"America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college," President Obama said to Howard University's Class of 2016, during a commencement speech on Saturday.
As his second term in office comes to a close, Obama insisted on the progress that the country has made over the course of the past two decades. "It also happens to be better than when I took office, but that's a longer story," he quipped.
Howard, located in Washington, D.C., and long recognized as the leading black university in the U.S., has graduated more students who have gone off to secure medical degrees than any institution in the country. It also conferred an honorary doctorate of science to the president himself. As school leader Wayne A.I. Frederick explained, the accolade is a reflection of the improved access to health care that Obamacare has brought since it was passed in 2010.
The president's message to graduates was one of optimism, mutual respect, and gratitude -- though he did admit his greatest "pet-peeve": When those who are successful don't recognize that they've been dealt a great deal of luck. "God may have blessed them, but it wasn't nothing you did," he said, nodding to the many less-fortunate people in the world, including refugees, immigrants, and the rural poor.
Here are three highlights and takeaways from the speech.
1. Affecting change requires more than passion.
Obama, much like psychologist Angela Duckworth, who researches the world's "grittiest" entrepreneurs, insisted that change required a unique combination of passion, concerted effort, and organization.
"You need to go through life with more than just passion for change. You have to have a strategy," said Obama. "Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes."
He urged graduates to research the causes that they're invested in. To minimize police brutality, for example, learn the name of your local police chief. Or find out who is in charge of the police-training manual in your district. And then, hold those individuals accountable, and outline a plan of action that can mobilize the community toward a common goal.
Obama also addressed liberal skeptics--many of whom insist that he has not done enough over the course of tenure--by pointing out that voter turnout during the most recent midterm was at its lowest since World War II (36 percent). "When we don't vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves, right when need to use the power that we have," he said.
2. Embrace your adversaries, and treat them with respect.
In his speech, Obama reflected back on some of the most influential civil rights advocates in U.S. history: Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist, and Thurgood Marshall, who, before becoming the first-ever black justice of the Supreme Court, famously won the Brown v. Board of Education court case, which ended racial segregation in public schools in 1954.
These leaders, he says, were not afraid to communicate with their opponents in a respectful way. The most dangerous thing a leader can do is to refuse to participate in tough conversations on the grounds of "ideological purity."
"If young activists like Britney [Packnett, who served on the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing] had refused to participate out of some sense of ideological purity, than those great ideas would have remained ideas," Obama said. "But she did participate, and that's how change happens."
He then went on to cite Zora Neale Hurston, the famed American novelist, anthropologist, and a Howard University graduate: "Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person," he said. "So don't try to shut folks out, don't try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them."
3. Stay confident, and remember where you come from.
In many ways, the speech was a heartfelt celebration of blackness and what it means to be black in America today, but Obama's remarks on confidence and collective memory should resonate with all people, regardless of skin color, religion, or creed.
"Be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness," he said.
Citing Prince, he also urged graduates to challenge all norms, and to push for what seems impossible: "He blew up categories. People didn't know what Prince was doing. And folks loved him for it," Obama said. "You need to have the same confidence. Or, as my daughters tell me all the time: 'You be you, Daddy.'"