Message at the Young Professionals Summit 2018
De La Salle University, Taft Avenue, City of Manila
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Good afternoon, everyone. [Audience: “Good afternoon!”] I’m sorry to be coming a little late. I was telling the brothers that traffic was horrible this afternoon, and they were telling me traffic is always horrible on a Saturday afternoon here in Manila. So pasensya na kayo; taga-Quezon City ako.
You know, when I first read the invitation you sent me, I could not help but smile when I saw the word “adulting.” I have three daughters—ages 30, 24, and 18—who are going through this phase, and I understand the kind of bravery, the kind of confidence, and—believe it or not—personal humility, that is needed for adulting to work.
I remember when my eldest daughter, Aika, was just one year off college, still trying to figure out what she really wanted to do, having gone through a difficult time at work and thinking of switching jobs—a situation with which perhaps many of you can relate to. She then turned to her father for wisdom, and he answered her in a most unconventional way. Siguro dahil Lasallista iyong asawa ko. [laughter] Her father encouraged her to “grin and bear it” and stay in a job that she did not like, because performing well even when you feel uninspired is, he said, part of the learning process.
His email read, and I quote: “It is too early to tell what you are meant to do. But quitting this early will not be good for you. While you may be unhappy and stressed, there is a better way of coping with it. The more unhappy and discontented you are, the more you will dread every day you work. You are not in the worst place at this stage in your career. Sometimes, having too many choices is not that healthy. Sticking on to your job for a significant amount of time is a good idea. It will test your ability to cope with something you are not too happy doing. The sad reality is that we have to bear it because it is part of the learning process.”
And he said, “If I encourage you to quit early, the next time you feel the same discomfort, you will not learn to cope but quit again. Just look at this stage as the difficult stepping stones in testing your character and patience.” Close quote.
After her father passed away, Aika shared this exchange via her Tumblr account, with fresh grads and not-so-fresh grads who think that the grass is always greener on the other side. We laugh about it now, because she says that at the time she wrote to her father, she felt that she was “clueless, whiny, too idealistic, and feeling entitled.”
This ability to see yourself in an honest way, even in an unflattering perspective, is essential among those who are going through the adulting stage. But it must also be coupled with an appreciation of the inherent strengths, amazing innovativeness, energy, and creativity of your generation. Because in reality, the solutions to society’s problems are lodged somewhere in your brains and nestled beneath your clavicles.
We need to bring these solutions out, by showing you how to take big, bold, audacious, but self-aware steps—and not to be scared of mistakes, resistance, or rejection. All of us need to brave rivers of risks, because in a world marred by so much hate and division, adulting means more than just landing a permanent job or being able to do the things that we want to do. It requires us to think bigger than ourselves. It demands us to refocus and ask bigger questions: Ano ba ang puwede kong gawin para sa ating bayan? Kaya ko bang baguhin ang mundo?
During these extraordinary times, all of us—adults and those who are just adulting—are struggling to make sense of the world. I know how you feel. It is difficult to hold on to something because everything is changing. Promises now mean nothing. More so lives, freedom, and the rule of law.
It is during this time that we need each other the most. When injustice, cruelty, and violence have become the norm, we need to look at ourselves and ask: What are we willing to do to stop society from falling apart? And in that questioning, we will also discover that the desire to do better lies in love for our country. The urge to find answers speaks of hope that there is a solution. The commitment to follow through indicates our strength as a people. This is the best time to show everyone what it truly means to be Filipino.
All of these remind me of a time when I was your age, many, many years ago, when the Filipino people were faced with some of our darkest days, and those who were your age were instrumental in proving that our people value their freedom—even more than their lives.
I was a sophomore Economics student in UP when Senator Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. His death was a turning point for the whole nation, as it was for me, personally. The country had been under Martial Law for 11 years, but ruled by just one man for 18 years. Up until that point, everyone knew atrocities were happening everywhere, but few were courageous enough to fight the administration out in the open. But seeing Ninoy’s lifeless body sprawled on the airport tarmac opened our eyes to harsh realities taking place around us. People started to question how the government ran things. We demanded transparency and accountability from Malacañang. But above all, we were all stirred into action.
I can still remember one afternoon in my senior year, when I attended an ROTC graduation at the UP Sunken Garden. The guest of honor then was General Fabian Ver, who was the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Marcos’ closest confidant. He was feared as much as Marcos was feared.
