“You have chosen to lead”
Community Leadership, the subject that brings us together here today, brings back to my mind the heated U.S. presidential campaign back in 2008. Leading up to the elections, Barack Obama, the then Democratic nominee for president, emerged as the runaway favorite, the darling of the masses, prompting John McCain and his vice presidential nominee, the controversial Sarah Palin, to stop at nothing to discredit him. Perhaps some of you can still remember vividly the Republican Convention where Sarah Palin, then Governor of Alaska, was first introduced to the American public. Gleaming in a sparkling red dress and speaking on public television for the first time, the “all-American girl” scoffed at then candidate Obama’s work history. As far as she knew, she said, the only real job he had ever held before running for public office was that of a “community organizer.” She delivered that insult with a wink and a derisive sneer, and as expected, the Republican crowd roared.
That insult was doubly offensive for two reasons. First, not only did Obama earn his law degree from prestigious Harvard Law School, he also later practiced it in Chicago. (As an aside, I continue to marvel at the fact that I would later tread the same hallowed halls of Harvard that he walked barely 8 years earlier. Forgive me for digressing. I am a fan.) Second, and more importantly, the work of a community organizer, is nothing to scoff about. In fact, as each one of you students has demonstrated in taking the time to think through and write your winning pieces, and in coming here today with your parents and mentors, every single one of our barangays – in fact, our entire nation – urgently requires a resurgent spirit of volunteerism; youthful volunteers like you (and me) armed with an indefatigable will to serve one’s community.
As a nation, we are at a critical crossroads. We are at the tipping point, so to speak. Our natural habitat, our environment – the trees that adorn our mountains, that give us fruit and shade; the very air that we breathe; our once crystal clear brooks, streams, and rivers – are severely threatened by our greedy and profligate lifestyle. Our nation’s resources, chief of which are our supply of food and water, are groaning under the weight of a runaway and mostly uncaring population. Food and fuel are beyond the reach of the average Filipino. And our nation’s moral fiber is tattered to pieces. Unless painstakingly mended by a new breed of honest and dedicated leaders, we are in danger of being completely torn asunder.
Today, as a nation, we can scarcely produce ample rice, let alone harness enough water, to feed and quench the thirst of every Filipino.
Isn’t it ironic that at this day and age, when almost everyone owns or has access to a cellular phone (with “unli” texting capabilities), that uninterrupted access to safe, clean, running water is still only a dream for most Filipinos? I mean, how many among us here have had to step out of our homes and fill a large plastic pail with water from a nearby well just so that we could bathe this morning? How many among us buy drinking water by the gallon at exorbitant prices because our taps, if they dispense any water at all, gurgle out only rusty water?
Our waterways are silted and clogged, because those who live by these waterways have turned them into their trashcans, indiscriminately throwing their waste and all shades and sizes of plastic bags and receptacles into them. We ride a jeep or tricycle to school or work every morning and are assaulted by the toxic fumes discharged by the bus careening ahead of us.
Jobs are few and far between; commodities are priced almost beyond the ordinary worker’s reach; and corruption in Government continues to outrage us. It is a testament to the indomitable will of the President to fulfill his promise to pursue the straight path (“Daang Matuwid”) that the kingpins of the previous administration, who happily helped themselves to the nation’s coffers while our countrymen starved — Imagine a dozen people racking up a bill of P1 Million on just one elaborate dinner in New York City!– are now being prosecuted for their misdeeds.
The problems that confront us are enormous, and because of this what we choose to do and don’t do today will seriously impact our lives in ways we dare not imagine. When a patient is in critical condition and requires an operation, doctors like to say that surgery is “a matter of life and death,” and not to operate could cause the life of the patient. Given the challenges we face today, I’d like to think of service and leadership at the barangay level as a matter of life and death.
On the bright side, you guys are right: It doesn’t take much to make a difference. It’s the little things we do each day that matter, because every little thing can well become one (or more) things of great significance.
Anthony said it well: I can do more than not being part of the problem, he said. Even “as a child, I can be part of the solution” … “by convincing friends to veer away from drugs”; “by helping my parents with household chores”; supplementing the family income by vending “newspapers, bread and whatnot,” and, he continues, keeping “my home and neighboring areas clean.” Every little thing counts. Indeed, Mother Teresa herself noted: “What we do may seem like no more than the drop in the ocean, but the ocean would not be the same without it.”
