Thank you so much, P.J. Welcome. Oh my goodness, this is wonderful to see all of you and I want to thank Assistant Secretary Crowley and the Bureau of Public Affairs for coordinating this event.
I also want to thank Dr. John Wilson, Jr., Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities for being here and for his leadership.
And I’m especially pleased to welcome all of you here to the State Department during Black History Month. You are welcome anytime, but this, we thought, was a good excuse to get everybody together. And I know some of you have traveled a long distance to be here with us today, and your participation is very meaningful. It enriches and enlivens our activities.
And boy, did you pick a good time to be here. (Laughter.) There is so much going on, it’s almost hard to keep up with. And I was looking forward to coming here to speak with you, but I was also looking forward to getting off the phone and talking to people particularly in the Middle East about everything that’s going on. We are fully immersed in trying to determine how we can best support the aspirations of people across the region, for their governments to be more open, accountable, and responsive, to make sure they have a stronger voice in the affairs of their countries, and that they are treated fairly and with dignity.
I did a web chat today with a wonderful young man who works for a website in Egypt, and in two days they got nearly 7,000 questions for me, and they were asking a lot of them. And I had the opportunity to express our very great admiration for the young people in Egypt, for their peaceful, nonviolent demonstration. And I linked it with our own civil rights history and the role that nonviolent demonstrations and the whole ethos of nonviolence played here in the United States and then also in India. So with Dr. King and with Gandhi, those were examples of how one brings about profound transformational change without picking up a gun. And it gives a lie to the extremist narrative in the world that somehow the only way you could get change is at the end of a gun barrel.
So there is so much going on today, and much of it is particularly important to young people here and around the world because it’s a new future that is being born and a world that you will be taking yourselves into and leading your lives and making a living and making your contributions. But there’s so much to do, aside from today’s headlines. People from the State Department and USAID are working to continue supporting democracy in Iraq, to help the people there realize the true results of having now a democratically-elected government, working with our colleagues and counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan against some very tough challenges.
We’re using social media like Facebook and Twitter to extend the reach of diplomacy beyond governments, what we call 21st century statecraft. We’re working to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, to fight climate change, which despite what you might hear sometime is actually a real problem that we’re having to contend with, to promote Internet freedom, because that now is the venue where people assemble and they should have the same rights that we have fought for and that are enshrined in our Constitution, and so many other problems of health and hunger and just broadly across the world an agenda with a very, very comprehensive set of issues.
And you will be hearing from people here in the Administration on these issues, and you’ll have a chance to discuss specific concerns and countries, from Mexico to China; broad issues, like what’s happening in Sub-Saharan Africa and how are we partnering to promote development and economic opportunity; one of my favorite issues, what are we doing to empower women and girls, which remains one of the best, most efficient ways of lifting up entire societies – unfortunately I still have to make that argument in too many places, but we are continuing to do so – and how technology can help people.
We ran a contest last year with African young people who were developing applications that could spur development in their communities. And we got some unbelievably great ideas. And one of them that we chose for attention and support was how local farmers could get information about weather and what could be done to protect their crops by using their cell phones because now cell phones are ubiquitous, two billion people have them. And many poor people in places that never got electricity have cell phones thanks to wireless technology. So how do we use that as an instrument of economic empowerment, of information about health, of educational access and so much more? So I would invite you to give us any of those ideas as well.
We also are focused on energy because one of the reasons why we believe that inequality persists in so many places in the world is because we do not have access to affordable energy in too many places. Those of you who have traveled know that you can fly over countries and see very few lights at night in our hemisphere and across the oceans because electricity hasn’t gotten into villages. Well, now with solar electricity and wind electricity, we can do so much more that will revolutionize the way people can live and work.
