I wanted to be down on the ground working with kids, helping families put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
So I left that job for a new job training young people like yourselves for careers in public service. I was making a lot less money. My office wasn’t so nice. (Laughter.) But every day, I got to watch those young people gain skills and build confidence. And then I saw them go on to mentor and inspire other young people. And that made me feel inspired. It still does.
See, my husband and I, we didn’t change any laws, we didn’t win any awards, get our pictures in the paper. But we were making a difference in people’s lives. We were part of something greater than ourselves. And we knew that in our own small way, we were helping to build a better world. And that is precisely what so many young people are doing every day across this continent.
These 76 young women are outstanding examples. Take Gqibelo Dandala from here in South Africa. She left a lucrative career in investment banking to found the Future of the African Daughter Project, an organization that lifts up young women in rural and township areas. Of her work, she says: “…we are building a legacy which will outlive and outgrow us…”
And then there’s Robyn Kriel. She’s a young reporter from Zimbabwe who has written about corruption and human rights abuses in her country. She was beaten by police; her home raided, her mother imprisoned. But she still hasn’t lost her passion for reporting, because, as she put it, the people of Zimbabwe “want their stories to be told.”
And then there’s Grace Nanyonga, who joins us today from Uganda. Hey, Grace! (Applause.) You go, girl. (Laughter.) Orphaned at the age of 13, she started cooking and selling fish during her school vacations to support her six siblings. Determined to get an education, she founded her own company, and she made enough money to put herself through university. And she’s now started an organization that trains local women to work at her company so that they can support their own families. (Applause.) Of her achievements, she says, simply — these are her words — “I made it against all odds” and “I want to be an example for girls in my country and beyond.”
Now, Grace could have been content to make lots of money, and just provide for her own family. Gqibelo could have climbed the corporate ladder, and never looked back. Where is she? Please stand. Grace got to stand. (Laughter.) Come on, where is she? Is she out there? (Applause.) And no one would’ve blamed Robyn — where’s Robyn? (Applause.) No one would have blamed Robyn if after all she’d been through she decided to quit reporting and pursue an easier career. But these young women — and these are just examples of stories that go on and on — these young women could not be content with their own comfort and success when they knew that other people were struggling.
You see, that’s how people of conscience view the world. It’s the belief, as my husband often says, that if any child goes hungry, that matters to me, even if she’s not my child. (Applause.) If any family is devastated by disease, then I cannot be content with my own good health. If anyone is persecuted because of how they look, or what they believe, then that diminishes my freedom and threatens my rights as well.
And in the end, that sense of interconnectedness, that depth of compassion, that determination to act in the face of impossible odds, those are the qualities of mind and heart that I hope will define your generation.
I hope that all of you will reject the false comfort that others’ suffering is not your concern, or if you can’t solve all the world’s problems, then you shouldn’t even try.
Instead, as one of our great American presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, liked to say, I hope that you will commit yourselves to doing “what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are,” because in the end, that is what makes you a lion. Not fortune, not fame, not your pictures in history books, but the refusal to remain a bystander when others are suffering, and that commitment to serve however you can, where you are.
Now it will not be easy. You women know that already. You will have failures and setbacks and critics and plenty of moments of frustration and doubt. But if you ever start to lose heart, I brought you all here today because I want you to think of each other.
Think about Grace, supporting her family all by herself. And think about Robyn, who endured that beating so she could tell other people’s stories. Think about Ma Sisulu, raising her kids alone, surviving banishment, exile, and prison. When reflecting on her journey, Ma Sisulu once said, with her signature humility, she said, “All these years, I never had a comfortable life.”
So you may not always have a comfortable life. And you will not always be able to solve all the world’s problems all at once. But don’t ever underestimate the impact you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.
It’s what happens when folks start asking questions — a father asks, “Why should my son go to school, but not my daughter?” Or a mother asks, “Why should I pay a bribe to start a business to support my family?” Or a student stands up and declares, “Yes, I have HIV, and here’s how I’m treating it, and here’s how we can stop it from spreading.”
See, and then soon, they inspire others to start asking questions. They inspire others to start stepping forward.
And those are the “ripples of hope” that a young U.S. senator named Robert Kennedy spoke of when he came here to