Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Southern University at New Orleans' Commencement Address

Kiefer Uno Lakefront Arena
Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thank you, Chancellor Ukpolo, for that very kind introduction, for inviting me on this glorious day, and for all you have given this institution and these students. 

Hello, graduates!

Congratulations to you -- and congratulations to your families, without whose support none of us would be where we are today.

It's great to be back at SUNO -- where my very first trip to New Orleans as HUD Secretary began. I'll never forget the devastation I saw.

As a regular visitor here in this city, I knew that the character of this school was every bit as dynamic and resilient as the city it calls home. 

And I'm guessing that there probably aren't too many others graduating this weekend that can say they took classes in trailers because the seats in their classrooms were occupied by 11 feet of water.

Am I right?

I'm sure a lot of graduates at other schools will be thanking their professors this weekend for taking the extra time to tutor them.

But how many of those sessions will have taken place in cars because between the trailers and the redevelopment it was the only place you could talk in private?

Not too many, I'd bet.

As Wynton Marsalis told graduates at Northwestern University about the power of blues -- and I think it is particularly appropriate to quote him on the weekend of Jazzfest:

"The blues plays with joy and tragedy…[it] makes what hurts, feel good, and what is good, feel even better. The blues is survival music."

"So, congratulations: you've survived."

And I'm so proud to see you back on the original campus, in 7 out of the 11 buildings that were flooded. 

You've not only survived -- perhaps more importantly, you've helped this community survive.

It was when you came back and classes resumed that homeowners, businesses and churches in Pontchartrain Park began to do the same.

Your example wasn't the only difference you made.

Many of you graduate today with a degree from this school's outstanding social work program. Others will go on to become educators.

Some of you are from New Orleans. Others have made it their adopted home.

But virtually all of you share one thing in common:

You've been out in this community, not just getting a degree -- but getting your hands dirty.

President Obama's slogan during his campaign was "Change You Can Believe In" -- and SUNO, when it comes to the change you've brought to New Orleans: "seeing is believing."

I know I believe it. Having witnessed for myself the dedication that students, professors and staff bring to their jobs and to this community on my first trip here, I brought my wife and two boys to help put the finishing the touches on a home not far from here in Gentilly with the St. Bernard Project.

It's that spirit of survival through persistence that has steeled New Orleans for more than 200 years.

And while we may not always be able to chart our progress on a straight line, we always persist, we always move forward.

That is not only the story of this community -- but of America itself.

And it has inspired the Obama Administration's work in this city -- rebuilding New Orleans' homes, schools and businesses so that every family that was displaced by the storm has the housing and the opportunities they need to come back.

That's why I'm proud to report that of the nearly 40,000 of the families that remained in temporary housing when President Obama took office, all but less than 0.1 percent of these families live in stable, permanent homes today.

That there is more federally assisted housing in New Orleans today than there was before the storm -- at a time when it is desperately needed. 

That another 500 families move into homes that were abandoned after Katrina each and every month.

And that we have put $600 million in the hands of low-income homeowners -- families who despite their best efforts still hadn't been able to finish renovating their homes.

And so today, I come to SUNO to deliver a simple message:

New Orleans may be known by some as "The City that Care Forgot" -- but it won't be the city that America forgot. 

Not with President Obama in the White House -- and partners like you here on the ground

We still have so much more work to do. But together, we will move New Orleans from recovery to revitalization -- to ensure that every family has the opportunity to be a part of "winning the future."

Building Back Stronger and Smarter

Of course, making that possible won't happen if our goal is to simply rebuild what was here before the storm.

Don't get me wrong. 

New Orleans was and is a national treasure, its place in our imagination and our lives unique.

From its architecture and music to its dialect and diversity, no city is more vibrant. 

As the great writer Sherwood Anderson said:

"Blessed be these people. They know how to play."

But as much as New Orleans represents the ideal of what America can be in so many ways, we all know New Orleans hasn't always lived up to that high standard.

I know many in this audience are well aware of Homer Plessy's heroic challenge to segregation on the streetcars in the 19th century.

Despite his courage, it was the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that effectively enshrined state-enforced segregation for the next six decades.

But if Katrina revealed anything to the world, it's that segregation didn't end with Brown v. the Board of Education.