Before the program began, all of the graduates stood in full attention. But when the Lupang Hinirang started to play, the graduates one by one started to raise their fists in protest, letting their rifles fall loudly on the ground with a clattering sound. It was a courageous act of defiance. All of us who were watching were astounded. Noong panahon na iyon, hindi iyon puwede. It was a very brave thing to do at a time when there was so much fear of the dictator.
Some say to be a great leader, you must instill fear in people. Strongmen politics is now a very hot topic all over the world. Can it really bring about change? Or will it bring us back to those dark days of abuse, rejection of the rule of law, and societal decay?
To me, competent and empowering leadership is not about demanding obedience by usurping all forms of power; it is about inspiring trust and confidence in such a way that you do not ever have to demand obedience. It is not about being above the rules; it is about proving to everyone that the rule of law applies to all. True leadership demands that power be shared with ordinary people; not clutched in the hands of a few. True leadership employs empathy and inspiration; not fear and hopelessness. That is the kind of leadership that builds a strong nation.
These were the lessons I learned when I served as a public service lawyer for over 10 years, with an NGO called SALIGAN, which is short for Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal.
We were the kinds of lawyers who served those who could not afford the heavy fees of traditional lawyers: the marginalized, the disenfranchised populations like indigenous peoples, the urban poor, farmers and fisherfolk, abused women and children, and laborers. We went to the farthest and smallest communities not only to provide free legal help to the poor but mainly to organize them so that their voices would be heard. It was during these visits that we would listen to their personal accounts of how some of our laws have become instruments of discrimination and injustice.
We would teach them their rights, translate laws in the dialect for them, with hopes of empowering them. This was anchored on the belief that when people know of their rights under the law, they will be in a better position to fight for their rights.
There were days where we would end up spending the night in boats and makeshift huts. Noong isang beses pa nga, ito iyong hindi ko makakalimutan: buntis ako sa bunso kong anak—I was six months pregnant with Jillian—natulog ako sa isang bangka, kasi walang bahay na puwedeng makapag-accommodate sa amin. Inayos naman, inayos ng mga mangingisda iyong bangka para komportable ako; pinatong-patong nila iyong mga fishing nets para hindi matigas sa aking likod. Nakatulog ako nang mahimbing, pero pagdating ng alas-dos ng umaga, ginigising na nila ako kasi sabi nila, “Kailangan na namin iyong bangka at magpapaalot na kami.” [laughter] Work was very tough and challenging. But I always tell my staff that that was where I found myself.
But more than self-discovery, I also learned how to listen with empathy, to believe in our people’s ability to fight for their own rights, and stand on their own two feet. I would often say that real empowerment happens when those we help are able to help themselves, and empower others as well.
I keep telling this story because of the compelling paradox that the youth of today face. Even after the triumph of the People Power Revolution, up to this day, Filipinos are still seeking saviors who will solve our problems. But I believe the fate of our country lies not in the hands of one great leader, but in all of us. It is shaped by little, everyday acts of courage and generosity.
We need to ask ourselves: Should we really rely on just one person to get the job done? Or should we embrace our shared responsibility as Filipinos?
This is the driving force behind our anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay. Inspired by the concept of bayanihan, we bring together different organizations, foundations, NGOs, and the private sector to work with government and bring about the change we all desire in the poor communities we have adopted.
One of our adopted towns is Siayan. I don’t know if you have heard of Siayan, but Siayan is a mountainous town in the province of Zamboanga del Norte—two hours away from the capital city of Dipolog. From 2003 to 2009, Siayan was found to have the most severe type and magnitude of poverty in the country, at a staggering 97.5% in 2003. The people of Siayan were so poor that they could hardly eat three meals a day. Siayan also has one of the highest school dropout rates.
We visited Siayan more than a year ago to check on how we can be of help, particularly in decreasing the school dropout rate. We found out that one of the reasons why was the distance that the students have to traverse just to be able to go to school. Some students even need to swim across rivers every day just to attend their classes.Our partner, the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation—you might have heard about them—is known all over the country for providing “school boats”—parang school bus siya—that pick up students from some remote islands and bring them to school every day. In Siayan, we partnered with them, and they helped us build a dormitory, so that students who lived very far from school will not have to swim and walk long distances every day.
Last February, we went there to inaugurate the Yellow Dorm of Hope inside Siayan National High School, with the help of funding from Metrobank Foundation, another Angat Buhay partner. Now, the students have a place to stay [in] during school days— for free.
