"For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes." - Dag Hammarskjold

Sunday, June 23, 2013

celebrating lives greatly full :: alex munter

Our format is a bit different today because of a wonderful opportunity that came about, thanks to Twitter!  Ottawa's very own Alex Munter reached out and shared a speech he had given to the Nepean High School graduating class on June 24, 2010, when he was Executive Director at the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa. I was blown away by the speech and immediately asked if he would grant permission to share it here.  He graciously agreed. 

Alex is a well-known member of the broader Ottawa community.  He has been recognized by many organizations for his tireless advocacy for a wide range of issues related to health, children, youth, family, the elderly, equal rights (just to name a few!).  He served on city council (where he chaired the Health Committee) and came in second in a tight mayoral race in 2006.  Our city's loss on that night may also have been our city's gain, as he has continued to serve in various roles with humility, passion and dedication.  Today, as President & CEO of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), he oversees the care provided to many of the most vulnerable in our community.  THANK YOU Alex.  For everything.

Now, a great message for all of us...

First of all, it’s a thrill to be here – I grew up in Ottawa and Nepean H.S. has always been a legendary institution in our city. So a real pleasure for me to be here… 

And a special thank-you from all of my colleagues at the Youth Services Bureau – Nepean H.S. students’ support for YSB at WestFest two weeks ago helped raised money for programs and spread the word about our services. 

It’s traditional at these kinds of events for speakers to come and tell you that’s it’s all about you and all about your achievement: that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. 

So let me tell you something different. Let me tell you that it's all baloney. in fact, you can’t accomplish anything you set your mind to … You can’t turn your dreams into reality. 

Not by yourself, that is. 

Today, you should indeed be proud of this diploma – and be relieved that your 13-year marathon has finally reached the finish line! You should stand tall, aim high. But you should also be grateful. You did a lot to reach the finish line. But not a single one of you did it alone. 

The most important thing you can do in your life, every day, is to be grateful for the people, circumstances and good fortune that have brought you to this milestone – and to every other milestone. 

For most of us, gratitude is probably a daily struggle. It is hard to be grateful when you’ve faced a setback. Couldn’t afford the things others have. Fought with your parents. Have suffered the loss of a relationship. Experienced illness. 

But here’s why our community, our world, needs you to be grateful… 

I did not have a privileged upbringing. But I was privileged to have the upbringing I did. My parents are immigrants. They sacrificed, worked hard so that my brother and I could have the opportunities we did. As kids, we had the love, emotional support and material/ and financial means to be able to reach our potential. 

Then, I got involved in the community and in local politics. I was supported by people who believed in me. When I ran a weekly newspaper, people invested in my business, bought advertising, wrote articles, read the paper. When I ran for office, people helped me – volunteering, giving money, voting. When I took on tough issues as an elected official, people stood with me. Now, as executive director of a social services agency, I depend on hard-working colleagues, donors, volunteers to help me accomplish almost anything that I get done in that role. 

Have I worked hard? Sure. Did I offer people something for their support of my business or my political career? I hope so. Are the choices I made, and the effort I invested, responsible for my success? Sure, a little … but probably not as much as I’d like to think. I am not a self-made man. I am grateful for what I have received from my family, friends and community. I believe that I owe others a tremendous amount for my success. 

To quote the American writer E.J. Dionne: “There is, in fact, no such thing as a purely self-made person. There’s the obvious: that we are brought into the world and (usually) reared by our parents. Having decent, caring parents is surely one of the great gifts life offers – and none of us can count on that as an achievement we had anything to do with.” 

Let’s take the example of the world’s most famous self-made made man: Bill Gates. 

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers is about success. Its premise is that there is no such thing as innate talent … people succeed because of lots and lots of practice but, mostly, because of luck. The cards you are dealt have a lot more to do with success than almost anything else. Example: Bill Gates … and his opportunity to go to one of about a dozen high schools in the U.S. in the late ’60s that had a computer. Think how that changed his world (and ours). 

Imagine how his life would have been different: if he’d been born 10 years earlier, if he’d been born 10 km away in a low-income neighbourhood, not an affluent one, if he’d been born in a low income family, if he’d been born a she, etc. The point, simply, is that we are all a product of our experiences. That many of us have been born with enormous privilege. 

Every day at the Youth Services Bureau, I meet young people and I hear about the struggles they have faced and I often wonder if at their age, at your age, I would have had their courage and strength. 

So I count my blessings. And counting my blessings leads me to believe that we all need to think about how we, together, ensure those who do face those kind of obstacles can still have an opportunity to attain their full potential. 

Now – take the opposite scenario. Imagine if I believed, as some people might, that it was all about me. That the ONLY reason that I am successful is that I worked hard. What if I was not only ungrateful for the opportunities I was given, but maybe even resentful of the sacrifices I had to make to be successful? What if my conviction that I did it all led me to be blind to the taxpayers who paid for my education or to those who invested time and patience in me? What if my belief that I am the sole author of my good fortune leads me to conclude that, well, if I could do it, so could anyone else… 

This is a worldview that encourages people to see the world as nothing more than a marketplace where we can buy commodities. It is a vision that neglects instruments of community-building like volunteerism, philanthropy, political engagement and public services. It is a vision that undermines the values of community – like solidarity, equality, respect and compassion. It is a worldview that is born from an absence of gratitude. 

Being grateful, being other-focused, results in a call to citizenship, which is the best way to make the world the kind of place you would want to live in. 

So be grateful for this day. And be grateful for all the people – your parents, your teachers, your friends, perhaps a youth worker, a coach, a grandmother, a neighbour – who helped get you here.

And use your time, your talents and your energy to help build a world where there’s lots and lots to be grateful for …

June 24, 2010

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