First I would like to say Bonjou and Mesi to Father Privett, for the honor of this prestigious award; I’d also like to say Bonjou and Mesi to Dean of the law school, Jeffrey Brand, Professor Dolores Donovan, and Assistant Dean Erin Dolly. Bonjou to all the other distinguished faculty here. To the Graduates of the University of San Francisco College of Arts and Sciences class of 2012, Bonjou, and congratulations. And last but not least, a big bonjou and a “chapo ba” – a tip of the hat, to all the parents, siblings, relatives and friends of the members of the class of 2012 .
In my country, we have a saying: men anpil chay pa lou: many hands make the load light. We know that it takes many hands to carry the load of building a road, a house, a school. But it also takes men anpil– many hands—to create a graduate of the University of San Francisco. So while we are celebrating the hard work, accomplishment, intelligence and promise of today’s graduates, let us take a minute to thank those who helped them get here. Chapo ba, again.
In my country we have a lot of other sayings, but Father Privett has given me only 12 minutes. So I will get to the point. It is a great honor, for which I am deeply grateful, to have been invited to share this special day with you. Where I grew up, in a village in Verrettes Haiti, drinking water from an irrigation ditch, doing homework by candlelight, few of us even dreamed of graduating from high school. Most of us never even learned to read. To be someday honored by the graduates of a University as esteemed and historic as the University of San Francisco was beyond incomprehensible.
If I could not have imagined reaching out from Haiti to San Francisco, the University of San Francisco could imagine reaching out to Haiti, and it did it. USF law students and faculty have, for 7 years, brought their education, their skills and their enthusiasm to the fight for human rights in Haiti, working from here in California and in Haiti. In 2006, USF granted my client, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, an honorary degree. Granting that degree was not only a generous act to honor the man considered by many the Martin Luther King of my country. It was also a courageous and concretely productive act that helped keep Fr. Gerry out of Haiti’s political prisons, at a time when his speaking out for Haiti’s poor made him unpopular with governments in my country and in yours, and with some leaders of the Catholic Church.
Although life in Haiti has not always provided me with safety, stability, or electricity, it has provided some interesting perspectives on your mantra, Change the World from Here, that I would like to share with you. To start, it is worth asking “why change the world?”. I will give you three reasons.
The first reason for why change the world is “because you can.” From some perspectives you might be inexperienced kids, greatly in debt with school loans, thrown out into an uncertain and challenging economy. But from the perspective of a kid from a small town in Haiti, you are the privileged possessors of an education beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world. It is an education that will help you get a good job, eventually. But more importantly, it is an education that provides you the tools to learn about the world’s problems and to become part of the solution to them. Those tools are all the more valuable because you live here in the most powerful country on earth. And it is a country whose government listens to its citizens, when they organize enough, speak enough, and act enough.
The second reason for why change the world is “because you should.” Your USF education has gone beyond the important task of equipping you to participate economically in the existing society, it has equipped you to participate morally in a society that is improved by your participation. You have been involved in service learning that provided you opportunities not just to help people who needed it, but to learn more about where you yourself fit it. USF’s diversity curriculum exposed you to the wonders and challenges of communities far away and close to home. All this learning enhanced your ability to connect others’ needs with your skills, and more importantly, with your personal fulfillment. Today, we are not just celebrating your becoming bachelors of arts and sciences, we are celebrating your becoming women and men for others, in the Jesuit tradition.
The third reason for why change the world is “because we need you to.” The most powerful country in the world has an enormous influence on daily life in Haiti, and in so many places like it around the world. Much of this influence is positive, but too often your country’s policies in Haiti are not consistent with our best interests or your highest ideals. Your country has undermined and overthrown many of our Presidents, and replaced them with tyrants who imprison people like Fr. Gerry for the crime of speaking up for the poor. Your food aid policies, as President Clinton has conceded, often help your farmers with their surplus, but put Haiti’s farmers out of business, increasing our hunger.
These policies happen because the majority lets them happen, by declining to stay informed and engaged, and leaving foreign policy to people with a strong ideological or economic self-interest. Only an engaged, informed US citizenry like you, with a strong moral interest can save us from these policies.
Improving US foreign policy may seem like a heavy load to carry, but that is exactly why we need men anpil – many hands- including your hands, to carry it. Just this week, we saw proof that enough hands can carry the heaviest load. Two years ago UN Peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti, while we were still recovering from the devastating earthquake. We had never known cholera, so the disease quickly spread throughout the country. It has killed 8,000 people and sickened over 600,000. The UN has its strengths and weaknesses, like any organization, and one of its weaknesses is an inability to respond fairly to harm its peacekeepers caused. The UN denies responsibility and hides behind its immunity, denying its victims their day in court. It even denies that it caused our cholera epidemic, despite a mountain of proof and admissions by UN investigators and President Clinton, now UN Special Envoy to Haiti, that it was responsible.
One year ago our office filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims. Our legal claim was strong, but we knew we needed many more hands- men anpil—to obtain justice for our clients. So we worked with solidarity, religious and human rights groups from all over the world, especially in the U.S., which pays the largest share of UN peacekeeping costs. Our friends helped us convince 105 members of the U.S. Congress, which appropriates the UN peacekeeping costs, to sign a letter urging the UN to respond justly. 400,000 people viewed Baseball in the Time of Cholera, a movie about our fight online. Over 7,000 people have signed an online petition by Avaaz launched last Friday. And on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made the historic announcement that the UN would commit to a $2.2 billion response to the cholera, including health care, sanitation and clean water. There are still many question marks about this initiative, but if it succeeds, it will save an estimated 4,000 lives a year from cholera and other water-borne disease.
The cholera case shows why it is so important to change the world From Here. We love having USF students, alumni and faculty visit us in Haiti, but I have spent enough time in San Francisco to understand why you might never want to leave. And you don’t have to. There are plenty of borders erected between Haiti and San Francisco: immigration borders, language borders, economic borders, racial borders. But those borders do not really work unless we let them. They cannot stop computers carrying translatable text, videos, and pictures that convey our reality to yours and yours to ours. They cannot stop you from inviting Haitian to speak at your schools or your votes having an impact on policies in our country, or events in Haiti having an influence in elections here.
The cholera case also shows that we need not just many hands, but many different types of hands. We needed lawyers, of course, but we also needed artists to create compelling videos, scientists and doctors to analyze the evidence, economists to weigh the costs, writers to write about it, and teachers to teach it. Most important, we needed critical consumers of media, discerning financial supporters, and educated and engaged citizens.
I would now ask all the members of the class of 2012 to raise your right hand. Good. Now please raise your left hand. Good. Now repeat after me: men anpil, chay pa lou. Again: men anpil, chay pa lou . How about everyone else, please join them and raise your hands. “Men anpil chay pa lou”. Very good. Now please answer the question ,How do we change the world, from here? men anpil, chay pa lou. How? men anpil, chay pa lou! Merci beacoup, thank you.
Click HERE to See Nicole Phillips speaks at Mario Joseph’s Honorary Doctorate Reception