45 Years After the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,: Observing an Anniversary

The following remarks are excerpted from a speech I delivered to Carnegie Mellon University on Martin Luther King Day.  Because these are speech excerpts, many citations to quotes are excluded….Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted liberally throughout these remarks. 

….On April 4th of this year, we will observe the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King…since then our country has witnessed  considerable social change and progress in some areas, most notably evidenced in our twice electing a black man to the presidency, the slow but sure increase in the number of women and racial minorities ascending to powerful positions in government, corporations, advisory firms, NGOs and academic institutions, the increase in the number of and societal acceptance of interracial couples, and the slow, but sure recognition of the rights of gay men and women…

Still, as a nation, in many ways we are failing, it is striking how little we have progressed since 1968, almost slipping backward on certain social issues.  Rather than mitigating, or better yet, ending violence of all kinds in our communities and schools, and in our hearts and minds, as Martin Luther King would have wanted us to do, we have allowed it to continue and in many ways to worsen. …. And we have tabled, seemingly indefinitely, our commitment to genuinely improved race relations, to studying and understanding race, racism and the impact of our country’s racist past on society today… 

We are failing to honor the legacy and sacrifice of Dr. King, the freedom fighters, and all those who died in pursuit of the expansion of justice–those men and women who advocated for an end to violence, and for a more thoroughly integrated nation …we are failing to honor the Civil Rights Movement, it’s values, ideals and achievements…and in so failing to honor that legacy, we are failing to remember who we are as a country and our responsibility to build a better future for those coming behind us.

Treating the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as definite and permanent, failing to see that it’s accomplishments, though critically important, were fragile and in need of further support and care…to many of us, too soon, celebrated our freedom and the newfound societal recognition of our humanity…we have grown complacent and relaxed… focused on ourselves, our own lives, our own rights, our own liberties, and have lost sight of what it is to live in community… As a nation, we’ve replaced aspiration with consumption,… we have shortsightedly assumed that the seventh day has come and that for us, it is our time to sit back and rest, when instead we should be investing vigorously in our communities with ever greater vigilance and persistence.

Our nation, I worry, is at risk of losing it’s sense of self, forgetting our values, our character, our resilience and endurance…those things that have made our country what it is and have inspired peoples throughout the world.

Once seen as a beacon of hope, justice, possibility and humanity by our friends and allies around the world, the US is increasingly seen as a violent and dangerous culture…and for good reason:

  • Among the O.E.C.D. countries the World Bank classifies as “high income,” America has the highest gun homicide rate and the highest rate of death due to assault…. America has more homicides by gun than all of the other high income OECD countries combined.
  • If a gun is used during a domestic violence assault, there is a 23 fold increased likelihood that the victim will die.  Women who are victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm.
  • When a person kills another in the US, he or she typically uses a gun.  60% of US homicides involve the use of a gun.
  • In an unwelcome form of American “exceptional-ism”:  America also has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.  While it appears true that the number of households owning guns has declined, the number of guns per household overall, has increased.  According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey, there is an average of 88 guns per 100 people in America. 
  • The website “stoptheshootings.org” has recorded 387 school shootings since 1992, and notes that children between the ages of 5 and 14 in America are thirteen times more likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries.  This should be absolutely unacceptable.  And though no school shootings have been recorded in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, school shootings have occurred in 42 other states.
  • And if these statistics, which I’m sure you’ve heard elsewhere in the days since Newtown, and the months since Aurora…if the above statistics aren’t enough to consider…consider that in the first decade of this still young century, more than 298,000 people died from gun shots in the US.  That is more than 30,000 human beings in this country dead, each year…from gun violence.

30,000 people a year.  Dead.  That is a little more than 10 times the number of people who perished on September 11th….yet, in response to 9/11, our country joined together, even if temporarily, as we so often do in the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, be it a natural disaster or one inflicted by our own desperate inhumanity….

We joined together, and though there was some dissent, the majority of our country was willing to go to war after 9/11, to go all out after those vicious, merciless terrorists…the perpetrators of that horrific violence that destabilized our security, undermining our sense of self.

Yet today, by contrast, the fight to end gun violence is responded to with vigorous Second Amendment defenses, the elevation of perceived individual rights over the common good and common health of our society, of our nation.

An immature understanding of rugged individualism, a failure to realize that we are in fact our brother’s keeper…a mistaken belief that the violence is someone else’s problem…for someone else to address…that it is remote from us, separate from us….we forget that we are in this thing together, by choice, by consenting to our privilege of citizenship…. Citizenship, that cherished identity that is granted, not forced upon us, but that makes us part of a whole…

In an environment where we are increasingly isolated, increasingly remote from one another, we forget we are part of one community, a common fabric that forms one nation, under God…indivisible.  

We forget that, as Stephen Carter at Yale Law School writes…we forget that morality might require us to sacrifice our selfish interests and desires for the benefit of others.

Let me disabuse anyone who thinks to the contrary, that we are not all somehow connected to or affected by gun violence in our society.  I was not more than six or seven years old when I had my first experience with a gun.  

My brother, sister, a family friend and I were at home playing, watched by my mother, while my father was away on a business trip.  A man tricked his way into our home, immediately flashing a gun at us.  He was menacing … threatening. Fortunately, by virtue of the courage of my brother and the quick thinking of my mother, we survived, unscathed.  Frightened…but not injured.  

Ten years later, an uncle, would not be nearly as lucky, as he was shot and killed in Atlanta.

Of the last six mass shootings in the US, I have loved, or known someone who loved, someone who was shot or perished in four of those shootings.  Let’s put this in perspective.  Phoenix, Aurora, Wisconsin, Newtown.  None of those are places where I live or work or even travel to…and yet somehow, I am connected by no more than two degrees to each of these tragedies. 

Mass violence is a reminder that we are not, as we might mistakenly believe…alone.  We are in fact, deeply connected.  Any of you who were not previously connected to a mass shooting, or any gun violence–by virtue of being with me in this room tonight, and hearing these stories…, you and your networks, are connected now.  

The more we place our own needs, our own desires ahead of our common needs, the more society will be oppressed by selfishness, the more each of us will live in debilitating fear, rather than empowering hope.

For a society that allows violence to perpetuate, is a society devoid of love, devoid of compassion, devoid of justice… Living in a peaceful, loving society with others requires us to set aside our own needs, our own wants, even…our own fears, for the purposes of ensuring our common security.

Those who oppose regulating gun ownership and usage (and who in fact would advocate for an increase in gun ownership)… claim that improved gun controls will not end gun violence, that guns do not kill people (people do)…they ignore intentionally the history of gun regulation in the US, as well as that of the NRA itself, which at different points in its history has actually favored some forms of gun control…and they claim falsely that gun usage cannot be regulated, that our liberal gun laws–the most liberal of any advanced, industrialized nation by the way–cannot be tightened without violating the Second Amendment.

