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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"You Might Be Screwed": Excerpts from Jefferson Smith's U of O Commencement Speech

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 10:44 AM

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  • Amanda Caffal
I'm not going to post the whole thing, but we got a copy of the speech that mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith gave to the University of Oregon's class of 2012 yesterday morning. But some of it's definitely worth sharing.

The message? Graduates should embrace the lousy economy, with its paucity of high-paying, ego-boosting jobs, as a chance to cast off the myth of the career ladder and follow in Smith's own footsteps: public service.

I know I’m supposed to come and tell you about the many opportunities before you. And I’ll say something about that. But I want to tell you something else.

You might be screwed. Not just you. Not just University of Oregon graduates. And no, not just OSU or UW[ashington] either. Your whole generation. In some important respects...your whole generation is getting screwed.

• You’re projected to be the first generation to face lower lifetime earnings than your parents.
• Many of you are looking for jobs in what economists say over the past 5 years has been the toughest job market since the great depression.
• Your generation faces the greatest wealth disparities since before WWII

There are real questions about whether the systems of democracy we have built are in the position to solve our biggest problems. Other generations have had it hard, and you’ve had advantages.
You haven’t had to face a draft, and you got a cool phone.

The point here isn’t to spark an argument about whether you have faced relatively more blessings or more challenges than others. The point here is that it’s up to you to deal with those challenges.

I want to offer a few thoughts and questions about coming to grips with that. And that includes rethinking some of our fundamental assumptions. This commencement is not a pity party. I am here to call you to service.

After the jump, read about a Satori-like experience Smith had at a New York City McDonald's.

I wanted to go to law school, and I got into the best one I could. Next rung, Harvard. Graduated pretty near the top of my class.

Got a job at the highest paying Manhattan law firm I could find—because it was the highest paying firm I could find. Next rung. More and more of their work was becoming big tobacco defense. My mother had passed from cancer.

On one of my first Sundays in New York, I didn’t know my way around, and I walked to a nearby McDonald’s.

The place was filled with families in their Sunday best, coming out of the church around the corner. I was standing in line next to a family—African-American man, Latina wife, and two small children. The kids were asking their dad for happy meals.

The dad said “no, you can have cheeseburgers.”

So the kids did what I would have done... they asked their mom.

And she turned to her husband and said “can’t they just have happy meals?”

And he looked at her, and he wasn’t angry, he was scared, and he said “well we could, but then....”

And here I was—27-years old, projected to take home a quarter-million dollars that year, and here was a family, obviously working, going to church, doing the right thing, debating about whether they could afford happy meals for Sunday dinner. In the richest country in the history of the world.

My ladder got off its rails a bit after that. Not just because of it. It was not a single moment or single of my many imperfections and failures or any single success or strength that shaped my choices.

But I realized I wasn’t cut out to represent Big Tobacco or eventually be a corporate lawyer.

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