Two Futures

Commencement address I gave at Honors Convocation at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at College of Wooster.

May 16, 2018

I think it was the ten thousandth time that my mother put a meal on the table for which she did not get properly thanked, that gave rise to a moment of volcanic parental clarity: do you think this food just cooks itself? Do you think that because the ingredients exist in the kitchen, that they just magically jump into the pot?

It was an early lesson in how the world works. Nothing just happens. People make things happen. We call those people leaders.

At the Grotto at Notre Dame, the University that brought my family to America, I watched my dad cup his hands in Muslim prayer. Wanting to skip this ritual and get into the football stadium, I ask: should Muslims really be praying in front of a Catholic shrine?

My dad gestures to the glow of the candles in the stone cove and says, “The Qur’an describes God as light upon light.”

A leader recognizes that there will always be differences, and chooses to look for the resonances.

During a pickup football game at Panfish Park in Glen Ellyn, a high school classmate ran past and shouted, “Jordan’s at the Village Links.” We booked it to the eighteenth hole and stood there with several dozen others watching as the best basketball player in the world walked up the green.

“We’re never going to get to meet him with all these people around,” I thought to myself. “He’ll just wave and head to his car.”

And then it hit me … he couldn’t leave without his car. A friend and I quietly snuck away and made for the VIP parking lot where Jordan’s red Ferrari sat gleaming in the sun.

After about 15, through the trees, we spotted a golf cart. A moment later the emperor was in our midst. I approached gingerly, stuck out a small brown hand and said in a shaky voice, ‘Mr. Jordan, thank you for being a great role model to kids.’ I didn’t wash that hand for a week.

That night I lay in bed and thought to myself – all these grown folks standing at the eighteenth hole, and I was the only one who had the idea of finding Jordan’s car and waiting there.

A leader has to learn to trust himself.

When I was in college, I developed into a hair-on-fire activist. There was good reason for this. They teach you things in college you generally don’t learn in high school. Dangerous knowledge. I took some of that knowledge personally.

You mean Christopher Columbus started planning the murder of Native Americans as soon as he laid eyes on them - and we honor this man? You mean I went through four years of Honors high school literature and I can count the black and female writers I read on one hand?

I would make up for these past injustices with my rage. I would be in your face. If you weren’t angry like me, I told you you weren’t paying attention. If you spoke about the problem of racism, I yelled at you for ignoring sexism. If you acknowledged sexism was a problem, I got mad that you didn’t use the more potent word misogyny.

During a Thursday morning senior seminar on the Latino experience in the United States, I scolded my classmates for not speaking enough about Asian Americans. I watched them visibly shift away from me: some folded their arms, others shook their heads.

The professor called me up after class and said in a gentle, calm voice: “People would pay more attention to your points if you didn’t come across as such a jerk.”    

A leader better learn to listen to others.

When I graduated, my goal was to find a job where I could do some good in the world. Turns out that’s harder than it sounds. I sent out resumes, I made phone calls. Not even a nibble.

A friend told me about an education program near the Humboldt Park neighborhood where kids who had dropped out of high school could return and get their GED’s. The entire teaching staff was leaving. That job’s got my name on it, I thought to myself.

I called and called, nobody picked up the phone. So I took the train and went there in person. I knocked on the Principal’s office and told her that I was interested in a teaching position. “I can’t talk to you today,” she said, and pointed to all the people milling about. “It’s graduation.”

She disappeared into the gym. Graduation, I thought to myself. What better way to get to know a school and its community than to witness graduation.

Two hours later, when it was over and I was leaving, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the Principal. “You’re still here?” she said.

I got the job. 

A leader has to learn it’s not good enough to show up. If you want to make an impact you do more, you stay through graduation.

When I started doing interfaith work in the late 1990s, I noticed that most of the people involved were senior religious leaders who spent most of their time talking about theology and organizing ceremonies, I started agitating for more social action, younger energy. Somehow I thought that telling other people how to do things counted as work; I even confused it for impact.

Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed about that now. I think the world belongs to the leader, not the critic; the builder, not the scolder. You shouldn’t be a judge on a Food Network show if you’ve never managed a kitchen.

I’m glad that at that time somebody believed in me enough to say: “You can either be disappointed that this organization never fully embodies your vision, and feel self-righteous about all the brilliant ideas you have that you feel are being ignored. Or you can have the courage of your convictions, and believe in your ideas enough to do the hard work of making them reality.”

And in that moment, the various leadership lessons of my life – Jordan at the golf course, staying through graduation – were like separate shards of glass forming themselves into a magic window through which I saw two possible futures. Was I going to be the guy constantly finding fault with what other people were creating, or was I going to build something?

Teddy Roosevelt had something to say about this. “It’s not the critic who counts … The credit belongs to the (person) in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly … who knows … the great devotions … (and) if he fails, at least fails daring greatly.” 

The future you choose will have consequences for our country.

Right now, more than anything, we need people who dare to build bridges. In an era of polarization, it is instinctive to focus on protecting the people you regard as your own, to strengthen your bunker and nurture suspicion of anyone outside of it. But a diverse democracy characterized by multiple communities strengthening their respective bunkers is a nation heading for civil war.

The essential structure in a diverse democracy is the bridge. We need bridges between people who love NASCAR and who love the NBA; between Whole Foods America and Cracker Barrel America; between fans of Fox News and watchers of MSNBC; between regular Sunday churchgoers and people who pray jummah on Fridays; between worshippers of Beyonce and those who identify with Bruce Springsteen.

Diversity work isn’t principally about embracing more of the differences you like, it’s engaging positively with the differences you don’t like. The purpose of the bridge is to connect you with people that you don’t instinctively view as your own. Such bridges don’t fall from the sky, people build them.

One of the great bridgebuilders in American history gave one of his most remarkable speeches on this subject in Chicago in 1858, at a time of ugly anti-Catholic sentiment, in a nation that still allowed the egregious sin of slavery, that was wary of immigrants and tempted to revert back to defining itself along ancestral lines, like every other nation that had gone before.

Abraham Lincoln stood before an audience and addressed the question: Who belongs? Who is an American? Here was his answer: Whoever you are and wherever you come from, If you hold with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, then you have a right to claim it as if you were “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration.”  

There are eras in which this dream has principally been endangered from forces without. We live at a time when it is principally threatened from tribalism within.

Every lament holds within it the seeds of opportunity. Will you seize your moment? Will you be a generation of leaders and bridgebuilders committed to the ideal, beautifully expressed by Aime Cesaire, that “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top