Thanksgiving Remarks at Georgetown Day School

November 23, 2010 | 11:00 a.m.
Thanksgiving Assembly | Georgetown Day School | Washington, DC

It’s a real honor for me to be back here at one of my favorite GDS assemblies. Thanksgiving is an especially important time of the year for me as it is one in which we give thanks and think about how we can use our lives to make the world a better place in the broadest sense.

Thank you to the many teachers and staff that I’ve had the privilege of learning from and also to those whom I haven’t met, but I know are inspiring students daily and fostering the values that make this school so special and so important. To the students, you may not realize it, but you are the reason why we’re all here today. Thank for your commitment to a lifetime of learning and to using your talents to serve the common good. You’re never too young to make a difference, so I’d like to tell you how I got started.

As everyone here knows, community service is a vital part of the GDS curriculum and mission. When it came time for me to start my weekly community service trips in 8th grade, I knew a little bit about cooking so I signed up for D.C. Central Kitchen. Some of you may continue to be serving there so you know what I mean when I describe the place as simply inspirational. The Kitchen is living proof that we can tackle some of the world’s most complicated problems simply by changing the ways we think about existing resources. It shows us that (as its mission says): “waste is wrong, be it related to food, money, or the potential for productive lives.”

Who knew that we could help solve hunger, homelessness, and unemployment without soup kitchens or homeless shelters? That isn’t an empty question either for the answer is Robert Egger, the person who founded D.C. Central Kitchen on Inauguration Day 1989. Along with other staff, trainees, and volunteers at the Kitchen, Robert helped open my eyes to some of the most pressing injustices of our own city and also showed me some of the innovative solutions that are helping solve them on a daily basis.

There’s something inherently wrong about having people go hungry while thousands of pounds of perfectly good food are simply thrown away. Today, the Kitchen helps recover 3,000 pounds of fresh food daily and turns it into over 4,500 meals, not to mention the hundreds of people it trains to be professional chefs in the process. The world produces more than 110% of the food needed to feed every single person. If only we had more D.C. Central Kitchens, we could help turn that waste into something productive along with the lives of people society casts away.

There’s something else I learned at GDS and D.C. Central Kitchen and that’s why a commitment to the common good is personal—even selfish. It’s neither a chore, nor a choice for it’s about treating the world as you want to be treated, and in that sense, commitment to the common good means more than community service. In that sense, the pursuit of a better world is a selfish aim for the very simple reason that improving the world for others means that we live in an improved world ourselves.

As we change our communities for the better, there can be no opposition between yourself and the so-called “others,” those whom you are serving. For in reality, they are helping you just as much as you are helping them. All interactions are two-way so as you prepare meals for those who don’t have enough to eat, you’re also learning about teamwork, how to cook, and the spirit of humanity. Don’t forget to have fun at the same time!

Without the time I spent volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen, I would not be where I am today. I would not have known how to run a food recovery program and wouldn’t have known enough about commercial kitchens to work in restaurants—and I was one of the few people on the line in restaurants who didn’t have formal training at a culinary school. Imagine telling someone that graduated from the Culinary Institute of America that you learned how to cook from someone who didn’t have a job. Without my experience as director of Food Forward at Bowdoin College, a program based on the Kitchen’s example, I wouldn’t have been hired as the Executive Director of Mano en Mano, a Latino and farmworker advocacy nonprofit in Downeast Maine.

It all comes back to that one day when I walked into the kitchen, washed my hands, and was ready to simply help and learn.

It might sound ironic, but one of the things I’m most thankful for is the opportunity to serve. Teachers here believed in me and encouraged me to take risks, do what I thought was right, make mistakes, and learn new things. My beliefs are constantly evolving, but the values I learned in this room and others stay constant for their elegant simplicity: treat people, community, and the world with respect, trust, and care.

There’s another word that’s almost as important as those values that I want to share with you today and it’s bregar. Spanish for “struggle,” it means so much in Puerto Rican vocabulary that philosophers have written entire books on it. Like luchar in Cuba, it’s a word that can simultaneously mean everything and nothing at all. Bregar lies somewhere in between reflection and action and serves to bring together two opposing forces: the realities of life with the hopes of theory and ideas.

To become successful leaders, hay que bregar, you have to struggle. You have to understand regulations and follow them (to a point), you have to study things you don’t want to study, and you have form relationships with people you can’t stand. When it comes time to change the world, we have to decide when to fight and when to conform—understanding that conformity can be an act of subversion.

In this struggle, we’ll have to work past some wrongs in order to work towards the common good. While we do that however, we can’t forget about our values and ideals. There are some things with which we can’t bregar and that’s one of the difficulties of leadership: deciding when to struggle and when not to; when to bargain and when to hold your ground. In both cases, we have to have a vision of the future defined not by reality, but by ideals. That being said, we also have to be prepared to accept reality, to work within the system, and in doing so, to work towards that very vision we started out with in the beginning.

Think about the world and what you would like it to be. If there’s one thing that GDS teaches you, it is to combine your passions and talents with an unwavering commitment to doing what you think is right. At graduation, the president of Bowdoin College, Barry Mills reminded my class of two additional qualities of leaders: a sense of humor and a sense of humility. You will need both as you continue your studies at GDS and pursue new opportunities.

I worked full-time for the first time when I was 14, was on the Board of Directors of a multi-million dollar nonprofit when I was 18, and Executive Director of a social justice organization when I was 23. Don’t think for a second that you are too young to make a difference or to take a leadership role in bringing your ideal world you just thought about closer in line with today’s world.

Now that I’m one of the last things standing between you and vacation, I’d like to wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving. Use some of that time off to think about ways of strengthening your commitment to the Common Good and your leadership ability in community change efforts. Most importantly, take a few moments to relax and recharge. I look forward to hearing about many of your successes—and even some of your mistakes—as you continue on that endeavor. Thank you.

One response to “Thanksgiving Remarks at Georgetown Day School”

  1. sheri

    Excellent. I have only 3 edits ;)

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