Clintons, Buttigieg inspire Vanderbilt students, Hillary gets standing ovation

Clintons, Buttigieg inspire Vanderbilt students, Hillary gets standing ovation

We are infinitely stronger together than we will ever be apart.

The message, which resonated through the presentations of former President Bill Clinton, former Senator Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and others, was as forceful as Friday’s Nashville wind.

“The best way to celebrate our differences is to use our different strengths to reach a common good,” Bill Clinton told an audience of about 500.

The political dignitaries — and several activist students — were at Vanderbilt University’s Langford Auditorium on March 3 as part of the Clinton Global Initiative University’s first in-person meeting since 2018. COVID-19 had forced the previous three meetings to Zoom. The plane carrying the former first family was delayed by the severe wind advisory, but the event began on time.

About 780 students from 92 countries and 42 states were scheduled to be in Nashville this weekend for the three-day event in which they would begin work on activism projects that they can continue in their home states.

CGI, founded by Bill Clinton in 2007, has supported more than 11,800 students in more than 160 countries with $4.5 million in funding. The goal is for students to commit to projects to help make communities better and then grow those projects. 

Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier introduced the panel of politicians and activists. He called Nashville the “intellectual hub of the civil rights era” and urged students to debate freely and be attentive when others speak this weekend.

“Great minds need not always agree,” Diermeier said. “We want our students to freely argue their positions … Today’s world needs leaders with the courage not only to speak, but to listen.”

In his opening remarks in the Music City, Clinton highlighted Nashville’s history of change, remembering 63 years ago when John Lewis and Diane Nash led sit-ins to desegregate downtown lunch counters.

“They sparked sit-in protests that spread across America,” Clinton said.

Hillary Clinton’s introduction received the loudest cheer of the night.

“People often see a problem and want somebody to fix it,” she said. “If people decide they can get together something good can happen.”

The evening’s program included the former senator interviewing Buttigeig.

“Your generation will be called on to solve some of the most difficult problems humanity has ever faced,” Buttigieg told the students.

The Transportation Secretary warned against using the phrase “Why don’t they …?” When students could use phrases like “Why don’t I …?” or “Why don’t we …?”

Buttigieg and Hillary Clinton discussed the “alternative narrative” surrounding the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. 

“There was a federal response in the first few hours,” Buttigieg said. He said the Biden administration has been wrongly criticized by people who “are trying to create problems instead of solving them.”

Clinton laughed.

“I know a little bit about receiving criticism,” she said.

Buttigieg talked about the benefits of the $1.3 infrastructure initiative that has already led to the construction of an electric car battery factory in Glendale, Kentucky, and changes at the Nashville Airport. He said he talked to people in Glendale who didn’t care about politics.

“Nobody was talking about red and blue,” he said. “It just didn’t come up.”

The second half of the event was a panel discussion led by Chelsea Clinton, who interviewed young activists like Olivia Julianna (reproductive rights), Georgina Pazcoguin (an arts activists known as the “Rogue Ballerina”), Sukhmeet Singh Sachal (who helped get COVID-19 vaccines to indigenous people in Canada) and Jordan Reeves (an activist for people with disabilities).

“You’re never too young to do something boldly different,” Chelsea Clinton said.

The event attracted people who had already committed to trying to change the world.

Olivia Noell, 19, of Anniston, Alabama, is a Vanderbilt student who sat in the front row. She said she was inspired by Buttigieg and the Clintons.

“I was too young to vote in the 2020 election, but I liked Pete,” she said. “These people have had such an impact on our lives and our government. Pete really inspires me. He’s a trailblazer. He’s the face of calmness and tranquility in such difficult times.”

Samantha Roy, 20, was part of a group of friends who were the first people inside the auditorium. She is working for CGI trying to get banned books reinstated into libraries.

“We’re so lucky to have the Clinton Global Initiative here at Vanderbilt,” she said. “Hillary Clinton could teach me how to be a woman in government. I would love to learn from her.”