Carol Larson Delivers UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Commencement Address

Carol Larson, President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, delivered the commencement address for the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health on June 15, 2018. Below is the commencement address text as prepared for delivery.

Good afternoon, Dean Heymann, faculty, friends and families. Most important, Good afternoon and congratulations to the 2018 graduates of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health! I am honored to share this day with you; Royce hall is abuzz! Just seeing you, is moving in and of itself.

Graduations this year, 2018, are particularly poignant for me! You see, it is almost exactly 40 years to the day that I sat in your chair, having just completed my graduate work—law school. Yes, 2018 is my 40th reunion year! So, I am particularly reflective about what it felt like to be 25 and having just completed my graduate work.

As my daughters have asked me, “Mom, what have you learned over these 40 years? What advice would you give to this year’s graduates? That is a daunting question. I start by remembering what I felt like in 1978. I was excited, but also scared. I was proud, but also uncertain. I knew I would be coming here to Los Angeles for one year to clerk for a judge, but I had no idea what I would be doing after that. Some of you may be in same position: you know your one next step, but you have no idea beyond that. If someone had come up to me as I sat in the courtyard that Spring Day in New Haven and tapped me on my shoulder and said, “40 years from now, you will be president of one of the country’s largest foundations and will have the chance to be the commencement speaker for the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health,” well, I would have fallen off my chair! The career that led me here was something I never even imagined.

My main message today: One can’t predict or control the context or the events or the opportunities of your lifetime. But, one can shape how you show up in the world. There is the popular phrase: 80% of success is showing up. But, I disagree. On this graduation day, my message is that 100% of success is about how you show up. I have learned over the 40 years, that if we pay attention to how we show up, we will have a joyful, productive, and impactful life. Let me share some stories about the attributes I have appreciated in my own life, and have seen the power of in others.

First, show up with gratitude. I remember the gratitude I felt for my mom and my dad that day in 1978. They had sacrificed a lot to give me the opportunities I had. They also carried with them that day a letter from my grandfather, a farmer in rural Minnesota. It was a long way away from his life to the graduation stage of an east coast law school; the world I had already experienced was so different from anything he had imagined. He and my grandmother, with my dad, had driven me back east to law school three years earlier. And, my grandma had even bought me a mop and made sure my dorm room was clean. Does that sound familiar to any of you? But, it was clearly a different world for them. Three years later, on graduation day, they couldn’t make the trip, and my grandpa wrote a note instead: “You sure have made a wonderful life for yourself. All the places you have been and all the great people you have met.” You sure have made a wonderful life for yourself? I already knew then, like you know today, that I had not made this life for myself. My parents, friends, grandparents, teachers, mentors all had played a part. Dean Heymann told me that 20% of you are the first-generation graduates in your family. That is so wonderful! You too know, that you have had opportunities that your parents and grandparents never even dreamed of, and that many others sacrificed to get you here. It’s important to remember that not only today, but throughout your life. My dad and brother are here today, and their support for me didn’t stop in 1978. I continue to be so grateful to them. Your debts of gratitude, too, will continue to build for those who are sitting with you today.

But living life in gratitude is not just important on graduation day. It matters throughout life, and in every arena. Remembering my interdependence on others, helped me learn the skills of being a CEO. When you first get that title, you can think, “Oh, I can do this!” but you quickly learn, it’s not about what you do, but about what others do with you. It takes a team. Remembering gratitude for others, also maximizes your chance of bringing about social change—in the vast majority of cases, the meaningful change that I have seen over the last 40 years did not occur through singular, individual heroic efforts, but through consistent, tenacious teamwork. You have a lot to pay forward. A good leader never forgets their roots, or the importance of those who shaped them. A good leader never forgets those who opened doors for them, and commits to opening doors for others.

Yes, it matters how you show up: show up with courage. Speak your truth. Some of us are introverts, some extroverts, but in both the big and small moments of life, it is important to have the courage to speak your truth. The same farmer grandpa who wrote me that note, taught me a lesson about this, too. Back in 1977, I had a summer job with a law firm in Minneapolis. They celebrated my last day with them by taking me to a special lunch to invite me to join the firm after I finished law school. We walked a few blocks and looked into a stately dining room: dark wood, green leather and shining brass. But, we didn’t sit in that room. Instead, we headed up a side stairway to a bright and sunny room, with white tablecloths and flowers. Lunch went well; I was delighted to have the job offer. But, when I returned to the law firm offices that day, another young lawyer told me that the room where I ate—the sunny bright one—was the woman’s dining room. Incredibly, to make me an offer, the law firm had taken me to a private club that discriminated against women and a special dining room where women were “allowed.” Well, I wasn’t going to rock the boat. I was going to go back to law school and pursue my studies. But, that weekend, I did make the 100-mile drive to visit my grandparents, and my grandfather set me on the right course, “you go back there” he said, “and tell them that was not right.” It was in many ways, a small moment, but those small moments about how you show up add up in your life, both in personal and professional matters, it is important to have the courage to speak your truth.

Well, after law school, I did that clerkship, and then I did not go back to that Minneapolis firm. Instead, I began work here in Los Angeles at a nonprofit serving persons with developmental disabilities. There, every day, I really saw examples of the power of how you show up; showing up with courage. The Right to Education for the Handicapped Act had recently passed Congress, and parents had new rights to advocate for better educational services for their children. Those parents were amazing. Congress provided the law, but the parents provided the courage. It took real courage for parents to go back to the schools and tell the officials, “how you are treating my child is not right; you need to do more.”

You, graduates already speak your truth—about race, about gender, about inequities, about rights. It is important that you do that, in big and small ways, throughout your life. It matters that you show up with courage and a willingness to speak your truth.

