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Convocation 2009

Thomas Tighe LL.D. '03
President and CEO of Direct Relief International
September 2, 2009

 

Global Citizenship

It is such a pleasure to join you today for your Convocation here at the Colleges. I want to thank President Gearan and his colleagues who extended the gracious invitation.

It's an extraordinary place with such a rich history and exciting progress on so many fronts - within the academic disciplines, the focus on international engagement and public service, and even here as a community of people living and working together in a beautiful, fragile environment.

When I learned about Professor Oberbrunner, and then about her distinguished award for teaching I was even more excited. But when I heard that I had to speak after her remarks, which I just knew would be brilliant, I thought, "oh no."

After all, I do work in a warehouse next to the train tracks, so following such a distinguished member of the faculty is a bit intimidating.

President Gearan asked me to talk about "global citizenship," I immediately accepted. I love the term. It sounds good, and I knew it was something I'm for. But then I realized that I wasn't quite sure what it meant.

I also realized that this isn't just college, but it's Hobart and William Smith Colleges, so it might be appropriate to research and define the term a bit before just jumping right in.

As it turned out, I found that "global citizenship" is a term that lacks a current, precise definition. In a literal sense, no world government is going to issue you a passport - at least this year. And if that does happen, don't worry, President Gearan is so hooked in to what's going on in the world, he'll know about it first and you'll all get the first ones.

But, the absence of a precise definition of "global citizenship" made it more exciting to come here. I realized that it will be you who will be defining it as you go through your studies here, and then through your life.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges are a national leader on this front, and it's important for all of us here and those we care about and those who we share this planet with that you - and we all - get this right.

Obviously, nation-states still exist and they're not going away. They are the passport-issuing entities to their citizens, and they do all sorts of important things that governments do, including defining for people within their boundaries what citizenship means.

So I think a big question about global citizenship is whether it means all of us working so that all our respective governments get along, or something more than that. I think it falls in the "something more" category.

Although the notion of a global citizen is still being defined, the idea that it reflects is generally a good thing.

It recognizes, first, we as individuals - and that means each of you - has a central role to play.

Second, it recognizes that a lot of issues simply transcend countries' borders, and that these issues are urgently important and connect and affect us all.

And third, I think it represents an essential element of altruism and recognition that global citizenship, just like any citizenship, involves certain obligations and contributions that are good for purposes larger than our own very personal self interest.

We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, are exposed to the same health risks, use the same financial and natural resources and buy and sell goods and services on a worldwide basis.

The speed with which all this connectivity has occurred is breathtaking, and governments are stretched to their limits trying to keep up with what it all means and organize systems to manage how it all will work. Plus, governments are generally slower to move than are the people being governed. So we're in a very interesting time.

One of the great things about the Peace Corps, where I had the pleasure of working as a volunteer and then under President Gearan when he was Director, was that it was based on a simple recognition: governments declare wars, but people fight them.

And when this happens, the soldiers end up killing each other, often for reasons the combatants don't fully understand or necessarily even agree with.

The idea was that maybe those things that caused governments to declare war upon each other and send their respective citizens to fight and die might be cushioned or avoided if the people who would be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives actually had a chance to connect with each other as people beforehand.

The idea was that a better understanding among people might enable a more nuanced view of issues among governments and, perhaps, perhaps a chance to resolve disputes peacefully before turning to the brutal logic of war.

It's simple, but it's profoundly important. And I think history will bear out that the insight brought about by a better understanding of what folks on the other side of a border's lives are about does improve the chances for resolving things in other ways.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, it's got to be better than having only the mechanisms of government diplomacy backed by the credible use of force, which, to be credible has to be used sometimes. It's logical, but it leads to weird results.

In a lot of ways, what governments and companies do as institutions are similar. They make institutional decisions, operate globally, and take actions that have tremendous influence on all aspects of our lives. But both governments and companies are all ultimately run by real people.

The same is true of all organizations, including this one - with its rich traditions, like this one. So it's important to recognize the human element that is always present. People are the common element behind every dot com, dot org, dot gov, or dot edu. And they always are the "x" factor in the equation.

So for me, being a good global citizen means that it's up to each one of us to make judgments about the issues that matter, the type of world we want to live in, and where to engage our time and efforts.

Whether these judgments lead to public life in government, business, nonprofit nongovernmental organization, or anything else, the notion of being a good global citizen is among the things that has to be figured out on a personal level.

Because you are here at HWS, you have a tremendous opportunity to show the rest of us what good looks like in being a global citizen. Collectively, you are leading the way, thoughtfully, with an academic grounding and a level of personal energy that has earned a national reputation.

And I had the chance at lunch to learn more about just how much the Colleges are leaning into the various aspects of global citizenship, from an academic perspective, from a cultural perspective, internationally, and from a perspective of service.

