Ronan Farrow delivered the Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement Address on May 13, 2011. Below is the full text of the Commencement speech.
Thank you so much, Mary, for that extraordinary introduction, and for all the work that you've done here at Simon's Rock. Thank you, President Botstein, for your commitment to these issues that we've just discussed, and thank you Chair Fisher, and all the members of the board, and the faculty that I know and love so much that's here today.
As was just mentioned, I'm now working for the man, and it's been my privilege in that capacity to get out around the country and talk to people like myself who are hungering for knowledge and to make a difference. The State Department has sent me and the White House has sent me, and at schools and community centers across the country, I've been introduced with the lines “And from the White House, we have ...” and then I walk on. And I look into their eyes, and I see the crushing disappointment.
So, let me just clarify something difficult up front. I am not Barack Obama. Easy mistake to make. Look at it this way. You have to be disappointed I'm not Barack Obama for 20 minutes. I have to be disappointed every single day I'm not President Obama.
So, I'm used to apologizing for whom I'm not, and I'm guessing at one point or another, every person in this room, each of my peers in this audience, has gotten a little too used to apologizing for who they're not. Not cool enough. Not strong enough. Not credentialed enough. Not old enough.
Maybe you're saying that to the world, and maybe you're saying it to yourselves. A little voice inside your head that's saying it. But we've all been there. I've spent my life learning from and being humbled by people who defy that voice, and the larger voice of society telling them to know their place, to pipe down, to wait their turn. To move at the standard pace that the world expects you to.
One of the great privileges of this job has been the chance to talk to people living amidst extraordinary pressures and difficulties in conflict zones. When I was with the UN, as Mary mentioned, I spoke with teenagers and refugees across rebel camps and refugee camps in the horn of Africa. And when I was in Sudan, I met people like Yahia, which is one story that stuck with me. He was a child soldier. My own age at the time, 17, and I encountered him in a camp of the Sudanese Liberation army. When I met him, he was waving a Kalashnikov at the sky and shouting slurs against an opposing rebel faction.
Yahia had been with the Sudanese Liberation army since he was 13. One morning, as he described to me, he was awoken by the sound of gunfire. The government backed Arab militia that enacted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing across Darfur, had swept through his village, surrounding homes, setting fire to them. On camels and horseback, they swept through, killing men, raping women, and then bombs started to fall.
Yahia's entire family was slaughtered in this attack by the Sudanese government. He survived by hiding amongst the corpses of his relatives, and he told me he waited for hours with the bodies as the bombs fell around him. He gestured indicating the falling fire power.
Yahia, like many of the child soldiers that I've talked to, was eager to take up arms. He told me, quote, “I have no way to be heard, but to fight.” It's a sentiment I heard echoed in countries across the world after that, and that I hear frequently now in my current work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Young people are ready to be involved in political change using whatever tools available.
But the exciting thing, as Mary mentioned, is that those tools truly are changing. We are seeing young people in tremendously difficult circumstances not just turning to the Kalashnikovs. They're turning to peaceful tools for reform. To Facebook, to Twitter, to nonviolent protest, and the events of recent months, as youth-driven revolutions have swept the Arab world, are a testament to the power of our demographic to be not only powerful but also peaceful.
Now, the comforting thing I've found being in the US government is that America is listening. It's a personal, lifelong passion for my boss, Secretary Clinton, who has spent a lifetime advocating for the rights of young people and of children, and it's a priority for our president, who said in his seminal Cairo speech in 2009, quote, “To young people of every faith in every country, you, more than anyone else, have the ability to remake this world.”
And that's a truth that I would echo. Now more than ever, young people are at the very core of changing world events. You are at the very core of changing world events. More than 60% of the world's population is under the age of 30. That demographic, increasingly empowered by those new technologies, is one of the foremost potential drivers of economic and social progress. It's also one of the great potential threats to global security—86% of all countries experiencing new outbreaks of civil conflict have populations with a significant majority under the age of 30.
Those realities aren't lost on America's allies who work aggressively to attract the best and the brightest to their job markets and their universities. It's also not lost on our adversaries. Extremist and criminal organizations have comprehensive youth engagement strategies, offering young people empowerment, opportunity, and a sense of belonging. Boys and young men are particularly ripe targets for such recruitment, fueling unrest around the world. Girls and young women are both often the most vulnerable victims of disenfranchisement and oppression, and also one of those under-tapped engines of economic and social progress.
Engaging with and positively empowering youth is therefore inextricably tied to our national security and our prosperity as a nation. That's why I've been so happy to be able to be engaged in the work that Mary mentioned. At the State Department, Secretary Clinton has launched an unprecedented youth policy reform task force aimed at refocusing our efforts around the world to engage with young people. Under Secretaries of State Judith McHale and Maria Otero, both powerhouse advocates of youth in their own lives, have been championing that process and the lead working group has been chaired by myself and the head of education at the United States Agency for International Development.
So, we've gotten together all of the agencies in the US government, about 40 people, and we're looking at how we can leave behind a legacy with this administration that elevates youth engagement to a level of seriousness it's never occupied before. This is a moment where our leadership is genuinely prioritizing talking to young people and listening to young voices. And I would urge you, respond to that challenge. Don't wait. The future is now, and I am now, and you, and you, and you are now. And we can make a difference to make a better now. People are listening. The ball's in your court.
