Keynote Address at Generation Citizen Civics Day 2018
Clip of keynote and prepared remarks in text
Good afternoon! Thank you all so very much for this thoughtful award. More importantly, thank you to all the students presenting their civic projects today.
You might not know this, but your projects take on a greater meaning than you think. The impact of your projects go beyond the importance of the particular issue you chose to advocate for. All your projects have at least one thing in common – and that is that they bring us all hope, inspiration, and a reason to believe that our best days as a society are still ahead. You’ve created that feeling today. I know that our world’s best days are still ahead because we’ve got civic champions, leaders, like all of you.
So thank you, students.
While you are fulfilling a project, you are also filling the hearts of many of us with the energy to keep on fighting for our civic projects.
Sometimes these projects take years to achieve a desired outcome, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see immediate change.
A good example is the recent civics bill that passed and was signed into law this year.
9 years ago, I was 16 years old and a part of a group called Teens Leading The Way (TLTW). We were teenagers from across the state who decided that we were going to file a bill that would require civic education in every school district in MA. We thought it was a problem that only some fortunate students were exposed to the inner workings of government and democracy in Massachusetts.
We fought hard as teens. We filed a bill, gained 48 bipartisan cosponsors, mounted a campaign, testified in hearings, and made history by presenting the first hip-hop testimony during a bill hearing here on Beacon Hill.
The bill did not make it through the process. We had “failed.”
Yet, what we didn’t realize was that “success” on civic projects is not that simple—it comes in many forms.
Yes, success on a civic project is achieving your ultimate outcome—a bill, law, policy or practice going into effect.
Success on a civic project is also the effect of changing hearts and minds.
Success on a civic project is the outcome of inspired people.
A successful civic project creates a sense of purpose for those who perhaps had none.
Success on a civic project is defined not only by how far you advanced your issue, but by how many people you empowered and inspired along the way.
It took us 8+ years to get civics education signed into law. However, what few of us had realized was that we had already succeeded. Several members of Teens Leading The Way (TLTW) are now involved in politics as advocates, elected officials, and staff.
It took 8 years, but-- change is hard—otherwise it wouldn’t be real change.
The experience that came with the civic education legislation taught me that I not only had a place in our democracy, but a responsibility.
My path took me to Boston University where I double majored in political science and international relations. Two of those semesters I spent interning right here on the House and Senate side. I then decided to leave campus twice to study abroad, which I recommend that you all do if you can. I studied abroad in Spain and interned at the US Embassy in Madrid, helping small and medium sized U.S. businesses export their products to Spain.
As I approached my final year of college, I decided to spend my second semester of senior year in Washington D.C. I was looking for internships in Congress, the State Department or the White House realizing that I was competing with some of the country’s most talented students. I didn’t have a 4.0 GPA or go to Harvard or Yale (nothing wrong with that by the way) and I was from this random place called Haverhill, MA. At the time, I wasn’t even sure if I should apply and potentially waste my time.
Yet, my mom has a saying “Soñar no cuesta nada.”
Which translates to “Dreaming doesn’t cost you anything.”
So I applied for a White House internship and they were crazy enough to accept me. I spent about 6 months interning for Barack Obama at the White House, working on issues related to Cuba, immigration, education and more.
If I had not even applied, that door would have never been opened.
And so students-- never close any door. Never rule out any opportunity. Hustle humbly. And be motivated by the convictions that are true to who you are.
In the age of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat – we live in a time where it’s easy to seek instant satisfaction, approval, or digital love. (By the way, my account is @RepAndyVargas so follow me…)
And while these platforms can be forces for good, they have also created an increased desire and yearning for authenticity.
The digital age has allowed us to create the profile of the human we wish to be, sometimes at the cost of who we really are. And that is dangerous, because the most powerful tool you have in your civic toolbox is your story, your narrative, your authentic self.
To quote the great 21st century poet, Drake – “Know yourself, know your worth.”
There were times in my life where I felt like I might had forgotten that---
Times where the intensity and emphasis of your work, the demands of society cause us to focus more on WHAT you’re trying to achieve versus WHY you’re trying to achieve that.
The why is not equally important as the what. It’s more important.
When I started focusing on why I wanted to be involved in politics and government, my path became clearer.
Our culture has a way of giving us checklists for specific careers or goals that often cause us to lose self-reflection and true purpose. There was a point in my life where I thought I was supposed to work in DC for 3 or 4 years if I truly wanted to have a career in government or politics. Where did that thought come from? Not from me, but from the culture of career checklists.
Instead, I set time aside to reflect. To think about why I even wanted to be in politics to begin with.
I kept coming back to the fact that my hometown of Haverhill wasn’t the easiest place to grow up in. I started doing some research and noticed that teachers were organizing in Haverhill because they were the lowest paid in the state. I dug some more and noticed that Haverhill was sixth in the state for opioid overdose deaths. That 1 in 5 residents in Haverhill are Latino and close to 40% of our public-school students are Latino—yet there was not one person of color elected to the City Council, Mayor, school committee, dog catcher, you name it. To top it off, the average age of our elected officials was 61.
In short, I made my own checklist. Instead of staying in DC or moving to a big city where most millennials feel the need to go, I came back home and I ran for City Council at 21 years old.
We ran a creative and scrappy campaign. We worked twice as hard and we won, becoming the city’s first Latino elected official.
I served on the City Council for two years and now serve as State Representative.
My point is that this doesn’t happen without self-reflection, pause, and deepening my understanding of who I am and why I wanted to go into politics.
Never lose sight of your why. Never lose the curiosity of learning more about yourself and the things that authentically motivate you.
As you all prepare to hold the keys to our democracy, remember that this thing only works if we all participate—and participate in an authentic manner.
Democracy works best when we are focused more on outcomes for our most vulnerable, and less on feeling personally self-righteous.
Democracy only works when the voice of the voiceless are heard, the pain of the painful are felt, and the actions of government are morally just.