But although your colleagues here - both on the faculty, the administration, and in the student body - already have such insight, I am after all the speaker, so I thought I'd share just three things that might help distill what the basic ingredients of good global citizenship are.

First, you've got to care.
Second, you've got to think and be informed; and
Third, you've got to act.

I suspect you already care. I'm biased this way and have the view that our species is generally good and we are are sort of hard wired with a compassionate element anyhow. It's what distinguishes us from all the other great species that we share the planet with. But we see a little puppy or a baby, and our inclination is usually to help it, not eat it.

As we humans evolve, I also think that this trait is becoming more pronounced - your biology professors could explain with a scientific bent whether this is true and why. Mine is just observation.

But this element of compassion and concern is central. Becoming better informed or acting without being tethered at all to the human consequences is scary to me. It doesn't make learning or acting any easier - probably much, much harder - but it's important to reconcile learning and accumulating information and knowledge and acting with what you knew as a little kid. Being nice counts for something in the grand scheme of things.

But just feeling and acting, led purely by emotion or compassion, and not burdened by fact or information or critical thought ultimately isn't what I think being a good global citizen is all about.

The issues we confront as human beings are enormously complicated, but we all experience them in the context of culture, tradition, geography, religion, and economic status that often affects how we interpret the issue. Just understanding those differences allow for a more thoughtful exchange in how others may be looking at them.

Maybe it's not much different than growing up. You're parents' rules and guidance were invariably always perfectly well intentioned, based on experience, and absolutely correct based on the things they considered. I'd guess, however, from the things you were considering at the time, they seemed at times, clueless, imposing, insane, dictatorial, abusive of human rights ... well, you get the idea. Let's just say you were both absolutely correct, given your respective points of view. That happens all the time.

Which brings me to action. Being a compassionate, well informed person is just terrifically important and those things have true virtue in your personal lives. But it's how those things manifest themselves in your actions that will define you to others and, I hope, model what being a good global citizen is all about.

In my job, I have the privilege of meeting such people all the time. It's why, to me, working in a warehouse next to the train tracks is as powerfully energizing and inspiring - if not more so - than working in government institutions in Washington, D.C. with all the symbols, offices, monuments, and official status that exists in that setting.

When Hurricane Katrina happened four years ago last week, a lot of people died - needlessly - and a lot more were displaced and vulnerable. We tried to step in because that's what our organization is supposed to do - provide humanitarian services to people not otherwise being served by their government or by commercial market forces.

We met many terrifically inspiring people along the way. One of them, a woman physician (following in the footsteps of the insitution's own Elizabeth Blackwell) who had established a small clinic in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, was struggling mightily to care for the surge in displaced people in her area. We helped her, we supplied her with medicines and supplies she needed, and when people gave money to us, we turned around and gave it to her and others like her who were doing so much work but off the screen of the national media.

She could not have been a more inspiring person - deeply educated, deeply committed, and working so hard in a tough time for people who had few options and were very vulnerable. All for no money, no recognition.

A few weeks ago, that doctor, Regina Benjamin, was nominated to be Surgeon General of the United States. That was a good day. For her, for the country, and for all of us. She may have spent her life thus far in Bayou la Batre, but she is exactly what caring, thinking and learning, and acting looks like.

And she is just one. Another person who has become a friend is Sakeena Yacobi. She immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan years ago. We met her in early 2002, after the Taliban had fallen and exposing the complete lack of health and education infrastructure that existed in its wake. The rate of maternal and child death was among the highest ever recorded, and being pregnant was itself a life threatening condition.

Sakeena's group, the Afghan Institute for Learning, had started years earlier working under the Taliban's radar, providing home-based educational instruction for women and girls and delivering babies. They did so at very high risk to their own lives, since they would have been killed for their work.

When the ruling Taliban fled, the structure AIL women were there and we were able to lean in with resources to help them do more. They have since set up midwife training programs and various educational programs and helped women and their children survive the process of childbirth.

The results are demonstrable, and in my opinion more effective and cost effective than anything else despite consuming only a small portion of the resources that have been spent on other activities. She is so good, she is now asked to work across borders in other areas, and she does everything she can to help others make similar progress.

Sakeena should win the Nobel Peace Prize someday. You probably haven't heard of her, but I hope you do, because she is just another person who embodies the compassion, the intellect, and has taken the action to make things better.

It's almost 2010, and kids shouldn't die anywhere from things we know about and can fix easily. Poverty shouldn't be a death penalty. People in the United States should have access to care when they're hurt or sick. We can do all these things.

A lot of people in international affairs and global health look to Geneva ... Switzerland, where a lot of the international organizations, like the World Health Organization, are based. I will be looking hopefully at Geneva, New York, to see what you can come up with, because I think you may be on the better path.

I have this hope because:
I have a strong hunch you already care.
I know that being here at HWS will make you think and learn.
And the people here have demonstrated an inclination toward action that will define for all the rest of us what being a good global citizen is all about.

We need you. Good luck!