Sunday, May 1, 2011

“There is a Crack in Everything”

Commencement Address by Marjory M. Byler ’69, human rights activist and organizational consultant, 113th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, May 1, 2011

President Brenneman, thank you so much for your invitation to speak at this Commencement ceremony. Members of the class of 2011, I am honored by the privilege of addressing you today in the presence of your family and friends, the Goshen College faculty, administration and staff, and many honored guests. Gracias a todas y todos (Thanks to all).

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

I want to take this opportunity to share with you some of the ways in which I have seen the light of compassion, hope and solidarity shine in a very cracked world.

I was born and raised in Argentina and lived for many years as a teenager and a young adult in Uruguay. As the daughter of missionaries, I am a citizen of two countries, bilingual and bicultural by birth. I spent the first 32 years of my life primarily in Latin America with some very challenging and interesting incursions to the United States, including three years in college at Goshen College and the next 30 years based in the United States and the United Kingdom, reaching back as far as often as possible to my Southern roots. One of the challenges of seeing everything with two-point perspective is I always had the sense very early on that my view of the world was slightly different and in a sense a bit larger than that of most of my friends. No matter what I was doing, I could always imagine a scenario in a different country or in another language of doing something similar.

Growing up as a girl, this was not always easy, and I would have given anything to be normal, by which I understood to be the granddaughter of Italian immigrants in Argentina or a farm girl in Ohio.

I was blessed by the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” In my 20s and 30s, I lived through two military coups – one in Uruguay in 1973 and one in Argentina in 1976. Although I was fortunate to have been spared imprisonment and torture, my husband and many of my friends were not. I learned about government repression first-hand. Earlier, during my years at Goshen College, and for the first year after, I worked with Mexican migrant farm workers in Michigan and saw close up their exploitation and oppression. These experiences underpinned by the values of fairness and service, compassion and action instilled in me by my parents and many brilliant role models, are part of the road I traveled to arrive at a career in human rights work.

I believe that human rights are not just a set of rights — the right of association, expression, the right to shelter, to food, to education — but perhaps most importantly a framework through which to understand how to deal with a broken world and how to begin to help mend it. One way to think about this is to think about the ideas of voice, access and engagement.

In the first instance, people whose human rights have been abused need to be able to find and use their voice to define the parameters of the struggle for the rest of us. In Amnesty International we used to say that we gave “voice to the voiceless.” Now we prefer to think that we add our voice to the voice of the victims and survivors of human rights abuses, we can amplify their voice, but we can never speak for them.

In the mid-90s in Bangladesh I was asked to provide a training of trainers to enable human rights activists to work with women in the countryside. As we practiced our skills in a school, a hospital and a textile factory, these trainees were often hunched over pencil and paper, or a book or piece of fabric, with the women listening intently as they explained to them how they did their work. These young people from the city who wanted to help build their young country, learned that they first needed to acknowledge the tremendous expertise and creativity of these women before they could understand how to help. We would stay up late into the night re-writing materials and role-playing situations, placing the voices we heard at the center of our project.

I believe that we can learn to listen to and for the voice of others through careful and committed practice, and that this is a unique expression of servant leadership. It’s one of the ways that Light gets in.

Used first by 18th century Quakers, the expression “speak truth to power” aptly describes one of the key aspects of social change and political agendas, that of access. Once we identify the truth in our voice, what good is it if it doesn’t reach the people in power, the people that have to make a difference or at least facilitate the required change? All of us can play a part in facilitating access to power, whether as educators, artists, healers, business people. This power often resides within us as well. Those of us with privilege need to look deep within ourselves to ward off our own discrimination and exclusion of others, be they who they may. But lest we presume too much, we need to remember that excluded and marginalized people will find their own paths to power if access is denied or proves ineffective. Our engagement with others in finding and developing access to power is a vital component of compassionate peacemaking, the gentle craft of supporting people’s access to each other’s stories.

