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Brockport / Diversity Conference Archive / 2007 / Keynote speech text

Seventh Annual Cultural Diversity Conference

Within Our Grasp: Building
Community Through Diversity

Leveraging the Power of Global Diversity

March 1, 2007

Keynote Speech of Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun


Photo: Ambassador Carol Moseley BraunToday I am going to talk about colored water, and the power of one.

I sometimes find that the most difficult communications hurdle for me to overcome is a generation gap.

I have lived long enough to actually witness astonishing transformations in our country, changes which many of you only experience as the way things are.

The fact that you might have a different perspective is a very good thing, especially since it was radically worse, not so long ago.

The progress these eyes have witnessed should NOT go without saying, or escape examination because it can be the basis for next steps, if we pay attention to both the achievements and the failures, the frustrations and the victories of this American journey.

I think it is important that we stop long enough to review our successes, and our progress, not out of nostalgia, but as part of a process that can remind us who we are, where we have come from, where we want to go and perhaps even how to get there.

I can remember, for example, that when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my parents took us on a wonderful train trip from Chicago down to the family farm in Union Springs, Alabama. When we got to the train station in Montgomery, we were thirsty, and wanted a drink of water.

Problem was, the water fountains were segregated; there was a fountain for white people and a separate fountain for colored people.

My mother, being the modern woman of the 1950’s that she was, wouldn’t let us drink out of the colored water fountain. “Wait till we get to my grandmothers’ house” she whispered to me and my little brother. I did just as I was told, and stood quietly obedient and thirsty.

My little brother, however, was having none of it. He threw himself to the floor in the middle of the train station and started screaming: "I want some colored water! I want some colored water!" It was not until we got him to stop crying that we discovered that he thought colored water would come out of that fountain like a rainbow, blue and green and yellow and red, and he HAD to have some!

We can, in this time and place, laugh at that story, because the illogic of racial segregation seems to us ridiculous and laughable.

But not that long ago, in my own lifetime, what was enticing to my little brother, and is funny to us now, was a painful reality that defined the lives of millions of people- both black and white.

The change in attitudes which changed policy that changed the law that in turn changed attitudes created the reality we enjoy today. This transformation was nothing less than revolutionary.

And so it is tribute to my little brother, who is now deceased, that we speak today about colored water.

The conversation about diversity transcends race, and reaches to the ends of our societal architecture. It really does go to the whole of the human experience, and forces us all to examine concepts and prejudices which might not be obvious to everybody in the same way. The appeal of colored water is its diversity.

The appeal of diversity is its unlimited potential to tap human capacity.

Change is a constant of the human experience, but nowhere is it more profound than in the change of attitudes about diversity, or, more precisely the change of expectations about station, status, and inherited roles.

This is no less than the revolution that was not televised, and is a revolution that is continuing to shape our world in fundamental and far reaching ways.

How many of you saw the movie Titanic? The main character was an upper class woman who found herself stifled and frustrated by the expectations not only of her family, but society as a whole. She was, for all intents and purposes, a property that her mother was prepared to trade in exchange for a comfortable income. In addition to being a love story, the entire plot line was about how this woman broke free of gender based expectations and limitations; about how she became a person.

The change in gender expectations took place largely in tandem with changes in racial attitudes, but I submit to you that they both reflect a more profound transformation.

We have moved from a rigid social structure to one that is more fluid, more encompassing, and more complex.

We are still in a period of transition, moving toward a new set of societal expectations and structures.

The driving force for this transition, I believe, is the global pursuit of human rights and the worldwide liberation of the human spirit.

The promise of this transition is our world’s ability to tap the full range and compliment of human talent and capacity, to create in fact the meritocracy about which philosophers have waxed eloquent for centuries, of giving all people human rights, human dignity, and respect.

Whether or not we grasp the brass ring of universal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” will depend on each and every one of us and the decisions we make in our everyday lives. Our efforts will define colored water.

A national newspaper recently asked me to comment on an article it ran entitled “Is America too racist for Baraack? Too sexist for Hillary?”

I would like to read you my response:

“I think we should all appreciate and celebrate the fact of the question. The fact that you have asked me if a woman or a black could be President is a sign of great progress and hope for America. This generation will be the first to move closer to the vision of equality and fairness envisioned by the founders of this country, because we will be the first to embrace the potential contributions that women and African Americans, and by extension, other minorities can make in behalf of the public interest. We will be the first to unbridle the capacity and talent of a majority of the population who had been previously denied a chance to participate fully in our democracy. For the first time, both political parties are challenged to recognize that the American spirit knows no bounds of race, or gender, or social or physical limitations.”

