20 January 2017
Keynote Speech at the Association of Catholic Universities of the Philippines 2017 National Conference, Aquinas University, Legazpi City
For some Filipinos, we won the fight for democracy thirty years ago. It is a thing of the past, a legacy borne out of an outdated revolution. The battle cry of an older generation. Perhaps, for our young students, such memory has become so distant that we tend to overlook its significance.
Many, in fact, are questioning whether democracy was indeed the answer to our nation’s suffering, frustrated by the view that the equality promised by democracy did not just fail to erase poverty, it made small groups of people around the world wealthy and kept the majority poor.
So, at a time when our principles and values are constantly being questioned, when history is being revised and human rights are conveniently abandoned – we need to reflect on what kind of democracy we have chosen to become and what we will choose from this point on.
Have we become too complacent with the liberties we enjoy, that we have forgotten to include others in our quest for progress and development? In a country where a quarter of the population continues to suffer the jabs of injustice and the pangs of poverty, clearly, the war for real equality has not yet been won.
The daily battle for inclusivity continues in many parts of our country. And you, my dear teachers and administrators, play important roles in bringing light and hope to these dark corners.
Educational institutions have traditionally been regarded as spaces where practical skills are taught and technical knowledge is passed on. They are sanctuaries where learning thrives and wisdom blooms.
But as many of you here hopefully agree, educational institutions should be more than just centers of academic excellence. For Catholic schools and universities, like you, it is also a place where one’s faith is fostered and deepened, a a love for service is nurtured, and where students begin to experience the kind of service that Jesus himself gave.
Let us not be too enamored with numbers and school rankings that we forget that quality education goes beyond advanced facilities or globally competitive programs.
A good university is one that integrates spiritual and formative aspects in its teachings, as we mold our country’s next set of leaders. If our schools are going to be effective training grounds in preparing the youth to take part in nation building, then we must develop more service-learning courses that will open their eyes to different issues that beset our people.
If we are to dream of a better life for our poor countrymen, then we must start dreaming with them. We should not be contented in dealing with faceless facts and figures.
We can only fully understand their needs if we are willing to go out of our comfort zones, immerse in their daily struggles, and expand our classrooms to include their communities. As Catholics, we are called to follow the example of Christ who humbly conducted his ministry among the least of His brethren.
When I was still serving as an alternative lawyer for the poor, we would visit far-flung barangays and meet with farmers, fisherfolk, rural women, and IP communities. We would listen to their stories and give them free legal advice.
We would translate laws and ordinances into the local language, and explain them in detail. Some of these people were so poor that they could not offer us any room to sleep in. So, we would end up spending the night in fishing boats and makeshift huts in the middle of rice paddies. Our work was not easy, but we saw lives transformed before our very eyes.
If there one thing that I learned from these visits, it is this: that the path of conversation and cooperation is key in uplifting the lives of the poor. It is only when we truly listen that we can successfully collaborate.
This is the same philosophy behind the Office of the Vice President’s Angat Buhay program. We, at the OVP, believe that change emanates not just from one office or agency, but from each one of us. When we are fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised and trodden on, we must not wait for the government to learn to be open to dialogue.
The Church, civil society, partner organizations and the public can knock on the doors so that the poor and marginalized are empowered to come in.
We must stop looking at poverty as an insurmountable task but instead, see it as an opportunity to go beyond our differences and finally be united. I am glad to share with you that we have already piloted this program last October. Serving as a bridge between the private and public sectors, the OVP invited over 200 partner organizations to listen to the various needs of 50 of our poorest LGUs in the country. At the end of the day, we gathered around 700 pledges from our partners. That’s 700 new opportunities to collaborate and combat poverty.
Some of the pledges we received have started to bear fruit. Two weeks ago, I was in Lambunao, Iloilo to formally launch three Angat Buhay programs. First was the Champions Farmers program, which provides training seminars for more than 500 farmers and link them to market value chains. We also held a feeding program for over 730 stunted and wasted children through the support given by the Negrense Volunteers for Change.
Lastly, we launched Iloilo’s very first “play garden” – a combination of a playground and garden. Lambunao Mayor Jason Gonzales’ dream is to build one play garden for each of Lambunao’s 73 barangays. Through the generosity of Feed The Hungry, Inc. and Synergeia Foundation, students can now learn about proper nutrition and benefit from the fresh produce from the play garden, which will be used in the school’s feeding program.
Imagine the great things we can accomplish if our schools and universities would partner with poor communities or barangays in every province, just like what many of you may already be doing. Curriculum or course syllabi may include a short field trip or immersion to these places.
Political Science majors may conduct policy-related research in a remote barrio, while Management students may explore the possibility of starting a small social enterprise with locals.
Medical students may partner with a private organization and offer free check-ups to IP groups, while science majors may help local planters study crops and soil samples. Grade school students may volunteer in tree-planting activities, while those in high school may raise funds and sponsor the repair of a public school building. Just think of the many ways teachers and students can help the local government in improving the lives of its constituents.
These activities would not only challenge our students, but also instill in them a deep sense of civic responsibility and awareness. They learn compassion, as they serve others. Their compassion results in competence, and their competence will fuel their commitment.
Truly, there is no better way to prepare our children for bigger responsibilities such as voting, lobbying, and even public service, than getting their feet wet and engaging them in participative governance and community work.
All of these suggestions would require innovation and disruption. As you come together to align the missions and visions of your universities, may you always remember those who have long-been ignored and relegated in the fringes of society. Service and learning need not exist as two separate concepts, but instead become one powerful lesson that can transform lives beyond the four corners of the classroom.
There is this beautiful song written by the Jesuit composer, Fr. Manoling Francisco, which – for me – captures the profound meaning of what it means to serve. The final stanza goes: “And when I’ve done all that I could, yet there are hearts I cannot move, Lord give me hope, that I may be Your heart today.”
Amidst all of the discontent, hate, and divisiveness that persist in our society today, may we always choose to fight with hope and kindness in our hearts.
Democracy may have been won thirty years ago, but it continues to be a daily challenge for each one of us to live out our commitment to God and our country. Let us not allow fear and doubt to overshadow our dreams of a better Philippines.
Together, let us work towards mutual collaboration and protect the basic human dignity of every Filipino.
Maraming salamat po.