In 1988, Amnesty International organized a worldwide rock music tour called “Human Rights Now!” We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was responsible for managing the advance teams in San Jose, Costa Rica and Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the middle of the organizing chaos the day before the concert, I got a call from the assistant to one of the stars of the concert. Sting wanted to meet some of the children of the disappeared. These were children of parents who had been disappeared; they, the children, had been kidnapped by the military and placed through illegal adoptions with military families and acquaintances. The mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared had begun their tireless search for these children and had succeeded in returning some of them to their families.

The group of about 20 children we pulled together ranged from about 5 to 15 years of age. The little ones had no clue who Sting was, but were excited because everybody else was excited. The older ones were thrilled to meet a rock star. I translated as Sting sat down in the circle of rough benches and asked them what they wanted him to say the next day at the concert that the whole world was going to be watching. And in spite of the trauma caused by having been brutally snatched from their family, lost their parents and temporarily their identities, they were very clear: Tell the story of my mother. Tell the story of my father, so that this never happens again.

There was not a dry eye at the concert the next day when Sting spoke of the courage of these children before he sang “They Dance Alone” – an emblematic song of the struggles of the families of the disappeared in Latin America. He gave them, the most vulnerable of survivors, access to a stage most of us can’t hope to walk, but it was a simple act of compassion, of Light, that reverberated through that stadium and will not be forgotten by any of us there that night.

It is of worth in and of itself to listen for ones’ voice and the voice of others, and to support access to power. However, the path to social transformation requires one more step: engagement and action. In late 1970, I studied briefly in Mexico under Ivan Illich, author of a book published that year called Deschooling Society. There I learned and practiced the adult popular education model of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Two of the fundamental premises of this pedagogy are that adult students should be protagonists of their learning, having a key role in both the choice and the development of subject matter, and that learning needs to be able to lead to action. This is not unlike what we attempt to do everyday within the human rights field.

Knowledge of our rights and a voice to articulate them is never a substitute for their expression, defense and protection. The action may be as dramatic as that of the first group that met in Tahrir Square in Cairo or as apparently small as finding one’s way to the polls in Belarus or in Burma. Knowledge that emerges from and derives in action is truly learned and doubly valuable and a powerful component of passionate learning.

For the past years, Amnesty International has worked closely with an organization in Latvia called Mozaika, an organization that works against the discrimination of gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. Riga had been chosen as the venue for the European Pride March in 2005. This very small organization, supported by Amnesty International members that had come from different countries in Europe and North America, marched while a group of protesters three times larger than them, jeered and hurled obscenities, food and stones. The police, ostensibly there to keep order, joined the protesters and several marchers were seriously beaten and seriously injured. But the group persisted; they felt the imperative to act against discrimination in their community. The 2006 march had fewer protesters (but still more than the marchers) and no one was injured. But by 2009, there were significantly fewer protesters than marchers, the police did their job keeping the protesters in check, the city council gave permits and stood up to threats of litigation and the number of marchers, gay and straight, had increased so that the Latvians in the parade far outnumbered the foreign supporters.

Two victories were achieved: one a triumph over the fear of being labeled as “other,” less valuable members of society, and second, the right to express controversial opinions publicly and safely. In May of 2010, the European Pride March went to Lithuania – to build awareness and inclusion in yet another society at peace with its hatred.

The job never ends, but the victories along the way bring Light and hope to marginalized peoples everywhere.

Being a global citizen can be a choice, but what does it really mean?

Several years ago, when I was Director of Amnesty International’s Midwest Region, I came into the office one morning and went to check the Urgent Actions that had accumulated in the fax machine while I was away. Urgent Actions are appeals for letter writing or other actions on behalf of people around the world who are at very high risk of illegal detention, torture, or summary execution. I picked up the fax and walked back toward my desk reading the top one. It was a call for letter writing on behalf of a small group of women detained the previous day in Colombia for speaking out publicly in defense of family members that had been in detention in an undisclosed location for several years. No one knew where these women had been taken and there was high certainty that they were going to be tortured.