In a society that permits, encourages, even relies upon liberal gun ownership and usage, what use is the rule of law? What use are laws that protect private property? Why have laws for the enforcement of contract, the prosecution of criminals, or the mediation of civil disputes? In a society that would rely upon gun ownership by individuals to maintain the peace….those robust, grand features of the civil society we proclaim to otherwise live in, are perhaps nullified in critical ways. 

The protectors of the status quo are intent to contort the Second Amendment, and our history, to make it servant to their individual desires.  They say we can protect our children from further gun violence, that justice can be served and preserved, by arming our teachers…but if we arm our teachers, or put guards in every school…at what point do we stop arming ourselves?  At what point do we then stop to keep our parks, our museums, our streets and sidewalks safe?  

I doubt the answer to gun violence is the militarization of our public spaces.  That would seem to be a step backwards, away from freedom and democracy, and towards perpetual, potentially disabling fear.

And yet we know that regulating the use of guns can decrease gun related violence.  The States with the tightest gun controls in the US appear to have the lowest incidences of death from gun violence.  University of Maryland researchers found in 1991 that the DC ban on handguns–a restriction repealed by the Supreme Court in 2008–resulted in a 25% drop in homicides and 23% drop in suicides, in each case by handguns.  No similar reductions were found in Virginia or Maryland, each adjacent to DC.

….As freedom loving Americans, we typically don’t believe in curtailing rights….but we seem to have forgotten the other side of the equation, i.e. that with great rights come greater obligations….obligations towards ourselves our children, our communities, one another….

Passing tighter gun laws will be grueling, difficult work….but we can not give up.  We must not back down. We cannot relent.  

But we must understand that passing stricter gun laws is but one step in the effort to eradicate violence in America.  What of the other forms of violence that plague us?  That same University of Maryland report that studied the impact of D.C. gun restrictions on gun related violence, also found that violence perpetuated by other means did not increase, nor did it–importantly, decrease.  So what, of the other forms of violence that plague and enslave us?

What of the violence in our hearts manifested in road rage, impatience and verbal hostilities?   What of the Black Friday rage that every year results in several deaths as individuals desperate to satisfy their consumptive and materialist urges stampede one another in their efforts to be first to get the last of whatever the hot item might be?  What of the glorified, gratuitous violence in film and television–that which goes beyond art, beyond conscious raising provocation?  

What of the verbal violence and intimidation that occurs every day on the Internet?  Everyone and anyone, hiding behind the seemingly pervasive anonymity of comment boards and chat rooms, can say just about any thoughtless, irrational thing they think or are feeling, no matter how bigoted, misogynist, how foul.  We are no longer protected by the norms of civility or even the veil of political correctness, inauthentic though that might have been.   

We are instead repeatedly and regularly exposed, without our consent, to the basest thoughts about gender, race, sexuality and identity… to a steady stream of racial slurs and epithets, demeaning stereotypes that serve only to foster division, to heighten suspicion, to deepen shame. Students are bullied and harassed, sometimes becoming so upset they take their lives by their own hands–often times with handguns.  

Even the nature of protest itself has been marked by a particular kind of violence.  Neither the Tea Party protestors nor Occupy Wall Street protesters wielded guns.  But the language of those protests, which was incompatible with the spirit underlying Dr. King’s protests, evoked a kind of undisciplined, unsettled, selfish, potentially violent anger…malice…

Those protesters too easily fell off Dr. King’s high plane of dignity and discipline and in so doing set up the possibility that creative protest would degenerate into physical violence….today’s protesters did not understand that only with malice toward none, and charity for all…only then shall we be released by the better angels of our nature.

Horrifying atrocities occur in our neighborhoods, our communities.  We react with tears and emotion and to comfort ourselves and each other, in the immediate aftermath, we turn to various means of feeling like we’ve done something to effect change…we make a donation to the anti-gun lobby, we call our member of Congress, we sign an on-line petition.   

We hold our children tighter….we rail at the indignities and injustices of the world, we cast aspersions and shift blame….then….we tell ourselves that we can’t bear to think about it anymore, to talk about it any longer….we convince ourselves that really, there’s nothing more we really can do….it is always somebody’s else’s fault, somebody else’s responsibility….

We are sometimes disempowered temporarily by the violence, forcing ourselves to accept it as a matter of fact, rather than something we can change and so we soon forget… shocked awake, how quickly we go back to sleep, rendering ourselves comfortably numb, medicating ourselves literally and figuratively with various distractions…delving back into our own lives after having spent 24-96 hours peering into the lives of others like such voyeurs… ours is a news cycle culture, fed a steady diet of sound bites and news tweets, our attention spans ever decreasing.  

We have little to no appetite for substantive, civil debate…the exchange of ideas….instead, our hunger, in some cases is met through our various escapes….and… we so quickly forget, as opposed to taking ownership, responsibility as citizens….

In a culture that is sometimes accustomed to finding and pursuing the easy way out, the fast way of doing things…. failing to address root causes, unwilling to fight with all of our might for justice, freedom from fear, accepting something sub-par…we give up so quickly, and in so being and doing, we become unintentionally, part of the problem….

We forget that the aftermath of violence is bitterness.  The aftermath of nonviolence, as Dr. King once said, is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community…The end of violence is redemption. 

We completely misunderstand power, and how power works….the NRA isn’t powerful because of its wealth and influence.  It is powerful because those of us who oppose their position on gun regulation cower in the face of their strength… Every time we back down, every time we refuse to fight, to organize, to protest injustices, degradations, atrocities, we cede power to the other side….

It is from us then, and not their wealth that they draw their truest power… So the only way to weaken those who would stand in the way of justice, is by doing everything we possibly can to prevent the kind of atrocities that are occurring in our culture from ever occurring again, is to never forget… To be vigilant in our pursuit of justice, in our pursuit of humanity, in our pursuit of ensuring our children have every love, every care, every freedom, every opportunity to fulfill their human potential. 

For as Martin Luther King himself said: One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

So, what are we willing to do or to be… are we willing to change ourselves, to find courage, to find heart to protect the hearts of so many innocents? Where is our true courage as a nation….we cannot bring back lives or give our children back their innocence once it’s lost….but we have to fight for more than anodyne solutions that have no real impact, create no real change….

But we must also remember, that when we grunt at our friends, our parents, our employees, our neighbors, instead of exhibiting patience, kindness, respect, or even love….we are contributing to the breakdown of community.  And how can we not wonder, are we then part of some greater malaise, a malaise that can turn innocent hearts to such blackness and despair that we do the unconscionable?  

