Fifty years ago this week, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated during one of the most tumultuous years in our nation’s history.
I am almost ashamed to admit that, until recently, I had neither read nor heard what may be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American leader.
Two years before his tragic death, Robert Kennedy addressed members of the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town, South Africa. The themes and ideas presented that day compelled me to reflect on what it meant to be a young person in Connecticut.
That speech rejected “obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans” in favor of hope and youth. As Kennedy said, “[t]his world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
Those words are as fitting now as they were then.
No citizen can afford to remain on the sideline in matters of policy and principle. Our collective future is inherently uncertain, and we rest upon an assumption of future security and economic strength at our peril.
If we want progress, we must work for it. If we desire stability, we must invest in it. If we yearn for Connecticut to be an inclusive place, full of hope and opportunity for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, we must open our hearts and minds to new ideas, and to each other.
Today, if Connecticut is to move toward a brighter future, it must demand in its next generation of leaders the qualities Robert Kennedy envisioned. The young people of our state will play a central role in reimagining the future of Connecticut.
Across the country, young people are volunteering, dedicating their lives to a career in policy, and building businesses that are becoming the anchors of communities. Most important, young people are making sure their voices are being heard. Standing up for justice and equality has become a hallmark of my generation, and that must continue.
My generation must show the moral courage to reject political expediency in pursuit of big and innovative ideas that will reinvigorate our state. My generation must be the most inclusive in our history, understanding that we are at our best as a society when all communities are heard and represented.
At the national level, more than any time in recent memory, the temptation to believe that nothing matters pervades our society. At the state and local level, the narrative about Connecticut makes it seem as if nothing can be done to improve our home. We must remember that we are the masters of our destiny, and that great challenges are only ever overcome by daring to take them on. The work is often tedious and thankless, without the glamour or fame we think we see in the newspaper or on television. It is vital nonetheless. It makes a difference. The consequences of apathy are dramatic. So too are the consequences of taking action.
The demographic shift we are witnessing as Millennials become the largest share of the working and voting population is not merely a change in the statistical makeup of America. It represents a profound moment, a passing of the torch in the solemn responsibility of stewardship of our political and economic wellbeing.
It is, in essence, a new chapter in the life of our American republic, and the foundation upon which another generation of Americans will someday build.
In Connecticut, young people must be up to the task at hand. I believe we are.
Don Bell, of East Hartford, is director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.