Congressperson Mondaire Jones (D-NY) represents New York’s 17th District and serves on the House Judiciary, Education and Labor, and Ethics Committees.
I wish we could be together in person today. But I’m so excited to be with you virtually to celebrate this momentous occasion. And I am so proud of all of you.
As we celebrate today, I am acutely aware of just how challenging the last year has been for all of us. In addition to a global pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we confronted the realities of working, learning, dating, and in my case, even running for Congress via Zoom. We missed birthdays, weddings, holidays, sporting events, and so many other special occasions to keep ourselves and the people we love safe.
But as difficult as the last year has been, it has also shown us the power of any one individual to make a difference. The doctors, nurses, and health care workers who risked their lives day in and day out to keep us healthy and safe; the community organizers who created mutual aid networks to ensure our most vulnerable neighbors were taken care of as the world shut down; the advocates and the activists, including many of you, who brought communities around the globe together in defense of Black lives. These folks didn’t wait for an invitation to take action. They saw a need and they stepped up to the plate.
My charge to all of you today is to do the same; to step up and step into the world. Do not wait to do good things. Everything you’ve learned at Pitzer, inside and outside of the classroom, has prepared you for this moment. And our world needs your gifts, your ideas, your leadership, and your impatience now more than ever. This isn’t always easy.
As a 33-year-old member of Congress, I know all too well how dismissive folks can be of young people until they are no longer dismissive, until we prove our skeptics wrong. Powerful people in this country are betting everything on the idea that we won’t rise to the occasion to overcome the challenges that our nation faces. But I’ve seen firsthand what young people can accomplish when we refuse to let other people tell us what to do.
When I ran for Congress, I can’t tell you how many people told me I couldn’t do it. They told me that I wasn’t old enough, that I was too inexperienced, that my ideas were too forward-thinking for my district, that I should wait my turn. The whole political establishment counted me out before I won my election in a landslide. For a young, openly gay Black guy who grew up thinking it was a sin to be my authentic self and never seeing anyone in elected office who was like me, I spent most of my life believing I could not get elected to Congress. So, the feedback I described was especially hard to hear. But every time the going got tough, I reminded myself what had motivated me to launch my campaign in the first place. I saw a world on fire, a nation facing existential crises. And I knew that if we were ever going to put out that fire, people like me, people like us would have to step up and lead with the sense of urgency that has come to define our generation.
So that’s exactly what I did. And I’m grateful that a groundswell of young people in my community stepped up to the plate alongside me. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, laying bare the inequities that are inherent in so many of our systems, healthcare, education, our criminal legal system, you name it, we refused to despair. That group of young people, many of them not even old enough to vote, shared a vision of a more equitable and just future. And they fought tooth and nail to help bring that future about. There were six- and seven-year-olds who drew postcards to help me get elected.
And we were up against tough odds. The son of a billionaire who spent many millions of dollars trying to defeat us, two state legislators, a former senior Defense Department official, a nonprofit board chair, and the list goes on. But because of the young people of Westchester and Rockland counties, I had the best team a billion dollars could not buy. And my story is not unique.
The fact is the story of America has always been the story of young people doing extraordinary things. While we often hear about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, many of our nation’s founding fathers and mothers weren’t much older than all of you when they set out to change the course of history. Now, they were far from perfect, but they set our nation on a centuries-long pursuit of a more perfect union, a pursuit that continues to this day.
And it was that promise of a more perfect union that inspired young civil rights activists, including the late great John Lewis to organize and mobilize for civil rights and voting rights. John Lewis was just 25 years old when he led his famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to secure voting rights for Black Americans in what would become known as Bloody Sunday. The images from that march helped inspire passage of the Voting Rights Act two months later, which changed the course of our nation’s history and made our union more perfect in the process.
Martin Luther King was just 26 years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is now regarded as the first large-scale event against racial segregation in the United States. And that, of course, began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Harriet Tubman was 28 when she made her first trip on the Underground Railroad.
Today, you and your peers are building on this legacy of leadership. From March for Our Lives, a movement to end the gun violence epidemic in America, to the Sunrise Movement leadership in the fight to solve our climate crisis, young people are doing the work to ensure our nation actually lives up to the values we espouse.
I ask you today to see yourselves in this struggle because our future depends on it. As we work to build back better from the challenges of the last year, we need you. Don’t wait for permission to lead. The only permission you need is your own because it is clear that you can do it. The American Revolution, the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement, the success of these projects was not preordained. The young people who led them were not simply destined for greatness at birth. They had to take that first step. They saw injustice, and they got to work.
I’m reminded of the words of another stellar young leader, our nation’s Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who taught us all that there is always light in the world if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be. Pitzer, in a time with so much darkness, I urge you to be the light, to put your gifts and talents to use and to make our nation and our world just a little bit more perfect than you found it. If you do, I am confident that there is no limit to what you can accomplish and what our world can become.
So, congratulations, Pitzer Class of 2021. You did it. Now it’s time to get to work.