Third, show up with respect. After the nonprofit, I practiced civil commercial litigation here in LA. Then, in 1989, I followed my heart and shifted back to the nonprofit sector, going to work at the Packard Foundation.  All of a sudden, I had the privilege of directing real dollars to help nonprofits improve communities and people’s lives. What an incredible opportunity!  As a grantmaker, you soon realize that you are one step removed, and that there is a true power imbalance, between you—who has resources—and nonprofits who desperately need those resources. That gap, that distance, can really distort your perspective, and lead you to make grants that are not relevant and not effective. At Packard Foundation, we believe a fundamental requirement for effective work is showing up with respect—for nonprofit organizations and for the people they seek to serve. Respect begins with listening, deep listening. The philanthropic field is still working to improve how we do that. But at the Packard Foundation, I know our practices are better when we gather feedback from nonprofits and those they serve and when we shape approaches in partnership with these organizations. How you show up matters; you need to show up with respect, beginning with listening.

I believe that these cautions are good for those working in public health, too. Many of you will find yourself in careers where you spend your day analyzing data, working with systems, and developing policies. You can quickly get far removed from the very people you seek to help; that can be especially true when you take on management roles. But beware. Don’t stop listening to those you seek to help; build constant feedback loops for listening and then adapting your work.

Fourth, show up with heart. I just talked about going beyond paper and policies to listen respectfully to others. But, another life lesson for me over these 40 years has been how important it is to show up with an open heart. Melinda Gates, speaking at another commencement, urged the graduates to “let your heart break.” It’s too easy over the decades of your career, to become so busy and “knowledgeable,” so adept at analysis and articulation, that you stop feeling. Guard against that. Open your heart to the feelings, needs, life experiences of those you seek to help. I was reminded of this again on a recent trip to Mississippi and Louisiana. Our Foundation works in those states to increase access to reproductive health services. On paper, the numbers clearly show the barriers to women, especially women of color, to quality and affordable reproductive health care. But, it is an entirely different experience, when you take steps to not only read about the situation, but to feel it. On a recent trip to those states, I visited crowded waiting rooms where young women had traveled long distances, taken time off from work, borrowed money, and now faced a long wait to receive basic reproductive health services. Even worse, they sometimes had to walk through picket lines of people yelling at them because they were seeking family planning and, in some cases, abortion services at the only remaining clinic in Mississippi. These were barriers to health care that I had never faced. It is important for me, and all of us, to feel that different reality, and to let our hearts break. Empathy, leads us to listen more, care more, learn more.

Again, there are likely parallels with careers in public health. Many of you will work on the ground and in the community, directly with people, and your heart will break every day. But, many of you will go right to work in agencies and governments and academia. Whatever kind of work, throughout your career: stop, listen, see, feel, let your heart break.

Finally, show up with optimism. Clear eyed and pragmatic, yes, but optimism. The kind of optimism that acknowledges and celebrates the progress of the past, but also propels you to work harder for the future. I love the statement on the UCLA Optimists website: “AT UCLA, optimism is a doubt defying state of mind. It’s California dreaming blended with daring, impactful doing.” As I look back on the 40 years since I graduated, in every area, I have restless optimism. There is progress to acknowledge, but also so much more to do.

There are so many areas of progress we could talk about, but let me just elaborate on one, climate change and stemming greenhouse gas emissions. There has been incredible progress. Back in 1978, in Los Angeles there were nearly 150 days when the air was so unhealthy that all children were supposed to “discontinue all vigorous outdoor activities regardless of duration,” including “physical education classes, sports practices, and athletic competitions.” Today, air quality this unhealthy almost never occurs in Los Angeles. Looking globally, back in 1978, climate change was little understood or discussed. Today, 196 countries have signed the Paris Agreement with the goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and more than 150 countries have made pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, we need to do so much more.  We need to go much further and faster. But this is possible. Look at what is happening this year. Despite abandonment at a federal level, there is real progress! The cities, states and businesses of this country refuse to go back. In September, there will be the California Climate Summit where thousands of leaders from around this country and the world, will gather to share ideas and renew commitments to go further and faster. Many of them will have public health backgrounds and will be working at local, state, or global levels to stem climate change and the deleterious effects on health. Now that is an example of “California Dreaming blended with daring, impactful doing!”

So my advice, life is not simply about showing up, it is about how you show up. And showing up with these five attributes—gratitude, courage, respect, heart, and optimism—will help you greet the world you meet throughout your career with joy and success.

But, what will that world be like—the one you enter with your newly minted public health degree? You are entering the field of public health at the perfect time. The progress of the past, allows acceleration for the future. We also need you more than ever to help shape this world. We need your systems thinking and command of data if we are to contain Ebola and Zika, address climate change, or address the domestic crises of mental health, opioid addiction, gun violence. We need your commitment to equity: a commitment to not just privileged health for the rich, but quality public health for all. We need your focus on the power of science.  We will only succeed if we are rigorous in protecting evidence and scientific integrity. We need your cross-boundary thinking. Take climate change. It is connected to health, to gender equity, to income inequality, and if we are going to make progress, we need those of you trained and committed to cross boundary thinking. Yes, you are entering the right profession at the right time. That’s one reason why we are all here today, celebrating you and urging you on.

I bet you can’t even imagine yourself 40 years from now. I bet that seems awfully old—as it did to me back in 1978. The good news, is that it isn’t! What will your forty years bring you? Where will you be on your 40th reunion? I don’t know. You don’t know. I am sure there will be twists and turns. But, I do know you will show up. And if you pay attention to how you show up, you will live a joyful, productive, and impactful life.

Thank you for letting me share this day with you. In the words of my grandfather: “You sure have made a wonderful life for yourself. All the places you have been and all of the great people you have met.” Now, go forth, with gratitude, courage, respect, heart, and optimism. All the best on life’s journey!