Message at the 22ND St. Paul Leadership Congress
Theme: “Paulinian Leaders: Catalysts for Social and Environmental Change”
Mere Marie Ann De Tilly Hall, St. Paul College, Pasig City
Sr. Teresita Agana, the Paulinian Leadership Congress Co-chairperson and Principal of the Junior and Senior High School of St. Paul-Pasig; Mr. Ramon “Mon“ Jocson, Executive Director of World Outbound Corporation; Ms. Jermarie Atibago, Managing Director of World Outbound Corporation; the administrators and faculty members from the various St. Paul schools present; our student leaders from the different Paulinian schools; sisters from the various Paulinian schools who are present, who are here with us this morning; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat!
Thank you very much for your warm welcome. It is always good to be here in St. Paul. I have been [to St. Paul] so many times, but I think this is the first time that I am here with all the other Paulinian schools represented. I was in [St. Paul QC], I think July of last year, to also give a talk on leadership, and I am glad that today, we can continue our conversation on how we can create a more inclusive, more progressive, but cleaner, healthier, and more livable planet.
The world today is in a constant state of flux. Every day, we witness how wars and political strife pull nations apart. On the Internet, social media is used to spread hate and sow dissatisfaction among societies of the world. Progress remains elusive for many, despite economic growth, technological innovations, and advancements. In the news, we hear of how hunger, malnutrition, and poverty still persist in many parts of the globe. Sadly, as we build mega-cities and invest in new technologies, we have forgotten to take care of our environment.
One of the world’s most beloved children’s book is “The Giving Tree.” Alam niyo ba iyong “The Giving Tree?” – “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. Perhaps some of you have read that book when you were smaller. It was published in 1964, and it tells the story of a young boy who develops a close friendship with an apple tree.
Throughout the boy’s life, the tree offers a part of herself—her fruits, her branches, even her trunk—to provide for his daily needs. In the end, we see that nothing was left of the tree, save for a stump. And yet, the author notes that until her last act of generosity, “the tree was [still] happy.”
This complex relationship between the boy and the apple tree illustrates how nature continues to sustain mankind, providing communities with food, shelter, and other means for survival.
And yet, this story also beckons us to pause and to reflect on how much we have repeatedly abused our environment, taking advantage of its resources to serve our own selfish pleasures. In the last century, we have polluted our seas and torn down our forests. In fact—and this is sad—a 2017 report released by Greenpeace ranked the Philippines as the third worst polluter of the world’s oceans, after China and Indonesia.
Studies have also shown that the effects of climate change are causing devastation around the globe. Hotter temperatures are being associated with the rise of sea levels and heavier rainfalls. Storm surges and hurricanes are now the new normal.
I don’t know how old you were when Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines. But if you still remember, Typhoon Yolanda devastated our country in 2013. It left more than 6,000 dead and thousands of families homeless.
On television, we saw how help was mobilized in areas like Tacloban and Leyte. But there were several places in the country that remained invisible in the eyes of many. During times of calamity, the poor are most vulnerable and take much longer to recover.
One of these places is Agutaya, a small island municipality in Northern Palawan. To get there, you have to take a 10- to 12-hour boat ride from Coron. You know where Coron is, right? So Agutaya is 10 to 12 hours away from Coron, where the beautiful resorts are located. When my team and I visited Agutaya some months ago—pumunta po kami doon—the locals met us with tears of joy. Umiiyak sila pagdating namin and we didn’t know why. We later on learned that they were crying because due to Agutaya’s remote location, they are rarely visited by national government officials.
While walking around, we saw that the only school on the island remained uninhabitable—wala na po siyang bubong, pero ginagamit pa din kasi walang iba—because it was ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. 2017 na noong pumunta kami, so 2013 was four years ago, but the only school there remained unrepaired. That means schoolchildren have not been able to have a proper classroom for around—more than—three years already.
There was no electricity in the entire island, and only few of the fishermen owned their own boats. Nasira po lahat, nasira karamihan sa mga boats ng mga fishermen, and fishing was the number one source of livelihood for everyone. So to earn money for their family’s needs, nagre-rent sila, they would rent other fishermen’s boats but had to wait a very long time for their turn. Gustong sabihin, there were many days that they did not have income because they did not have access to boats.
There we met Rolando Mongo, a 57-year-old—siya iyon—a 57-year-old (seaweed) farmer from Brgy. Algeciras. When Typhoon Yolanda struck in 2013, Tatay Rolando’s boat was destroyed. Since then, he would just hitch a ride with friends to fish. Hindi na siya solong nakakapaghanapbuhay.
