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Oprah Asks Graduates of 2020: “What will Your Essential Service Be?”

(05.17.2020) -- During “#Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020”, which streamed live on May 15, 2020, the famous and fabulous relied on social media to acknowledge the accomplishments of graduates. The non-traditional graduation celebration, which marked a rite of passage, included a traditional commencement address. Oprah Winfrey, the media executive, television producer, actress, talk show host, and philanthropist, delivered the address. Her remarks follow: ************ Hello, everyone. I know you may not feel like it, but you are indeed the chosen class for such a time as this — the Class of 2020. You’re also a united class, the pandemic class that has the entire world striving to graduate with you. Of course, this is not the graduation ceremony you envisioned. You’ve been dreaming about that walk across the stage, your family and friends cheering you on — woop! woop! — the caps flung joyously in the air. But even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope. Your graduation ceremony is taking place with so many luminaries celebrating you on the world’s Facebook stage. I’m just honored to join them and salute you. You know, the word “graduate” comes from the Latin gradus, meaning “a step toward something,” and in the early 15th century, “graduation” was a term used in alchemy to mean a tempering or refining. Every one of us is now being called to graduate, to step toward something, even though we don’t know what. Every one of us is likewise now being called to temper the parts of ourselves that must fall away, to refine who we are, how we define success and what is genuinely meaningful. And you, the real graduates on this day, you will lead us. I wish I could tell you I know the path forward. I don’t. There is so much uncertainty. In truth, there always has been. What I do know is that the same guts and imagination that got you to this moment — all those things are the very things that are going to sustain you through whatever is coming. It’s vital that you learn, and we all learn, to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. It’s really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come for sure, if you can accept not knowing long enough to get still and stay still long enough for new thoughts to take root in your more quiet, deeper, truer self. The noise of the world drowns out the sound of you. You have to get still to listen. So can you use this disorder that Covid-19 has wrought? Can you treat it as an uninvited guest that’s come into our midst to reorder our way of being? Can you, the Class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again, but how to create a new and more evolved normal, a world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole? We need you to do this, because the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long. For poor communities without adequate access to health care, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For immigrant communities forced to hide in the shadows, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For incarcerated people, with no ability to social distance, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For every person burdened by bias and bigotry, for every black man and woman living in their American skin, fearful to even go for a jog, inequality is a pre-existing condition. You have the power to stand for, to fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society. This moment is your invitation to use your education to begin to heal our afflictions by applying the best of what you’ve learned in your head, and felt in your heart. This moment has shown us what Dr. King tried to tell us. Decades ago, he understood that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” That’s what he said. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. If humanity is a global body, every soul is a cell in that body, and we are being challenged like never before to keep the global body healthy by keeping ourselves healthy in mind and body and spirit. As all the traditions affirm, the deepest self-care is at once caring for the human family. And we see this so clearly with essential workers. Look who turns out to be essential: teachers — your teachers, health care workers, of course, the people stocking grocery shelves, the cashiers, the truck drivers, food providers, those who are caring for your grandparents, those who clean the places where we work and shop and carry out our daily lives. We are all here because they, at great and profound risk, are still providing their essential service. What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community and the world? For me, it’s always been talking and sharing stories. For you, well, that’s for you to discover. And my hope is that you will harness your education, your creativity and your valor, your voice, your vote — reflecting on all that you’ve witnessed and hungered for, all that you know to be true — and use it to create more equity, more justice and more joy in the world. To be the class that commenced a new way forward, the Class of 2020. Bravo. Brava, brava, brava.

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