I look out at this room and I'm excited because I see a group of young men and women who are already a part of that incredible moment. We've been given this incredible gift, this community, this institution that's designed around a theme of empowering young people and giving them the tools that they need when they need them, and removing all the obstacles in the face of that.
And it's a room of people who've already heard that little voice in their head that I mentioned. In their head, and also from their peers, from their teachers, from their communities, telling them to slow down, to play it safe, to move at the usual pace. And you said, “You know what? I'm not going to bow to the normal. I'm going to take a leap that's unusual, and I'm going to do what's right for me when it's right for me, to have the biggest impact I can with my life right now.”
People like Chenise Forte, who is graduating here today with a degree in pre-medicine and cognitive psychology. Chenise has been driving the Pre-Med Society on campus while she's here, and she's organized campus blood drives and rallied others to her cause. Every day, I draw strength from these people who are taking the gifts that they were given, and turning them forward to the world and making them gifts for others.
Sometimes you find that lesson in the most unexpected places. I remember I was in Cabal, Afghanistan on one of my first assignments there in the luxury of a US embassy hooch, which is basically a steel box, about six feet by 17 feet. And I remember scraping the bottom of my rucksack I brought with me, and stumbling on a childhood volume I didn't realize I had packed. It was a minor work by C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet. It's a Jules Verne-esque, steampunk romp in which a mild-mannered academic, modeled after Lewis's best friend J. R. R. Tolkien, is kidnapped and taken by a flying saucer to Mars, which is a verdant paradise inhabited by, what else, sentient otters. Bear with me here.
And as he's chased by his ne'er-do-well kidnappers, he learns a little bit about man's inhumanity to man while stumbling on, essentially, the true meaning of Christmas. The man could do hamfisted allegory. There's a moment in that book in which our hero, having been taken in by his rational and unfallen otter friends, ruminates with one on the origin of human regret and desire. And they run up against an impasse. The otters don't understand why one would regret a bad experience or yearn to repeat a good one, because as they conceptualize it, quote, “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.”
“You are speaking as if the pleasure were one thing, and the memory another,” this character tells us. “It is all one thing. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly. It was nothing. Now, it is growing into something as we remember it. But still, we know little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me in all my days 'til then, that is the real meaning. The other is only the beginning of it.” The majority of any moment, we're told, comes as a person, quote, “remembers all of this, and boils it inside him, and makes it into poems and wisdom.”
And that speaks to a mission that I think has become my own, and that I urge each and every one of you in this room too, to take the gifts you have been given, and each experience you've had, both positive and negative, and to spend a lifetime turning them into benefits for the world, turning them into poetry. Whether you have a passion for botany, like Lindsay Longway, who's graduating today, or a passion for military history, like Jeff Dietrick, or if you're a lyric soprano, like Brianna Gonye. You each have your own form of poetry that that'll take. But find a way to give it back to the world.
That little passage is also a liberation from some of the obstacles to that mission. Because thinking of each experience we've had as a living, breathing thing that evolves as it's remembered inside us, as it shapes us, as we turn it outward and teach it to the world, means it's never too late, means you're never too much of anything, too little of anything, because of who you are, or how old you are, or what your place in life is.
You are what you make yourself, and what you make with some of your experiences into. And that voice, “You can't,” “Here's what you're not,” “Here's what you've done wrong,” that little voice inside your head is powerless once you realize that. Our experiences are what we make them. We can't change the cards we're dealt, we can't control whether we're born into Yahia's life, or our life at this incredible institution with all of the tools that we've been given with this education. But we control how we process our deck, how we let it shape us, and how we pay it forward. And in that realization, there is complete freedom.
So be who you want to be, no matter what people tell you you are. I remember when my sister, Quincy, was five, she announced, “I wanna be a doctor, I wanna be a mermaid, I wanna be a ballerina, I wanna be a man.” I have to applaud my mother who said, “You follow those dreams, sister.” And that continues to be my philosophy. Don't ever feel boxed into a single career or pursuit. Remain curious, explore every access and every front in the battle to make a difference. Our only limitations are the ones that we ourselves begin to believe in.
And again, be impatient in doing that. I was raised by a mother who, in a later era, would have been heavily medicated for the world's worst case of ADHD. 60 Minutes was never more than 20 in our household. And that was before the advent of TiVo. I remember throwing my hands up in exasperation once as she flicked through a movie at breakneck speed, and saying, “You are the most impatient person I've ever met.” And she said, without missing a beat, “you say it's a vice, I say it's a virtue. Whoever hoodwinked people into thinking that patience is a good thing? Yep, evil corporations and dictatorships.”
And I think I rolled my eyes at the time, but you know what? There's a fundamental truth there. The people who are making a difference are those who refuse to wait. The individuals driving these youth revolutions around the world to the forefront of the global stage, are young people who wouldn't wait for their rights to be honored. You have the tools to take your bundle of experiences, and turn them into something of impact right now. You have the chance to be a part of a moment in history when people are ready to listen to young voices. And where how we listen to those voices, will be critical to the state of our world and to the state of our country. So don't wait, grab it.
So I'm not 45, and I'm not a rockstar or a comedian. And no, I'm not President Barack Obama. But you and I have been given tools to make change happen now, and I believe with every fiber of my being that yes, I can, and yes, you can. And together, yes, we can.
I believe in you. And I'm excited to work together in the coming years to take all of your gifts, and watch you turn into poetry, everything that you've been given, your own wisdom, your own poetry. Congratulations, Class of 2011.