Photo: Ambassador Carol Moseley BraunThe collapse of the social architecture I knew as a child, and social progress toward the liberation of human capacity is no less than our generation’s most important social contribution. Where we take the opportunity with which we are now presented remains to be seen, but know this: each and every person will help to chart the course of our future direction.

And so I want to thank Dr. Frater for inviting me, and commend and compliment you on this conference, because you are looking closely at a global transformation that will have profound implications for all of humankind. It is a revolution of the head and of the heart, and its impacts will be felt - are being felt - in every aspect of everyone’s life.

It is a revolution that will move the world in important ways, but the central fact of this revolution is that it will be directed by each and every individual who participates in the public debate about civil society.

By way of illustration I would like to trace my personal journey, one that was made possible by the contributions and sacrifices of millions of ordinary Americans who shared a vision of what this country could and should be. Their embrace of what Abraham Lincoln once called the “better angels of our nature” created a reality for me that would have been inconceivable to my mother or her mother.

I was born in Chicago at the very beginning of the end of apartheid in America, the day that Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black baseball player to integrate the major leagues in the 20th Century. This sporting news signaled the end of racial segregation, a popular institution the Supreme Court had sanctioned and allowed to be made the law of the land. It also signaled the beginning of the liberation movements that expanded participation in civil society for blacks, for women, and for all people who had been marginalized and denied an opportunity to participate fully in society because of some aspect of their physical being.

When I was born, people were pegged from birth with their appropriate role and place in society, and in spite of all the fictions about bootstraps and equality and freedom, the reality was that human capacity was strictly defined by social opportunity, and social opportunity was limited by a rigid class and gender and racially based hierarchy.

But the liberation movements of the mid 20 th Century transformed American society, created waves of change that I was fortunate to catch and opened doors through which I was able to pass, all because the people demanded a new social order. I received a quality education in the Chicago public schools because Thurgood Marshall agitated for integration of the schools and and the Warren Court agreed with him. I am a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, a former Assistant United States Attorney; I served as a member of the Illinois legislature, and became an assistant majority leader. I was a county executive when the confirmation of Marshall’s replacement on the Court inspired my challenge to the incumbent Democratic United States Senator. After serving for 6 years as the sole woman of color in the Senate, I was confirmed as Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa (I like to say, Paradise). In 2004 I was the only woman

in the group of 9 candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination. I am now an entrepreneur, and the CEO of Ambassador Organics. (PLEASE LOOK FOR OUR TEA & COFFEE ON THE PEAPOD GROCERY WEBSITE) This resume would have been improbable a generation ago.

Where we go from here will depend as much on where we have come from as where we want to get to.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he was not exactly telling the truth, or at least the truth he was telling was not self evident. Popular opinion saw no contradiction between the nobility of that statement and the fact that poor people, and women, and Native Americans and blacks could not vote.

This great experiment in democracy excluded the vast majority of the population.

The social order of the day was predicated on those contradictions, however, and the community as a whole banded together to protect that order. So when the late Rep. Barbara Jordan said the American people want an America as good as its promise, she touched on the expectation that one day we would keep the promises made in our nations’ founding charters. Dr. Martin Luther King once called Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence a Declaration of Intent: the description of an ideal that could inspire the generations.

It continues to inspire us with its noble intent. But intent is an expression of attitude, and attitudes define our reality, and it is in shifting attitudes that change begins in the social order.

Jefferson’s ideal is the colored water I ask you to consider. We will have the rainbow and its pot of gold and give humanity new strength, new energy, new creativity, and capacity when we free the human spirit from social conventions that deprive the whole community of capacity.

But it falls to each of us to celebrate the victories we have won so far, and demonstrate diversity’s benefits for all of the people. Because in the end, how we define our community, the direction in which it will move, whether diversity is seen as presenting an opportunity or a threat depends on attitudes, and those are created one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one action at a time.

Nothing is more important than attitude. What you perceive defines how you respond, and how you respond impacts how others react. All policies come from a climate of public opinion. And that climate of opinion is created out of the attitudes and dispositions of the whole of the community.

I like to say that a climate of opinion is just like any other weather system - it depends on the hot air rising from the ground.

