UNH Commencement Address 2008

Michael Brown CEO and Co-Founder, City Year
University of New Hampshire Commencement Remarks
May 24, 2008
Memorial Field
Durham, New Hampshire

President Huddleston, trustees, members of the faculty, public officials, graduates and guests, I am deeply honored to receive this honorary degree, thank you for this tremendous honor. I accept it on behalf of all the young people who have served in City Year. They are the ones who have given so much. I am also honored and privileged to have been asked to speak to you on this most special day.

What I want to talk to you about today is the power of idealism.

You can see idealism everywhere at UNH—from composting dining hall scraps, to all the cell phone recycling receptacles, to utilizing electric bubble cars (I admit to causing quite a traffic jam on Main Street when I insisted on driving a bubble car!)  to walking all night long to raise funds for cancer research, to collecting warm coats and gloves for needy families or clothes, to re-using all your stuff through Project RENU. The list goes on and on! There is a ton of idealism at UNH.

Idealism has no bigger champion than Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy has been putting his towering idealism to work for America for 46 years in the U.S. Senate. His energy and commitment is simply unbelievable. He leads on the very largest issues facing our country, and takes the time to help single individuals in need. Our hearts and prayers are with Senator Kennedy, our Idealist in Chief.

In the 1960s, when I was a kid, idealism and social action were everywhere. It was the Age of Aquarius, even for a little kid. I was acutely aware of the Civil Rights Movement, and the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and how they lost their lives pursuing social change, and the unfinished business of their causes.

Trying to put a man on the moon was wildly idealistic, and I followed every launch with amazement, wonder and held breath. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents at the age of eight to watch Neil Armstrong take one giant step.

My favorite show was Star Trek—which was really just idealism in space.

Many years later, much to the distress of the fashion-conscious City Year corps members, I even modeled the early City Year uniform on those mock turtle necks that Kirk and Spock wore. Fear not! If you were to consider joining City Year today, New Hampshire's own Timberland has updated the uniform substantially for you! And they don't let me design it any more.

But even with all that idealism around me, it took an experience outside the normal path—an experience in public service—for me to really embrace it.

I struggled my sophomore year in college. I decided to take a year off.

It was a big decision, leaving all my friends to go on without me. I landed a job on Capitol Hill with a congressman. He had a bill about an idea I had never heard of. The idea was called “voluntary national service.”

I don't know how many of you have ever had the experience of being exposed to an idea and being immediately struck with a passion for it—and knowing that in some way your life would never be the same. That is what happened to me.

It was just the most compelling idea that I had ever heard of. Call on young people from all walks of life—rich and poor, black and white. People who would probably otherwise never meet each other, even if they lived just a mile or two apart. Have them work together for a year or more on problems that plague communities, like helping troubled schools or turning blighted urban lots into community garden. Teach them some organizing and leadership skills. Have them recruit volunteers of all ages to help.  Let them shake up nonprofits and government agencies that were used to doing things the same way for a long time. Give them a small stipend to live on, but offer a bigger payout if they stuck it out, like a college scholarship. Their service would improve the lives of others. But at the same time it would grow their own skills and consciousness and character. It could even steer them into professions that they otherwise hadn't thought of, like teaching or urban development. Some might find that the experience of seeing the terrible impact that poverty, drugs or domestic violence was having on a community, changed them in a profound way. As if a switch had been turned on that couldn't really be turned off anymore, their whole life could change.

That was 25 years ago. We didn't get that bill very far, but it turned me into a true believer. And a couple years later I found myself in law school sitting with my roommate, Alan Khazei, tapping out a proposal to start a youth service corps on a new-fangled machine called a Macintosh computer. We wanted to see if we could demonstrate all those powerful ideas in action.

We called it City Year because, just like a young person has a junior or senior year, they could have a “city year” where service and social action would be your curriculum and the community would be your teachers.

At its heart, City Year is about idealism. It is really just about giving young people a time and a place to be idealistic all the time.

Sometimes idealism can get a bad rap. That is means just being positive all the time— or worse, being naïve.

But idealism is incredibly practical. It's about seeing things as they are, imagining things as they could be, and taking real and practical steps to turn what is into what could and should be.

I urge you to lead an idealistic life. Work to make things better.  You could do it full-time for a while, like we do at City Year. A year of service can be a powerful experience, and I can tell you, you are needed. But the key is to incorporate an idealistic spirit into your life at every stage.