Over a half-century later, as the floodwaters receded, they revealed so much more than devastation here in New Orleans.

They also exposed inequality to the world.


Concentrated poverty.

And indeed, a very similar kind of segregation to what Homer Plessy had stood up to over a century before. 

Segregation that not only dictated where families could live -- but what opportunities they could access, from schools to jobs.

Here again, as SUNO graduates know having been out in this community: seeing is believing.

One of the reasons I'm proud to be President Obama's Housing Secretary is that he believes when you choose a home, you don't just choose a home. You also choose transportation to work, public safety and--as this audience knows--access to schools. 

You choose a community and the choices available in that community.

As SUNO students, you have experienced this viscerally -- because you had to fight your government in the wake of the storm to live in trailers so that you could continue your studies.

But if anything was clear in the hours and days after the storm, it's that far too many families in New Orleans had never known what it was like to have a choice about where they could live.

And neither did their parents or grandparents -- many of whom were old enough to remember one of the most painful events from a half-century earlier, when the Treme neighborhood--the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country, the birthplace of jazz--was cut in half by the construction of the Claiborne overpass -- in effect, destroying the heart of the African-American economic community in New Orleans.

Worst of all, in the days after the storm, these families were not only facing the slow-motion tragedy of their own homes being washed away -- many of them were also prohibited from finding shelter nearby. 

By ordinances that told property owners where apartments could be located, how many homes they could rent -- and who could live there.

The storm may have been a natural disaster -- but these disasters were very much man-made, depriving countless families of housing choices that I believe, President Obama believes, and the law recognizes are the right of every American.

Four decades ago, passage of the Fair Housing Act affirmed that, as Americans, if we don't have the freedom to choose where we live, we don't have freedom. 

And we need only to look around us to see why that law remains so important today -- where over a period of many years St. Bernard Parish has taken measures that have effectively excluded minority families from renting homes in that Parish.

Or in New Orleans East, where we saw how similar tactics excluded low-income minority families from moving to a neighborhood that was predominantly African-American -- reminding us how freedom in housing choices isn't always about the color of our skin.

Or in Mississippi and Texas, where we have seen clear disparities in the way families uprooted by disaster are assisted as they try to put their lives back together again.

I'm proud to work for an Administration that believes housing discrimination is wrong -- and is actively working to end it once and for all, in places like St. Bernard Parish where we have successfully worked to ensure two discriminatory ordinances were rescinded just last month.

Despite these injustices--and despite the fact that they are in clear violation of the law and what we have always stood for as Americans--some suggest that righting these wrongs represents a form of "social engineering."

But let's be clear:

The folks fighting segregation aren't social engineering.

Segregation was created by social engineering.

By Supreme Court decisions that retreated from our country's guarantee of equal rights for all Americans.

By zoning codes that shut low- and moderate-income families out of certain markets.

By funding decisions that steer the development of affordable housing away from neighborhoods of high opportunity.

By federal dollars being directed away from the families who need them to rebuild in the wake of disaster.

Far more often than not, segregation, isolation and poverty don't occur in spite of government.

They happen because of government -- by government dollars and government decisions made with government authority.

Housing Choices in the 21st Century

But as New Orleans has shown us time again: America can change.

As President Obama put it as a candidate, your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams. Or mine yours.

In fact, it is when we make an investment in our shared dreams that we all prosper as a nation.

This isn't simply a matter of rhetoric.

Diverse, inclusive communities offer the most educational, economic, and employment opportunities to their residents. 

They cultivate the kind of social networks our communities and our country need to compete in today's increasingly diverse and competitive global economy. 

Students are better prepared for the workforce and engage in more complex and creative thinking when they learn in a diverse environment. 

Right now, we can predict a child's life expectancy by the zip codes he or she grows up in.

We can't win the race to educate our kids if we are leaving 20 percent of our children behind in the poorest neighborhoods.

We need all hands on deck.

Still, making that possible won't be decided in our courtrooms alone -- but rather in the neighborhoods each of us helps communities build. 

Don't get me wrong. When it comes to enforcing the law, the Obama Administration will always stand tall and never back down.

But the measure of our success won't be the number of lawsuits we bring or even win -- but whether we are changing the lives of the people and communities we serve. 

It will be measured by whether we increase the number of low-poverty, racially diverse communities in America. 