The driving force behind all of the movements to make America live up to its promise has been the impulse for human dignity and the liberation of the human spirit, no matter the container of gender or color or race, or religion or geography. This is the core of the American dream, the notion that human potential and genius should not be constrained or limited by the physical form. It is the ultimate vote of confidence in humanity, an expression of the belief that personal merit and capacity should be rewarded by the society as a whole. Our country’s founders’ idea became our parents dream and is now our vision: that all humankind enjoy human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have it within our abilities to move that vision into reality.

Diversity is not a zero sum game, and it does not take dignity from one person to give it to another.

Removing the barriers that excluded some based on their physical form will help stir the competitive pot, and open up civil society to the contributions of people too long marginalized by color or gender or some other aspect of station, or status, or physicality. Where social systems are truly open, all will enjoy the capacity to tap the contributions of every person, and in the same way, those individuals will be afforded personal opportunities for excellence that might not otherwise exist. Two things happen – some person’s life choices are expanded and the rest of us get the benefit of an expanded opportunity to choose based on merit and character and capacity.

That is why the conversation about diversity must not be seen strictly through the lens of altruism, or of doing a nice favor for someone else, or worst still, as something begrudgingly done to comply with the law. The real favor is done to the society as a whole, which is afforded more choice, more options, more chances to tap into excellence. When all of the cream is allowed to rise to the top, the butter is bound to be better.

Vast potential awaits humankind when the talents of all the people are brought to bear on our universal challenges. It takes understanding that humanity’s progress will be reflected by the extent to which we can build a world that respects each person as a reflection and representation of the divine spirit.

It requires respect for the uniqueness of each person, and willingness to communicate, understand, and take responsibility for a shared vision of the best that we can be.

It takes understanding that the whole is stronger when each person has opportunity to contribute to the maximum extent of his or her ability.

The liberation of the human spirit is the link that connects suffrage for women with civil rights, GLBT rights and disability rights; efforts to end poverty and religious reconciliation, it is the foundation of all of the movements for social justice.

And the ultimate benefit of this is not just the freedom that redounds to the individual, but the expanded capacity and choice the community as a whole enjoys as a result of that freedom.

Every nation in the world is represented here in the United States, and as a country we have long struggled with being a “melting pot” or “tossed salad” with just about every ethnicity to be found on the planet. In this society, women are no longer hidebound and relegated solely to the home, and are beginning to play a role in the corridors of power. People who are physically challenged have made greater strides here than elsewhere in the world and people whose sexuality differs from the majority have demanded and won a voice in public affairs. This social diversity gives this country a unique capacity to touch every other country in the world through cultural exchanges and communication among the people.

The revolutions of the middle twentieth century have shown our country the way from strength to strength, expanding not only our capacity to compete in a global economy, but also our ability to hold up the banner for human rights and social justice around the world.

Societies either expand to liberate human potential or constrict to limit it: but the choice of direction depends in the end on how people see their times and their interests and that is more often than not a function of a climate of opinion. A climate of opinion shapes conduct as well as perspective, and can change hearts as well as minds.

The entire social order rests on the expectations and attitudes of the people. What you say - or don’t say - how you say it makes a difference in shaping perspective and creating a climate of opinion. Individuals create the buzz that defines the direction of the conversation. Public opinion about what matters gives permission for actions to be taken in response to the debate. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, "In this country, public opinion is all."

At lunch yesterday, I happened to observe a business meeting at a table across the room and was struck by what a uniquely American picture the participants created. There were two Anglo-appearing males, one Asian male, one Latin male, one black male and two women, one white and one “Cablanasian.” A century ago that table would have most likely been all white men, and it made me consider what a difference this diversity makes.

For one thing, they all brought to the conversation a set of experiences that were at once shared and different. It was obvious that out of that diversity could come a set of decisions that were more broadly considered, more comprehensive and more representative of a range of interests than if there had been no diversity of voice.

I was reminded of a time I had experienced on the Senate finance committee when a member proposed a co-payment on a medical procedure performed almost exclusively on women. No one had noticed it, and as I was the only woman in the room, it fell to me to point out that they were about to put a tax on mammograms. You could just see the lightbulbs going off! More than one member privately thanked me later for saving them a potentially really bad vote.

And so the challenge we face now is to celebrate our diversity and show the country, and indeed the world, that this multiracial, multicultural working model serves the interests not only of the people who now get to stand in rooms that were once off limits, but the rest of us as well.

