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50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act of 1964

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HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Washington, DC
June 20, 2014

One of the things that I’m enjoying most in my first two weeks is getting to know HHS’s great leaders, like Leon [Rodriguez], as well as getting to be part of the great communities that we have here at HHS, like the folks who are working in our Office of Civil Rights. So that’s a great part of my first two weeks –and actually today, Friday, is the end of my first two weeks.

And I wanted to be sure and join everyone here on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, because I believe at the very core, this is what the mission of our Department is all about: making sure, as was said, that all of us have equal opportunity to obtain those building blocks that lead to healthy and productive lives.   

HHS and Civil Rights

And in a sense, I actually think our entire Department is a civil rights organization:

Giving every child the opportunity for a healthy start through Head Start and early childhood initiatives – this is a civil rights issue. 

NIH’s important work to promote diversity in biomedical research, science, and the workforce that does that research – that’s a civil rights issue.

ACL’s fight against elder abuse and neglect is a civil rights issue.  Their recent appointment of an envoy to the Holocaust-survivor community is a civil rights issue.

The Office for Civil Rights’ work to protect the rights of LGBT Americans is a civil rights issue.

The work that so many people do at this Department to close the disparities in health care and expand access to affordable care is a civil rights issue.

Medicare for our parents and our grandparents, and Medicaid for some of our most vulnerable neighbors – and later today I’ll be speaking at an event honoring the 15the anniversary of the Olmstead decision, which said that people with disabilities shouldn’t have to choose between the support they need and the home they love.  That, too, is a civil rights issue.

Impact and The Boss

All of the work I’ve just described delivers impact every day to millions of people. And one thing about me that you can pretty much be assured is that you’re never going to hear from me without hearing the word “impact.”  It’s why I do what I do, and just like you all, my focus every day is on delivering impact for the American people that we serve.

I have a picture in my office of a little Senegalese girl and her name is Indeye, and she is 2 years old.  And she’s sitting in a little bucket.  This picture I take with me where ever I go but when I was at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I got this picture made into a card and so  everybody who joined my team got a note from me saying welcome to the team and I’m excited about the impact you’re going to deliver for The Boss.  So what we called this little girl was The Boss.

That picture every day was supposed to help you focus on who you were there to serve and the impact we wanted to deliver. And so we referred to her as The Boss. At first, Bill and Melinda had a little trouble with that. But they got over it very quickly, and everyone in the entire organization referred to Indeye, this small child, as The Boss.

I mention this story because I know it’s about how we get up every day and focus on impact. And our boss is every American who depends on us, those families, who are just looking for a fair shot, and who want to build futures without having to worry about discrimination or prejudice. That’s who we’re working for every day. 

Conclusion

The Civil Rights Act was and is a crucial tool to help make sure that the equality our great nation deserves gets delivered. But it takes more than a law. It takes the actions of each of us as individuals.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that something as important as the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement was ignited by something as simple as a seat on a bus.

But like all great things, the fight to end segregation and discrimination in America was about things both large and small: big things like whether or not we are one nation, who we can love … what kind of education our children are allowed to have … and small things like where we eat, coupled with the courage by just a few people to make something right.

Each of us, in the work that we do and in the way that we live our own lives, must be a part in continuing to make the Civil Rights Act and the dream of Martin Luther King a reality.

Thank you.