Skip to main content

Melinda Gates: Creating a Brotherhood

Commencement speaker says making a difference begins with recognizing the 'boundless dignity of all people'

Part of the Commencement 2013 Series

Melinda Gates echoed Martin Luther King's call to turn our global neighborhood into a brotherhood. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

President Brodhead, Trustees, members of the Duke University Community, thank you for inviting me to come back to my alma mater for this important occasion. I am grateful for the honorary degree, and moved by the opportunity to address the graduating seniors.

To the Class of 2013: Let me start by saying congratulations ...

... and by reminding you to thank your mothers and wish them a happy Mothers' Day ...

... and by admitting that I'm still bitter about the Louisville game.

I was a student here in 1986 when Coach K took the team to the finals for the first time. We lost to Louisville then, too, so you and I share that particular agony.

However, you had the good fortune to be here on campus when Duke won its fourth national championship.

I never got to see us cut down the nets, but I did see us beat UNC, in Chapel Hill, when Michael Jordan was the star of the team.

The fact that Michael Jordan recently turned 50 years old tells you how long it's been since I was a student.

No matter how much time passes, though, I always feel connected to Duke. I love visiting my favorite landmarks, especially the Duke Gardens, where I used to go when I was stressed out before exams and needed to clear my head. I went yesterday, because I wanted to make sure I was centered before giving this speech.

There's also my feeling of deep connection to the community my classmates created during our four years, and to the lifelong friends I made here -- in short, to the people. I doubt there is a word that captures the combination of experiences and places and people that we summarize under the label "Duke." The best one I can think of is "connected." And this is a word I'd like to talk about for a few minutes on your Commencement Day. 

In August, 1982, I left my home in Dallas, Texas, to come here to Durham. To mark this rite of passage, my parents gave me a terrific present: the cutting-edge Olympus B12 portable typewriter, with a carrying case included. One of its best features was how light it was: Amazingly, the whole bundle weighed just 12 pounds!

It was during my time at Duke that the personal computer displaced the typewriter as the technology of choice on campus. Those of us in the computer science department actually resented the change. There were so few computers available, and all of a sudden the humanities majors were hogging our machines to write their papers.

We had to do our programming in the middle of the night, usually in the creepy basement of the old biological science building. We'd set up contests -- who programmed the fastest or made the fewest mistakes -- kind of like a prehistoric hack-a-thon. The punishment for the losers was a trip to the biology lab at the end of the hall, where they had to touch the scariest mutant frog specimens.



The personal computer -- and later, after I'd graduated and taken a job at Microsoft, the Internet -- started a communications revolution. My kids are a few years younger than you, but raising them has proved to me that the way you communicate is the single biggest difference between you now and me a generation ago.

One popular way of describing this aspect of your lives is to say that you're "connected." Some pundits have even started to refer to you as Generation C. One recent report overdid the c-thing by saying you are "connected, communicating, content-centric, community-oriented, always clicking." It went on to say that, for these reasons alone, you will "transform the world as we know it."

Of course, all the hype about how connected you are has contributed to a counter-narrative -- that, in fact, your generation is increasingly disconnected from the things that matter. The arguments go something like this: Instead of spending time with friends, you spend it alone, collecting friend requests. Rather than savoring your food, you take pictures of it and post them on Facebook.

I want to encourage you to reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world. Please don't let anyone make you believe you are somehow shallow because you like to update your status on a regular basis.

The people who say technology has disconnected you from others are wrong. So are the people who say technology automatically connects you to others. Technology is just a tool. It's a powerful tool, but it's just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It's not a tool. It's not a means to an end. It is the end -- the purpose and the result of a meaningful life -- and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity.

In his famous speech "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood."

With 50 years of hindsight, I think it's fair to say Dr. King was premature in calling the world a neighborhood. Back then, Americans lumped whole continents into something they referred to as the Third World, as if the people on the other side of the planet were an undifferentiated mass whose defining feature was that they were not like us.

But as a result of the ongoing communications revolution, your world really can be a neighborhood. So the ethical commitment Dr. King spoke of is yours to live up to.

What does it mean to make of this world a brotherhood and a sisterhood? That probably sounds like a lot to ask of you as individuals, or even as a graduating class. I'm pretty sure none of you will respond to the annoying question "What are you going to do after graduation?" by saying "I plan to have the ethical commitment to make of this world a brotherhood."

But you can change the way you think about other people. You can choose to see their humanity first -- the one big thing that makes them the same as you, instead of the many things that make them different from you.

It is not just a matter of caring about people. I assume you already do that. It's much harder to see all people, including people whose experiences are very different from yours, as three-dimensional human beings who want and need the same things you do. But if you can really believe that all 7 billion people on the planet are equal to you in spirit, then you will take action to make the world more equal for everyone.



Paul Farmer, the Duke graduate I admire most, is a testament to the deep human connection I'm talking about. As many of you know, Paul, who's here today, is a doctor and global health innovator. For years, he travelled back and forth from Boston, where he is a professor of medicine, to Haiti, where he ran a health clinic giving the highest quality care to the poorest people in the world. Now, he lives mostly in Rwanda, where he's working on changing the country's entire health care system.

I first met Paul in 2003, when I went to see him in Haiti. It took us forever to walk the 100 yards from our vehicle to the clinic because he introduced me to every single person we met along the way. I am not exaggerating. Every single person.