By whether those we touch have access to opportunity -- good schools, safe streets, decent jobs. 

And whether families live in opportunity-rich neighborhoods or have the choices they need to move to one.

This is the work you have been doing here in New Orleans -- and it's why I've been proud to work with a partner like Mayor Landrieu to make this community whole again.

When we first came into office, not a single family had returned to the Big Four public housing developments severely damaged during the storm -- not one. 

Today, we're reforming the Housing Authority of New Orleans. As the President and First Lady saw for themselves on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, all of the Big Four complexes are under construction -- and to date, nearly 900 families have moved in. 

And to bring opportunity to America's affordable homes, the Obama Administration's Choice Neighborhoods initiative recognizes, as the New York Times recently noted, that "sound urban planning, aggressive social policy and an awareness of history are inseparably intertwined."

Indeed, with the $2 million sustainability challenge grant we awarded this city last fall, New Orleans will create more transportation choices for families and explore ways to reunite the Treme community-- more closely connecting housing to jobs and beginning to repair some of the wounds that endure today.

These efforts have the potential to help New Orleans build back better, stronger and to finally live up to an ideal that has inspired generations around the world. 

But none of it will be possible without graduates like you -- engaged at the local level. 

We need you--your experiences and your perspective--not just to do this work -- but to do it right.

Winning the Future Starts at Home

And so this is your moment to make your mark on history.

I began my remarks talking about my first trip to New Orleans as Housing Secretary -- let me conclude with a story about my first trip ever to New Orleans as a young man.

Nearly two decades ago, I along with a number of students had dinner with Congressman John Lewis in a Chinese restaurant in Washington. Thirty years earlier, he and a group of young people had eaten dinner at a similar Chinese restaurant before setting off for the Freedom Rides -- the final destination of which, of course, was New Orleans. 

We'd heard about the civil rights movement and knew of its history, but hadn't experienced it firsthand. 

The day after our dinner, we departed from Washington to retrace the path of the Freedom Rides -- not on buses but bikes. 

Together, we sat at the lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. Where our presence there would have caused a riot 30 years earlier, that day we went completely unnoticed. 

We went to Birmingham, Alabama with James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the initiator of the Freedom Rides.

He was in Birmingham for the first time since he'd been beaten in the streets of that city thirty years earlier. He was blind when he came to Birmingham and we had gathered in a church downtown to hear him speak.

I had the tremendous honor of introducing him to the crowd -- and the applause was absolutely enormous. 

He couldn't see the folks out in the audience -- but he sure could hear them.

And he turned to me and said, "I can't believe it. I'm being cheered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama."

A few days later, we crossed the Pettus Bridge in Selma together. 

We walked the path of the Bloody Sunday march in 1965 -- and together, we walked to the other side of the bridge.

And together, we celebrated at Dookey Chase where the real Freedom Rides were supposed to have concluded -- at the only restaurant in the City of New Orleans that allowed integration at its dining room tables fifty years earlier.

I tell you this story not to suggest that I was a part of the civil rights movement -- I was born five years after the Freedom Rides, the fiftieth anniversary of which we marked this week.

Rather, I came to the south to learn about its history.

Because like you, I knew someday I wanted to be a part of it.

Because you can't win the future if you don't understand the past.

It was on that trip that I learned history isn't made by heroes. 

It's made by people.

Not just people like James Farmer and John Lewis, but also tens of thousands of people from around the country whose names we will never know -- people of all ages and classes, from seniors to students.

Not only people like Homer Plessy and Judge John Howard Ferguson--the parties to Plessy v. Ferguson--but also their descendants Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, who more than a century later have formed a foundation together to advocate tolerance and to combat discrimination.

Their collective example reminds me that to change the course of history we don't need to be heroes.

We simply need to do our part -- whether it's as teachers here in the New Orleans school system, in Washington as part of the Obama Administration, or any other community that can learn from your lesson of survival, persistence…and triumph.

Get on the streetcar -- or a bus. Or a bike. 

Ride it to the neighborhoods you've never been before.

Make a difference.

Your city needs you -- your country needs you. SUNO Class of 2011 -- make history.

Thank you, SUNO -- for your inspiration and this opportunity. Congratulations -- and I hope you have a helluva time at JazzFest.


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