What is it about our culture that permits such violence….but that also, has such incredibly high rates of mental illness and incapacity, particularly as compared to the rest of the advanced, industrialized world?… If we have a culture that allows for persistent dehumanization and debasement of ourselves and others, we’re stripping individuals, and communities of their power….what of those feelings of powerlessness and the connection to violence? 

We have to think deeper, more broadly, more globally, we have to remember how this country was built, who we are… that it was through endurance and sacrifice and constant commitment, and a refusal to give up…even in our darkest hours, confronting our greatest challenges, we have always pressed on, we have always progressed.

Those of us who care about true justice, about freeing ourselves, our children, our communities from the prospect of further violence, have a duty as citizens and to one another, to the precious victims of Newtown and every other mass shooting, to do everything we can to ensure the passage of laws that will stop gun violence. The status quo, which threatens our confidence and undermines our potential as a nation, must not, and cannot persist. 

It is time for a different way.  We do not have time to wallow in a valley of despair.  It is time to celebrate humanity, rather than squashing it, to quell the violence in our hearts and our communications, and replace it with love…It is time we love our neighbors every day, not just when we are most acutely afraid or startled by horrific events; We must remember, the time is always right to do what is right… It is time…for a different way.

I have faith–and so should everyone here. The US has regularly faced enormous, very difficult, sometimes colossally embarrassing challenges…but over the whole of its history, the US has managed to progress continually, consider what we, a nation born in the violence of the American Revolution, have overcome–institutionalized slavery, the Civil War, legalized segregation and the brutal racist legacy of Jim Crow…we have learned from our mistakes (before repeating them) and have eventually addressed our challenges, solving seemingly insurmountable problems in a manner that expands justice, rights and opportunity.  

It is obviously an iterative process, where steps forward are answered with steps backward, sometimes giant steps backward…. Many things are or seem worse today than they’ve ever been, progress appears harder to achieve…as discussed throughout these remarks, we seem prone to a very special kind of regression on social issues especially….but I believe all of that can, and will be overcome in a manner that benefits more citizens, not a small select group.    

Those of us who are racial minorities should remember, we are not today oppressed people, most of us are not demeaned or marginalized by the system–personally, I’ve had help at every turn, support in every way, have benefitted from the expansion of justice and enforcement of my rights under the law (and I’m certainly not the only black person here for whom this has been the case)…. the many failings I’ve experienced on my path to whatever success I’ve achieved, are by and large my own failings, and not attributable to systemic injustices–so I cannot and will not blame my shortcomings on racial oppression–I can choose only to learn from them and to move forward….  

We should be more interested in solving problems than assuming nothing can change, or moping about how hard things are, how unfair it is that blacks and other racial minorities are sometimes treated differently.  We should be more interested in taking a deep breath and advocating for possibility.  

Dwelling on what’s wrong, without advocating for change or developing and implementing solutions, doesn’t fix anything.  Dwelling on the negative undermines the efforts of those who have fought for various freedoms and achieved them.  Dwelling on what’s wrong and imperfect–gives an inappropriate excuse for not fighting for change….dwelling leads to despair which subjugates hope, that otherwise ultimate grease of effort and possibility.

And anyway, I’d rather be inspired by those of all races fighting for change, who are offended by continued racism where it occurs (sometimes these folks are more offended than I am)…than to obsess over cruelties and deprivations, believing falsely that their existence renders me incapable of achieving my potential, my capacity, of celebrating my humanity….. 

I see no point in relishing in my own victimization….I see zero point in complaining about all these injustices without committing myself to, and actually fighting for change. As my grandfather used to say, he (or she) who plays the role of victim, will always be a victim, will be victimized further by virtue of their victimhood….all victims therefor have a moral obligation to overcome their victimization (and to avoid victimizing others in the process).  

We should not think less of ourselves or our country because of the violence, because of bigotry, because of our social challenges…, because there are some who are too ignorant to realize the ultimate futility of their hatred, or that there are some who fail to recognize that their hatred ultimately does more to harm them, that it does to harm targets of their vitriol.

We do not free ourselves from the scourge of violence, or racism or hatred by dwelling upon it irresponsibly… For to allow such control over our thoughts, our minds, is to subject ourselves to a form of slavery that is perhaps different from institutional slavery, but ultimately just as dangerous (if not moreso)…..

Still, it is imperative that among the social challenges we commit ourselves to, that we continue to discuss race, racism and its effect on our policy, our politics, individuals and our nation.  We must not table this discussion, treating race as something taboo, marginalizing it, assuming that it is something only racial groups themselves care about.  

There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that stink for non-white people living in the United States, (yes, there are things that stink for white people too)… There are things we experience that our white friends and colleagues perhaps do not to experience–but there are strengths we possess by virtue of having to overcome that which others haven’t faced as well, there is confidence that is gained by virtue of having faced down and conquered that mighty wall of oppression, in refusing to succumb to planned deprivations and failed subjugation…., in perhaps having in some circumstances had to work harder….just to achieve our dreams.  

We can choose to internalize that hatred, to think worse of ourselves and to thereby debilitate our prospects–or we can externalize it, realizing it has nothing to do with us, and trust in our ability to overcome…. What good can come from running around complaining about how hard our lives are?  There’s too much work to be done!

It should be possible to acknowledge that racism exists in this country, to acknowledge our abundant imperfections, and to appreciate at the same time that there is something very special about this country’s ability to achieve progress, to inspire hope, to grow, to evolve, to change…. Disappointment in our transgressions and offenses, does not mean we cannot or should not be proud of, or love our country.  

We should be heartened that the proportion of people in the US who genuinely hold racist attitudes is shrinking (and we should be glad that most pernicious racists are not as often in positions of power, where they can use their authority to oppress and degrade minorities).  

To wit–racism means less and less as time progresses and as former would be “victims” of racism continue to ascend to positions of power and authority, provided of course that those individuals do not abuse their power and authority by, themselves, harboring intolerant views. 

We must stop pretending that discussing race doesn’t matter, we must allow ourselves to get temporarily uncomfortable, to learn, to expand our hearts and minds.   We must endeavor to learn more about and understand each other’s experiences, backgrounds, cultures, histories… Because the more we understand….the more we see how much we have in common, the more compassion we might have for one another, the more trust among different people might grow, the better and more stronger our connections and relationships will be….

The more we share our vulnerabilities, the more likely we are to remove that sense of shame that so many feel because they are different, that deep, festering, debilitating wound of “otherness” that for some can become a debilitating habit of mind…..

The more we learn, the better our relationships will be… And the more we improve on each of these things…the more likely we will be able to solve the real problems confronting us in business and in policy, particularly our violent culture…and hopefully the healthier and stronger our nation will be.

