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Daley Calls on Graduates to 'Make World Better'

June 23, 2008

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Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley called on Northwestern University graduates "to do something to make our world better" in an address to students at the University's 150th annual commencement Friday (June 20).

The text of the remarks by Mayor Daley, who was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree, follows.

Good evening. It is my pleasure and honor to be the commencement speaker for the 2008 graduates of Northwestern University.

I'm delighted to be here to share in this celebration of your graduation from one of the finest universities in the world. You and all the family and friends whose love and support helped you reach this point should be very proud.

For those of you who still don't know who I am, I'm Mayor Richard M. Daley.

I have for the last 19 years been the CEO of the City of Chicago, one of the most culturally rich, economically diverse, globally recognized cities on earth.

With that as a foundation, I'll do my best.

I'll try to impart some of what I've learned in pursuing my life's passion of public service that might help as you continue on the journey of pursuing your passion.

The world is changing rapidly – and not always for the good.

When I graduated from college years ago, the future seemed limitless. Americans were excited about the days ahead. It seemed like nothing was beyond our reach.

You are graduating from college today during an era of perceived limits. Instead of hearing about great challenges we must overcome, it seems you're constantly being told what you cannot do.

You're told: our country is fading. Our greatest days are behind us. We're losing our leadership and reputation around the world.

You're told: the rising cost of oil will cripple our future. We can't compete with emerging nations like China and India. Global warming has doomed our very existence.

From all corners, you're told that you have to rein in your hopes and dreams – that the problems we face are beyond your control.

Well, I'm here to tell you: don't believe it. You can always do something to make our world better.

So I believe this day is a good opportunity for us, not only because of the long relationship between Northwestern and the great City of Chicago, but also quite frankly, because I want to ask you for your help.

As the 150th graduating class from this stellar university, this is a monumental day for you.

Let's face it. Just getting into Northwestern is a mark of distinction. The competition for college students has never been greater, which is a departure from the past.

It was not so long ago that a high school diploma guaranteed a good job and a good chance for economic success in life.

In today's global economy, however, an undergraduate degree is at the very least a requirement for many of the jobs that need to be filled if our country is to thrive in the years to come.

Fortunately, most of you had the benefit of an excellent public or private education that helped prepare you for the rigors of Northwestern.

But so many young people in Chicago and across the nation haven't had that option. They have had to endure under-funded, underperforming public schools.

That's not fair to them. And it's not good for you or our future.

That's why, in 1995, at a time when no other mayor had done so, and I was told it could end my political career, I took on my greatest challenge as mayor.

I assumed direct control of the Chicago Public Schools in an effort to reform the system and give every student in Chicago an equal chance to reach their full potential -- a chance to sit someday where you are sitting this evening.

We've worked hard over the past several years to lift students' expectations, to help them see high school graduation not as an end, but as the first step toward a successful career in their chosen field.

It's not a glamorous endeavor, 85 percent of our public school students come from low-income families that struggle with drugs, crime and unemployment.

You won't read about strides in the public schools in Us Weekly or see it on CNN or in the local daily newspapers for that matter – at least not regularly.

But I believe we should measure our success at least in part by the lives we've touched and the horizons we've widened.

In Chicago, we have some compelling stories to tell.

Stories that go beyond rising test scores, attendance levels and graduation rates.

Stories that stand as a testament to what can happen when at least one caring person reaches out to someone in need.

Here's an example:

Jermaine Ferguson was born to a drug-addicted mother and all of his siblings ended up on drugs or on the street. He managed to graduate from Howland Elementary school, but then he floundered during his freshman year at North Lawndale College Prep High School.

So his principal decided to personally mentor him for the next three years. Jermaine went on to complete high school and graduate from Tuskegee University, with a degree in math.

He now teaches at the Urban Prep Charter Academy in the Englewood neighborhood, bringing hope to another generation of kids.

Here's another example.

Jesus Ibarra came to Chicago from Mexico at the age of 13. His father was a farmer. Fluent only in Spanish, Jesus enrolled in the bilingual program at Curie Metro High School, with a goal of becoming an architect.

His Social Studies teacher impressed on him the importance of service. So he became involved in beach and forest cleanups, volunteering at homeless shelters and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

In his junior year, he was named to the National Honor Society. Yet he found time to volunteer at citizenship workshops and develop a website to help immigrant students connect with financial aid and scholarship programs.

Last year, Jesus worked with professional architects on plans for the 2016 Olympic Village.

This year he graduated from high school and will be studying architecture at Harold Washington College and working as an intern for the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute.

