The YouTube Originals special, airing on Sunday, features both Barack and Michelle Obama as commencement speakers. The pair kicked things off with a joint message to students early on in the program. Soon after, Michelle delivered a solo commencement speech to graduates, getting emotional over their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and all they've done to fight police brutality, racial injustice and create change following George Floyd's death. Barack will also deliver a commencement address later on in the special.
"We all have no choice but to see what has been staring us in the face for years, for centuries," Michelle said in her speech. "So, the question is, how will we respond?"
The former First Lady then offered graduates a few important pieces of advice to walk them through these "tumultuous times." "The first is this: Life will always be uncertain. It is a lesson that most of us get the chance to learn over the course of years and years, even decades, but one you're learning right now," she shared. "So, graduates, I hope that what you're going through right now can be your wake up call, that pushes you to think about not just what kind of career you want to build, but what kind of person do you want to be? And here's the thing, you have the opportunity to learn these valuable things faster than the generations before you."
"That leads me to my second lesson. In an uncertain world, time tested values like ... empathy and compassion. That's the only real currency in life," Michelle continued. "Treating people right will never fail you."
The mom of two's third lesson was for graduates to share their voice "with the rest of the world."
"For those of you who feel invisible, please know that your story matters. Your ideas matter. Your experience matters. Your vision for what the world can and should be matters. So, don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that you're too angry, or that you should keep your mouth shut. There will always be those who want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard. Maybe they don't even want to see you at all. But those people don't know your story, and if you listen to them, then nothing will ever change," she declared.
"It's up to you to speak up against cruelty, dishonesty, bigotry, all of it. It's up to you to march hand in hand with your allies, to stand peacefully with dignity and purpose on the frontline in the fight for justice," Michelle said. "And here's the last part: it's up to you to couple every protest with plans and policies, with organizing and mobilizing and voting."
"That's my final piece of advice. Graduates, anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force, but left on its own it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out. But, when anger is focused, when it's channeled into something more, that is the stuff that changes history," she shared, using Dr. Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth as a few examples of past leaders were angry, but also "driven by compassion, by principle, by hope."
"So graduates, it is your time now. And look, our democracy isn't perfect, but I have traveled the world and people in so many other countries, and I can tell you our democracy is sturdy, and yes, it still works. But it doesn't work if you silence yourselves. It does not work if you disengage from the process. And we're seeing the consequences of that right now," Michelle expressed. "But if you hold strong with the same faith that carried all those giants before you toward real, measurable progress, you will change the course of history."
"So, what does that mean for your time?" she asked. "It starts where change always starts: in your own home ... Sometimes it's easier to stand with strangers at a protest than it is to challenge someone in your own backyard. So, if you hear people expressing bigoted views or talking down to 'those people,' it is up to you to call them out. We won't solve anything if we're only willing to do what's easiest."
Michelle encouraged those listening to "make sacrifices" in their own lives. "If you're spending a lot of time just hashtagging and posting right now, that's useful, especially during a pandemic, but it's only a beginning. Go further," she encouraged, inspiring graduates to familiarize themselves with their polling places, representatives and local leaders.
"Please, let's give everyone who is working toward progress space to be themselves. ... Some want to march right up front, others prefer to stay back. Some kneel in the pews, others on the street corner. Some canvas their neighborhoods, others run for office. Some do an honest day's work and raise good kids. Others choose to focus on their education and use that degree to address these issues and build a better life for themselves and those around them," she said. "Graduates, it's all important, and we need every bit of it. So, we cannot allow our hurt and our frustration to turn us against each other, to cancel someone else's point of view if we don't agree with every last bit of their approach. That kind of thinking only divides us and distracts us from our calling. It is the gum in the wheel of progress. Graduates, this is how you can finish the work that the generations before you have started: by staying open and hopeful, even in the tough times. By channeling that discomfort you feel into activism, and a democracy that was designed to respond to those who vote."
Michelle got emotional, tearing up as she concluded her speech. "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," she 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 George 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 include Beyonce, 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.