Vice President Kamala Harris embraced her opportunity to address the Class of 2021 graduation of the esteemed United States Naval Academy with pride, enthusiasm, and clear messages with her presence as well as with her words.
Her very presence as the first black female to address the Naval Academy commencement summoned in the new era that she reminded these graduates they are entering. She also made it personal, explaining that she lives in the Naval Observatory, her military aide is a USNA graduate (class of 2004), and her office is made in part of timber from the U.S.S. Constitution.
Harris’s demeanor was an example for each of us of how to be present with a group and make each person feel valued. From her beaming smile and occasional laugh, to her preparation in learning about their experience, to the way she acknowledged the power of the moment. As she gave a firm handshake to every single one of the 1084 members of the Class of 2021, she made direct eye contact with them, being almost maternal with them, and demonstrating the unique power of women’s leadership.
Especially in this very masculine environment—overwhelmingly and historically (white) male Navy—her embodiment of this strong, intelligent, serious yet gracefully feminine way of being powerful without being intimidating literally embodied the era these graduates are entering. The USNA Class of 2021 is approximately 30% female (of the 1084 graduates, 306 are female). Founded in 1845, the Academy allowed women in starting in 1980 and over 6,300 women have graduated from it since, including the Class of 2021.
Clear messages of what the “new era” is, and how they are prepared
Harris laced her remarks with clear messages, such as when she said, “We are at a significant turning point. Just look at the last several months and you know what I’m talking about,” which seemed to be a way of referencing the January 6th insurrection and the sinister forces behind it without actually mentioning it.
Even the “turning points” in American history she chose to delineate sent a message: the stock market crash of 1929, “the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941…the Civil Rights Act in 1964,” the fall of the Berlin wall, and 9-11. Most white male leaders do not, for example, include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in their list of key turning points in America.
Sending the clear signal to think about today’s turning point through a values lens, Harris added, “Some of these critical moments. our nation was compelled to take a hard look at both our priorities. and our preparedness.”
Another key message in Harris’ speech was the impact of the pandemic: “The global pandemic you see, of course has accelerated what was happening before and it has accelerated our world into a new era. It has forever impacted our world. It has forever influenced our perspective, and if we weren’t clear before we know now. Our world is interconnected, our world is interdependent, and our world is fragile.” She described the threats in this new era as cyberattacks, election interference, infrastructure risks, and climate change too.
But she boosted their confidence in the face of these daunting challenges by reminding them that, “You are prepared for all of this. You are prepared for this new era. You are prepared for any threat.” Harris said, “You are ocean engineers who will help navigate ships through thinning ice. You are mechanical engineers who will help reinforce sinking bases. You are electrical engineers who will soon help convert solar and wind energy into combat power.”
She pointed out the opportunities in addressing these threats as well, including how military innovations to combat climate change improve servicemembers’ performance, such as how solar panels in lieu of heavy batteries reduces the weight servicemembers need to carry.
Harris implored them to remember the seriousness of the oath they take to democracy during this ceremony, when they take their oath to the Constitution and are sworn in as commissioned Navy Ensigns or Marine Corps ground officers: “Promise… that you will never forget that you stand for duty honor. loyalty. Fight for those ideals and fight for our democracy.”
“Remember, our Constitution is not only something to defend,” Harris instructed. “It is a guide. It is a guide for your service. It begins with three simple words. ‘We the people.’ Not ‘I’. Our nation was designed to be a team sport. and we are in this together.”
As an example of that commitment, she invoked the spirit of the late Senator John McCain, a revered Naval Academy alum, who sacrificed so much for this country during Vietnam, saying she stopped at his gravesite on her way to the Academy for this ceremony. (Harris, a Democratic leader, paying tribute to McCain, a revered Republican leader, sent various subtle messages too.)
An exclamation point on the uniqueness of this moment was when Harris – the first black female to address the Naval Academy and the first black female Vice President of the United States – shook hands with the first 2021 USNA graduate in the long line of them receiving their diplomas this day: Sydney Barber, the first black female Brigadier Commander of a Naval Academy class.
A turning point full of messages.
Congratulations Naval Academy Class of 2021!
[Full disclosure: My great-great uncle, Albert Abraham Michelson, the first U.S. scientist to win the Nobel Prize (1907, physics, speed of light), was a Naval Academy alum (1873) and professor. The mathematics and science building, Michelson Hall, at the Academy is named after him.]
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.