These two lives were changed through the help and mentorship of people who went out of their way to lend sorely needed guidance in our public schools.

I hope that, as you continue down your path of success, you will remember the young people whose futures hang in the balance.

They are just one helping hand away from a successful life of their own.

There are so many children who desperately need your help.

Read to them. Tutor them. Mentor them. There's nothing more important that you will do in life than helping a child in need.

While their lives may be limited by their circumstances, fortunately yours are not.

The world needs your ideas, your energy and your commitment.

As Mayor I've never been afraid to pursue new ideas.

Long before global warming and greening became the hot topics of the day, we put Chicago on course to becoming the most environmentally-friendly city in the nation.

More than a decade ago, we began planting more than 500,000 trees. We're installing more than 4 million square feet of green roofs on top of public and private buildings around the city – starting with City Hall.

We're buying hybrid buses and other energy efficient city vehicles saving more than 10,000 gallons of gasoline a year.

And, if we are fortunate enough to be chosen to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we are committed to making them the greenest Games in history.

Earlier this month I was in Athens, Greece where Chicago was named a Candidate City by the International Olympic Committee to continue in the competition for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Only four cities remain – Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro and the final decision will be made in October 2009.

We decided to pursue the Olympic Games for a simple reason: they have vast potential to help us improve the quality of life for every Chicagoan.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games would attract new visitors from around the world to the United States and Chicago, increase our standing as a global city, generate good will and create new businesses and jobs for the people of our region.

And this is another example of where we could use your help. I know many of you are from different cities all across the country and even around the world.

Reach out to your friends and build excitement about Chicago's bid.

Show your support and sign up on the Chicago 2016 web site or just volunteer.

Hosting the Olympic Games is an opportunity for the United States – through the vehicle of the Olympic Movement – to restore our image in the world as a place where people from different backgrounds and ethnic origins can live together and pursue their dreams.

In Chicago, we live that ideal every day. We welcome immigrants from other lands, as we have for generations.

Out of our diversity comes our strength as a city and a nation -- even as we struggle to overcome our great challenges.

We've been told over the past few decades that government is the problem, not the solution.

Instead of leaders like John F. Kennedy, who asked young people to consider public service, we've had public and private leaders who seem to believe the pursuit of profit is our nation's highest goal.

Well, there's certainly a place for that. Of course we believe in personal enterprise in this country. But at our best, we believe in public service as well.

When individuals with similar beliefs are willing to come together, they can accomplish great things that can literally change the world.

Some of you might know exactly what you will do with the rest of your lives.

You might have some specific dreams and goals and ambitions, and you should pursue them with vigor.

But whatever your goal is in life, try hard to make it meaningful. Try to pursue a life work that will endure.

I know we all think we know the difference between what is lasting and what is passing.

But sometimes when you start living your life, it's not so easy to keep it straight.

As you delve into whatever career you decide to pursue – it's easy to get caught up in work and in the pursuit of success.

But it is important to remember to give back to those less fortunate because helping others will give you the balance you need in life.

In my political career, I have found that treating people the way you would like to be treated seems like a simple rule to live by. But it is not so simple in practice.

Politics today has become an exercise in tearing down other people. If you're not with me, you're against me. I'm Red, you're Blue. I'm right and you're wrong.

But the truth is, ladies and gentleman, real leadership—political or otherwise-- isn't just about winning elections or making big salaries.

It is about having the courage to make difficult decisions. It's about working together and finding common ground to help achieve common goals.

And it's about civility in our public conversations.

I deeply believe that the people of our city, state and nation expect their leaders to work together. Even when there are differences on policy, they want public discourse to be respectful and they want things to get done.

There must always be room to disagree about substance and policy. But that's accomplished by talking, not shouting; by building bridges, not barriers.

Leadership is about creating an environment that brings out the best in people – the best ideas, the best effort and, ultimately, the best decisions.

We create that environment by recognizing that compromise is essential to progress.

These are ideals I hope you will remember throughout your lives because your chance to change things, is here.

I know it is easy to become cynical in the face of tough challenges and the inherent limits on any one individual's ability to change the world. It's only by maintaining our commitment to contribute and make things better that we can bring needed change.

As you graduate today, your futures are unlimited. Your parents and professors have given you the tools and the knowledge not only to succeed as an individual, but to change the world -- one act of kindness at a time.

So make no little plans.

Hold onto your ideas and principles.

Pursue them with the steadfast notion that one determined person can power change that lifts a generation and yes, even a nation.

Don't let the cynics and skeptics discourage you. You can make a difference. In fact, we're counting on you.

Thank you, congratulations and good luck.