To the Class of 2017

by Pramila Jayapal 

(The following is a transcript of the commencement speech given at Franklin High School’s graduation ceremony on June, 19 2017)

Good evening, Class of 2017!  How wonderful it is to be here today to celebrate YOU, to celebrate all that you have accomplished leading up to this moment, and to take this moment to just breathe before you embark on this next leg of the wonderful journey we call Life.

And before I go any further, Class of 2017, it is time give an enormous thank you to some of the people who helped you get here.  First, to Principal Wiley for her leadership.  To the amazing teachers at this school who believed in you, and gave you the tools you need and the inspiration that fueled you to this point.  And then, of course, to the parents, family and friends –all the people who stood by you when you needed it the most and put your education and your well being first, an enormous thank you.  Because what we all know is that the world is too difficult today to ever make it anywhere without your beloved community of helpers and believers.  

It truly is an honor to be your speaker today, and to stand before you as the first Indian-American woman in the US House of Representatives, the first woman to represent the 7th Congressional District, and the first person of color in the Washington State Democratic delegation ever to go to the House!  And I want to be clear that this diversity of experience matters—it matters not just because the pictures look better when you have folks of color in them (even though we know they do!) but because our experiences, our choices, our struggles matter. They help us make better policy, and they help bring forward the real lives and voices of people around this country. 

It really IS my experience as an immigrant woman who came to this country when I was 16 years old for college that has informed so much of who I am and what I fight for today.  And who would have thought that I would go from that place to being the Congress person for the best district in the country?  I can promise you that I certainly had no idea!

So if anyone ever tells you that there is a prescribed path you must take, I want you to push back and I want you to stand strong. You know the best path for you; it is the one you consciously choose by following your deepest instincts.  And it can lead you to places you never knew it would lead, as long as you are conscious and wide awake.  

I want to tell you a bit about my own story, because I know that a remarkable 61% of Franklin students speak a language other than English at home—that so many of you are first or second generation immigrants yourselves, AND that we are livestreaming this graduation for the first time. Folks in Somalia and China, all over the world, are watching with pride as you take those diplomas that you have worked so hard to get.

I am a proud immigrant, born in India.  I came to the United States by myself when I was 16 years old.  My parents took all the savings they had—about $5,000 then—and they used it to send me here by myself for college because they believed this was where I would get the best education and have the brightest future.  Honestly, I didn’t understand the extent of that sacrifice until my own son turned 16—and then I understood what courage it takes to send your kid at the age of 16 across the oceans and know that they might never come back.  And because of our broken immigration system, it took 18 years to get my citizenship, so I was never able to bring my parents here and we have lived on separate continents for most of my life.  

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (center) with Franklin High Principal Jennifer Wiley and assistant principals

But I am so grateful to them for the opportunity they gave me, and it is that opportunity that led me to devote the rest of my life to activism and community organizing, seeking opportunity for others.  

But it was a circuitous route!  You see, coming here from India, my parents had three professions that I was supposed to be: doctor, lawyer or businesswoman.

Back then, we had no money and so I was allowed one phone call home each year—no Skype or anything like that!  So, my sophomore year of college, I used my one phone call home to tell my father that I didn’t want to be an economics major, I wanted to be an English major.  And then I held the phone away from my ear as he yelled at me and said, “I didn’t send you to the U.S. to learn how to speak English, you already know how to speak English!”  

But he was concerned about me as all parents are—and perhaps some who are here today can relate! I promised my dad then that I would get the same job with an English degree that I would have gotten with an economics degree.  And so I went to work for an investment bank on Wall Street and got my Masters in Business before I realized that I needed to do what I loved and what made my heart sing.  I needed to make my vocation and my avocation the same thing.

So I left the private sector, and worked for a decade in global public health, living in villages across Thailand and India.  I came back to the United States in the late 1990s, had my son… and then 9/11 happened.  

That was my political awakening.  In those terrifying days after 9/11, some created a toxic stew, using the ingredients of Fear and Patriotism, attempting to manipulate the public by encouraging the suppression of dissent. The diversity we cherished, they told us, was tainted because we should fear people supposedly not like us. We witnessed people with turbans and brown skin put on trial—literally and figuratively—for the color of their skin, their religion or their country of origin. This was one of the darkest hours of our nation’s history, and the effects of those times linger still, as you know.

