Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, NEA Chair

NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD was the keynote speaker at the 2024 Commencement ceremony for the Unversity of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy on May 10, 2024. Below are her remarks. 

Watch her address to the class of 2024.

Good morning everyone!

Dean Goldman, I thank you and your staff for including me in this wonderful celebration!

To the graduates in the class of 2024, CONGRATULATIONS! Your years at the USC Price School of Public Policy have been momentous and, today, we gather to celebrate your accomplishments and mark the start of your next chapter.

To the parents, family and friends of the graduates, congratulations and thank you for your support and encouragement. And to the faculty who have shared their wisdom and guidance with our graduates, Thank you! This celebration is for you too!

Graduates, 35 years ago, I stood in a similar place to where you are standing now. A new graduate, trained in public administration and community development here at the University of Southern California in what is now part of the Price School—I was committed to make a difference, committed to building on the work of those who came before me, those who had a vision of a just society with opportunity for everyone—a country that values diversity, inclusivity, kindness, generosity, expression and accountability.

I felt like I had a direction and a charge—a charge left to each of us as stewards and sculptors of our civic infrastructure, as people who help shape communities, towns, cities and our nations—a charge to help ensure that we move toward a future in which all people can thrive and reach their full potential.

I didn’t know how my career would unfold, but I knew that I was on my way and that my education at USC would help me ask good questions and make good choices.

Over the course of my career, I have worked across sectors in public policy, philanthropy, the nonprofit sector and higher education. For much of my career my work has been at the intersection of community uplift and the arts.

I have the honor and privilege to have been appointed by President Biden to serve as the Chair for the National Endowment for the Arts and have been in this position for a bit over two years. From this perch, my role is to help ensure that all people in our nation have access to the arts and their benefits.

I don’t take this responsibility lightly because one thing I know for sure is that none of the things that we say we aspire to as a society of opportunity and justice are possible without the intentional integration of arts, culture, and design into all facets of our lives and the systems we rely on to care for each other.

The arts:

  • help us make sense of the world,
  • offer us different ways of thinking, feeling and being,
  • they are a source of inspiration and innovation,
  • they are key to our resilience and our ability to thrive and, so importantly,
  • the arts help us protect and advance our humanity—see our interconnectedness—and help us recognize our commonalities as well as our meaningful differences. Without question, we are in need of what the arts have to offer now!

Decades ago, when I was starting off in my career, arts and culture was a very niche part of the urban planning and community development discourse (if it was even in the conversation at all… plenty of people considered it superfluous; icing on the cake). My compass guided me on a path, a path I had to help pave. My focus was to bring arts and culture into our concepts of healthy communities—into public policy, urban planning, and equitable comprehensive community development.  

And now, today at the NEA, building on previous work and launching new initiatives, we are showing that arts, culture, creativity—that’s not “icing on the cake,” that’s a critical element of the batter. Alongside recognizing the importance of the arts in expressing and lifting up our humanity, more and more, arts and culture are understood as crucial elements of communities—contributing to our economy, our health and well-being, to our civil discourse and our democracy, and to our social fabric and more. 

At the NEA, as is the case at USC, we are not starting from scratch. Whether it is through the NEA’s long-standing partnerships with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to address traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder among our service members, or tracking the arts sector’s impacts on our economy with the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, or our work with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help communities heal in the wake of disasters, we are relying on the arts to help unlock new opportunities and solutions so that communities can heal and thrive.

Earlier this year, these efforts culminated in the NEA producing a first-of-its kind national summit on the role of arts and culture in our communities. The NEA, in partnership with the White House Domestic Policy Council, jointly convened nearly 500 in-person attendees and more than 3,000 virtual participants, including artists and arts professionals, healthcare workers, philanthropic leaders, and federal, state and local government officials representing agencies overseeing infrastructure, climate change, health and human services, disaster response, education, community development and more. The Surgeon General, Second Gentleman, members of Congress, as well as labor and community leaders gave voice to the many ways arts and culture strengthen their work.

Perhaps the conversation and collaboration between the arts and other fields taking place now would have been considered highly improbable decades ago, but here we are advancing a paradigmatic shift that will help us get unstuck and arrive at new and more nuanced ways of seeing and understanding our conditions, our challenges and opportunities and different ways of designing and implementing impactful solutions.  

Experiencing and participating in the arts provides us with opportunities to connect with each other and practice the habits of democracy. Creating and experiencing art is one of the most powerful ways to develop the skills and habits needed to be curious, to ask questions, and to fulfill the duties of citizenship in a participatory democracy. Through culture and the arts, we build and flex our civic muscles. We improve our capacity to communicate and understand needs, manage differences, and solve communal problems.

So, my message to you is to dream big and stay the course.

You entered the Price School in a time of challenges:

  • A global pandemic
  • Intensifying impacts of climate change
  • Exacerbated inequities in communities that were already marginalized
  • Heightened awareness of injustice
  • A fractured political context that jeopardizes our democracy
  • Global instability 

To be certain, these challenges persist, but please recognize that this is not only a time of challenges. You leave the Price School in a time that is also marked by opportunity—opportunity to question our orthodoxies as we all had to do during the pandemic, opportunity afforded by advancements in technology, and opportunities afforded by understanding the power of urgency and shared humanity.

In this context and in the spirit of the Price School’s statement of core values, you are called “to serve as guardians of the public interest and common good.”

This is a time to lay the foundation of the next version of our society. You have gained tools, developed skills, and are prepared to make a difference. You are the next generation of civic leaders and problem solvers. The arts, culture, and design are a critical part of the solution to some of our nation’s most urgent challenges, and I encourage you to embrace the essential role of the arts in helping to solve national challenges and address local needs.

Seeing you today, I am encouraged and hopeful about our collective future. And as you embark on the next phase of your lives, I want to offer you a few bits of advice. 

First, find and follow your compass. Get clear about what your gifts are; what your work is (not just your job), but your work-- what’s in your heart; and what you know in your gut is your part—Ask yourself what am I supposed to be offering and contributing to the world? And don’t be afraid to ask this of yourself from time to time as your answer may evolve.

Second, as you navigate your career, don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable for a little while. Be willing to stretch and be curious. Lead with questions. Be open-minded. Seek out different perspectives, consider them and even attempt to find connection to what may be foreign and different. 

Third, cultivate a sense and culture of possibility wherever you are. The perch or position that allows you to honor what’s in your heart may not be immediately obvious. And it may not even exist. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do your work. It means that you may have to reinterpret an opportunity, or even invent one.  You may have to pave the path you’ve decided to walk and that won’t always be easy, but, trust me, it’s worthwhile. If that’s the case, try to find joy in that and celebrate the lessons, the victories, large and small, along the way. 

Fourth, find your community. Find the people who help make you better and stronger. The folks who believe in you, who will lovingly hold you accountable, help you see clearly, and always wish you well. Some of them are right here, right now. Others have come long before you, and you stand on their shoulders, you are building on their work, and still others you may not have yet met. When you need to do something that requires courage, imagine them earnestly and steadfastly behind you. They will have your back. 

Fifth, tell your truth. Be nimble, but don’t be distracted by noise and baseless naysayers. Know the terrain and stay focused. 

And last, HAVE FUN! Laugh. Be generous. Be grateful. Have the courage to follow your imagination.  

So, now go forward, walk your path. Know that you have a legion of people rooting for you.   

I can’t wait to see and hear about the wonderful things that you will do.  

Congratulations, Graduates! 

Fight on!