I love living in a country that is responsive over the arc of history to efforts to expand justice, where I can freely speak my mind about injustices, where I can advocate for change, and expect, over time and with blood, sweat and tears to see positive results flow from my efforts…. in fact it may be that because of that love, I am inspired to help the US be its very best, to achieve its potential as a nation, to overcome its faults.  It is because of that love, and my faith in this country, that I know we can do much better than we have been doing, that we can overcome our proclivity towards violence and address lingering racism and social problems.    

But this love, this faith–is not an apology.  It is just love–plain and simple.

There is much that is in a name, and we in the United States, would be wise to remember that, lest we tragically forget who we are.  We cannot forget that we are the United States of America, joined together by common purpose, common cause…our fates inextricably linked, our destinies tied.  Inherent in our name is the notion that we share a common destiny, which requires the elevation of the common good….that it is the will of the people, we the people which matters most….Our common destiny, our common purpose requires us therefor to be willing to die to self, to lay down our lives for our friends, to preserve the whole.

Dr. King was just 39 years old when he was killed by a bullet, shot from a Remington Model 760 pump action rifle….  Then the same age I am now, he died a violent death in the pursuit of justice, not just for blacks, but for people of all colors…, he died a violent death fighting for our common humanity, for the expression of human dignity… 

He seemed to understand, that so long as there was any individual in our country denied their dignity, that our country would not ever achieve its potential.  His, was the ultimate sacrifice for us.  So I ask you, what are we willing to do now? How are we willing to honor his sacrifice, not just today, but every day?

….We look forward with great hope to rebuilding the fabric of our nation.  But in our jubilation, we cannot forget our obligations.  We cannot forget that change actually, requires the effort of much more than a small group of committed citizens.  It requires the continued, persistent effort of every single one of us.  

To ensure the vitality of our nation, it’s continued progress, to more fundamentally remember who we are and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and all those who died fighting for us, we must remember….we all have a role to play.

Black History Month 2013: Reflections

As Black History Month draws to a close, I thought I’d share excerpts of my recent address to Carnegie Mellon, on Martin Luther King Day.  Some of these remarks are based on a few answers I provided on Quora in mid-January.  

….The US has regularly faced enormous, very difficult, sometimes colossally embarrassing challenges…but over the whole of its history, the US has managed to progress continually.  Consider what we, a nation born in the violence of the American Revolution, have overcome: institutionalized slavery, the Civil War, legalized segregation and the brutal racist legacy of Jim Crow…all leading to the election, and re-election of our nation’s first black president.  We have learned from our mistakes (before repeating them) and have eventually addressed our challenges, solving seemingly insurmountable problems in a manner that expands justice, rights and opportunity.  This is of course, not to say that we are done….for there is much more work to do, much more to accomplish, to change….

It is obviously an iterative process, where steps forward are answered with steps backward, sometimes giant steps backward…. Many things are or may seem worse today than they’ve ever been, progress may appear harder to achieve…, we seem prone at times to a very special kind of regression on social issues especially….but I believe all of that can, and will be overcome in a manner that benefits more citizens, not a small select group.   

Still, those of us who are racial minorities should remember, we are not today oppressed people in the way our parents and grandparents were, most of us are not demeaned or marginalized by the system—personally, I’ve had help at every turn, support in every way, have benefitted from the expansion of justice and enforcement of my rights under the law (and I’m certainly not the only black person for whom this has been the case)…. the many failings I’ve experienced on my path to whatever success I’ve achieved, are by and large my own failings, and not attributable to systemic injustices—so I cannot and will not blame my shortcomings on racial oppression–I can choose only to learn from them and to move forward…. 

We should be more interested in solving problems than assuming nothing can change, or moping about how hard things are, how unfair it is that blacks and other racial minorities are sometimes treated differently.  We should be more interested in taking a deep breath and advocating for possibility. 

Dwelling on what’s wrong, without advocating for change or developing and implementing solutions, doesn’t fix anything.  Dwelling on the negative undermines the efforts of those who have fought for various freedoms and achieved them.  Dwelling on what’s wrong and imperfect–gives an inappropriate excuse for not fighting for change….dwelling leads to despair which subjugates hope, that otherwise ultimate grease of effort and possibility.

And anyway, I’d rather be inspired by those of all races fighting for change, who are offended by continued racism where it occurs…than to obsess over cruelties and deprivations, believing falsely that their existence renders me incapable of achieving my potential, my capacity, of celebrating my humanity…..

There is little to no point in relishing in our perceived victimization…. There is zero point in complaining about all these injustices without committing ourselves to, and actually fighting for change.

As my grandfather used to say, he (or she) who plays the role of victim, will always be a victim, will be victimized further by virtue of their victimhood….all victims therefor have a moral obligation to overcome their victimization (and to avoid victimizing others in the process).  

We should not think less of ourselves or our country because of the violence, because of bigotry, because of our social challenges…, because there are some who are too ignorant to realize the ultimate futility of their hatred, or that there are some who fail to recognize that their hatred ultimately does more to harm them, that it does to harm targets of their vitriol.

We do not free ourselves from the scourge of violence, or racism or hatred by dwelling upon it irresponsibly… For to allow such control over our thoughts, our minds, is to subject ourselves to a form of slavery that is perhaps different from institutional slavery, but ultimately just as dangerous (if not moreso)…..

Still, it is imperative that among the social challenges we commit ourselves to, that we continue to discuss race, racism and its effect on our policy, our politics, individuals and our nation.  We must not table this discussion, treating race as something taboo, marginalizing it, assuming that it is something only racial groups themselves care about.  

There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that stink for non-white people living in the United States, (yes, there are things that stink for white people too)… There are things we experience that our white friends and colleagues perhaps don’t have to deal with, don’t have to experience–but there are strengths we possess by virtue of having to overcome that which others haven’t faced as well, there is confidence that is gained by virtue of having faced down and conquered that mighty wall of oppression, in refusing to succumb to planned deprivations and failed subjugation…., in perhaps having in some circumstances had to work harder….just to achieve our dreams. 

We can choose to internalize that hatred, to think worse of ourselves and to thereby debilitate our prospects–or we can externalize it, realizing it has nothing to do with us, and trust in our ability to overcome…. What good can come from running around complaining about how hard our lives are?  There’s too much work to be done!

It should be possible to acknowledge that racism exists in this country, to acknowledge our abundant imperfections, and to appreciate at the same time that there is something very special about this country’s ability to achieve progress, to inspire hope, to grow, to evolve, to change…. Disappointment in our transgressions and offenses, does not mean we cannot or should not be proud of, or love our country.  

We should be heartened that the proportion of people in the US who genuinely hold racist attitudes is shrinking (and we should be glad that most pernicious racists are not as often in positions of power, where they can use their authority to oppress and degrade minorities). 

To wit—racism means less and less as time progresses and as former would be “victims” of racism continue to ascend to positions of power and authority, provided of course that those individuals do not abuse their power and authority by, themselves, harboring intolerant views.

