“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.” These famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are how former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power concluded the Hanify-Howland Memorial Lecture to a packed audience in the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom last Thursday night.
Power, a former journalist and national security advisor to President Barack Obama, was the youngest person to ever serve as United States ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held from 2013 to 2017. Her jobs over the years have placed her face-to-face with war, genocide, and disease across the globe. These experiences are what inspired her lecture for the Holy Cross community, entitled “Why Human Rights Matter More Than Ever.”
During her lecture, part of the Hanify-Howland lecture series which recognizes individuals who distinguished themselves in the realm of public service, Power reflected on her time working in the Obama White House. She discussed her first time in the Situation Room, and the overwhelming sense of “I’m not supposed to be here!” that she felt. She also talked about some of her proudest accomplishments through her UN position, such as securing greater LGBTQ rights in Latin America and freeing 16 female political prisoners in China.
Power went on to talk about the human rights issues facing the U.S. as well, especially following the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. She said that as President Trump continues to attack the press, the judiciary, and other foundations of our democracy, it sends a message to the world that these institutions, if their importance has been reduced in the United States, are less important to the international community as well. She criticized Trump’s selectivity when it comes to human rights issues. For example, she agreed with his decision to launch military airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria following the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but found his support for leaders in Egypt and the Philippines problematic when they are committing human rights abuses.
But to those who fret about the state of human rights domestically and internationally under the Trump administration and in the future, she said that the judicial blockings of Trump’s transgender military ban and travel ban are signs that the institutions we have in place will still protect human rights. But we need to be careful, and we need to not take human rights for granted. That is why, as indicated by the title of her talk, human rights matter more than ever.
Prior to presenting her lecture, I had the chance to sit down with Ambassador Power to discuss what she hoped Holy Cross students would take away from what she had to say. She empathized with the feeling of helplessness and cynicism that plagues many young people today who have become disillusioned with American politics.
“Right now, especially with the divisions in our society, there’s a sense that some of the problems are too big, or that Washington is broken,” said Power. “And if Washington is broken, then what can little me do here on a college campus?”
This is what excited the ambassador about coming to Holy Cross, which she described as having an “activist student body at a time of great political polarization.” Her goal with the lecture was to remind students that what people universally crave is to be heard and to have agency in their own lives, and to remind students that they have a role to play in helping those people feel heard. She described the importance of viewing others with dignity as “true to the school and the tradition” at Holy Cross.
While many young people feel cynical about today’s politics, said Power, many also feel motivated and activated. “Whether they are supporting the current president and administration or being critical of them, I think everybody feels the stakes […] are very high right now,” she said. “But many young people also feel a growing despair that the grown ups won’t sort it out.” Just as she did during her speech, Power summarized the message of her speech by paraphrasing a Louis Jordan song: “There’s nobody here but us chickens.”
Power herself was able to make a difference in the world through what she refers to as “capital ‘P’ Public, capital ‘S’ Service,” working for the United States government, but she wants young people, on the Holy Cross campus and beyond, to know that they can make a difference too.
“There’s always something you can do, in your community or on your campus, that isn’t the answer to all of the problems that are befalling this country. It’s not the answer to political polarization; it’s not the answer to people with preexisting conditions worrying that they are going to lose their health insurance; it’s not the answer to hurricanes affecting large swaths of this country. Nothing any of us do individually, whether we are a former cabinet official or a freshman at Holy Cross is going to answer any one of those issues. But we can do something. And if enough people can overcome their sense of trepidation and intimidation and own this [political climate], then we will find our way in short order.”
At the end of my conversation with Ambassador Power, I asked her to address one of the most contentious issues in our Holy Cross community right now. Forbes magazine once called Power a “powerful crusader for U.S. foreign policy as well as human rights and democracy.” Although Power was both unfamiliar with the instance when the magazine referred to her as a “crusader” and unfamiliar with the conversation surrounding Holy Cross’ mascot and moniker, she said that “whatever about the term, which has an ugly history as a term of intolerance, exclusion, and even brutality, I think my appeal to people is to be a part of the struggles going on around you. I think whatever one is called, it is about recognizing that one is an agent wherever one is—in one’s family, on one’s campus, within one’s community, in one’s country. I think owning that agency is what’s important.”