Prepared Remarks for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service Commencement Ceremony

New York, NY
Friday, May 15th, 2009

Thank you, Tracey, for that introduction. And I'm glad you gave that biographical information before all the parents reached for their programs to see if I'm the student body president getting up to espouse about my Wagner experience. I know I look young but after only a little more than 100 days in my new job, I can feel the years creeping up quickly.

To prove that I'm not as young as you might think, let me take you back to a 1977 World Series game here in New York between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. I understand that just yesterday you had your large commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium.

As an eleven year old, I was sitting in the stadium during Game 2 when Howard Cosell's uttered his famous words: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."

For those of you too young to know what I'm talking about, you might find it hard to believe that in the 1970s, New York City was widely viewed as the epitome of urban failure. The Bronx burning on the city skyline was just one of the many visible signs that government institutions and urban programs were failing. People were asking if our cities were dead, and American families moved out of urban cores to the suburbs in record numbers.

It was a frightening and eye-opening time to live in New York, a time when I felt like the urban world was falling apart at the seams. But it was a time that also sparked a deep interest in me, an interest in how I could play a part in changing the policies that shaped the urban landscape and the built environment around me. I remember very vividly walking on my way to school in the morning and seeing people sleeping on the streets. I remember constantly asking myself why. Why was the world like this? And what can I do to change it?

Each and every one of you is here today because you too have felt that similar spark I felt at a young age, that similar call to fix the world around you and serve. You've chosen to listen to that call to service for many different reasons. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that "everyone can be great because anyone can serve." You today are here because you chose to answer that call to service and look outward to your community, to your neighborhoods, and to your country. You are choosing to build your careers, and really your whole lives, around serving others and making a commitment to the service of the American people.

Certainly, as students of the Wagner School, you are well-prepared for whatever form of service you choose to undertake, including volunteer and non-profit work. And it is without a doubt your choice how you want to spend your careers. In fact, when I was in graduate school, I felt that I could make the most impact working in the non-profit sector and I worked for a community housing developer after graduation. It was only by luck that one of my professors asked me to join him at HUD in the Clinton Administration that I found public service, and made a choice at that pivotal moment in my life to answer the call to public service. And that same professor is now one of my senior advisors at HUD.

But as students of the Wagner School of Public Service, you don't need luck to bring you to the public sector- you have been trained to serve the public and enter the public sector and have the skills and smarts necessary to excel in public service. You have the opportunity right now to make a deliberate choice to dedicate yourself to public service, and as graduates of the Wagner School of Public Service, I ask you today to meet the challenges of our new century through public service. It is a choice I've never regretted, and you won't either.

Public service is a particularly special type of service. At a 2004 American University School of Public Affairs commencement, former congressman and 9/11 commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton said of public service: "It is not just a way of life, it is a way to live fully. Its greatest attraction is the sheer challenge of it- struggling to find solutions to the great issues of the day. It can fulfill your highest aspirations. The call to service is one of the highest callings you will hear and your country can make." The sheer challenge of public service differentiates it from other forms of service- both the great responsibility that you bear and the great public trust that you hold as a public servant demand nothing but your best thinking and highest integrity every day. But as Lee Hamilton says, along with these incredible challenges come the incredible honor and the privilege of serving your countrymen and countrywomen and the honor of answering your fellow Americans and your President's call to serve.

The call to public service is particularly important in times of national crisis when people look to their government, for leadership, solutions and for strength. Crises like the economic one our country currently faces are the moments of great risk for government and public service because when government fails to provide leadership, solutions, or strength, the American people can turn inward and become more cynical as we saw with the government's reaction to the devastation on the Gulf Coast four years ago. In every crisis, we have a great opportunity as public servants to make Americans believe in government as a positive force. This was an opportunity that was squandered in the case of Hurricane Katrina, and it is an opportunity that we must not squander now. At this moment in our history, we must now give our countrymen and countrywomen a reason to believe in government again. In his 2008 commencement address at Wesleyan, President Obama said, "at a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again." Wagner Class of 2009: we need YOU to make the American people believe again.

I don't need to be the one to tell you of the challenges we face as a nation right now. I have no doubt that your classes at the Wagner School have brought our economic crisis and our housing crisis to the forefront of your studies over the past few years. It is a time of great national struggle for our country, and as an Administration we've worked quickly and effectively to help our economy recovery. But we need you to join our efforts and prove wrong the cynics who say that government is not a place for excellence and innovation.

Nearly 50 years ago, President Kennedy made a call to Americans to serve in their government and their communities. In his 1961 inaugural address, he said "in your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course." Millions of dedicated Americans just like you answered that call and continue to serve in government today. Today I ask you to step up to fill the shoes of the public servants who have come before you and heed President Obama's call to serve the public.

On April 22nd, President Obama signed the National Bill of Service and heralded his call to public service loud and clear, a call just like Kennedy's: "I'm asking you to help change history's course, put your shoulder up against the wheel. And if you do, I promise your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday, years from now, you may remember it as the moment when your own story and the American story converged, when they came together, and we met the challenges of our new century."

Today is a pivotal moment in all of your lives. Will you turn away from the problems plaguing our cities and our nation? Or will you listen to President Obama's call to public service during this time of great national need? The choice is yours, but I know that together we can put our shoulders up against the wheel and change the course of history.

Thank you.


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