As we moved along, he introduced each person to me by first and last name, wished their families well, and asked for an update about their lives. He hugged people when he greeted them and looked them in the eyes throughout each conversation. If you believe love plays a role in healing, there was healing happening at every step of that journey.

When we finally reached the waiting area outside the clinic, I saw a lovely garden with a canopy of flowering vines. Paul told me he built it himself, for two reasons. First, he said, it gets hot, and he wants to his patients to be cool in the shade while they wait. Second, he wants them to see what he sees, the beauty of the world, before they have to go into the clinic for treatment.

The next day, I visited a different clinic in Haiti. The clinic was there for the same reason as Paul's -- to provide poor people with the medical care they desperately need but cannot afford. The doctors worked there for all the right reasons. But I noticed that the patients were waiting outside in the scorching sun. Inside, it felt like the doctors considered themselves health providers, and the patients were recipients. There was no sense, as there was in Paul's clinic, of an equal partnership with the community.

Experiencing those two clinics one right after the other showed me that Paul made a moral choice to do the hard work of deep connection. He took the time to do the little things: provide shade, remember surnames, and make eye contact. These small acts were born of a big idea -- the boundless dignity of all people.


Of course, not everybody is Paul Farmer. Not everybody is going to dedicate their whole life to connecting with the poorest people in the world. But just because you don't qualify for sainthood doesn't mean you can't form deep human connections -- or that your connections can't make a difference in the world.

That's where technology comes in. If you make the moral choice to connect deeply to others, then your computer, your phone, and your tablet make it so much easier to do.

Today, there are 700 million cell phone subscribers in Africa. I travelled to Kenya recently and spent a day in Kibera, which many people consider the largest slum in Africa. One image that sticks with me is all the cell phones piled up in a small kiosk where locals paid to recharge their batteries. Most people in Kibera don't have electricity -- even the cell phone charging businesses steal it from the city's power grid -- but everywhere I looked young people were on their phones. And guess what they were doing? Exactly what you do ... they were texting.

You and they can share your stories directly with each other, with literally billions of people, because you're all using the same technology.

On the Internet, you can also immerse yourselves in one another's lives -- read what the other is reading, listen to what the other is listening to, and watch what the other is watching. You can learn their language, and they can learn yours. You can find out how to cook one another's recipes. And then you can photograph the final product and post it on Facebook!

Nobody expects you to wake up tomorrow and randomly Skype someone in Nairobi. And sometimes it's wise to ignore emails from strangers in Nigeria offering to split a large fortune with you!

But over the course of your lives, I promise you will have many opportunities to use technology to make your world bigger: to meet more different kinds of people, and to keep in touch with more of the people you meet.

These connections are important by themselves, but the truth is, I don't want you to connect for connection's sake alone. I want you to connect because I believe it will inspire you to do something, to make a difference in the world. Humanity in the abstract will never inspire you in the same way as human beings you meet. Poverty is not going to motivate you. But people will motivate you.



When my husband Bill and I started our foundation, we didn't know much about global health at all. I read the academic literature and talked to experts in the field. But most of what I learned was expressed in morbidity and mortality rates, not in flesh and blood. So in 2001, I took my first foundation learning trip, to India and Thailand, to meet with people and find out what their lives were really like behind the veil of statistics.

One of my first visits was to a tiny, impoverished village in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. I spent most of my day talking to women about the issues we were working on at the foundation: women and children's health, infectious diseases, and sanitation.

Late in the afternoon, one of the women who'd been showing me around invited me into her home. We went inside and she produced two lawn chairs that were hanging from a nail in her kitchen. They were the aluminum folding kind with the itchy fabric seat you've sat on a million times, quite possibly when you were tenting in Krzyzewskiville. When I was growing up in Dallas, we had the same chairs. On Sunday nights in the summer, my parents and my siblings and I used to set them up on our back patio and gaze up into the sky together as a family.

It turned out my host wanted to show me her stunning view of the Himalayas, and as we sat and contemplated the planet's highest peaks, we talked about our children and the future. Our aspirations were basically the same. We wanted our children to fulfill their potential. We wanted the love and respect of family and friends. We wanted meaningful work. The biggest difference between us was not what we dreamt about, but how hard it was for her to make her dreams come true.

Some people assume that Bill and I are too rich to make a connection with someone who's poor, even if our intentions are good. But adjectives like rich and poor don't define who any of us truly are as human beings. And they don't make any one individual less human than the next. The universe is like computer code in that way. Binary. There is life, and there is everything else. Zeroes and ones. I'm a one. You're a one. My friend in the Himalayas is a one.

Martin Luther King was not a computer programmer, so he called this concept a brotherhood. His hope was that college students could bring a brotherhood into being. Dr. King thought the world had shrunk as much as it was going to shrink -- in his words, we'd "dwarfed distance and placed time in chains." So the fact that people still didn't treat each other like brothers and sisters was, to him, an ethical failure.

I take a slightly different view. I believe we are finally creating the scientific and technological tools to turn the world into a neighborhood. And that gives you an amazing ethical opportunity no one has ever had before.

You can light up a network of 7 billion people with long-lasting and highly motivating human connections.

You have spent four years at one of the world's finest universities acquiring the knowledge and skills to succeed at everything you do.

So what will you do?

I hope you will use to the tool of technology to do what you already had it in your heart to do ... To connect ... To make of this world a brotherhood ... and a sisterhood ...

I can't wait to see what it looks like when you do.

Congratulations again.