And he told us, and I quote: “Nakikisakay lang kami sa bangka ng mga kapitbahay para lumaot. Kapag nakahuli kami, paghahatian namin iyon sa may-ari ng bangka.”
Napakahirap, kasi kung kaunti iyong nakuha nila, paghahati-hatian pa nila iyon. And Rolando’s story just one of the many stories we heard on the ground. As we said earlier, when calamities strike, it is the poor who get hit the hardest. Iyong mga mayayaman, paminsan nagba-brownout lang, mayroon pang generator. Paminsan nagbabahang kaunti sa labas, hindi sila makalabas sa traffic. Pero iyong mahihirap, it means not having anything to eat for a very long time.
And since calamities come without warning, we need to prepare our communities now if we are to protect our people. There is no time to lose. What will happen to us if one day, we run out of “Giving Trees” to turn to? We cannot wait for that day to come, when we have used up all of Mother Nature’s help.
As stewards of this planet, we have been given the responsibility to make sure that future generations will have a safe place to live in. And as young people, you can do a lot to turn things around.
Just a week ago—ewan ko kung you watched this on television—we watched in awe as thousands of teenagers held demonstrations across the United States. Kung nanonood tayo ng TV, mapapanood natin, napakaraming kabataan—they all went out on the streets sa Washington, D.C. Punung-puno. It was the largest crowd ever. And all of them were very young people. And with all their might, they spoke about gun control and cried out against school shootings. They spoke with so much passion and eloquence that the whole world listened. What happened in America last week was a triumph of democracy. It was proof that no matter how young or inexperienced you are, your voice will always count. Your actions will always count.
That is why your gathering today comes at a very opportune time. The future of this country depends on what kind of leaders many of you here today will turn out to be. So this is time to ask ourselves: How will I spend the rest of my life? What legacy will I leave behind?
You see, for almost 10 years, I served as a human rights lawyer with a group called SALIGAN. For days and weeks, we would travel to very remote communities, clad in jeans, t-shirt, and tsinelas.Kasi iyong idea natin ng lawyers, ‘di ba, parang ang ayos ng suot—parating naka-power suit, parating naka-high heels saka may briefcase. Ako po, hindi ako iyong abugadong iyon. Ako iyong abugadong hindi mukhang abugado iyong suot. Parati lang po kaming naka-tsinelas. Parati kaming naka-jeans saka t-shirt, para people will not feel inferior.
We would hike through mountains, cross rivers, and walk on muddy rice fields to do community work. We would spend days—even weeks—away from home engaging with marginalized sectors: farmers, fisherfolks, indigenous peoples, urban poor, rural women, etc. We would listen to their stories, personal accounts of how some of our laws have become instruments of injustice. We would encourage them to actively work for the amendment of these laws, or repeal of them, or to advocate for the passage of new ones. Ang ginagawa po namin noon, iyong mga batas, isinasalin namin, ano, isinasalin namin sa dialect—in our case, Bikol dialect. We would translate our laws in the Bikol dialect so that people would understand them. Because we believed that if people understood their rights under the law, they will be in a better position to fight for their rights.
There were days when we would end up spending the night sleeping in boats and makeshift huts. Iyon po, kapag nasa fishing communities kami, walang matutulugan, sa loob kami ng bangka matutulog. Kapag nasa farming community naman, walang matutulugan kasi maliliit lahat na mga bahay, matutulog kami doon sa mga makeshift huts in the middle of rice fields, which farmers normally use to eat their lunch and rest. Doon kami matutulog.
But I always tell people I know that it was in that work where I found myself. That was when I realized that it was not enough as a lawyer that I knew the law. I needed to put myself in another person’s shoes, listen with empathy, and act with urgency.
I keep on going back to this story whenever I address young people like you, because it is where I draw strength and inspiration in the work that I do. We need to remind ourselves all the time that it is only by experiencing the everyday struggles of others can we fully understand their pain and suffering. Dito po naiiba iyong sympathy with empathy, ano? If you immerse yourselves and feel how others feel, that is empathy. Pero kung naaawa ka lang sa kanila, pinapanood mo lang sila from a distance, that is sympathy. And you act accordingly, and you act with more urgency, if there is empathy. It is only in opening ourselves and trusting others that we can establish meaningful connections.
Sadly, we are seeing a not-so-subtle shift in the way leadership is now understood and practiced all over the world. Nowadays, people associate strong leadership with harsh behavior, brute force, and punitive action. Empathy and compassion seem to have gone out of style.