I was moved into action immediately, however, because community members came to me…mainly out of their concern for their children. I founded Hate Free Zone—later we changed the name to OneAmerica—to fight for immigrant, civil and human rights. I led this organization for 11 years, building it into the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state.  We successfully sued the Bush Administration preventing the illegal deportations of 4,000 Somali Muslims across the country: fathers, brothers, sons, and uncles; we fought back against Islamophobia—the same Islamophobia we are seeing again today; we organized tens of thousands of people across the state for comprehensive immigration reform to give a path to citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, led the fight for the DREAM Act at the federal and state level, with so many others; and registered over 23,000 new immigrant citizens to vote.

One of our secret ingredients was interns and volunteers: students like you in high school and college who grew into their leadership right in front of our eyes.  And when people congratulated me and OneAmerica for helping to grow such amazing leaders, I always said, “All we did was give a space for leadership to emerge and to believe in people, and they did all the rest.”  And it’s true. 

Despite having worked around the globe and founding One America, I never imagined I would run for office. But I realized suddenly, after trying to get elected officials to do the things we needed, why not run for office ourselves?  By not running, we were ceding important political space. And particularly as a woman and a person of color, I simply didn’t see enough people like me in office.  I ran for the State Senate, and became the first South Asian American ever elected to the state legislature and then ran for Congress and became the first Indian American woman ever elected to the US House.

So you see, your path may be as circuitous as mine, or more direct if that is how you roll.  But what you have to work towards is a life that matters…to you.  You must strive for a life where you will feel that you have done what you were put on earth to do.  And what matters will be different for each of you.  

Some of you may be doctors, lawyers or engineers.  Some will be musicians, artists or dancers.  Some will be educators or civil or nonprofit leaders or tradespeople or scholars or mechanics or self-employed or inventors or business people or pilots or service workers or stay-at-home dads or moms.  Some will be in elected office or work for the government.

It doesn’t matter which path you choose, but that you choose, consciously.  Remember that no decision is final, and no path is the only path.  You don’t have to know exactly where you are going every step of the way—I didn’t—but each step should teach you something.  

And don’t forget that while it is valuable to do something you love, it is also incredibly valuable to do something you don’t love—because it teaches you about who you are. And every contribution–regardless of how some may look upon it–is necessary and important work imbued with its own dignity. All work is valuable; some even say that work itself is prayer: it is our whispering to the world-that-is that we are doing our part for the world-that-ought-to-be.

It is very special to be your speaker today because Franklin is our beloved diverse community at the center of important progressive activism in our Seattle.  Banners here pronounce this story clearly—from the Black Lives Matter signs to the Dr. King banner: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

That quote, as you may know, actually comes from a sermon that Dr. King wrote in jail.  In July 1962, Dr. King was convicted for participating in demonstrations, and he and his close friend and movement colleague, Ralph Abernathy, refused to pay their fines, instead announcing they’d serve five-day jail terms.  It is an amazing sermon about the deep meaning of love—not romantic–but the kind of love that transforms injustice and builds our beloved community.  It is about forgiveness and it reminds us that while we don’t have to like or agree with everybody, we must strive to reach deeper and do that which is hardest, and that is to remember that our path to justice requires us to find what is common, and that love always trumps hate.  We see exactly the violence that happens when people try to pigeonhole us, labeling or trying to deem us as this or as that. Often, it is based on physical appearances or someone else’s biases.

This graduation, today and every day forward, I want to challenge you to keep doing the work you have been doing to shed others’ labels…just give them no energy. Nobody defines you, but YOU.  But each one of us also exists in a larger world context.  So how do YOU—as you define yourself—interact with this tumultuous world into which you are now graduating?

The trajectory of our world today feels like a departure from Dr. King’s vision, from where we thought we’d be. A world where hate and otherizing characterizes so much of our politics, where the President of the United States ignores the Constitution and proposes a Muslim ban that we will fight until we win in every court in the country; where people deny that climate change is real and block progress in saving our planet for your generation and your kids’ generations, where black lives don’t seem to matter, and where healthcare seems more a luxury than a right.

You are graduating into a world where college has become unaffordable for so many: the average student graduating with an astounding $40,000 in debt.

