Millennium Campus Conference 2012 Opening Speech

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I’m still riding the high of this weekend, as I participated in my 4th Millennium Campus Conference. It was a truly inspirational weekend filled with incredible people that I hope to write more about. For the sake of capturing a slice, I hesitantly thought I’d share what approximates the words that I spoke during the opening night. Of course this blog already features more sharing than anyone probably hoped to read, but I hesitated on this one in particular because, well, there is something special about being in the moment when it comes to public speaking. With as much humility as I can possibly convey here, I think this was the best speech I’ve ever given. Many thanks to Sam Vaghar and the amazing MCN team for giving me the space to share it – as well as the MCC attendees who energized it and me!

MCC 2012 Opening Night
September 14, 2012

Have you ever thought about your story? I don’t mean like your Facebook timeline story, I mean your real story. Not to get all philosophical on the first date, but I think it can be useful to just step back and reflect on why you’re here; the road that led you to this point and where it’s headed. We all have a story and I think we have these chapters in our lives. I’d like to share a few from my life; what led me here today.

2005, first year at Curry College. I’m chugging along doing my thing, which was a film concentration. Couple months in, I’m at a U2 concert – which as a die hard U2 fan, was one of the greatest moments in my life. But I heard Bono talk about global poverty that night in a way that – well I had never heard anything like it. He said it’s not about charity, it’s about justice. He said we could be the generation to end extreme poverty. And I’m supposed to tell you that was my lightbulb, right? Bam. That was it, the rest is history. Well, I like to think of it as more of a flicker of light and as is so often the case, it dimmed down pretty fast. But I did start investigating this “global poverty” some more. As I learned more, I felt this pull, as I’m sure many of you have felt…like it wasn’t enough to just learn. I had to do something – just wasn’t sure what. I met this student on campus, Peter. He was a so called “lost boy” of Sudan. He shared his story with me, his journey, and what it was like visiting his village in the Bor region of South Sudan again after so many years. To see such desperate poverty. We started a chapter of the ONE campaign on campus to build awareness, and we also decided we wanted to do something concrete – raise funds to build a well in his village. And we spent the next three years on campus doing just that.

Of course that’s the cute, short version of the story and it’s nice to be able to share it now like that, but It was a tough road for sure – raising that kind of money from students and faculty – and always there was that friction …how much can I really do? How much can we really raise? Or, how about this one: How much do I want to do? But we got through it and now there is a well providing clean water to a village full of people – directly related to our work together at Curry College. Wow, that was such an achievement for us. It filled me with hope that we can make a difference. And so looking back, I realize that Bono and Peter helped create this sort of frame, through which I began to understand the ‘story’ of what global poverty is, how we can address it and my role within it. And through that experience I met so many great people, connected with students across campus and then across the country through the Millennium Campus Network, where I became a board member. Without being melodramatic, I look back now and realize that my experiences in college changed the course of my life. But, of course, there are still those speed bumps…

What I would call the next chapter in my life, featured another life-changing experience, this time much more personal. In May of 2009, two weeks before I walked and picked up my diploma, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was one of those moments in life where time freezes. Testicular cancer, not what you want to hear as a young guy just getting out of college looking forward to the road that lies ahead. But there it was and boy did it get me to think about my story. Through that summer, through the surgery and chemotherapy, I caught just a tiny glimpse of what it was like to live at the mercy of a disease. I remember making a conscious effort though, not to ask that question that comes so easily in those times: why me? Why did this happen to me?

The thing is, I do find myself asking that question often these days. September 2012, 3 years after treatment I’m standing before you cancer free. Why me? Why do I live in a place where I can be treated for something as complex as cancer, but a child in the Sahel region of West Africa is starving right now. Seriously, how is that possible – that we live in the same time, on the same planet, and another human being can just fade away without ever receiving anything close to the level of care I received? I don’t use these words lightly; that is fucked up.

Gandhi said it, but he used much more powerful, radical language. He said “the worst form of violence is poverty.” The worst form of violence is poverty. MLK said it too – he likened poverty to cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.

Woah – imagine if that’s the story we heard from the mass media. I think we sort of live in this fictional place a lot of the time. There is this numbness to what’s going on in the world. Maybe we lose sight of our story, that we even have a story, that every human being has a story. More than ever, we are all linked up. But we live in a world, in a system, that is wrong.

What do we do? Should you feel guilty? I’ve never been comfortable with that. Guilt is like dead weight – unproductive. I’m not sure what the right word is, but I think it might be solidarity. It’s about holding up these incompatible facts of life, this injustice. Just holding it. And out of that, comes real responsibility. Whether we act or we don’t, we’re all responsible for what happens and for what doesn’t happen. So what do you want your role to be in shaping this story?

Finding our role in all this, it takes some time and exploration. For me, it’s communication. The latest chapter has brought me to Oxfam America on the New Media team doing what I’m passionate about: helping communicate the real story of what’s going on in the world and how we can partner together to effect change. I have to say, going into work every day for this cause, with such remarkable people, it feels so good and so right. Still to keep that light burning, it takes work.

The next 24 hours are going to be filled with information, insight and inspiration. Soak it all in. You’re going to be blazing. But after you leave here, that light will dim. What’s next? How can we keep this movement moving? How can we partner with people across the globe and together change the story? I urge you to really think through that. I think our generation is uniquely positioned to address this challenge head on, and I think we, this network, The Millennium Campus Network, will be at the front lines. Our collective stories, they make up a much larger story. In history books, how will that story go? Will it ever be told? Will it be just a footnote? Or will there be a whole chapter in our history about some people from all over the world who demanded better and worked together to overcome injustice. I believe in all of us, that we’re capable of it.

The truth is, every time I thought through that question “Why me” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t deserve to survive cancer. How could I? How can any of us really deserve the life we were born into when so many are born into such dire situations. I mean my story could have ended three years ago if I were born somewhere else. But as I was writing this story to share, I realized it can’t end there… of course I deserved to survive cancer! Just as any human being deserves treatment for a curable disease. Just as every human being deserves clean water, food, shelter, medicine, education. Just as every human being deserves opportunity, and hope and faith in the future… That’s the story I want to believe in. I think that’s why we’re here this weekend. We’re the product of so many movements in history that have pushed this world forward. It’s up to us to drive the next chapter…



Author: John Abdulla

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