We must stop pretending that discussing race doesn’t matter, we must allow ourselves to get temporarily uncomfortable, to learn, to expand our hearts and minds.   We must endeavor to learn more about and understand each other’s experiences, backgrounds, cultures, histories… Because the more we understand….the more we see how much we have in common, the more compassion we might have for one another, the more trust among different people might grow, the better and more stronger our connections and relationships will be….

The more we share our vulnerabilities, the more likely we are to remove that sense of shame that so many feel because they are different, that deep, festering, debilitating wound of “otherness” that for some can become a debilitating habit of mind…..

The more we learn, the better our relationships will be… And the more we improve on each of these things…the more likely we will be able to solve the real problems confronting us in business and in policy, particularly our violent culture…and hopefully the healthier and stronger our nation will be.

I love living in a country that is responsive over the arc of history to efforts to expand justice, where I can freely speak my mind about injustices, where I can advocate for change, and expect, over time and with blood, sweat and tears to see positive results flow from my efforts…. in fact it may be that because of that love, I am inspired to help the US be its very best, to achieve its potential as a nation, to overcome its faults.  It is because of that love, and my faith in this country, that I know we can do much better than we have been doing, that we can overcome our proclivity towards violence and address lingering racism and social problems.    

But this love, this faith–is not an apology.  It is just love–plain and simple.

There is much that is in a name, and we in the United States, would be wise to remember that, lest we tragically forget who we are.  We cannot forget that we are the United States of America, joined together by common purpose, common cause…our fates inextricably linked, our destinies tied.  Inherent in our name is the notion that we share a common destiny, which requires the elevation of the common good….that it is the will of the people, we the people which matters most….Our common destiny, our common purpose requires us therefor to be willing to die to self, to lay down our lives for our friends, to preserve the whole.

Dr. King was just 39 years old when he was killed by a bullet, shot from a Remington Model 760 pump action rifle….  Then the same age I am now, he died a violent death in the pursuit of justice, not just for blacks, but for people of all colors…, he died a violent death fighting for our common humanity, for the expression of human dignity…

He seemed to understand, that so long as there was any individual in our country denied their dignity, that our country would not ever achieve its potential.  His, was the ultimate sacrifice for us.  So I ask you, what are we willing to do now? How are we willing to honor his sacrifice, not just today, but every day?….

Beyond 26.2: Life’s Marathon

I had planned to run the NY Marathon Sunday afternoon.  I’d looked forward to riding the bus to the start with my dear friend Alison Boyd Gelles, and running the race with my wonderful sister, Kafi (with Ali running six and seven minute splits, there was no way we could hope to actually keep up with her!).  The marathon represented something bigger to me personally than a foot race….it represented a chance to test myself body and mind….and the ultimate opportunity to prove the resilience of the human spirit–mine in particular.
 
During a grave illness and the recovery that followed, I lost some part of myself and for the first time began to experience real fear–fear especially of my mortality, the finiteness of life.  I felt powerless in the face of a life threatening health crisis, and a recovery that competed with my capacity (and desire) to make a contribution….to effect positive change in the world.  Angry that my body had failed me–I felt like I could no longer trust myself.  I lost confidence, and was suddenly and constantly hesitant, tepid, nervous–all traits completely out of character…. my light blew out ushering in an exceptionally difficult and dark period for me, my family and my closest friends.  
 
Since recovering, I have zealously pursued life, meanwhile rebuilding my spirit, regaining my confidence….my surefootedness; having become intimately familiar with the crippling, demotivating, life sucking nature of fear, I’ve consciously chosen to be governed not by that menace, but rather faith, hope, love and charity.  Running the marathon alongside my sister–who was also at my side throughout my hospitalizations in Colorado and New York–for me, it represented the culmination of three years of really hard work to be healthy, live fully, put love in the world with every effort, every gesture…. and to assure myself that in fact, I have overcome the most personally difficult period in my life so far….
 
I trained, and I trained, first attempting shorter races, testing myself, building up to half marathons….and training most of this summer, in order to do nothing more than finish on Sunday.  No matter how hard I was working, or where in the world I was, I managed to get my runs in….including 20 miles in San Francisco one morning, immediately preceding what ended up being 12 straight hours of business meetings.  During all of this I began to truly grasp, with every heartbeat, every pulse, every foot strike, that I am alive and free again, in much the same way I’d felt in the years preceding the day my blood stopped flowing.  Indeed I felt not only alive, but that life is the ultimate gift, and with that come many responsibilities.  
 
Then a mean girl named Sandy blew into town attempting to drown our joie de vivre and darkening, albeit temporarily, our spirits.  And what was once an exercise in proving my own resilience and humanity….suddenly felt like a foolhardy, selfish, wrong pursuit…my sister and I felt very deeply that we should be spending our time helping others, those without power, those without food….those who lost everything and have zero shot of getting it back anytime soon.  We were shaken by videos of the ravaged Staten Island, where the race was to begin–and of the Jersey Shore, where I’ve spent many weekends with generous friends (and where many friends continue to live).  Our hearts broke for the people of Breezy Point–their homes and possessions burnt to ashes–and all of those throughout New York and New Jersey who unlike us, didn’t have friends, or resources, to get through the aftermath of Sandy easily.  
 
We’d wondered how our beloved adopted city was going to pull this off….whether it would be safe, whether it was fair to already exhausted first responders, whether it was an appropriate use of resources….it seemed unfair also to the thousands of runners who withdrew from the race because of Sandy, and to the many New York based runners who’d gone through a week of personal hell, powerless, displaced, uncertain….to say nothing of the hundreds, if not thousands of households who’d lost everything.  
 
We began to challenge our assumption that our run might serve as inspiration to those suffering….there is one thing I am sure of….when suffering is acute, and just experienced, there is very little that’s inspirational.  And without a doubt, we knew there would be few people cheering (and perhaps many people jeering) along the sidelines; an event that typically brings the whole of the city together and is the ultimate show of will, had become a source of bitter division, at a time when we need to work together.  We should be so lucky to run, while so many suffered. At once a test of our perseverant humanity, running was suddenly beginning to feel like an exercise of arrogant, frivolous inhumanity. 
 
Still, I am disappointed I won’t get to run on Sunday.  I put my heart into training….because it meant so very much to me.  But I’m also deeply saddened by the devastation experienced by my city, my neighbors, my friends.  And so I support the decision to cancel the race.  It is the right thing to do.   
 
