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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, 2011 Commencement Address at Florida A&M University, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Congratulations class of 2011! It is wonderful to be here with you today. Thank you President Ammons, faculty, alumni, family and friends. I am very proud to join you in honoring the work these graduates have done, and marking this milestone in their lives. I also want to acknowledge that none of this would have been possible without all the family, the teachers, the mentors, the neighbors and friends that helped them out and lifted them up along the way. We all owe them a big round of applause as well. Please join me in thanking them.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that our moment of celebration is accompanied by a time of great difficulty for our fellow Americans in Alabama and across the south. I ask that we keep them in our thoughts and our prayers today and every day as they work to recover from what has happened.

It is my great privilege to welcome you into the world as college graduates – and it is wonderful to be with you at Florida A&M this afternoon. There are plenty of good reasons for the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to be on this campus. This school is the home to cutting-edge research on biofuels and biomass – the kind of innovations that will move us away from $4 a gallon gasoline. I’m sure your friends and family who drove a long way to get here today know how important that is. Just like me, they appreciate what you are doing to help produce our own fuel here in the U.S. We can replace our dependence on foreign oil with a reliance on American innovators – like the very good and very smart people here at FAMU.

This is just one example of FAMU’s deep dedication to environmental issues. I’m also very proud to congratulate FAMU on being named one of Princeton Review’s 311 Green Colleges for 2011. You made the list because of the incredible efforts of the FAMU Green Coalition, which promotes sustainability and recycling and the energy and water efficiency that help the school save money. This is FAMU’s first year on the list – and it is my hope that it is the first of many, and that you are joined next year by more HBCUs that are also moving to make their campuses cleaner and greener.

I’m happy to be here to support all of your efforts. However, I didn’t think a speech on environmental policy – as important as it is – would quite live up to this moment. I want to talk to you today about the pursuit of happiness – the inalienable right that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, right next to life and liberty – and something that all of you begin in earnest today.

Earlier this week there was a news story about a group of researchers who are exploring whether narcissism and hostility are on the rise in our society. They did a scientific study by comparing the lyrics of popular songs from the last 30 years, to see if there were any trends in the words of the songs we choose to listen to. What they found was, and I quote, “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” According to the study, “the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear more frequently, along with anger-related words.” At the same time, “there’s been a corresponding decline in ’we’ and ‘us’ and the expression of positive emotions.”

Now, whether or not you accept the premise that pop music reveals our innermost selves, I think the researchers are onto something. You don’t have to look far to see a lot of narcissism, a lot of hostility and a lot of anger in the world we live in. It’s in our music, it’s on our TVs and it’s definitely in our politics. Around every corner there is someone telling you that the most important thing is “I” and “me.” We are regularly being told to forget about “we” and “us,” and that the important thing is to look out for number one.

Now, let me be clear: you should see all the great value in yourself. You are graduating college today. You have a lot to take pride in. And let me be clear about another thing: I’m not telling you to dismiss achievement or success or even making money. These things are going to be important to your pursuit of happiness. What I am telling you is that there are greater achievements than showing everyone that you’re better than the competition. There are different ways to measure success than by how much you can get for yourself. And there are much better things to do with your life then spend it focused only on making money. I know this from my own experience. That is what I want to share with you today.

The first point I want to share is this: if the path you take is only focused on “I” and “me,” you will lose the happiness of serving other people. I have spent my entire career working for the government. I don’t think I have to remind anyone here that government work is not likely to make you rich. It’s not likely to make you famous – or even very popular, as I have found out many times. But what it does provide is the opportunity to serve.

That is something I first saw in my father. My father worked for the Postal Service in New Orleans, where I grew up. He was in the Navy in World War II, and when he came back to Louisiana, there were only two jobs a black man could get in the South: Pullman Porter, or Postal Worker. So he became a Postal Delivery Man. He was not just a government employee who had a good job, or someone providing for his family. He was a person serving other people. My father knew the people on his route. He would ring the bell if your Social Security check had come in the mail, to make sure you got it in your hands. He was dedicated to what he did. He was helping people. And he was proud of his work. He was also setting an example for me.

I used to tell him that I wanted to work at the Post Office. As you can see, I didn’t quite go that route. However, when my Dad worked for the Postal Service, his boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss all the way up the line was the Post Master General. The building where EPA is located today was once the Post Office headquarters in Washington, DC. Every day, I come in and sit down at my desk in the same office where the Postmaster General used to sit. Every day, it reminds me of my dad. Every day, it reminds me that, like him, I serve people, and play a role in their lives.

The second point I want to share is that a focus on “me, myself, and I” won’t give you the opportunity to be part of a community. I still think of New Orleans as my home community. In fact, my mother was living there until five and a half years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit. I happened to be visiting for her birthday, and ended up driving her to safety. The house we left behind was destroyed, and like so many others, my mother lost everything she had.

I tell you this story because it was a time when – even though I was financially stable – I felt like I didn’t have enough money. For those of you saying, “Yeah service is fine, community is great, but I need to get that paper,” I understand. I know about student loans. I know it’s hard out there.

