Associate Justice Alan C. Page's speech
Thank you for that kind introduction and for your warm welcome. Thank you also for allowing me to share my thoughts with you this evening.
Congratulations on completing the Leadership Perspectives program. What a wonderful gift you've given yourselves. The leadership skills you have developed will allow you to have a different future than it otherwise would have been.
Thinking about preparation, I am reminded of my own law school experience, where I learned some important lessons about preparation during my first-year contracts class. Instead of lecturing, my contracts professor believed strongly in the Socratic method, which, as the graduates know, entails asking questions of those who are under-enlightened to help lead them to enlightenment--and includes a little intimidation along the way. Even though I always came to class relatively well prepared and had performed as a football player in front of hundreds of thousands of people, I was panicked that the professor would call on me. Making myself small and inconspicuous, however, was not one of the choices. What could I do?
After surviving the first few days, I noticed that the professor only called on students who looked afraid. He never called on those who had their hands up. So I started raising my hand. And, for a while, this tactic was rewarded. But then finally, one day, I raised my hand and, as luck would have it, he called on me. Without thinking, I stood up to answer the question... and... my mind... went... blank. And it stayed blank. As I scrambled for a cohesive thought, I had momentary empathy for all those quarterbacks I'd been chasing for a living. And then somehow, it hit me--I had to say something. Anything was better than silence. So I started speaking. Whatever I said, it must have been okay.
That experience taught me three important lessons: first, preparation is critical to success. And, while good preparation in that context means coming to class with assignments done, it also means being able to size up a situation and responding appropriately. Second, I learned that we sometimes create our own greatest obstacles. That our fears--rather than the actual situation--are what limit us. And third, that even when our fears cause us to stumble, good preparation will pick us up. These are lessons that have served me well, and I suspect would serve many people well.
Recognizing that what I say tonight may well not be long remembered, what I would like to do is talk for a moment about the future... about hope... and ultimately the role that each of us can play in making the future better and brighter.
As you move on to the next stage in your life, whatever path you choose to take, your character will be challenged. As a nation, sometimes it seems as though we have lost our character. If we are to thrive, we must regain it.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "character" as moral or ethical strength, integrity, fortitude. In a sense, character is who we are at our core. It's what determines what we believe and how we choose to respond in any given situation. Character is not something we are born with, nor does it develop automatically--it must be consciously developed. Character is not something that is static. Whether you're 50 or 15, 5 or 75... whether you're one of tonight's graduates or a Supreme Court Justice... you will be forced to re evaluate and renew your character again and again. How we act today, and every day for the rest of our lives, will define who we are.
People of character take responsibility for who they are and what they do. To resist the pressures and temptations that seduce us... to make the easy choices rather than the right choices... to be a person of character... takes a strong person. I don't mean strong in the physical sense, for physical stature has nothing at all to do with character. I do mean "strong" in the sense of believing that each one of us has an obligation to act in a way that builds, rather than diminishes, our character and the character of those around us.
That means we must be honest and trustworthy--saying what we mean and meaning what we say. It means keeping our promises. It means avoiding the arrogance of power, playing fairly, telling the truth, making decisions with others in mind, always treating people with respect, and respecting ourselves. It means working to figure out the difference between right and wrong, and then acting accordingly.
The fact that I was once considered a great football player or that I am a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice doesn't, by itself, mean that I am a man of good character. The fact that the color of my skin is different from yours doesn't mean I am not a man of good character. The fact that your language or religion is different from mine doesn't make either one of our characters better or worse. The outward differences, which identify us as individuals, do not define the content of our character.
Finally, your professional backgrounds, along with the leadership skills gained through the Leadership Perspectives program, places you among the privileged few. As such, I believe there is some obligation to work to improve the lot of those who are less fortunate. Grabbing what we want for ourselves and ignoring everyone else is simply not acceptable.
For me, it has meant helping children understand the importance of education, motivating them in their educational pursuits, and working to provide educational opportunity. I happen to believe that children are the future, and that the future is about hope. If we are to have hope for the future--our children's and ours--we must educate our children. I happen to believe the best way to do that is one school at a time, one classroom at a time, one child at a time.
But what can you do, especially in this most difficult economy? Because the problems we face are complex, we tend to think in terms of complex solutions. Or we think it's someone else's problem. As a result, individual effort seems insignificant. But I believe that the steps we take individually can be significant. Ultimately, the problems we face are people problems and the solutions will be found in the involvement of people like me and people like you. Whether it is volunteering at a homeless shelter or food shelf or assisting the disabled or working with children in schools as I do, whatever it may be, you have the power to change the future.
Some would say the problems are too big and too complex for one person to impact. I believe those people are wrong. You don't need to be a Supreme Court Justice or even a football hero to make change happen. Everyone here, and I emphasize everyone, has the ability, the opportunity, and I believe the obligation to make this world a better place. All we have to do is act. And act we must.
A quote from Robert F. Kennedy, taken from a speech he gave in 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on their Day of Affirmation, symbolizes for me the impact that we, as individuals, can have. It has special meaning when we consider the changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1966. What he said was this: "Each time a man [and I would add a woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope--and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
When we put our hearts... and our minds... and our bodies to the task, when we act, we can change both our personal and our national character and at the same time work to improve the lives of those less fortunate. In the process, we change the future.
As Dr. Seuss said in The Lorax, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."