The Power of One and the Power of Community: Part 3

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By AKS.9955Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It’s May, and many schools are preparing to graduate their seniors. So let’s take a moment to revisit what they are being graduated into—an environment that challenges us each day to step up, even when it makes us uncomfortable or a laughingstock. Those are the tolls of real leadership, along with a bunch of other unpleasant stuff.

This is Part 3, the final part of my column on social justice, speaking out, and fighting hard, taken from my 2004 commencement address to the graduating women of Lincoln School. The previous two columns are here and here—and, of course, as one does when summing up, I tried to leave those young women with a limited number of things to remember. In 2004, I asked those young women to do four things:

#1: First, remember that we do not have social justice in Rhode Island or in the U.S. or in the world.

There is bias—a lot of it—still today. This is documented fact, not opinion. From racism to homophobia to sexism, these are all human-rights issues, and so these are women’s issues, too.

#2: Second, remember and live the values of the Lincoln School community.

Look honestly at your community, no matter where you are living. Then, as leaders, claim your power.

Demand power. Take it. And empower others.

#3: Third, be courageous. Don’t hold back. Speak out. Question and challenge. Remember, silence is consent.

A long time ago, I learned to speak out, and made a commitment to myself to do so always. Often, it isn’t easy. I talk about social-justice issues like gender bias and racism and homophobia. I talk about how privilege—the privilege of race and gender and sexual orientation and education and affluence—gives the privileged unfair power in our society. I speak out, because I believe that I can do no less—especially because, except as regards my gender, I am privileged. So I have an obligation.

#4: And, finally, vote.

Just speaking out is not enough. Leaders vote. And leaders demand that their parents and friends and sisters and brothers and neighbors and coworkers vote, too.

How does this relate to NPQ readers?

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with my column at NPQ. And you’re also probably wondering what this has to do with your nonprofits and your board members, your fundraisers and your fundraising.

A whole lot, as far as I’m concerned. Just read the articles in NPQ. Share them with your boss and boards. What are the implications and applications for your NGO?

Just look at the reviews of nonprofits and their boards and their staff. NPQ reminds us to read these.

Just look at the inadequate wages in so many nonprofits. Maybe you should close if you can’t pay a living wage. Maybe you should insist on a stronger fundraising program, and demand more board participation. And maybe we should all lobby government to reimburse services at what they cost.

And look at philanthropy’s focus on major gifts from people with lots of money. We need to pay attention to democratizing philanthropy, too.

Back in 2004, I told those graduating women, “You give me hope.” 

That’s the way I want to end. The nonprofit sector gives me hope. Make sure you read Waldemar Nielsen’s paean, The Third Sector: Keystone of a Caring Society.

Volunteers and staff in the nonprofit sector give me hope that together we can create a socially just Rhode Island, U.S., and world.

Exercise your power of one and build the power of community by joining with others to be an even greater power.

I believe that if a girl from Lincoln School had been in the classroom of the thirteen-year-old telling her dream to become president, she—you—would have spoken out and told the teacher that he was wrong. I believe you would have told her classmates to stop laughing.

That is leadership and courage.

So I end with one of my favorite stories*, which I tell as often as I can. 

I want you to imagine the world that you can help create.

It’s twenty-four hours before you were born. A genie appears, and says: “You get to set the rules of the society into which you will be born. You can set the economic rules and the social rules and all the other rules. The rules you set will apply during your lifetime and for the lifetime of your children and even grandchildren.

Just imagine how thrilled you are with this offer! But you’re smart. You ask, “What’s the catch?”

And the genie says:

You don’t know if you’re going to be born poor or rich, white or of color, infirm or able bodied, mentally challenged or of average or high mental capacity, homosexual or heterosexual, or female or male.

So what rules do you want?

I know what rules I want: equity and social justice for all. I know what I expect of leaders and community.

You are the next generation of hope. You can make sure there is a female president soon. You can change the minds of boys and men and women and girls, too.

I believe that I can count on you.

I look forward to working with you to create a revolution for social justice—not just in Rhode Island or the U.S., but also throughout the world.


*From John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1971). Told by Warren Buffett; modified somewhat by Joyaux.