Barack Obama, 58, and Michelle Obama, 56, addressed this years’ graduates on YouTube’s star-studded special Dear Class of 2020. The couple, who are both Harvard graduates, shared some words of wisdom in their light-hearted speech. “This is a huge day for all of you!” Michelle began, reminding grads to thank their families who have helped get them to this milestone. “You still have all those people with you today…these folks deserve your love and gratitude,” she urged, as Barack reminded the class of 2020 to hug their dads, too.
“Today is the culmination of a long journey. Think back to when you were starting your first year — you were probably just hoping that by the time you got to your graduation day you found your people, learned some new skills and got yourself ready for your next step…college, grad school, your first job,” Barack continued. “You accomplished all that. Then just as you were rounding your second turn, everything stopped,” he added, referencing the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent quarantine.
“We want you to know that all the work you’ve done in getting your education is one of the best investments you can make,” the former President said. “We’ve seen it for decades: the more education you have, the better you and your families can fare…you have all done something great. Hold your heads high and celebrate!” And by celebrate, they meant throwing on some tunes! “And go ahead and do a little dance. A cool dance, if you’re by yourself,” Michelle joked.
Following Beyonce‘s epic commencement, Michelle returned for a solo speech where she addressed the Black Lives Matter movement. “In light of the current state of our country, I struggled to find the words today…I’m here today not as the former First Lady, but as a citizen,” she began her inspirational 17-minute address. “All that superficial stuff of titles is done away…over the last couple of months our foundation has been shaken. Not just by a pandemic…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 so nakedly exposed,” she continued.
“For too many people in this country, no matter hard they work, there’s structural barriers that make the road longer and rockier,” Michelle explained. “If you don’t feel safe driving your own car in your own neighborhood…if you can’t even approach the police without fearing for your own life, how do you live your life?” the Chicago native asked.
“Nobody has all the answers. If my generation did, trust me — we would have fixed this a long time ago. But we shouldn’t feel hopeless. Because what we finally do have is focus,” she reminded the class of 2020, empowering them to keep the movement going beyond hashtags and tweets. “Empathy and compassion is the only currency in life. Treating people right will never, ever fail you,” she stressed.
“There will always be those who want to keep you silent. To have you be seen, but not heard,” Michelle poignantly noted, reminding this years’ grads to use their voices. “If you hear people using bigoted views or talking down to ‘those people’, you have to speak up to them,” she continued, concluding her speech with complimenting this generation for their passion and talents and thanking them for giving her “hope.”
Barack also appeared later for a solo speech where he addressed the fights against both racial inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Graduation is an achievement under any circumstances. Yours comes as the world is turned upside down by a pandemic and by a country that has been swept up by protests. I can barely imagine how head spinning these months have been for you,” the former President opened his 15 minute speech.
“Bask in the glory of your achievement…It’s safe to say your class faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades,” he reminded this years’ graduates, reminding them to keep change at the forefront of their goals. “The old normal wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t working that well…You don’t have to accept what was considered normal before. You can make it into the world it could be and should be,” he said, encouraging them to keep a positive outlook.
“We can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before, better than before,” Obama said, urging grads to “listen” to each other. “Respect each other, and use your education to promote the truth…It’s not always pretty, this democracy of ours. It can be loud or messy or sometimes depressing,” he noted.”[It’s been] taken seriously the mandate of and by and for the people, bit by but generation by generation, we’ve made progress,” he said, keeping an optimistic attitude.
The former President has been a positive voice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, urging young people to use their voices to create change. “This is your generation’s world to shape…be a part of the solution and not the problem,” he said in the Graduate Together special just weeks ago. “I hope you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others,” he also said.
Days after the death of 46-year-old George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, the former President also took to YouTube to address issues of racial inequality plaguing the nation. “As tragic as these last few weeks have been, as difficult, scary and uncertain as they’ve been, they have been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened,” he said in his speech, shared to his website Obama.org.
“We can work together to tackle them, take them on and change America to make it live up to the highest ideals,” he encouraged, going on to call on local politicians to step up to the plate. “I am urging every mayor in this country to review your use of forces’ policies with members of your communities and commit to report on planned reforms,” Obama said.