Shook hands with Stephen Lewis

The Student Leadership Conference at UBC this year (SLC 2008) is unanimously agreed to be the best one yet. I can personally testify that I was lucky enough to enjoy the conference from start to finish.

The opening was fun and energetic, and the first workshop that I attended to by Jinny Sims, president of BC Teacher’s Association who was the leader of a controversial union strike, and Dr. Gary Poole, Director of Teaching and Academic Growth at UBC, was great. (Great idea to start the day with these distinguished, highly engaging professional speakers.)

They both used personal anecdotes that led to their message. Ms. Sims used a story about a how she helped a troubled youth and how he became her most significant achievement even after 30 years of teaching and acting as the leadership of BCTF. Her messages: find your passion and let it drive you, be with by people you are trying to lead (don’t run ahead of everyone else), and when you want to hang onto your title, you’ve had it for too long.

Dr. Poole has already established a reputation as one of the greatest speakers on campus, and he surely did not disappoint. He asked us to think of something that we are proud of learning, went on to talk about him learning Spanish, his daughter learning difficult medical procedures, and came back to ask us: was whatever you are proud to learn “put into” you, or did someone “draw it out”? Like wise, should leaders put ideas, energy, motivation into others, or help them draw those attributes out? He believes in the latter.

Then I went to a great student workshop and presented what I hope to be a good workshop, and then came the closing keynote: Stephen Lewis.

Such passion, such emotion, such motivation! This man once again captivated the entire audience, and brought the most pressing world issues into such sharp focus, in such a way that everything else seems so trivial and irrelevant. The horror in Rwanda and Darfur, the petrifying hell for women in Congo, the apocalyptic climate change, the raging HIV/AIDS pandemic; and in response to all that, the shameful silence of the West.

And this man delivered these profound messages with style. The emotional range of his voice was unlike any other speaker I’ve heard of; authoritative when he stated facts and figures, light and playful when he used humor (great humor, too!) to break up the air, and when he painted the pictures and described his personal responses, his voice was so emotional I thought he must be sobbing on stage.

No doubt Stephen Lewis’ speech touched everyone’s heart. But what can we do? These issues are so profound, so catastrophic, and so impossible to solve they make the heart cold. Summate Bill Gates, Stephen Lewis, and dozens if not hundreds of non-profits, NGOs, even pharmaceutical giants like Merck, and what do you get? A passionate Mr. Lewis who sobs at night about the continued, seemingly unstoppable spread of AIDS.

Add up the likes of David Suzuki and Al Gore, and tons and tons of sound scientific evidence plus even Hollywood (science and Hollywood, you must believe in one or another!) , but we can still count down the years we have left for a habitable planet.

Stephen Lewis constantly points his fingers at the government of the West, as if they are mobilized, the world can be saved. We will send troops to end the genocides and war on women; we will agree on environmental protocols and meet them; we will provide enough founding to treat all AIDS patients and stop the pandemic.

So we students, and the civil society at large, should be the pushing force to drive our governments into doing that.

But I have to admit, after hearing about these horrific stories for several years, I see nothing but ignorance, self-deceit, selfishness, and apathy. All of the great, passionate, mobilized leaders in the world are immediately immobilized by the ineffectiveness of the NGOs, the layers after layers of obstacles in the political and economic system, and the beat-down, exhausted voices of the public which fell into defeated silence.

I wanted to close this with a positive note, but there you go.

The wine and cheese for organizers, volunteers, and presenters after the SLC was great though. I got to shake hands with Stephen Lewis himself. Yay.


9 thoughts on “Shook hands with Stephen Lewis

  1. Congrats on having such an enjoyable day at SLC! I remember hating the workshops in the previous years thinking they were a waste of my time but loving the speakers. Ya I remember Lewis’s speech in first year, equally touching as David Suzuki and others. BUT, what have I done up to this day? Nothing! I still have a strong desire to go to Africa though! I guess that’s a start?

  2. Another thing to add…

    Yes I agree that it’s important to “educate” and tell the horrors people lived through in Rwanda, etc. But I remember attending the guest speaker series and wondering, couldn’t these powerful and knowledgeable individuals be organizing projects with students from across the continent to help with the situation in Africa? Yes there are many organizations already present but as the way Africa is standing today we know that a lot more help is needed.

    If there are a sea of volunteers flooding over Africa, I’m sure (in my mind) the collective force will result in major impacts, such as abolishing their corrupted government. Picture how US wiped out Iraq with its force.

  3. I forgot to add that I felt at the time, and still feel the same, that these speakers are not doing enough to change the situation.

  4. That’s why I refrain myself from attending speakers now days because I feel that yes I know the problems that exist and sure they will touch my heart through their carefully practiced and planned speeches. Yes they do sound beautiful and almost perfect, just like the way North Americans package their products.

    But I do not yet have time to change the situation…so I should stop wasting my time and their time and pretend like I am so passionate about the issues. I guess this shows the selfishness of me? Putting school and career before saving lives? That would be a bad argument though, because without power and knowledge how would I be able to “change the world”…muahaha!

    Before I have done anything I see myself as being one of the ignorant North Americans sitting and watching.

  5. Thanks for being the brave one who provides some critical response to these heavy-weight issues 🙂

    I think you do care though. Why a strong desire to go to Africa, unless you feel passionate about the issues?

    The volunteers can’t flood the troubled war zones for obvious reasons, and the US sent troops into Iraq, not volunteers. I guess Lewis is calling for pressuring the governments to sanction (economically or militarily) the aggressive regimes in Africa.

    I think the speakers like Lewis and Suzuki are doing an extraordinary lot besides their wonderful speeches. Their foundations raise much money to bring about actual change. And the way for these talented speakers to most effectively bring about changes is to raise awareness. Speaking to thousands and potentially mobilizing hundreds is a better way to spend their time than getting them to administer drugs to children one by one. Besides, Lewis has lived and worked in Africa for a long time.

    I guess my argument is: all of these efforts are not enough. The combined force of the best speakers and the richest businessmen on the planet is not enough. Can anything be enough? Can anything be enough to change the way our government treats international affairs? That requires a fundamental change in the collective society. Can anything be enough to make people care more about others than themselves? I don’t think so. Hence, we are doomed.

  6. The problem itself is so difficult to resolve, especially the ones in Africa…the one about women in Congo is especially depressing.

    If you think about it, it’s merely a part of the vicious cycle, and women are unfortunately the victim of this tragedy.

    Start off with lack of morality, which is due to lack of education and social justice, which allows these militia to walk around with sabotaging civilian. They know the cultural stigma about toward raped woman, a easy way to destroy families–> a cheap simple way to exterminate opposition’s civilian population. When these victims seeks for justice, the government are too busy pouring money into their own pocket while they are still in power that they are completely ignorant of these issues. This ignorance also leads to the lack of funding in education and justice force….

    It’s really hard to prevent any part of this cycle from happening, that’s why people has take an apathetic view toward this issue and hide it in the back of their mind. I’m thinking that African population will decrease drastically before some authoritative force takes control of this mess.

  7. That’s a nice summary. I’m not sure what the political structure and cultural background are like in these countries (my only understanding about them come from Hollywood and occasional news articles and speeches), so I don’t know how dysfunctional the governments are and why. And why are there endless militias springing up? I assume it’s due to the economic and political structure of these countries, and not inherent morbid brutality.

    Here’s some video clips from Lewis last time he came to speak at UBC, in reference to his wonderful speech techniques and depressing messages.

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