After the storm, my mother went back to her house and watched as the wrecking crew brought everything out and set it on the sidewalk in front of her. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to have the money to build my mom a new house. I thought that if I had gone into the private sector – if I had gone to get mine – I would be able to do something in this situation. I wondered why I hadn’t followed a more lucrative path, and I considered abandoning public service. But I stayed in public service, and I went to work in a new direction. I saw – as you saw – that the tragedy fell most heavily on the poor and minority communities in New Orleans. I saw this same challenge all over the country, and I felt an urgent need to broaden the conversation. It was an issue I raised when President Obama asked me to join this administration. And it has been a priority since I started my work at EPA.

As the first African-American to lead the EPA, under the first African-American President, I now have an opportunity to change the face of environmentalism in a way I would never have in another job. Today there are new voices in this conversation, and new kinds of environmentalists taking action on critical issues that touch all of our lives. And I’m proud to say that a lot of that is happening in my community in New Orleans. All across the city, people are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. My old neighborhood is being re-born, as a place where livability, environmental responsibility and economic opportunity come together. On the site where my mother’s home once stood, they’re not just putting up one new home – like I would have done all working alone. The entire area has been slated for redevelopment as part of a sustainable, green neighborhood. That has happened because people came together as a community – and I am happy to be a part of it.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “This is all well and good for a graduation speech, but I’m about to step into the real world.” That is the third reason why I raised the issue of narcissism and hostility on the radio and on TV. Because it is giving you a false presentation of the real world. This is yet another lesson I learned at home in my community.

One year ago I traveled to New Orleans to meet with community members immediately following the Deepwater Horizon BP spill. The spill began as a human tragedy, when the rig exploded and killed 11 workers – the fathers and brothers and sons of the Gulf community. It quickly became an environmental emergency as well, with millions of gallons of crude oil leaking into the waters and threatening the fishing that people make a living with, the wetlands that are the beating heart of the coastal ecosystem and the way of life of thousands of families in the region. This was, of course, just five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated the area. In the time between those two events, the Gulf Coast was rebuilding. Then – suddenly – they were faced with a new crisis. I prepared to meet with a great deal of anger. I anticipated the feelings of people who were too familiar with deep anxiety and frustration. But what I found was something different.

At our public meeting, the fishermen and shrimpers and other men and women turned out in droves. The one thing they all wanted to know – the question I heard more than anything else was: “How can I help?” Here are people who have only begun to recover from one major setback. They are hearing that an environmental catastrophe could once again decimate their way of life. Some of the fisherman and shrimpers had just made the last runs before their waters were closed. No one could tell them when or if they would ever open again. The wetlands they grew up with, the jobs that they support their families with, even the air that they breathe had been suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

It doesn’t get much realer than that.

They didn’t ask, “Who is to blame?” or “Who is going to pay for this?” They asked, “How can I help?” The fact is, in the real world, when a neighbor has a problem or a community is struggling, people ask, “How can I help?” That may be hard to believe if you use politics and 24-hour TV news as your guide. But think about all the volunteers rushing to help out in Alabama and the other states hit with tornadoes. Think about a friend you have, or a family you know that fell on hard times. Then think of all the people who asked, “How can I help?” That is the real world you are about to enter.

The last point I want to make is this: focusing too much on “I” and “me” takes away our ability to do big things. This is a lesson that is part of the life of everyone here.

For me, it began when I started elementary school just a couple of years after segregation ended. I came of age in the Deep South in the late 60s and 70s – in the direct wake of the Civil Rights movement. Forty years later, I have the incredible honor of being the first African American Administrator of the EPA, serving under the first African American President of the United States. That is a direct result of people deciding that they would work and sacrifice for something that is bigger than “I” or “me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t assume leadership of the Civil Rights movement because he got a signing bonus. Nobody joined the Freedom Riders because they thought it would look good on their resume. The words that gave people strength in the toughest of times were, “We shall overcome.” As we just heard, it is “Lift every voice and sing.”

This – then – is what I meant when I said I want to talk about your inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It is important to remember that it took the tireless, dedicated sacrifice of others, thinking of something bigger than themselves, to make sure that every American has the freedom to their own pursuit of happiness.

My challenge to you Class of 2011 is to continue that legacy, to understand the value of serving others and being part of a community, to recognize that the real world is not full of hostile opponents, but people who want to know, “How can I help?” and to live up to the history of this nation, in which the right we have to individual liberty is best exercised by choosing to work together.

A world of new opportunities has just opened to you. You have spent almost two decades working towards today. You’ve pushed yourself to higher levels and demanded that the best you have to offer gets better year after year. Let me close by saying that we will be right beside you. The people here who, through the course of your life, have always been there when you needed them. Your teachers and mentors, your family and your friends, your fellow graduates. I’m happy to celebrate with you today Class of 2011. I’m excited to see where you will take us. Thank you very much, and congratulations once again.