at a near record high of 21 percent of all children in the U.S. (15 million kids living in homes that are below the poverty line.) Almost three million American kids live in "extreme poverty" in households with less than $2 dollars a day per person according to National Poverty Center at University of Michigan. Some urban areas face catastrophe with as many as 67 percent of children living in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty. Forty six million Americans are on food stamps for the first time in the history of the United States. And half of them are children.

The failure to invest in at-risk kids early enough creates and perpetuates a cycle of poverty. And yet 2012 will be the second year in a row that Congress cuts appropriations for children.

America's national and economic security depends on human capital. And that security demands discussion of whether our school children are fed, fit, and ready to learn. Hunger and poverty are corrosive to our economic competitiveness. They handicap our schools. They impose huge costs on the health care system that you and I pay for. In short, hunger and poverty undermine and make more difficult our efforts to make health care and quality education a reality for all. There is no definition of the American Dream that includes one in five of our children suffering in poverty.

That is why we set out to fight a battle, that in the words of writer Jonathan Kozol was big enough to matter but small enough to win, and could result in actually ending childhood hunger once and for all.

A second power that you share is the power to create a new kind of wealth called community wealth. When we created Share Our Strength we wanted to be a grant maker but not a re-grantor, we wanted to create new wealth rather than just redistribute wealth. Of the $360 million we've raised and spent at Share Our Strength, more than half comes not from charitable dollars but from corporate partnerships, cause-related marketing, licensing and other activities that essentially represent commerce. It requires a commitment to partnerships that are truly mutually beneficial and win-win. And we realized that most nonprofit organizations, in the course of pursuing their mission, create assets that have a marketplace value and can be leveraged into revenue generating opportunities. (Examples to cite: Greyston Bakery in Yonkers)

An age-old issue expounded upon at moments like this is the choice you face between doing well and doing good, between creating wealth and serving the public interest. What I am here to tell you today is that for the first time in history, it is no longer a choice of one or the other, but an unprecedented challenge for your generation to create wealth to serve the public interest.

We tend to think of wealth in very personal terms as something that enables us to have houses that are bigger and cars that are faster and vacations that are longer. But there is another kind of wealth that makes are streets safer and our schools better and our neighborhoods healthier. And you are in unique position to share your strength in ways that create such community wealth.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the power to bear witness. Whether you graduated magna cum laude or by begging your instructors to pass you, each and every one of you has this gift in equal measure. The power to bear witness is the power to go, see, feel and share what you have felt.

I went to Ethiopia during a famine and to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. Haiti. What I really wanted to do was to go and see for myself what had happened and how the victims were coping. I wanted to go and see and allow myself to feel things about what I'd seen, and then share what I'd felt. I had less of a sense that I could affect change than that I would be changed by the emotions -- sadness, sympathy, despair, anger, outrage and ultimately hope -- that are the inevitable response to such a situation.

Indeed I was moved and ended up bringing others to Ethiopia and New Orleans to share the experience and communicating to literally thousands about it.

Bearing witness has always been the essential prerequisite for changing society's most grievous conditions, for righting injustice, for reaching out to those in need. In the 21st century bearing witness is destined to become an even more powerful tool for advancing social change.

Technology today yields information at unprecedented speeds and quantities. But much of it -- delivered via cable news, talk radio, the internet and other media -- is devoted to faux drama that masquerades as relevant to our lives, like celebrity court trials. The irony is that real life-and-death dramas of enormous consequence surround us, on our street corners, in public schools, in the homes of new immigrants, across town and across the globe.

If history is a guide, we will experience successes and failures along the way in our quest to make the world a better place. There will surely be legitimate excuses on those occasions when we fail. But there are no excuses for not seeing or knowing how our fellow citizens live. Take the opportunity to do so in your own way and time. Go somewhere you haven't been and see something you haven't yet seen. Look until you feel something and then tell someone what you've seen and felt. This is what it means to bear witness. This is what it takes to change the world.

When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change. It's what Gandhi meant when he said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

By bearing witness you have the power to be a voice for the voiceless. You leave here today with a degree, and an education, and the support of a community, that gives you a voice. But you also leave with a choice. Will you raise that voice only on behalf of your own interests, or on behalf of others whose voices are not heard.

Third and finally, try to see the world whole and to let it see you that way, to see you for who you really are, as I have tried to do today. Not because it will always be attractive or appealing, but because in the long run you really don't have a choice. People will figure it out anyway.

Most often when we stand where I am standing we share what my wife Rosemary calls our on-stage life. But of course we all have back stage lives as well. And as Rosemary understood long before I did, we will live longer and healthier if our front stage and back stage life are one and the same, if you live an undivided life. It is the richest blessing I can wish for each of you.

I hope that as citizen leaders you will succeed where our political leaders have failed. On the airplane that brought me here I looked down at the farms and factories, at the small towns and schools where children were taught that Presidents and Congress, governors and mayors act on their behalf no matter which class they belong to. From that vantage point America looks fertile and full of possibility. But our leaders no longer see the whole, as one can from this vantage point. They have instead narrowed their vision to see only what is small and advantageous in the short-term. As a result they perpetuate the smallness, the narrowness and the division. By such actions they are choosing to follow rather than to lead. The only remedy is for others to lead, for citizens and community organizations and businesses to act not on behalf of a class, but on behalf of a country. As graduates today you not only have that opportunity, but that responsibility. And you can do so by sharing your strength, creating community wealth, and bearing witness.

No one spoke more eloquently about the need to share our strengths than the poet Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote:

We are others harvest

We are each other's business

We are each other's magnitude

And bond.

I have learned that these words are true. Whether you are a banker on Wall Street or a baker on Arthur Avenue we are each other's harvest. Whether you are an engineer or an educator, we are each other's harvest. Whether you design video games for next year or cathedrals that last centuries, we are each other's harvest.

Thank you and congratulations.