Prior to the race’s cancellation, I had privately committed myself to a minimum of 50 hours of service to help Sandy victims (and that does not include the refugee population who’ve been in and out of my apartment this week powering and showering)….and what I’m very glad about, notwithstanding my considerable disappointment over the event’s cancellation, is that I can begin that service on Sunday morning.  I hope other would be marathoners will join me; and that those of us who’d already picked up our race packets will proudly wear our orange “MARATHONER” shirts whilst volunteering….because one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to complete the race to show you’re a survivor…..and for me personally,  the fact of survival means I have certain responsibilities….right now, the responsibility to help ensure the survival and prosperity of those weakened by the storm–of those experiencing the very same despair I felt when I thought I’d lost everything.   
 
This is an amazing city.  There is zero doubt that as we recovered from 9/11, the 2003 blackout, and so many other challenges over the last fifteen years, that New York and the people of New York will rebound again, stronger, wiser, with greater communal purpose….I am but one survivor in a city of survivors.  New York’s story is mine and my story is New York.

BE AMAZING. Barnard College Legacy Graduation Reception Keynote Remarks, as delivered May 2, 2012

Anita Hill.  Valerie Jarrett.  President Barack Obama.  Let’s be real…. OPRAH.  Over the past few days I’ve been feeling a little pressure…. just thinking about the caliber of speakers who have visited, or will soon visit our campus this year…. and knowing that some of you might therefore be, perhaps a little less excited to hear from someone who is slightly less famous, just a little less powerful…. thinking of this phenomenal group and considering your expectations has made me wonder truly what I might be able to share with you tonight that these exceptional leaders have not, or will not.

Then it hit me.  Yes…. they are powerful…, they are famous…, and get this, they are all people, mostly women, of color.  Whoa.  But none of them, not a one…. has what I have and you are about to attain, a BARNARD COLLEGE degree…. that sometimes seemingly elusive piece of paper, for which you have worked so hard over the past four years…. and which is your passport into a sisterhood of highly motivated, deeply passionate and often times extremely opinionated women…. a special group of service oriented women leaders (in, and out, of the home) who are some of the most visible, accomplished and distinguished women in their professions, their immediate communities, and indeed increasingly, the world.

My heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you on what you have achieved and are about to achieve.  Right now is your moment, right now, is your time.  You have fought the good fight, you have kept the faith…. and as a result, very soon, you will finish this race.  

And so I am truly honored to be here with you tonight–to have this singular opportunity to toast and celebrate with you.

I am honored, but also conflicted.  Because in thinking about what to say tonight, reflecting upon what it means to leave a legacy at Barnard, indeed in the world beyond Barnard…. I realize that in many ways my generation and the generation just ahead of mine, has failed to honor one of the most significant legacies of our time–the legacy of the civil rights movement, it’s values, ideals and achievements…. and in so failing to honor that legacy…. we have, undoubtedly and inadvertently failed many of you in this room.

Treating the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as definite and permanent, failing to see that it’s accomplishments were fragile and in need of further support and care…. too many of us, too soon, celebrated our freedom and the newfound societal recognition of our humanity…. we grew complacent and relaxed…when we graduated with our fancy ivy league degrees and set out to work in places like Goldman and Cravath, Morgan Stanley and McKinsey, when we started earning salaries larger than we might have ever imagined possible–we replaced aspiration with consumption,….we shortsightedly assumed that the seventh day had come and that for us, it was our time to sit back and rest, when instead we should have been investing vigorously in ourselves and our communities with ever greater vigilance and persistence.

I am of course, making a generalization…. there are many of us, myself included, many of my black, brown and yellow peers included, as well as Dean Hinkson and many other administrators and faculty members here tonight…. who’ve not rested, who’ve fought and are fighting hard for continued progress…. And of course we cannot deny the success of our president, Oprah, Indra Nooyi, Condoleeza Rice, or Ursula Burns…. among countless others….

But alas, these successes, where they have occurred and are still occurring, should signal something to each of us here.  It cannot be a mistake, it cannot be an accident or mere coincidence that an Indian woman is leading Pepsi, that a black woman is leading Xerox, that a black man is leading the United States–if we live in a world where it is possible to have a black president, or women of color leading two of the largest, most historic corporations in the world…then why is it that there are also decreasing numbers of people of color, especially women, in law firms, investment houses, consultancies–to say nothing of the almost complete absence of brown, black and yellow people from leadership positions in these institutions—how is that there are not more black, brown and yellow heads of corporations, or corporate directors?  How come there are not more women of color who are engineers and academics? …., How come there are comparably few black, brown and yellow entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders?

I am making a generalization–but the numbers don’t lie.  We could blame racism, but frankly, that’s a cop out…. a convenient excuse and a crutch…. a wholesale shifting of responsibility that should cause our country’s civil rights leaders, who faced physical danger in pursuit of our freedom, to roll in their graves.  It’s too easy to blame our lack of progress on racism–it’s a lot harder to acknowledge that in many ways we have lost our essential, collective sense of struggle and commitment, our necessary optimism, our sense of purpose.  It’s time we regain it.   You may be about to finish this race–but the main events are just ahead.

It’s not going to be easy for you, however.  As you know, probably much better than I, your sense of self worth and identity (those two things that are so essential to true progress) is under constant bombardment and attack…. and from every direction.  We live in a time where it seems everyone and anyone, aided by social media and technology, can say just about any thoughtless, irrational thing they think or are feeling, no matter how bigoted, how misogynist, how foul…. you are not, as I was, protected by the veil of political correctness, inauthentic though that might have been…, you are instead, repeatedly and regularly exposed to the basest thoughts about your race, your gender, your sexuality, your identity.  We don’t have to look much further than our own university campus, to recall the vitriol unleashed by some, when the White House picked Barnard. 

And if it’s not social media…it’s traditional media and popular culture that seek to undermine your sense of self worth…my generation has not had to contend with, in the same way, many of the insidious cultural harms you and your peers have had to endure…we grew up in the Cosby era, inundated with positive, wholesome images of black and brown life on popular television (well maybe not so much brown life…)…we were encouraged by RUN DMC to “walk this way” and “stay in school”….we grew up grooving to Michael Jackson, to Stevie Wonder, Prince, Whitney Houston…artists who at the time and notwithstanding their later imperfections, celebrated what it meant to be a person of color in America, the potential within us and the possibility ahead, enhancing our sense of self and our inclusion in society…., the popular messages you grew up with by contrast, have celebrated a misogynist, hyper-sexualized, genuinely degrading notion of yellow, black and brown womanhood, with little to no positive images of women of color projected or promoted in popular television and cinema.  My generation, in choosing to promote, sponsor and consume such messages, bears some responsibility for this.

And to make matters even worse, the older generations, the earliest beneficiaries of Civil Rights gains, seemingly take pleasure in condemning the lot of you, shaking our heads and criticizing you routinely as shiftless, lazy…. unimaginative even…. how many times have you heard someone say to or about you: those young kids today, they just don’t get it.  It should be easy for them, life is so much better now…they’re disrespectful, always late, they are never prepared…, It was harder for us.  [We old folks have not, as a group, been particularly good at grooming or supporting you.]