During the inauguration, we met Rain-Rain—ayan, siya si Rain-Rain; talaga pong Rain-Rain iyong pangalan niya—who is 17 years old and is in Grade 10. His house, he said, is located six kilometers away from school. Mayroong iba, hanggang 10 kilometers kalayo.
When the dorm was not yet built, Rain-Rain had to walk for more than an hour each way and had to cross two rivers to get to school. During rainy days, the river would overflow, making it impossible and dangerous to cross. He said he wakes up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, but still arrives late because he still has to help with morning chores. As a result, he would receive multiple warnings, filling up an entire bond paper’s worth of violations. But what is most heartbreaking is we discovered that Rain-Rain was not the only one who had to go through that hardship. There were so many other children who were similarly situated. And that was one of the reasons why the school dropout rate in Siayan has remained very high.
Now, Rain-Rain is one of the new boarders of the dormitory. Ayan po iyong itsura ng dorm. He told us that he is now happy being in the dorm because he can focus on his studies and he won’t miss too many classes anymore.
Perhaps some of you have heard of Teacher Sabs. May nakakakilala ba dito kay Teacher Sabs? Sabrina Ongkiko is the daughter of an economist and was poised to be the next doctor in the family. She was about to submit her application to medical school when one of her mentors told her she would make a good public school teacher.
That moment of impact caused her to rethink her life. She said in a TedX talk that everyone was telling her, and I quote: “Sayang ka. Lumipat ka na lang sa private, o ituloy mo na lang ang pagdu-doktor.” Sabi pa ng iba, “Sabagay, tingin namin, hindi ka naman diyan tatagal kasi mahirap. Kaya siguradong magbabago pa rin ang desisyon mo.” Close quote.
But Teacher Sabs followed her heart’s calling and applied in DepEd. She’s now in her 8th year as a public school teacher in Culiat Elementary School in Quezon City. If you’re familiar at all with Culiat, it is one of the poor communities in the metro. I recently met with her with some of her students and it was so inspiring to listen to their testimonies of how Teacher Sabs was inspiring them and changing their lives.
Another person we met was Mark Anthony Talibutab. Ayan si Marky. Marky is a BPO back-office professional, who transforms into a “climbing puppeteer” during the weekend. On one of his weekly mountaineering treks, he discovered some poverty-stricken villages along the paths he conquered. So one day, he decided to stop by and learn more of their plight.
Since then, he has gathered help and assistance from his friends and professional networks. He also studied the art of ventriloquism to teach and entertain children from these poor communities. He brings with him his puppet to conduct shows and learning sessions. He has been changing the lives of those children who live up in the mountains and do not have much access to stories and information that our children here have.
I hope the three stories I relayed to you will open your eyes to the kind of leaders our country badly needs. More than a display of brute force and the use of strong language, we need leaders who will reach out and be one with the last, the lost, and the least of us. But even more than those who reach out, we need leaders who are empowering and inspiring, who bring out the best in people, and help them become great leaders as well. They need to be courageous, so that they are not threatened by the act of listening, that they are not offended even by dissent.
When I attended Aika’s graduation from the Harvard Kennedy School last May, the school’s Dean, Dr. Doug Elmendorf, reminded the graduates that “generous listening” is needed to have what he called “courageous leadership.” He said, and I quote: “Courage is not just about standing up for what you believe. Sometimes courage is about sitting down and listening to what you may not initially believe… Generous listening can take as much courage as brave speaking, because listening to people with whom you strongly disagree, or with whom you think you have nothing in common, is hard. But understanding others’ perspectives and acting on that understanding is crucial for making a better world.” Close quote.
The world offers us so many definitions of what it means to be a good leader. But for me, a good leader inspires, empowers, and listens. A great leader works harder than anyone and brings people together, rather than sows division. A competent leader solves problems rather than makes them. Most of all, a deserving leader helps people catch his or her vision for a bright future, and delivers promises for that future to happen sooner, rather than later.
Soon, some of you will take on important leadership roles. You will be making huge decisions that will affect the lives of many, especially the poor and the marginalized. Even when you are on the side of truth and inclusivity, you will meet people who will doubt your intentions and question your ways. When that time comes, do not budge. Fight. Resist. Do not conform.
It will be scary, but you need not fear, because we can do all of these together. As your duly-elected Vice President, I am here to support you and your advocacies. So, take that leap, to once again show the best of the Filipino.
Thank you very much for having me today, as you push forward in your adulting years. Maraming salamat at magandang hapon sa inyong muli!