While my name was on the invitation and my personal passage was the catalyst for this celebration, it really is an acknowledgement of the work of each and every one of you in this room. As you look around it is important to know that you are in the company of people who have answered that powerful question posed in the Mary Oliver poem, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” by deciding to spend their every day making the world a better place. And for this I honor you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
This transition really has offered me an opportunity to reflect back on a whole era in my life that began, in my case, with my exposure to issues of social justice as a 19 year old Vista Volunteer in Laredo, Texas to today where we are all working to eliminate the causes of injustice in an unbelievably complex, constantly changing and globalized world.
I kind of feel like the great philosopher who, when asked at the end of his life what he had learned, said, “It’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than try to be a little nicer.”
Because as I reflect on what I have learned in these almost 40 years, I, come back again and again to my deepest belief that it is Love that is ultimately the greatest force for social transformation.
I once heard Paul Farmer, Founder of Partners in Health and subject of the extraordinary book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, describe this kind of love.
There is charity – which is I am rich and you are poor; I want to give to you and alleviate your suffering.
There is equity – which is I have had opportunities and access enabling me to succeed; I want to level the playing field so that you have opportunity, access and can also succeed.
And then there is solidarity – which is if you are poor, I am poor; we are in this together.
Buddhism teaches us that if you open your heart to the rest of the world you will feel tremendous sadness and it is this experience of the sad and tender heart that gives birth to fearlessness and bravery. And so it is that we must keep our hearts open, to be brave and fearless and in that way we can be in solidarity, we can connect, we can love.
As part of this celebration, I wanted to lift up two extraordinary initiatives that are themselves fearless in their commitment to building the transformative capacity of grassroots leaders and to give all of you an opportunity to support this work.
IISC’s Grassroots Leadership Development Fund was established to cover the cost of fees for any of our leadership or collaborative skill building workshops because we know that change happens when it is driven by deeply engaged grassroots leaders.
Hope on a String is a grassroots organization in Corail, Haiti that fosters social transformation through participation in music. The music is an emotional outlet and a healing mechanism and is galvanizing community unity in the most powerful way. I was able to witness this first hand when in Haiti with the Barr Fellows in January and March. Hope on a String’s co-founder and executive director, Bennett Rathbun, is also here tonight.
And now it is my greatest honor to introduce to you the new executive director of the Interaction Institute for Social Change.
Ceasar McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, Director of Engage the Power a global civic engagement organization and founder of MIT’s Co-Lab (previously named Center for Reflective Community Practice). Ceasar’s current work is on citizen engagement and democracy in the emerging intelligent city.
Ceasar will step into his new role as president of IISC on July 1. He will continue part-time as a Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT where he focuses on building the capacity of people and organizations to use reflection to “know what they know.” The synergies between his work at MIT and the work of IISC are amazing and it is the combination of the two that will bring to the world something it didn’t even know that it needed.