The former president delivered a heartfelt, inspiring message to this year's graduating class on YouTube Originals' Dear Class of 2020. The over-four hour special, which aired on Sunday, also featured commencement speeches by Barack's wife, Michelle Obama, as well as Beyoncé.
In his speech, Barack acknowledged how "head-spinning" the last few months must have been for graduates, but urged them not to wish things would go back to normal. As he stated, he hopes they'll create a "new normal."
"Your generation is graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades. It can feel like everything's up for grabs right now. A lot of this uncertainty is a direct result of COVID-19, 100,000 lives it has taken from us, the economic disruption it's caused. No one can say for sure how much longer the crisis will last. A lot of that will depend on the choices we make as a country. But it will eventually end. Vaccines and treatments will emerge, the economy will begin to heal, and life will return to normal," he began.
"What these past few weeks have also shown us is the challenges we face go well beyond a virus. And the old normal wasn't good enough. It wasn't working that well," Barack continued. "In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus a lot of problems that have been growing for a very long time, whether it is widening economic inequality, the lack of basic healthcare for millions of people, the continuing surge of bigotry and sexism, or the functions that plague our political system. Similarly, the protests in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Nina Pop aren't simply a reaction to those particular tragedies. As heartbreaking as they are, they speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and our criminal justice system."
The former politician went on, telling graduates that the "shocks to the system" they're witnessing are a wake-up call to "make things better."
"You don't have to accept what was considered normal before. You don't have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be, could be. You could create a new normal, one that is fairer and gives everybody opportunity and treats everyone equally and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them," he proposed. "Just as America overcame slavery and civil war, recessions and depression, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and all kinds of social upheaval, we can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before. Better than before. But, as has always been true at key moments in history, it's going to depend on young people like you to go out there and rewrite what's possible."
Barack said it's been "unbelievably inspiring" to see how young people have already started to rewrite what's possible -- by getting out on the streets and peacefully protesting, regardless of race or background. "You make me optimistic about our future," he shared.
The father of two then offered a few key pieces of advice to the graduating class. "First do what you think is right... Second, listen to each other. Respect each other," he said.
"Finally, even if it all seems broken, have faith in our democracy. Participate and vote. Don't fall for the easy cynicism that says nothing can change, or that there is only one way to bring about change," Barack encouraged. "In the midst of recent protests, I've noticed there have been debates among young people about how useful voting is compared to direct action and civil disobedience in ending discrimination in our society. The fact is, we don't have to choose. We need both. Peaceful protest and demonstrations are patriotic. They shine a light on injustice. They raise public awareness. They make the folks in charge uncomfortable in a way that's healthy."
"America changed has always changed because young people dared to hope," he said. "Hope is not a lottery ticket, it's a hammer for us to use in a national emergency... that's what hope is."
"If your generation sprints into action, it will still be true of America's future. Congratulations, class of 2020. Make it mean something," he concluded.
In her speech earlier on Sunday, Michelle got emotional about the future she saw for this new generation of graduates and the change they'll enact.
"Here's the thing: I know you can do it, because over these many years, I've seen exactly who you are. I've seen your creativity, and your talent and your resourcefulness. I've seen you speaking out to end gun violence and fight climate change. I've seen you gathering donations for those in need during this pandemic, I've seen you marching with peace and with purpose. And that is why even in tough times like these, you continue to be what gives me hope. Graduates, you all are exactly what we need right now, and for the years and decades to come," she said.
"I know that not only can you do better than those that came before you, you will," Michelle insisted. "So, it's your time. I love you all, I believe in you all, I want you to be safe, and I can't wait to see you take the reins."
Dear Class of 2020 was filmed over the course of the last several weeks. Its debut was shifted from Saturday to Sunday due to Floyd's memorial service. The commencement opened with Lizzo and the New York Philharmonic's performance of "Pomp and Circumstance," as well as remarks from Alicia Keys.
In addition to the Obamas, commencement speakers included BTS, Lady Gaga, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, CEO of Google and Alphabet Sundar Pichai, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Malala Yousafzai.