"Passion, Expertise, and Vision"

Archived Information

"Passion, Expertise, and Vision"

Remarks at Georgetown Public Policy Institute Tropaia Ceremony

May 17, 2013

It's a great pleasure and honor to be with you here today. GPPI is a world-class institution. And I am thrilled to be able to celebrate your success and share a few words with you as you earn your degrees and embark on the next stage of the journeys of the Class of 2013.

I'll keep it short, because when you have Professor Schone and champagne coming up after you, I think the best move is to get out of the way.

Let my start by saying how much I admire and appreciate all of the MPP and MPM recipients for earning your place here today. The personal journeys, the winding paths that have led each and every one of you to this ballroom are diverse.

Yet they are all underpinned with a powerful commitment to make public policy not only smarter but wiser for the benefit of humanity.

I share that commitment. I struggle every day with the urgent need to empower more of our citizens, especially our most vulnerable. And I've thought long and hard about what it takes to be an effective change agent.

Some leaders seek to build influence and success through sound bites or an unyielding ideological agenda. That is a seductive road to take- being brash and confrontational absolutely attracts attention. But I'm convinced it's a road that leads in the opposite direction from wise policy. And it's an approach to leadership that is deeply at odds with GPPI's traditions of careful analysis, collaboration, and real-world, research-driven policy.

Today I want to offer a different road, which I believe, in all humility, leads in the right direction to wiser policy. I want to talk about what I see as the three essential threads that weave together in the most effective people I know. They are passion, expertise, and vision.

First comes a passionate purpose. An ideologue can have passion, too, but it is a passion for ideological purity, not for helping others. I'm speaking here of a passion to help the most vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the sick, the young, and the old.

A passion for public service is the fuel to keep you going as you take on the long, laborious, often contentious work of leading change.

It means working harder than you ever thought you could. In the policy world it means the advantage tilts to the individual willing to take that extra trip into the field, read far beyond what's required, and study up on the vast background and context of an issue. If you've ever played a competitive sport, it's no different than running your drills, over and over, until you have it right.

Early mornings and late nights are part of the deal- as I'm sure you've been reminded at GPPI and probably long before. And on the longest, loneliest, most sleep-deprived parts of the journey, those original embers of passion for this work will keep you going and propel you forward.

Passion produces solutions--and a willingness to go to great lengths to find them. By contrast, bravado and a blind adherence to partisanship no matter where the facts lead represents a shortchanging of the hard, necessary, unsexy work that can actually translate to real impact.

Dara Postar has passion. As Tropaia Chair, she showed a willingness to step up and take on important tasks that peaked during finals- an exercise in leadership and time management that I know it will serve her well going forward.

As the leaders of Project Honduras can probably attest, that service-learning project and the fundraising auction to support it didn't set themselves up. I'm sure they required a ton of work and coordination on top of an already intense course load- but you stepped up because it was worth it.

A passionate commitment is what gets remembered. It's what supports water filtration systems for people in the developing world. Positive change is always worth the extra push.

I am so pleased to be here, because I know you are already well on your way to improving our world. You're a group that's thinking more about pre-school in Tulsa than high-speed stock trading on Wall Street--and that's a good thing.

Your hearts and your heads are in the right place. To make real and lasting change, you need that baseline of passion to get your hands dirty and you need to get wonky. GPPI has helped prepare you to master that rare combination of skills.

The second essential thread in success is expertise.

A lot of folks dream of changing the world, but you are actually positioned to do it. How many get to study with a teacher and expert the caliber of Adam Thomas? You can't put a value on how he pushes each of you to become your best self.

How many people get to learn with Bill Gormley, who- as Dean Montgomery pointed out- is one of the foremost experts in the country on early learning? He has helped our administration think through how to get the most bang for our buck with President Obama's plan to dramatically expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten.

How many students get to dive deep into the workings of one of the most closely watched school districts in the nation, and actually take a class with the superintendent? And how many students have access to the cutting-edge research centers that GPPI can claim?

All of these learning opportunities are significant. You came here with knowledge and a sense of purpose, and GPPI provided you the tools and opportunities to transform into experts.

And we need you to act, as experts, with the third- and most challenging- thread I mentioned earlier, which is vision.

Wayne Gretzky famously attributed his greatness to advice from his father: "Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been." There are lots of good hockey players, lots of experts about the game of hockey- but Gretzky had vision and it set him apart.

In public policy, you're playing the long game. You have to be wise about understanding the past and present, and at the same time look forward to anticipate needs and obstacles.

You have to calculate the greater good for a society that is rapidly transforming. You must plan for where the world is going to be. Our society needs visionaries to ask the right questions, and passionate experts with the tools and tenacity to answer them .

We need Yifei Chen to explain the relationship between cultural participation and student achievement.

We need Craig Dulniak to analyze innovative programs like West Virginia's merit-based scholarship program and then help us apply lessons learned to other contexts, and take to scale what works.

And we absolutely need your help to understand how to move the field of career and technical education--a huge issue that Meghan Feeley Carton took on.

We have so much need for improvement in virtually every sector of society: transportation, the financial system, gender issues, education, housing, the environment, and of course, health care. Big positive changes are possible when driven by visionary experts.

Five years ago, many said it was impossible to reform our health insurance system. They were wrong. We can do big things.

President Obama proposed and Congress enacted a law to create a Health Insurance Marketplace, set to go into effect this fall, where no one can be turned away.

Coverage will be guaranteed, and most people will get help paying for premiums or will get a free or low cost plan. It's a linchpin of the Affordable Care Act- so if you're over 26 and not able to stay on your parents' plan anymore, all the details are at healthcare.gov.

