As votes were still coming in for the 2016 presidential election, California made history in another way, by electing Kamala Harris as a senator. In winning the race, the former state attorney general became the first black woman or man to represent California and became the state's first new senator in 24 years. Before all that, though, Harris was a college senior graduating from the D.C. HBCU Howard University with a degree in political science and economics in 1986. She then went on to attend the University of California Hastings College of the Law in the class of 1989. This is her message to the class of 2018.
Dear Class of 2018,
As you prepare to graduate, you probably have a lot of questions.
Questions like, “Where am I going to live?”
“How am I going to find a job?”
Those are important questions. But I want to challenge you to ask yourselves two more big questions: How can I serve others? And, how can I lead?
From students walking out to protest gun violence to Dreamers walking the halls of Congress, young people are leading the way as they always have. The truth is our youth have always been our future.
You may not know this, but Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
John Lewis was 21 when he went down to Mississippi as one of the original Freedom Riders, and 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington.
Diane Nash was 22 years old when she started leading sit-ins in Nashville.
So this is your time to serve others. This is your time to lead. Right now.
I don’t have all the answers for you, but I do have a few pieces of advice for your journey along the way.
Don’t Let Yourself Be Constrained By Tradition
First, I urge you all to refuse to be constrained by tradition. Reject false choices. This was ingrained in me when I was a student at Howard University, and it has served me well throughout my career. What it means is: You can do anything and you can do everything.
You can advocate for environmental justice, and you can be the CEO who commits to cutting your company’s carbon footprint. You can march for workers on a picket line, and you can be their voice inside the Department of Labor.
The reality is, on most matters, somebody is going to make the decision — so why not let it be you?
Don’t Take “No” For An Answer
My second piece of advice is don’t take “no” for an answer. In your life, you will encounter people who tell you “no.” People who tell you it can’t be done. I’m here to tell you don’t listen to them.
I know how hard that can be. I’ve been there. When I ran for District Attorney of San Francisco many years ago, there had never been a woman elected to that job. And when I decided to run, people said to me, “Oh maybe it’s not your time.” Other people said, “Maybe people aren’t prepared for someone like you to do that.”
I started out at 6 points in the polls (6 out of 100). Nobody thought we could win, but we pulled together a coalition of people and together we showed people exactly who can do what and what that looks like.
So, if anyone ever gets in your way and tells you to not follow your dreams — be it because of your age, gender, what you look like or where you come from — don’t listen. Do not be burdened by what has been when you can create what should be.
But I also want you to remember that you don’t have to travel your path alone.
Make Good Friends And Mentors
This brings me to my final piece of advice: make good friends and seek out mentors. Find people who will be invested in your success, who cheer you on, who will lift you up when you fall, and maybe have a good laugh with you when you slip on something along the way. None of us, myself included, has achieved success without the support of others.
As you graduate, remember that we need you at the front of the line. We need you to be the first to raise your hand. And when you see others in need, you’ve got to keep going out of your way to lift them up.
You are our future.