But you are also graduating into a world where I believe your generation WILL save the planet.  And that is because you understand, in a way that perhaps no other generation has, that we are not siloed.  We are intersectional.  I like to say, I am not a woman on Monday, an immigrant on Tuesday, a worker on Wednesday and a mom on Thursday, I am all of those things all of the time.  

Your generation understands intersectionality, not as an intellectual concept but as a lived experience.  You understand that to truly create a beloved community, we cannot focus on a hierarchy of oppressions but rather that racial, economic and gender justice are inextricably tied together; that diversity matters not as a check box to tick off, but because the best decisions are made when all voices are leading; and that institutionalized racism must be torn down and that it is equity and not equality that we strive for.

And remember—and this is coming to you from someone who has been arrested for leading civil disobedience protests and who believes that community organizing is the only path that moves us forward—that while we must oppose injustice and participate in the resistance fully, we also must PROPOSE justice.  What kind of a world do we want to live in and what is the vision we are willing to fight for?  For me, that is why in Congress I introduced the College for All Act in the House and worked with Bernie Sanders who introduced it in the Senate to provide for free college and INVEST in our young people so that you are not saddled with debt simply for getting the education we need you to get.  

And it’s why I was so proud to be part of winning a $15 dollar wage here in Seattle, and I’m going to fight for that in Congress so that every person in every city and town across this country has a decent wage that allows them to put food on the table and a roof over their head and retire in dignity.  And that’s why I just started an environmental justice caucus in Congress because I know that climate change is an existential threat and we must ensure that we move forward to fight it while also ensuring that those folks of color and low income people who are disproportionately affected are able to get the help they need as we transition to a green energy economy.

That’s MY agenda.  You will have to think about YOUR agenda.  You will need to think not only about what you OPPose, but also what you PROPose.  What is your solution to the problems that confront us?  

I know that each of you understands that whatever you may go on to do, you owe a debt to those whose shoulders on which you stand and the history they made.  Yes, there was a holocaust and yes there is racism in this country.  And yes, on June-teenth we have to remember that there was a time when black people (and women) could not vote and people owned slaves.  

The rights we have today, that we take for granted today, are because someone before you refused to accept the injustice that confronted them.  Folks gave their lives for you to be here now.  Folks sat in when they could have sat out. Folks voted rather than opting out. To be real about it: folks stood up when they could have sat back, and now that is the choice before YOU.

As you enter the world tonight as a GRADUATE of Franklin High School, as you go on to the many things you will do, remember the beloved community that helped you to get here, and remember that you too owe a debt.  You owe the debt and you possess the opportunity to live out the banner in front of your school, to live out your life with generosity and abundance, not scarcity and fear, to throw yourself in fully to what you believe.  No half-hearted efforts.  When you do something, do it fully.  Do it proudly.  Call out your angels from inside and do it with as much confidence as you can muster.  And if you come up against challenges, which you almost certainly will, always remember that the greatest strength emerges in times of crisis.  So embrace crisis as much as you can, and find the openings for your inspiration.   

And most of all, always remember how much power you hold.  No-one can ever take that power away from you.  And if anyone ever tells you that you can’t do something, that you’re not good enough or strong enough or smart enough or whatever enough, you just turn around and say, “Watch me go.”  Don’t mourn, organize.  Don’t sit back, step forward.

You are in the driver’s seat now, soon-to-be graduates.  And I know that for many of you, even getting to this point has been an enormous struggle.  But you did it, and you are here.  And that is only the beginning of what you will go on to do.

So, as you go into the world now, remember Dr. King’s words and life.

Love is transformative.  Love is power. Love draws out the shared greatness among us, and makes the impossible possible.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished.  You should be so proud of yourself.  I know your families and friends and your beloved community are so proud of you. I am proud of you. WE are so proud of you!

Thank you in advance for never giving up and for always looking forward.  And congratulations—I can’t wait to see what you do with your lives. Whatever it is, if YOU stay true to YOU, I know you will help to move that moral arc of the universe closer to justice, to stand up for what you believe in, to speak the truth even when it is not comfortable, and to be courageous.

I know you will.  Thank you, Class of 2017, and CONGRATULATIONS!

Pramila Jayapal represents Washington State’s 7th Congressional District