Democracy’s Dozen: Commencement Addresses

These 12 graduation speeches include inspiring calls to action – to sustain, strengthen, and build upon our democratic way of life.

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David Foster Wallace
2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Abby Wambach
2018

“Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the ‘other,’ about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless. And these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We will not Little Red Riding hood our way through life. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together and change the whole bloody system.”

Laurien Alexandre
2019

“Today I’m going to tell you to go out and read. Reading is an act of engaged democratic citizenship, of empathy building, and knowledge expanding … The reader, in selecting what to read, is choosing to be his or her own person. Believing in the Constitution’s We the People means defending the right to free thought and imagination – and that right can only be guaranteed by the active participation of every one of us as citizen readers.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2015

“Girls are often raised to see love only as giving. Women are praised for their love when that love is an act of giving. But to love is to give and to take. Please love by giving and by taking. Give and be given. If you are only giving and not taking, you’ll know. You’ll know from that small and true voice inside you that we females are so often socialized to silence. Don’t silence that voice. Dare to take.”

Oprah Winfrey
2013

“In our political system and in the media we often see the reflection of a country that is polarized, that is paralyzed and is self-interested. And yet, I know you know the truth. We all know that we are better than the cynicism and the pessimism that is regurgitated throughout Washington and the 24-hour cable news cycle.”

President Barack Obama
2016

“You need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse. That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.”

Ellen Degeneres
2009

“As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give in to peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means, you should follow that.”

George Saunders
2013

“Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s us and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me). Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.”

Zadie Smith
2014

“Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It’s a privilege. Don’t let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private planes, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don’t believe it. We are far more frequently each other’s shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world.”

Mitt Romney
2015

“Living life in fullness includes serving others and doing so without pride or personal gain. It will fill your heart and expand your mind. I’ve seen that kind of service in large and small ways in my own family.”

John Lewis
2017

“In the ’60s, I was arrested a few times — 40 times. And since I’ve been in Congress, another five times, and I’m probably going to get arrested again. My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, stand up, say something, and speak out.”

JK Rowling
2011

“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

More Democracy’s Dozens for
civic-minded citizens

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