My larger point is that with the right vision, you can change our social and economic landscape for the better, even when many others have looked at a tough issue and thrown up their hands and walked away.

We all know this work is never easy. It is not for the faint of heart. Woodrow Wilson said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

Today I'm urging you, don't just change something- show vision in selecting the right thing to change and the right way to change it.

I promise you, you will still attract the enemies and naysayers. But your internal moral compass- your vision backed with rich expertise- will give you firm grounding to push forward.

Bill Gormley typifies this triad of passion, expertise, and vision. By relentlessly sticking with his subject, Bill has become more than a researcher- he's a master storyteller.

I don't want you to overlook how important or compelling that is- the power of telling your story. It's what makes your work stick in people's minds and take flight in real life, beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower.

Bill has helped the nation to understand how and why Oklahoma's universal pre-K has been so successful, as well as what that success of young children means for society. He has uncovered a truly important story, backed with solid evidence, and he's telling it well. And in the process, the world is changing for the better.

Bill sets an inspiring example. I bet many of you earning your MPP or MPM today could tell me the name of a person is in your life who inspired you with her passion, expertise, and vision.

Who is that person that brings together those three threads in a way that changes the world for the better? For me, I was lucky. It was my mother.

In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor asked her to teach summer Bible study to a group of 9-year old girls on the South side of Chicago. At the time, it was one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.

The group had only one Bible, and my mother figured each girl could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next student. But she was horrified to discover that not one of her 9-year-old students could read.

That realization changed the course of her life. As she said to me earlier this month, "What was I supposed to do, walk away?"

That summer she opened up a free, after-school tutoring program in the church basement called the Children's Center. From the time we were born, she raised my sister, my brother, and me as a part of her program, and that experience shaped all of us in profound ways. We have all tried to follow in her footsteps.

Her philosophy was that everyone should both be taught and teach at the same time. The teenagers taught the 10-year-olds, and the 10-year-olds taught the 5-year-olds. Everyone knew her program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

What started as a plan to help a few girls learn to read blossomed over time into a thriving beacon for the community.

It was not easy. She was threatened, the program was fire-bombed, and she had to develop a system for checking weapons at the door. Once, when an angry young man ran in with a gun threatening to shoot someone, she told him he had no right to act that way because she had taught him to read. He walked awy.

From that corner at 46th and Greenwood, we saw remarkable success stories. Kerrie Holley, the teenager who had the difficult challenge of tutoring my group, is now an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation.

Before his untimely passing last year, Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in The Green Mile.

Ronald Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools, and today is a leader in the Elgin school system, working to close the achievement gap.

Over fifty years later, the center my mom started is still going strong and today, she's still involved, and my brother runs the day-to-day operations.

I have absolutely no doubt that that experience of seeing my mom build something that addressed real needs in a smart, holistic manner put me on the path that led me to this lectern today. Her combination of passion, expertise, and vision has sparked countless positive ripple effects.

Through her work, I realized that quality education supported by high expectations will literally transform children's lives. That formative experience continues to drive me every day to improve the quality of America's schools, so that all children have the chance to fulfil their full academic and social potential.

That's a piece of my story. This room is full of people with incredible stories to tell- stories that will inspire others, and shape and inform their own work for decades to come.

With twenty years in the United States Army, Major Carlos Oquendo has already given what many would consider a lifetime of service, but he's just getting heated up. Our country, and my friend Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel whose office he'll be working in, will be better off to have the Major‘s dedication, expertise, and vision.

And we have Second Lieutenant Maggie Smith- who I understand just became a Second Lieutenant a about three hours ago- congratulations. She has been a steadfast public servant. Her unique experiences ground her as a scholar, soldier, wife, mother to Emily, and an officer soon to be stationed in the 781st Military Intelligence battalion at Fort Meade.

Maggie wakes up every day with a mission--and her drive, her vision, and her expertise on cybersecurity and cyber policy cultivated and strengthened here will no doubt help her to accomplish ever more challenging and important missions for years to come.

I'm so grateful that many of you are committed to making a difference in education. Six of you earning degrees today have brought with you an education background through service in Teach For America. Our children and our communities need your help, and our children are lucky to have you as their champions.

We have many pockets of educational excellence, but as a nation we face formidable challenges. Almost a quarter of our students fail to graduate from high school on time, effectively locking them out of a secure middle class life.

The stakes have never been higher. Today, without an education, you are basically condemned to poverty and social failure. We must do better.

America used to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates- now we're in the middle of the pack.

In our administration, we've tried to drive real progress and innovation with efforts like the Race to the Top program and increasing Pell Grants by $40 billion by cutting private banks out of federal student lending. But with achievement and opportunity gaps so immense, we still have a long, long way to go before we can be satisfied with early learning, K-12, and higher education outcomes in this country.

In today's knowledge-based economy, education is the game-changer; it can make a fundamental difference in how young lives turn out. I learned that on the corner of 46th and Greenwood.

Whether in the education sector or in so many other important areas of public policy, you are ready to be leaders. Through your passion, expertise, and vision, you are ready to have an impact.

Don't be shy- be bold. We need your courage. We need you to challenge the status quo that allows so much potential to go to waste. And please, never stop listening and learning. It is the only way to stay relevant.

For all of the challenges we face, I am actually optimistic about the future. I am so hopeful, in large part, because leaders like you are committed to making a difference. Thank you for inspiring me.

Again, congratulations. I wish you all the best, and look forward with great anticipation to what you will accomplish in the years ahead.