And while it is true that some of you, sometimes, have a loose relationship with time or responsibility, when the old folks condemn you, we fail to recognize that what might seem like common sense to us, is actually learned behavior…and that we have an obligation therefore, to educate, train, enlighten and yes…mentor you (you, of course, have the concomitant obligation to seek out education and mentorship). 

We fail to note our own hypocrisy in dishonoring the legacy of the freedom fighters and we fail, perhaps most importantly to recognize the extent to which your lives are, in so many ways harder than ours, how we have allowed things to slip backwards, how we have not been the guardians or stewards of additional progress, how we have run away from realizing, acknowledging and discussing the extent to which this constant assault on your racial and sexual identity has resulted potentially in a very deep, sometimes delimiting, if not debilitating, psychological burden.  And because we have, as a community, too often been afraid of acknowledging and discussing these things, of acknowledging our understandable anger and frustration…. we have pushed these wounds to a deep place within our psyche, allowing them to fester, unaddressed, letting them become unfortunate habits of mind and spirit that hold us back, jeopardizing our progress and prosperity.

I think that, without us having previously said it explicitly this evening, that that’s why occasions like this, where we can shed, temporarily, the burdens of our otherness, are so incredibly important…. this gives us a moment to pause, to reflect, to celebrate with each other what we have actually achieved.  

But in acknowledging the importance of receptions like this—a reception, which in many respects symbolizes the extent to which we have moved backwards as a society, very far away from Dr. King’s hopeful dream, I have a favor to ask of each of you…do not give in, do not give up, do not settle for excluding yourselves from society and the world, honor the legacy better than the generations before you have….let’s celebrate ourselves, sure, but let’s also avoid perpetuating the habits of mind and spirit that could undermine our potential, and our broader success in society.

The failings I’ve described, and the typically unacknowledged, unmentionable psychological burdens we carry, are not in any way an excuse for those of you here to do anything less than achieve the extraordinary…THIS, is your Legacy…. this is not an opportunity to shift blame or to refuse responsibility for our futures.  Rather—it is very much a call to action… a call to think about and pursue our truest legacy—to fulfill our obligation to the world around us…

I note these things to remind us that we cannot and should not participate in the denigration of our humanity or dignity, by giving into any feelings of self doubt, by engaging in any habit of mind that would undermine our human potential and capacity.  Because a society cannot prosper—it will not prosper, so long as there is any component of that society that allows itself the luxury of nourishing whatever fears or insecurities it has, pulling away, disengaging.  We know that progress is essential…. we know that progress is possible—we know also though, that any form of reticence would only serve to undermine progress.  Therefore we must be relentless in the pursuit and expression of our individual and collective potential.  There can be no greater offense than the staunch refusal to be the person whom you were meant to be, to fail to achieve your innate potential, to refuse to pursue your imagination.  We must be persistent in rising above our individual pains, hurts and fears…because our families need us…., our community needs us…., the world…needs us.  Ladies, we’ve got serious work to do.

There is something each of you should know.  I believe in you.  Every single trustee, administrator and faculty member at this college…. believes in you.  You are our reason for being, the reason we do what we do…. there is not one of you here who is not capable of achieving what I’ve achieved in my own life, and hopefully, so much more.  After all, you are Barnard Women.

And as you enter into the world, conscious of your legacy and your potential, conscious of the needs of our families, our communities and the world….adopt, if you will, some these habits of mind, disciplines and perspectives that have been essential in my own path:

  • Never lose hope…never lose your sense of optimism or the possible.  Hope is the grease of progress and prosperity…. it is the value we draw upon and need to continue to move forward….hope is what causes us to pursue the seemingly impossible.  We move nowhere, and change nothing without hope.
  • Allow yourselves to be creative and non-linear in your approach.  Following extant recipes does not solve problems—it leads to the same result over and over again, which is not to say, progress.  Plus, creativity is a distinctly human and joyful capacity, to deny yourself your creativity, is to therefor deny your humanity and a lot of joy.
  • Be relentless in your refusal to allow others to define you. 
  • Compete… and participate fully in your lives.  Competing means engaging, making yourself, your idea, your business, better….not relishing the failure of others, but doing everything you can to improve yourself to affect the outcome you desire, whatever that might be.  As a society, we often shy from the true hard, work of competition, and so long as we do so, we cannot expect progress.
  • Help others. Previous generations have made the mistake of thinking there was space for only one black person, one brown person, one yellow person, one woman.  It’s just not true.  Success will only be found in weaving an extraordinary web of support, so that if we fall, we can bounce back up again… and that as we achieve, we’ll have company at the top.  There is space for each of us and indeed, each of us are needed.
  • Serve others, love passionately…and allow yourselves to be loved.
  • Finally, never, ever forget, that each and every one of you is amazing.  Live your potential… Be Amazing.

Barnard women, as your college careers wind down and you brace yourselves for the wonder and opportunity in the world beyond…. I urge you to slow it down these next few days…. take a break from the flurry of exams and papers, and stroll slowly through campus, remembering and reflecting on the girls you were when you arrived four years ago…. and recognizing the women you’ve become…. retrace your journey of self discovery, noting how this place, your studies and friendships have nurtured and shaped you.  I urge you to think of what you’ve achieved, how you’ve grown, who you’ve become, what you’ve accomplished—and I hope you will use that as fuel as you move forward, into the world.  

Congratulations….and stay in touch!

 

###

LIVE FULLY.  LOVE DEEPLY.  SERVE OTHERS.  BE….AMAZING.

Women of Power and Influence Remarks: As Delivered June 2011

Thank you so much—I am deeply honored….and deeply humbled to be included among NOW’s 2011 Women of Power and Influence; and to join the exceptional list of Women of Power and Influence alumna, which includes many of my own personal heroes and mentors, women whom I’ve admired for many years and whose careers and personal generosity I’ve been inspired by and have aspired towards….indeed, this is truly humbling.

When I learned that I’d be a recipient of this honor, as has been the case when I’ve achieved anything in my career, I called my parents immediately.  I reached my father first and excitedly informed him of what I thought was pretty good news.  He responded initially with a bit of a “so? So what?”…. hearing my frustrated silence on the other end of the line, he went on to offer a rather muted, certainly withdrawn, “that’s nice sweetheart.”

Now before everyone starts giving my father (who by the way is sitting right over there) the evil eye…let me offer an explanation; the explanation he offered me.  Frustrated by my father’s notable lack of enthusiasm, I’d gone on to ask him, “well Daddy do you think Grandma and Grandpa Brown at least would be excited?  That they’d be proud of me, of this accomplishment, of this honor?” 