As I read down the list of names, I froze. One of them was the wife of a friend of mine that had studied at the Mennonite Seminary where my father had taught in the 60s. I frantically started calling around to see if I could find out if this was in fact the same woman. I couldn’t reach my sister or brother-in-law in Bogota. I kept calling people who knew about Colombia and kept drawing a blank; no one could confirm if this was in fact my friend’s wife. By noon I was exhausted, discouraged and distracted when a colleague called to say that he had been able to reach the Columbia researchers in Amnesty’s office in London. The Fany Correa on the list was not my Fany Correa.

Limp with relief, I called some of the people that I had managed to alarm earlier, and sat down at my desk to get on with my work. I took a deep breath; she was not my Fany Correa.

I worked for a bit at my desk and then I stopped in my tracks. What did I mean, this was not my Fany Correa? She was somebody’s Fany. Somebody’s mother, sister, daughter, friend who would not able to go back to her desk at work because this most dreaded thing had happened to her, their Fany. A sister perhaps would have to take care of her children; she wouldn’t show up for coffee with a friend or to dinner with her mother. What was I thinking about, not my Fany! Of course she was! And her pull on me to write a letter, to pick up the phone, to protest at the Colombian consulate in Chicago was just as strong and legitimate as if she had been my Fany, or indeed, my sister.

I think of this as one of my “aha” moments in what it means to be a global citizen. In a real, if very broad, way there is no one out there that is not “mine” to defend and protect. In my small way, that’s what I have tried to do with my life. In the ways you will achieve, big and small, this is what you are called to do. We are our sister’s keepers.

Let me go back to Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets through”.

I have come to understand the Light as Quakers do – as the expression of the Spirit’s work in our lives, and to believe that there is that of the Spirit in everyone, no matter how despicable their actions, how hateful their speech, how divisive their politics. In my experience a human rights framework and language have often been expressions of that Light, but more often, very much oftener, I have seen it shine simply in the daily practice of compassion.

I have been devastated by the stories I’ve heard from women around the world. I know of the systemic disregard for women’s bodies and our choices, and the attempts to take away our voice. But I also know that the Light of a powerful sisterhood will shine until these rights are realized for all women, and I am honored by the company of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons in that universal struggle.

I have seen organizations like Amnesty International understand that we cannot speak for but must struggle with the victims of discrimination and oppression: dissenters in North Korea or Zimbabwe who speak out under threat of death; Americans who claim small and large victories against the death penalty; young people in the Middle East who become protagonists of their history and in so doing give hope to the whole world. The Light shines, change is real and you can be a part of it.

At this crossroad in your life there is much to celebrate and there will always be much to celebrate. Alice Walker wrote that resistance is the secret of joy. That is a strong image for all of us who are always aware of the brokenness in the world; it’s too easy to forget that a fierce love of Light and of life is what feeds our joy and our courage. Tend to your joy as to a treasure.

As you leave this hall today, I urge you to remember that the brokenness in the world is what allows the Light of compassion and action to burn brightly. As you take your place wherever your life calls you, there is always the option to join the struggle to mend that which is broken, and you can shine with the knowledge that you can — and I am confident, will — build a better world. And if and when your own brokenness overwhelms you, the Light will shine for you.

During the Spanish Civil war, poet Antonio Machado wrote:
“Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar;
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.”
(Walker, there is no path, only wakes in the sea; Walker, there is no path, we build the path as we go”)

Unchartered waters and open spaces await you. This is the awesome promise of new beginnings. Take your joy and your passion, your dreams and your faith and shine your Light through the cracks and into the darkness.

No matter what you do and no matter where you are, your sheer presence holds promise. The world is and will continue to be blessed by your passage through it. Go with courage. Go with joy.

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