Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by First Lady Jill Biden at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy’s National Summit for Adult Literacy
Good morning. Standing here now, I am thinking of the woman who brings us together today.
Her tenacity. Her wisdom. And most of all, the legacy that she created.
Reading is the foundation of all education. It affects every aspect of our society. And this group, which has done so much to advance literacy in our country, is a powerful testament to First Lady Barbara Bush—how she was able to use her role to change lives for decades to come.
While she was in the White House, thousands of Americans wrote to Mrs. Bush, asking how they could help her literacy efforts. And she would write back saying, “Go out and help a neighbor who needs help, then you’ll be a part of my program.”
Mrs. Bush reminded us that we all have a role to play as we make our communities better and stronger. And she brought Americans from all walks of life together to do just that.
I hope to do the same. Growing up the oldest of five girls—spending my summers watching Phillies baseball games and waitressing at the Jersey Shore to make money for college—I never could have imagined where my life would take me.
That one day I would eat dinner on china that Bess Truman picked out so many years ago. That I would wake up surrounded by priceless pieces of history. Or look out my window to see ancient Magnolias and Maple trees—artifacts of the great minds who built our nation and changed our world.
Like Mrs. Bush, I spent a lot of time at the White House when Joe was Vice President.
But there’s nothing that can prepare you to be First Lady.
We aren’t elected. We have to define this role for ourselves. And we are thrust into the national spotlight in a way I know none of us could have anticipated.
A few months ago, I went to a bakery to buy Valentine’s Day cupcakes and the fact that I wore my hair up in a scrunchie made national news.
Can you believe that? I was so surprised.
As First Lady, everything you say or do carries more weight. And while that can be intimidating at times, it’s also what makes this role special. As Lady Bird Johnson said, it is “a fleeting chance to do something for your country that makes your heart sing.” I just love that.
Mrs. Bush understood the incredible power of this platform.
She chose literacy because she wanted to “help the most people possible.”
She believed that everything she was worried about—from homelessness to hunger and crime—could be tied back to literacy and education. And she was right. It seems obvious to us now, but in 1980, when she chose this issue, it wasn’t obvious.
The last four decades of research have proved what she understood instinctively: That jobs, helping your child through school, or the ability to support your family all require the ability to read.
So she traveled the country. She listened to experts and learned how to tackle the problem. She visited schools and libraries and literacy programs to raise awareness. She launched this Foundation.
Today, the seeds she planted have grown to become a powerful organization with a national strategy to tackle one of the most urgent challenges of our times: adult literacy.
That’s the power of this role.
Mrs. Bush knew that reading could unite all Americans—and that’s a part of why this legacy has endured.
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about another defining moment in her tenure. It’s a story many of you probably know.
When she was invited to be the commencement speaker for Wellesley College, a group of students circulated a protest petition, setting off a media firestorm.
Mrs. Bush responded with grace, saying she understood the students’ concerns—but thought she might have some wisdom to share.
At the speech, she was funny and self-deprecating. She urged the students to respect differences, to be compassionate with one another, and cherish their own identities.
She spoke to them about the things they cared about in their own language—and she ended by inviting them to see her perspective as well.
“Who knows?” she said, “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. And I wish him well!”
Her line brought the house down. She didn’t have to go to the commencement. Many people urged her not to. But there are times when the role of First Lady pushes you to show up, even when it’s uncomfortable—when it calls you to rise to the needs of a moment.
I’ve felt it myself. So far this year, I’ve traveled to 32 states—to get people vaccinated, talk about education and child poverty, and listen to people who have often been ignored.
And people have asked me why. Why go to Mississippi or Alabama or Alaska—why talk to people who will never agree with you?
And the answer is that I’m their First Lady too. There have been times when I’m met with anger or hurt. But I’ve also found that the common values that unite us are deeper than our divisions.
I’ve seen how a kind word or gesture can relax someone’s shoulders just a bit—can open their heart to what you have to say, even if we’ll never agree.
I’ve seen how, despite our differences, families across the country want the same things: the chance to work hard and build a good life for our families.
When our neighbor is sick, we don’t ask who they voted for—we just bring over soup. When we see people in our community struggling—to get to a job interview, to put food on the table, to learn—we offer to babysit. We donate to food banks. We volunteer to help someone learn to read.
We can change the world in big ways and small ones. And Mrs. Bush reminded us that we need both.
We see one of those big ones today—in the work happening through this foundation.
All of you are building coalitions and bringing the best minds in education together to serve our entire country. You are transforming adult literacy for all Americans. It’s incredible.
And as an English teacher—a former reading specialist—I am so grateful for everything you are doing.
But it’s also up to each of us to find the small, everyday ways we can bring our communities together as well.
We never know what’s behind someone’s smile—or how much they might need our kindness and strength. So we must find our own ways to be a shoulder to lean on—or be an ear to listen when someone feels alone.
We have to learn from those we don’t understand. To reach across the divide and find common ground—because that’s where the foundation of our future must be laid.
So, I want to end today with Mrs. Bush’s words: Help a neighbor who needs help. Because we all have a role to play. And the more kindness we give, the more is reflected back on us.
When we listen, learn, and lift up those around us who are struggling, we draw closer to each other—and to a community where everyone has the opportunities they need to thrive.
Despite our differences, we can build a world that would make Mrs. Bush—and all of us—proud.