8 February 2017
Keynote Speech at the 19th Ayala Young Leaders’ Congress, Lima Park Hotel, Malvar, Batangas
In 1983, I was a student in college, just like you. I was a probinsyana, just getting used to life in Manila. It was supposed to be a time when all we had to worry about were our tests and sometimes just passing our classes.
But those were extraordinary times. Our professors at the UP College of Economics, which included Professor Winnie Monsod, wrote a fearless white paper that dared to expose the true state of our economy.
You see, our government at that time said the Philippines was doing great. But our professors used the power of their pens and the truth of economic numbers to defy an administration that controlled almost everything that was happening—including the media. Come to think of it, perhaps today’s era of post-truths and fake news is not a new thing after all!
Then, we woke up one morning, that same year, to the image of Ninoy Aquino dead on the tarmac. Moved by that image, our professors did something that changed my life forever. They empowered their students to fight for liberty by expanding our classrooms to include the streets. We were allowed to skip classes if we would join demonstrations.
There on the streets, we took our stand a few years later, in a bloodless revolution that captured the attention of the whole world. Of the many things I learned while studying Economics at UP, many of the things I experienced on EDSA helped shape me, hone me, and turn me into who I am today. The People Power Revolution, by the way, was also the reason I met the love of my life a year later. But that is entirely another story.
Those were indeed extraordinary times, on many different levels, good and bad. We lost so many people during Martial Law. Young people who had bright futures ahead of them. They were tortured, died, or disappeared with their fate unknown. They risked their lives so you can enjoy yours. They faced pain so you don’t have to. They did not allow themselves to be silenced, because doing so meant that the next generations will be living every day in fear. Those years were not the best of times for our country.
We once again face extraordinary times. This time, the issues we grapple with are global in nature, with massive local ramifications. In 2016, we saw the startling end of traditional power and the beginning of a new global order. The world was stunned when the Britons voted for Brexit, and when Donald Trump won in the US Presidency.
Commentators say this was the cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders. That cry has become more strident as swaths of the global population left behind by progress wonder why their children are dying of hunger when they see on television and social media that others are living so opulently.
Physicist Stephen Hawking says this widening inequality around the world is the reason why we are at the most dangerous time in the development of humanity. That we have discovered how to destroy our planet and relegate more of our people to poverty, when we haven’t yet discovered how to escape it.
Do you see this around you, young as you are? Do you see the number of the poor growing and their suffering getting worse? While also seeing the wanton display of wealth and power by some of those who have it? Technology and social media has turned that into a spectacle. No wonder, the poor are angrier. And frustrated. And who can blame them?
I don’t, because I see their suffering. I try very hard to walk where they walk; make sure I experience first hand how far they have to go to reach the next barangay clinic or public high school. Since I assumed office in July, I made sure that every week, at least two to three days every week, I visit some of the most remote and poorest communities in our country, to give the poor a voice in finding solutions to the problems they face.
It is during these extraordinary times when having the right kind of leaders becomes even more crucial. Each one of you have been carefully chosen for Ayala’s program because you have the potential to lead our nation during these extraordinary times.
Who knows? One of you may become a beacon for a people divided by hate and post-truths. Some of you may be the catalyst for collaborative change and creative destruction. Many of you may be the inspiration by those who know you, so they can choose light over darkness, love over hate, selfless service instead of self-entitlement.
I wish I can remember all of your faces so that when it happens, I could say: I know that person. Nakita ko ngayong araw. I saw him or her at the AYLC. You are here because you have already exhibited leadership qualities among your peers, and have been carefully chosen by the foundation. I wish I can hear all your stories and get to know you more. Sigurado ako na napakaraming kuwento sa likod niyong lahat.
I believe that the kind of leaders that we need during these extraordinary times are precisely what your event today is training you to be.
Leaders with empathy.
Leaders who know how to truly engage others.
And leaders who are empowered and empowering.
Empathy is not definitely sympathy. As a lawyer for the poor for a very long time, when I worked in an NGO called SALIGAN, which is actually short for Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap pang Legal, we fought for the rights of indigenous peoples, urban poor groups, farmers and fisherfolk, abused women and children, and others who were marginalized and disenfranchised.
What we learned is that in their poverty and suffering, sympathy is not enough. Empathy, on the other hand, is everything.
Empathy requires that we don’t just feel sorry for a person; we truly take the time to listen. When the Office of the Vice President goes to what we call our “laylayan visits”, we listen more than we talk. We don’t tell the persons we visit how to think or feel because empathy is not about us. It’s about the other person. While sympathy comes with advice, empathy comes with powerful questions. So we ask, listen, and act fast. With deeper understanding, we can find solutions and we act on them with urgency, having seen firsthand how dire their situation could be.
During these extraordinary times, the things that can change the world are the things that we can do together. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, and other chat applications have been designed so that people can connect with each other, perhaps do more to change the world together. But the tragedy is that in the midst of more tools for connection, we have become more disconnected. In the midst of technology meant to enhance our humanity, we have become robotic in the things we accept as truth. You and I need to do something to change these.
We must engage more deeply. As President Barack Obama said during his Farewell Speech, “If you are tired of arguing with a stranger on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
Dissent does not have to be bad, if it starts a conversation that leads to deeper understanding. Let’s bring back healthy discourse to counter the trolls. The deeper we engage, whether in real life or in social media, the more we neutralize the evil handiwork of those whose opinions and criticisms are for sale.
The more we render inutile the efforts of those who would harvest the fear, frustration, and discontent of people and use them for their personal agenda.
As leaders, we must be empowered and empowering. I suppose it is human nature for leaders to consider power as a finite resource, that they must guard it or else lose their position. In our experience in Naga City, when my husband was mayor then, power was shared back to the people by setting up a People’s Council, it did not at all reduce the leader’s ability to lead.
It enhanced it. It allowed any organized group to become part of the decision-making of the City. It could, and it did, several times, counter a decision by the Mayor itself. But because that power was respected, there was mutual respect and empowerment. What resulted was a city transformed because power was directly shared with the people. Ordinary citizens were deeply engaged in matters of governance, and truly empowered.
Every one of us might not have the chance to be mayor, or congressman, or president of our country. Or even be the head of the large corporation. But we can all be everyday leaders. Each one of us can make a difference where we stand. Imagine what our empathy, ability to engage and empower, can do for our country, collectively.
This is not the time to slacken, my young ones. Democracy and liberty is once again under attack. Our very way of life is under attack. There are those who are feeding this anger and frustration sweeping across the globe, using it so that people will disengage rather than engage.
I have children around your age and I marvel at the amazing tools that you have at your fingertips to make a difference in our world. Make good use of your time. Read a biography of known thinkers, not just your newsfeed. Really talk to someone much older about things that matter.
Be authentic and audacious and stand in your truth, because using selfies to paint a life that’s not yours is a total waste of time. Most of all, remember that the world is bigger than we think, and they have marginalized and disenfranchised people in them.
Consider them with empathy, and find ways to engage and empower, so that the last, the least, and the lost will finally find their voice.
Thank you and mabuhay kayong lahat!