We have to demonstrate, with facts and figures, examples and studies, that by broadening the pool from which we draw talent, we expand and enlarge talent, without depriving anyone of access to the pool.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who went before who understood that the essential challenge to society was to access human potential by the liberation of the human spirit. Their efforts were directed toward the light of understanding and social justice. They moved us all to build community by calling on each person to contribute to the maximum extent of their ability. This vision of community is grounded in morality and finds its expression in the notion that in every person is a reflection of God. It lies in the belief that every life has meaning, and that every person has an equal right to the blessings of liberty and the benefits of citizenship.

Our grandparents achieved suffrage and enfranchisement for women; our parents opened doors and began the process of integration for blacks and other minorities, it is now up to us, to our generation to achieve full equality before the law and in the whole of civil society for every person based on the talent they bring, the capacity they possess, and the value they contribute.

The extent to which we can achieve “full reference” or “buy-in” about the benefits of diversity will determine the success or failure of our efforts to achieve a shared vision of community for our times. My late mother used to say: "It doesn’t matter if you came to this country on the Mayflower, or a slave ship, through Ellis Island or the Rio Grande, we are all in the same boat now."

In a time when we have both the capacity to end poverty in the world or destroy the planet, charting the direction that boat will take falls to each of us, one person, one conversation, one contribution at a time. It depends on where we want to “get to." It will emerge out of a climate of opinion that each and every interaction can shape.

Sometimes great changes start in the little things, the conversations that might otherwise go unnoticed or unrecorded. History often turns on such slender hinges. The true story of Henry Burn illustrates the point.

Tennessee legislator Henry Burn, had been a vote against suffrage, but the night before the crucial vote he received a letter from his mother. It said “Vote for Suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Cat put the Rat in ratification!” The next day, Burns’ changed his vote and it became the decisive one that put Tennessee behind the 19 th Amendment, and Tennessee’s approval passed it for the entire country. When the press questioned him about the surprise switch he responded: “I changed my vote in favor of ratification because a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and the opportunity was mine to free millions of people from political bondage.”

We know about Burn, and about his vote, and we know about his mother’s influence, but we will probably never know who spoke to his mother, what conversations she had, how she was encouraged to write the letter that changed his vote. Some anonymous person took the initiative to speak to someone whose letter changed another person’s mind and then his vote and then history.

The impact of that single letter or of a single conversation is amplified by today’s technologies more than we could have imagined even 10 years ago. The climate of opinion we create today resonates around the world in a nanosecond. It is up to us to make it a climate we will be proud to have define us as Americans.

But the impetus for change demands the individual efforts of people who can understand what my little brother saw in colored water. So long as our individual actions are focused on living up to the most noble ideals of our democratic republic, our world cannot help but move in that direction and the future we create cannot help but be better than the past we cannot change.

We are here today as a testament to the successful transformation of opinion achieved by millions of ordinary individuals who wanted to better world. They created our today; what we do today will create someone else’s future. Each of us helps to make the possible a reality.

My mother could not imagine a black or a female president. But she stood for social justice in her time and that created the conditions which gave rise to the question “Are we ready?”

By your actions, you can create a future you will be happy to meet and proud to leave for your children. Our generation can leave a legacy of equality, and fairness, and universal human rights.

Your contribution can give rise to the liberation of the human spirit and the emancipation of human capacity. Your voice can speak for the hopes and aspirations of millions of ordinary people who might not believe they have a voice. People you may never know are depending on you. You can be the change you want to see in the world.

You make a difference, whatever role you choose. Even doing nothing to contribute to the debate is a choice. This revolution must not be left half done; it must again be pursued to the tipping point of the next great worldwide transformation of society, when we will finally succeed in creating an expectation of respect and dignity, fairness and opportunity, human rights and spiritual freedom for every person. It is up to you to make it so.

In closing, I would like to share with you a poem for which I unfortunately do not have attribution:

One song can spark a moment
One flower can wake a dream
One tree can start a forest
One bird can herald spring
One smile begins a friendship
One handclasp lifts a soul
One star can guide a ship
One thought can frame a goal
One vote can change a nation
One sunbeam lights a room
One candle wipes out darkness
One laugh will conquer gloom
One step must start each journey
One word must start each prayer
One hope will raise our spirits
One touch can show you care
One voice can speak with wisdom
One heart can know what’s true
One life can make a difference
One person just like you.

Thank you for all you will do to create a future that is even better than the past we inherited, for inviting me to visit this morning, and for caring enough to want to share some colored water.

Photo: 2007 Diversity Conference