My father responded by telling me that my late grandparents were never excited by the award, the honor, the accolade, the achievement for the sake of the achievement itself.   While they expected us to do well, they didn’t care too much for recognition—because what really mattered, was not the trophy that would go on the shelf, the honor that might be hung on the wall, the news story someone might offer to tell, or any other boost to ego that might accrue…those things, while nice, did not implicitly or explicitly do anything to advance the cause of justice, to benefit humanity or to solve the world’s considerable challenges.  My father explained further that what was actually relevant, what he and my grandparents actually did care about, is what I would choose to do as a result of the recognition, how I might use my own successes to further improve, benefit and inspire the lives of others around me; how I might use my influence to solve problems.  Recognition for past work or past accomplishments did not and does not mean there aren’t more challenges ahead, more work to be done.  “It’s not about you or the award, sweetheart, it’s about how you will wield that power and influence to improve the conditions and opportunities of others.”

I got it, I get it—and I agree; ….but being aware of this responsibility—because indeed receiving an award like this is as much responsibility as it is honor, it is as much obligation as it is achievement—being aware of this responsibility, which I take very seriously, is awesome, daunting and a little scary.  I cannot leave here this evening and congratulate myself, think of myself as somehow “greater”, because there remains so much work to be done, so many challenges to address.  There are still far too few women serving on corporate boards, running major businesses, serving at the highest levels of government, there are two few women bankers, and partners in global law firms.  There is a lot of work to be done.  But it’s not just about the professional classes or professional aspiration—and we can’t allow ourselves to think that it’s just about advancement in the professions, business and government—because while those might be the challenges some of us here tonight are focused on—we must also be cognizant of the huge numbers of women here and around the world who day in and day out are denied their basic and essential human rights, their dignity, their humanity…such that they can’t even begin to envision something as grand as running a global company…the obstacles they face are far greater.

And so my commitment to you is to use whatever power and influence I’ve gained as a consequence of tonight’s recognition to continue to address these problems, to challenge myself further and to challenge others to not only excel, but to continue to break down barriers, to use power for the good of humanity and not for self enrichment or self-aggrandizement; I hope, that everyone here will join me in this commitment.  And to the younger women who are here this evening, know that as I have stood on the shoulders of my mentors and role models, I am bending down, hoping that you’ll continue to step up and stand on my shoulders to challenge yourselves, and achieve your every dream and goal.  ‘Cause I think that ultimately, that’s what all of this is about.

Several years ago, Hillary Clinton reminded me after I’d expressed to her my reservations over power, the pursuit of power and power for power’s sake, that “Binta, you know you just can’t do any good without some kind of power.”

And so I once again thank NOW, as well as my amazing family and friends for emboldening me tonight—because what I know unequivocally, is that as a result of tonight’s honor, I’m in an even better position to do a bit more good in the world—thank you so much for this opportunity.

Women of Power and Influence Remarks: As Delivered June 2011

Thank you so much—I am deeply honored….and deeply humbled to be included among NOW’s 2011 Women of Power and Influence; and to join the exceptional list of Women of Power and Influence alumna, which includes many of my own personal heroes and mentors, women whom I’ve admired for many years and whose careers and personal generosity I’ve been inspired by and have aspired towards….indeed, this is truly humbling.

When I learned that I’d be a recipient of this honor, as has been the case when I’ve achieved anything in my career, I called my parents immediately.  I reached my father first and excitedly informed him of what I thought was pretty good news.  He responded initially with a bit of a “so? So what?”…. hearing my frustrated silence on the other end of the line, he went on to offer a rather muted, certainly withdrawn, “that’s nice sweetheart.”

Now before everyone starts giving my father (who by the way is sitting right over there) the evil eye…let me offer an explanation; the explanation he offered me.  Frustrated by my father’s notable lack of enthusiasm, I’d gone on to ask him, “well Daddy do you think Grandma and Grandpa Brown at least would be excited?  That they’d be proud of me, of this accomplishment, of this honor?” 

My father responded by telling me that my late grandparents were never excited by the award, the honor, the accolade, the achievement for the sake of the achievement itself.   While they expected us to do well, they didn’t care too much for recognition—because what really mattered, was not the trophy that would go on the shelf, the honor that might be hung on the wall, the news story someone might offer to tell, or any other boost to ego that might accrue…those things, while nice, did not implicitly or explicitly do anything to advance the cause of justice, to benefit humanity or to solve the world’s considerable challenges.  My father explained further that what was actually relevant, what he and my grandparents actually did care about, is what I would choose to do as a result of the recognition, how I might use my own successes to further improve, benefit and inspire the lives of others around me; how I might use my influence to solve problems.  Recognition for past work or past accomplishments did not and does not mean there aren’t more challenges ahead, more work to be done.  “It’s not about you or the award, sweetheart, it’s about how you will wield that power and influence to improve the conditions and opportunities of others.”

I got it, I get it—and I agree; ….but being aware of this responsibility—because indeed receiving an award like this is as much responsibility as it is honor, it is as much obligation as it is achievement—being aware of this responsibility, which I take very seriously, is awesome, daunting and a little scary.  I cannot leave here this evening and congratulate myself, think of myself as somehow “greater”, because there remains so much work to be done, so many challenges to address.  There are still far too few women serving on corporate boards, running major businesses, serving at the highest levels of government, there are two few women bankers, and partners in global law firms.  There is a lot of work to be done.  But it’s not just about the professional classes or professional aspiration—and we can’t allow ourselves to think that it’s just about advancement in the professions, business and government—because while those might be the challenges some of us here tonight are focused on—we must also be cognizant of the huge numbers of women here and around the world who day in and day out are denied their basic and essential human rights, their dignity, their humanity…such that they can’t even begin to envision something as grand as running a global company…the obstacles they face are far greater.

And so my commitment to you is to use whatever power and influence I’ve gained as a consequence of tonight’s recognition to continue to address these problems, to challenge myself further and to challenge others to not only excel, but to continue to break down barriers, to use power for the good of humanity and not for self enrichment or self-aggrandizement; I hope, that everyone here will join me in this commitment.  And to the younger women who are here this evening, know that as I have stood on the shoulders of my mentors and role models, I am bending down, hoping that you’ll continue to step up and stand on my shoulders to challenge yourselves, and achieve your every dream and goal.  ‘Cause I think that ultimately, that’s what all of this is about.

Several years ago, Hillary Clinton reminded me after I’d expressed to her my reservations over power, the pursuit of power and power for power’s sake, that “Binta, you know you just can’t do any good without some kind of power.”

And so I once again thank NOW, as well as my amazing family and friends for emboldening me tonight—because what I know unequivocally, is that as a result of tonight’s honor, I’m in an even better position to do a bit more good in the world—thank you so much for this opportunity.