Believe that change is possible, and work towards it.

You could choose to lead an idealistic life through the career you choose, like education or healthcare.

Like my wife, Charlotte, who is a doctor who takes care of children with AIDS, or my sister Aviva, who has courageously taught special needs children in the Manchester Public Schools for over 20 years, even after a student accidentally hurt her wrist so badly it required four painful surgeries, she is a tireless advocate for these children. Charlotte and Aviva are incredibly idealistic and are my heroes.

For those of you heading into the world of business, you can do a ton to change the world from the private sector, and help gain the loyalty and trust of your employees, customers and the general public.

When we started City Year we always believed that there were many people in the private sector who wanted to act on their idealism—and were looking for ways to engage their employees and their customers. But nothing quite prepared us for meeting Jeffrey Swartz of the Timberland Company right here in New Hampshire.  In 1988, Jeff helped launch a revolution in corporate America. “My employees,” he told us, “don't want to leave their values at the door when they come to work and pick them back up again when they go home. And the same is true for my customers at the mall.”  Jeff revolutionized the idea of corporate citizenship. He gave every employee 40 paid hours—an extra week's vacation—just to do community service. He took Timberland green by installing solar panels and massively reducing the company's carbon footprint. He even put a youth corps—City Year New Hampshire—at the center of his worldwide headquarters in Stratham. Boots, Brand and Belief he called it. It is a powerful combination.

You can be idealistic as a volunteer. Or use the incredible new power of the web and Facebook Causes to help save an endangered species or help a homeless person or promote solutions to global warming.

But don't do it all virtually. A big part of acting idealistically is making a human connection.

Why is idealism so important?

It's a big part of who we are as a country.

I like to say that America was founded with a “Declaration of Idealism” that says that “When in the course of human events, things don't work, people have to get together and start something new.”

We must constantly seek to be civic innovators. Especially now. The nation faces many tough problems, and government alone cannot get the job done.  Just this year, the U.S. passed the awful milestone of having 1 out of every 100 Americans in jail—the highest of any industrialized country.  Predicting future prison budgets is correlated by some states to the reading scores in the third grade.  That's almost unimaginably sad to think about, but if you are planning for prisons, I suppose you use what works. If you are planning for educated citizens, we need to do better, so much better.

A study just came out that showed that every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school in America. That adds up to a million kids a year.  That’s a crisis. A high school dropout is eight times more likely to end up behind bars than a high school graduate.

And by virtue of your degree today, you are likely to make more than one million dollars more over your lifetime than if you had dropped out of high school five or six years ago.

But why didn't you or I drop out of high school? I am sure in part it was because we had so many people around us who would never let that happen. I bet a lot of them are here today. But the kids that are dropping out don’t usually have what you or I may have had—a caring, loving home and a solid education system, and a safe group of friends.

You have untold powers to reverse the course of a kid heading to drop out. Just your taking the time to enter into the life of a kid in need would be impressive to him. As would be the fact that you are college graduate. Tutoring and mentoring could have a tremendous impact on a child. You could keep him on track to graduate.

I urge you to find a way to share your gifts and talents and help others.

It will not always be easy, but most often you will find an incredible sense of joy in doing so. You will find adventure, and new friendships. Being part of something larger than yourself is exhilarating.

I do warn you that it can be hard to stay idealistic. Making change happen is difficult and there can be many set backs.  The truth is that it is often easy and even fun to be cynical, to tear things down.  At City Year we developed a little booklet of 180 little ways to be idealistic. My favorite is Number 62. It says simply, “This is hard. Be strong.”

A few years back it was said that the era of big government is over. I think what we need more than ever is an “Era of Big Citizenship.”

What does an Era of Big Citizenship look like? It looks a lot like what the state of New Hampshire looks like every four years for the First in the Nation primary—deeply engaged citizens everywhere. It is that and more. It is an era when citizens take a deep responsibility to learn about the problems facing our society—and what it will take to fix them. And then dive in to help solve them—through service, through civic engagement, through political action.

As you take your hard earned diploma in hand today, remember that you are not only graduating—from A to Z—as the talented and educated young men and woman you are, but you are also graduating as citizen Ryan Abelli….and citizen Jennifer LeValliere and citizen Matthew Zygmant.

You and your generation can build an era of Big Citizenship.

You are so needed.

You are so ready.

Be the biggest citizens you can possibly be!

Congratulations graduates and families!