He wasn't the most famous person to address Oregon university graduates this year--that honor went to FLOTUS, at Oregon State where her brother coaches basketball--but it's a good bet Michelle didn't say anything as interesting as this:
I know I'm supposed to come up here and tell you the many opportunities before you, and I'll say something about that. But I want to say something else: (takes drink of water) You might be screwed. (Laughter) You might. Be screwed."More below; but a link to the vid if you're impatient:
Jefferson Smith's Commencement Speech to UO Graduates
The speaker is Portland's Jefferson Smith, a University of Oregon alumnus, Harvard Law grad, erstwhile lawyer, successful nonprofit chief executive, and current finalist for his hometown's mayoral race. The audience laughed nervously and applauded as Smith dealt more of the unfortunate news: you're projected to do worse than your parents, the job market is the pits, and we're in the worst wealth inequity since WWII. And the big downer:
There are real questions about whether the systems of our democracy are in the position to solve our biggest problems and address the public interest.(He could have also mentioned the crushing debt most of them assumed in order to earn a ticket to see him speak, but I guess he has some compassion.)
As usual for those who know Jefferson or have seen his speeches before (like this fantastic one on "priceless politics"), the casual levity of the "screwed" remark masks a very serious, thoughtful and passionate discussion. It comes from a man who does not shy from talking about how his choices trying to move up rungs on the ladder of success led him to discover that there is no ladder. And far from leaving his advisees downtrodden, he tells them that despite the challenges they will face, "This is not a pity party. I want to call you to service."
Smith admits that, as he sat on the other side of the microphone for his own UofO graduation, he looked forward to jumping the rungs and reaching the top: most likely to succeed in high school, near the top of his class at Harvard, hired by the highest paying firm in New York City--sought out precisely because it was the highest paying. But being asked to defend Big Tobacco in his new job while his mother had died from cancer, and trying to mentally justify his quarter-million dollar job against a backdrop of families who had to argue over whether they could afford Happy Meals instead of just cheeseburgers, derailed his view of success and what it meant.
Smith quit the big law firm, moved back to Oregon, and eventually helped create the now-famous Bus Project, a nonprofit dedicated to building not only democracy but an enthusiasm for democracy, especially among youth. He moved with his now-wife Katy into her old neighborhood and assumed the seat in the state Legislature previously held by now-Senator Jeff Merkley. And there he did well, carrying a number of bills successfully to passage and signature. He hit a lot of statewide issues: transparency, campaign finance, economic development, water allocation, human trafficking--but ultimately felt rather powerless to deal with the problems his constituents were bringing to him: unpaved roads, failing schools, lack of good public transportation in one of the best cities for it, and a sense that his East Portland district had become a forgotten part of the city.
I won't ruin the speech by quoting it all back to you here; it only runs 13 minutes and Smith makes it go by even faster. But these are a couple keys that prompted me to share it with you, because I don't hear this from very many people, period--much less those running for office:
How we define success matters. Do we measure it materially, externally? By our houses, our cars, our consumer electronics, the distance of our vacations? Or more from within, a core purpose? An overreliance on certain measures of success can mess up a person--can mess up a country. It can encourage folks to ring up unsustainable debt, so life looks good to the neighbors. It can encourage banks to depart from the mission of smart capital access, and to overdefine their mission as strictly the pursuit of profit. Even if greed were good, greed is not enough.
None of us in this room will be George Washington. None of us will be Indira Ghandi. If we define success by the station that we reach, we can't win. But if we define success by the movements in which we participate, in what we stand for, in what we work towards--we can't lose.Please watch the video, and watch for more updates on Jefferson's run for mayor this summer and fall. Some of us are pretty damn excited.