So I want to make sure that at the core of our foreign policy we are promoting equal opportunity, something that you each have really understood and stood for, and that certainly HBCUs have played a major role in our country in working toward achieving. I often say that human talent is universal in the world, but opportunity is not. I mean, I think about all of us who were fortunate enough to be born in this country and to be given a chance to succeed, and as President Obama has said many times, though we inherit the extraordinary progress won by the tears and toil of our predecessors, we know that barriers still remain on the road to equal opportunity. So what can we do here at home and what can we do around the world? Well, here at home, HBCUs play a vital role in overcoming those barriers. In law and medicine, in sports, literature, music, every area of human endeavor, HBCUs have paved the way for countless leaders, and our country has benefited so much.
Here at the State Department, we have benefited from the talents of so many phenomenal African American leaders. My two predecessors, for example, General Colin Powell and Secretary Condoleezza Rice, our UN Ambassador Susan Rice, our Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, whom you will be hearing from next, who has a very distinguished diplomatic career, and so many others here at the State Department and USAID. In fact, this is really nothing new. In 1889, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass was appointed Consul General to Haiti, and later, he headed the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic. And after World War II, the political scientist Ralph Bunche was involved in the creation of the United Nations, and he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Arab-Israeli conflict – the first African American to be recognized with that honor. And of course, President Obama was the latest African American to be so recognized.
Hundreds, thousands of African Americans have served in State, USAID, in our military, in other parts of our federal government, and in public service. And I would not be doing my job if I did not make a shameless pitch for you to consider following in their footsteps. We need you. And I’ve always believed that the best ways to inspire people to serve their country is to expose them to other cultures and countries, especially when they’re young. That’s why we put a particular emphasis on student exchange programs here at the State Department, programs like the 100,000 Strong Initiative, which is designed to send 100,000 Americans to study in China by 2014. And I don’t know how many of you are here from Howard, but you know that Michelle Obama said at Howard just last month that when she announced the 100,000 Strong program, that when you study abroad, you make America stronger.
And you also have a chance to tell the American story. It is a story about justice and pride and the pursuit of equality – and it is important to remind people who may not have any reason today to believe in any of those aspirations that something better is possible. In the 20th century, people all around the world saw young African Americans of your ages stand up and speak out and claim their rights in our own country. And by doing so, they became leaders and change makers and history makers all at the same time. And in the 21st century, your generation, because of social media, because of the power to connect, have even more inherent power than your parents and grandparents did before. Because now you don’t – just can meet at lunch counter. You can meet globally. And you can pursue your goals with those whom you may never meet in person but who share your passion for justice and equality.
So we are counting on you. We are counting on you to open even more doors and we are counting on you to give us your best ideas, your talents and skills, to make a difference not only here at home but around the world.
As I travel on behalf of President Obama and our country, I meet with hundreds and thousands of people every year, and lots of young people. And even though there is so much tension and contention in the world today, people still look to this country. They look to us. How did you do it? How did you maintain it? How did you overcome obstacles on behalf of African Americans or women or any other group that had not been included originally in the American Dream?
So I want you all to walk out of here when you finish this wonderful gathering and consider yourself ambassadors, ambassadors for the United States, ambassadors to the rest of the world. Know that the State Department, President Obama, and myself are very much in need of your presence and your diplomacy. We really are reaching out to citizen diplomats, because America has a story to tell and there’s no way that just a few of us can do it. We need to amplify our voices globally.
And we hope when you’re ready, you will consider joining our ranks. We need diplomats. We need development experts. We need people who are ready to pick up and move somewhere and learn not only about another culture but learn more about yourself, because of the challenges and the opportunities that exist now in the State Department and USAID.
I am delighted to have this chance to welcome you and to share just a few thoughts with you. But now you’re going to have a real treat, because there will be so many people – and I see him sitting right there – a distinguished two-time ambassador, an intelligence expert, a development expert, a diplomatic par excellence – and I’m not even the one introducing him – (laughter) – but someone who I rely on completely, because Africa is a high priority for this President, for me, for this country. And we are looking for ways to be an even better partner in trying to unleash the potential of the people of Africa from one end of the continent to the other.
So please don’t be shy about sharing your ideas and suggestions. Log on to our websites, follow what we’re doing, and then as you reach graduation, give us a try, because we sure can use you. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)