Planting trees wherever we can and exhorting others to do the same, as Jayson recommends, is one other ‘little thing’ that can only bear fruit of great significance. Indeed, it has been said that: “A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.” I couldn’t agree more. Planting trees is mostly a selfless act that can only be motivated by a love for others. After all, it is rare that the planter will live long enough to enjoy the magnificent shade of the tree that he planted. In a deeper sense, this Greek proverb tells us that it is the selfless acts of countless, nameless heroes that allow humanity to flourish. Our teachers (my own mother is one, she served as a public elementary school teacher in Banawa for 30 years), your mentors who are here today, are some such people. They give of themselves tirelessly to their students every single day, in the hopes that their sacrifices will bear beautiful fruit someday.
Our personal efforts are best shared, however, and transformed into communal projects to also benefit others. Doing things alone, one can easily to be discouraged. But sharing a common goal with others makes things easier, lighter, fun even.
In some U.S. towns and cities, for example, youth groups have taken to “adopting” neighborhood parks and playgrounds, cleaning up, sprucing them up, and raising funds to acquire new playground equipment that the children can enjoy. Others have also taken to adopting beachfronts and riverbanks, committing to keep them clean, picking up after littering individuals, and conducting information drives to exhort others to care for their environs.
We can do the same here. Of course, I know that from time to time, the youth, together with sponsoring civic organizations, perform clean up drives in our esteros and other waterways. But doing something Once is not the same as doing it Again and Again. Picking up the litter on the beach today is great, but what about tomorrow, the next day, next month, a year from now? What we need to cultivate in ourselves is a Commitment to do good Again and Again, until it becomes a Habit.
Residents living next to the sea, or by a riverbank, for example, should adopt a stretch of the beach or a portion of the riverbank, and commit to clean it up at specified intervals (say once a week, every Saturday morning). They should not rely on the local government or the National Coast Guard to do it for them, as their help could be long in coming. Instead they should empower themselves, i.e., organize into groups, and assign one group to clean up once a week. That way, the responsibility is shared among everyone, and no one group need spend every Saturday morning picking up litter, because, let’s face it, that’s not exactly the most pleasant way to spend the weekend!
The point I am trying to make is that if the residents of a community truly value their well-being, they will make the effort to organize themselves and assume the responsibility of caring for their environs. This is what we call Empowerment.
Others may choose to organize themselves for other purposes, e.g., to address the lack water, or too much water (flooding), in their sitios; to curb a rising criminality in their midst; to address a shortage of classrooms for their children. It could be anything. In one town in Northern Luzon, parents volunteered their labor for free to build additional classrooms for their children. Led by an ingenious architect, they used whatever materials were available in their midst: adobe, because they had a lot of it, and nipa for roofing, which grows in abundance there. Why spend on bags of cement when you can use adobe? Why insist on galvanized roofing, when there is nipa? The point is this: There are any number of possibilities; the possibilities are endless. But for any collective endeavor to succeed, it requires one and the same essential thing: a vibrant spirit of service!
And this is where you students come in. Inspired by a vision of a better community, a better barangay, it is your responsibility to share your Dream with others, so that together, you can act to attain it.
Antoine de St. Exupery, who wrote the The Little Prince, offers the following sage advice: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.” Indeed, teach them to Dream and you’re halfway there. Get them to Care, and your work is done. (Well, not quite, because the work of a servant leader lasts a lifetime!)
The exigencies of the times demand that you, the Youth act Now. There is no time to waste. Every second counts; every moment is vital. President Obama rallied an entire nation around the slogan “Change we can believe in.” Mahatma Gandhi tells us: “We must be the change we wish to see.” We cannot wait for others to change; change should begin inside us. Anthony said it brilliantly: “I should be ready at anytime to take up the cudgels of leadership. I cannot just stand waiting for someone to lead so I can follow; no one might come and my wait will be in vain. I should lead if the situation calls (for it) but be ready to give up the reigns of leadership to anyone better qualified.”
Our barangays need uncommon heroes like you within their midst. Most of your peers choose to simply follow the pack and be like everyone else, i.e, hang with friends and text all day. What good is that??? But by coming here today, You have chosen to be different. You have chosen to lead.
The erudite American scholar and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us what it takes to be a hero, a leader. He tells us to Persist, for as sure as the sun rises each morning, we will encounter myriad obstacles along the way. We will get tired; we will encounter detractors along the way; some will laugh at us, deem us fools fighting windmills like Don Quixote de la Mancha and his squire Sancho Panza. But we must carry on. Above all, Emerson tells us: Do not be afraid to be different!
“The characteristic of genuine heroism, is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits and starts of generosity. But when you have resolved to be great, abide by yourself, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic.”
And finally, more poignantly, Emerson begs us: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
I ask you to do likewise, and be heroes in your barangays.
27 April 2012