Former president Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama headlined YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual graduation ceremony on Sunday, which celebrated the achievements of high school and college seniors who had their own graduation ceremonies canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The couple gave separate commencement speeches during the four-hour livestream where they offered students words of hope and reflection regarding the ongoing protests over the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the challenges young people are facing in today’s tumultuous political and social climate.
The virtual graduation ceremony also included speeches by the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others.
Here are seven highlights from the Obamas’ commencement speeches, where they spoke about the protests, racial inequality, COVID-19 and more.
1. The Coronavirus Pandemic
“What these last few weeks have also shown us is that the challenges we face go well beyond a virus and that the old normal wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t working that well and in a lot of ways the pandemic just brought into focus problems that had been going for a very long time, whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism or the divisions and disfunction that plague our political system.” — President Obama
2. Today’s Social and Political Climate
“While this period is certainly unprecedented, it is not a compete anomaly; simply some random coincidence to be dismissed. What’s happening right now is the direct result of decades of unaddressed prejudice and inequality. The truth is that all those tiny stories of hard work and self-determination that we like to tell ourselves about America, well the reality is a lot more complicated than that because for too many people in this country no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers working against them that just make the road longer and rockier.” — Michelle Obama
3. The Protests
“The protests and 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 failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system. These shocks to the system that we’re seeing right now, just as you prepare to go out into the world, they remind us that we can’t take things for granted.” — President Obama
4. A Wake-up Call
“What we finally do have is focus. We see what’s happening in stark relief, we see how these inequalities are playing out on our streets. It’s not just the communities most affected by these challenges that see it now, it’s folks all across the country who for too long have had the luxury and privilege of looking away. We all have no choice but to see what has been staring us in the face for years, for centuries.” — Michelle Obama
5. Coming Together
“Our individual wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the community we live in. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick. It reminds you that our country and our democracy only function when we think not just of ourselves but also about each other.” — President Obama
6. Speaking Out
“For those of you that feel invisible, please know that your story matters, your ideas matter, your experiences matter, your vision for what our world can and should be matters, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re too angry or you should keep your mouth shut. There will always be those that 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.” — Michelle Obama
7. Call for Change
“As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation because 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 and could be. You can 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.” — President Obama
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WATCH: Behind the Seams With the Class of 2020