How do you feel about that? Mas malakas ba iyong boses ng leader, mas mahusay siyang leader? Not necessarily, ‘di ba, kasi sometimes the gentlest of leaders are the strongest leaders. Kaya iyong basis niya talaga, mas empathy and compassion. If a leader is inspiring, then he is a good leader. If she urges other people to act more responsibly, then she is a better leader.
So what kind of a leader do you think we need, to move forward as a nation? Are we willing to turn our backs on decency, respect for the rule of law, and the preservation of human life? Difficult questions, but questions that the young people of today need to ask.
We, at the Office of the Vice President, believe that our country’s future does not lie in the hands of one great leader. Change lies in the hands of everyone. Every one has a role; every one has a contribution. Change at the individual level—collectively sustained—creates a much more permanent and widespread revolution of thought, ideas, and behavior.
This is the philosophy behind our flagship program called Angat Buhay. Angat Buhay is our anti-poverty flagship program. It is about working together with the government and the private sector to reach out and help those who experience problems firsthand.
For example, if we want to maintain livable and healthy ecosystems, then we must raise awareness among farmers, fisherfolk, students, businessmen—everyone—on the impacts of climate change.
We need to teach farmers about modern techniques and provide them with a wider range of options fordiversifyingtheir crops. This also includes improving access to water and wastewater treatment services. This need becomes more urgent in the countryside, where sustainable agriculture is key in improving the lives of farmers and fisherfolk.
For instance, Pilipinas Shell Foundation has partnered with usin providing integrated farming and bio-systems training to 244 local farmers inSumilao, Bukidnon; 256 farmers inTampakan, South Cotabato; and 190farmers inTinambac, Camarines Sur.
For three days, our farmers were taught about the sustainable benefits of crop production and animal agro-forestry. They learned about the benefits of converting farm wastes into bio-organic fertilizers. They also studied about soil erosion, fishpond water and soil pollution, and the dangers of using chemicals and pesticides.
By using sustainable crop production practices, they increase their earnings and conserve our planet’s resources for future generations to come.
We have also partnered with Rare—Rare is an international nongovernment organization—to develop and provide in-depth customized trainings on sustainable fisheries and coastal resource management to locals in San Remigio, Cebu.
Through these initiatives, locals gain more knowledge about non-destructive fishing techniques. And for this project, Rare and the Municipality of San Remigio, Cebu have formed a campaign team composed of local government officials, representatives from the Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resource ManagementCouncil, community leaders, and fisherfolk.
These are just some of the projects we have rolled out in the past 18 months. We have reached more than 99,198 families in 176 communities across the country. And the beautiful thing about it is that we have also tapped very young people to join our advocacies.
I am a firm believer that the youth is a powerful driving force in nation-building. I have seen how many youth organizations have come up with the most innovative solutions to our country’s problems.
One of those is Circle Hostel. I don’t know if you have heard about Circle Hostel, but it is a chain of budget-friendly eco-hostels located in La Union, Zambales, and Baler.
Last year, we partnered with Circle Hostel and built a school garden in a far-flung community in Taysan, Batangas. Instead of using hollow bricks made of cement, they used eco-bricks to build planter boxes. An eco-brick is a plastic bottle filled with solid non-biological wastes like candy wrappers, styrofoam, cigarette butts, and shampoo sachets. It is used as an alternative building material. And ang kagandahan nito, mga bata iyong gumagawa.
In 2016, the Circle Hostel launched the Plastic Solution project, which advocates the use of eco-bricks to build houses and classrooms. This way, these hazardous materials do not end up filling landfills or kill[ing] beautiful animals in the ocean.
These are just some ways young people—like you—can change the world. You do not need to be in government to start something. You can start very small. Talk to your families. Discuss with your friends. Plan. Design. But make noise. You will be surprised how old people like us can learn a lot from young people like you.
In a few years, many of you will be taking on important roles in society. Sabi nga ni Sister, malay niyo, baka may maging presidente dito. Baka may maging senator, maging congressman, maging mayor. Some of you perhaps will become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, artists, and businessmen. You will lead big organizations and make decisions that will affect many lives. But when that time comes, you will have bigger shoes to fill. And I hope you’ll always choose to do the right thing, and to serve the last, the least, and the lost. Iyon iyong parating inuuna.
If there is one thing we need to learn and take home from this leadership congress, it is this: that as we look for ways to alleviate poverty in our country, we must never forget to look at the bigger picture and realize our responsibility to our planet as stewards of creation. It is only when we do so that we can live as better and kinder human beings. And it is only when we treat others with compassion that we can be better leaders.
And you, my dear students, are the gatekeepers of our futurethat is more inclusive, that is safer, that is healthier. So go forth, serve this nation, and make us all proud.
Thank you very much.Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat!