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Keynoting The Haiti Fund lunch

I had the great honor on Friday of keynoting a lunch at the Parker House Hotel in Boston to commemorate the dedication of those working to help and heal Haiti since the earthquake more than a year ago. The lunch was sponsored by The Haiti Fund set up at The Boston Foundation by Karen and Jim Ansara.

After joking about my five year old son Nate’s challenges with impulse control, I argued that impulse control is also an issue for adults, in exactly the opposite way – most of us have impulses we control too much. They are impulses of compassion, idealism, social justice, activism and love. And one of the few positive things to come from the earthquake in Haiti is that it helped many people overcome their impulse control issues and instead act on their impulses.

Doctors from around the U.S. and around the world dropped what they were doing and found a way to get to Haiti to save lives. So did engineers, and architects, and firefighters, and EMT’s. So did therapists and bootmakers, athletes and actors. Post earthquake Haiti was a place of horrible and searing images, but it was also a place that showed us what is possible when good people act on their impulses.

Because of the amazing work of those supporting The Haiti Fund the first steps in meeting Haiti’s needs have been taken. But only the first steps. We all know that there is a long, long way to go. And perhaps most important, the underlying issue will not go away in Haiti, or here, or in many places around the globe because it is a fundamental political issue: how do you solve problems that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets – no economic markets or political markets – for solving them? That is why most nonprofit and philanthropic efforts come about in the first place, to fill that gap.

Today I want suggest at least four of the necessary ingredients for doing our work of healing and community building more powerfully – in Haiti especially, but elsewhere as well.

The first is what I call the power of bearing witness. It is something of which each of us are capable. To me it means simply going to see, feel, and share what you’ve felt. I went to Haiti not with a sense that I could effect change, but that I would be changed by what I experienced there.

When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Second is understanding that most failures are failures of imagination. When we fail at something we almost always find an external source to point at: a failure of money, time, strategy or talent, but most failures are failures of imagination. Whether we are dealing with Haiti or hunger or malaria, we must insist on exchanging incremental progress for transformational change. It is not enough to feed children or treat malaria or clear rubble. Instead we must have the imagination to assert that we can end hunger, eradicate malaria, and build back better.

Third is to remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs. The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on.”

These have always been more than just eloquent words to me. The spark for starting Share Our Strength was the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and at the onset of the next famine in 2000 I traveled there, and again in 2002, and at a school met a beautiful 13 year old girl named Alima. Alima Dari. Share Our Strength was helping to fund the school and to build a hospital next door. Alima spoke beautiful English and we had some immediate connection, probably because she was about my daughter’s age at the time, and we talked and stayed in touch, and sent letters and photos, and then one day my colleague Chuck Scofield went to Ethiopia and I gave him a letter to give to her.

I didn’t hear from Chuck for days on end. Which was very unusual. Then he e-mailed “I hate like hell to tell you this but Alima died from cerebral malaria.” They had misdiagnosed it as TB and by the time they realized it was too late. And so I learned anew that there is such a thing as being too late. The hospital we were helping to build was not finished. Alima was taken to a hospital much farther away. She didn’t make it. But you don’t have to go to Ethiopia to find your Alima. She is here in Boston, or Haiti, or Denver, or D.C. And her short life was long enough to remind us that there are consequences to our action and inaction.

The fourth is that everyone has a strength to share. That has been the entire history of Share Our Strength. Each of us has something to give.

The great African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote:

We are each other’s harvest.

We are each others business.

We are each other’s magnitude

And bond.

Whether we are bankers in Boston or bakers in the south end, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether we are doctors at MGH or day laborers in Port au Prince, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether we are funders, or donors, or writers, or rock stars, we are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude, and bond.

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