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Ubuntu Social Justice Conference

October 18, 2014

“Watch your thoughts—they become your words.
Watch your words—they become your actions.
Watch your actions—they become your habits.
Watch your habits—they become your character.
Watch your character—it becomes your destiny.”

These are words that I first heard a long time ago, ascribed to many different people. They have echoed within me, and driven me, since then, providing a guiding light. Given today’s theme, I thought it fitting to share them with you.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a tremendous privilege for me to be here with you today at UT Arlington’s inaugural Ubuntu Social Justice Conference. I am humbled to be speaking to the same audience that heard earlier from Baba Kwasi through his drums and from Lee Mun Wah. I recognize that I have an audience not because of the profound thoughts that you expect to hear from me, but rather because you are eating lunch and because I stand between you and the recognition that you have earned through your service projects.

So let me thank you first for what you have done in the service of others and for the lessons that you will take away from this conference. Let me thank you for what I’m confident you will continue to do through your lives. You will continue in the service of humanity, enabling others, building community, understanding that irrespective of where we were born, or our station in life, or the color of our skin, we are all connected, and with that connection comes the responsibility of an intrinsic bond binding all of us together.

In his masterpiece “No Future Without Forgiveness,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” Profound words, with tremendous focus on the environment in which they were written, but perhaps even more impactful in today’s world, whether it be in Johannesburg, in Syria, in Europe, or even on our own campus. All too often we think of ourselves as removed from society, far from the challenges that face others. All too often we feel threatened by another’s achievements or good fortune. All too often we look out only for ourselves, forgetting that we are intrinsically connected to our families, our neighbors—to humanity.

Social justice is a difficult concept to grasp. It’s not the same as being in a socialistic society as some would think, and it definitely does not advocate that those who work hard and succeed should give up the fruits of their labor to fulfill the dreams of those who just sit back. While its origins can be traced to Socrates, Aquinas, and Spinoza, its importance was primarily felt through the revolutions in Europe in the late 1840s aimed at the removal of feudal structures, especially as related to privilege on the basis of station at birth. In 2014, over a century and a half from those tumultuous times, the concept is still a very important one, and sadly still one that has not been achieved.

Two simple words social justice—but how hard they are to understand and to achieve. They have special relevance to us in academe since we believe that education is the great equalizer and that knowledge can provide opportunities and freedom. I am so very proud of what is achieved at UT Arlington every day—of the transformations being created through your efforts—changing not just your own lives, but those of your immediate family as well, and through that of society. What you do in the service of others, through community service and service learning projects, as a member of a service organization, or a volunteer in a community or faith-based charity, has a tremendous impact. What you do by sitting next to each other, helping each other out, holding someone’s hand to guide them through rough times has an influence far beyond the few minutes that such actions take. Our students who staff the GO Centers encouraging high school students to persevere and work toward a four-year education, those who serve as Peer Leaders and mentors at UT Arlington, our staff and faculty who take part in the Bound for Success programs with local school districts and academies—all of these are making a difference through education and the doors that it opens.

Building pathways is a social construct; engaging in service is a personal one. But understanding and appreciating others, solving the world’s “problems” by making them your own, is an emotional and personal one and fundamental to society and to our humanity. Thank you for what each of you is doing to create a “oneness,” a feeling that is perhaps best summed up by the words of Nelson Mandela: “I am; because of you.” And how true that is. Each of us has something in life because of others. We are able to do things because others made it possible. We are able to succeed because others struggled for those rights. Let’s understand that, cherish that, always aim for that—let’s share, care, and nurture.

By the service that you have done as part of this conference, you have already shown willingness to enable the concept of social justice, of being willing to do what we can to change the world for the better, one step at a time, by what we can do individually and together. Let’s not depend on others in positions of presumed authority to do it for us—the power of one is tremendous—let’s make it happen. I look forward to seeing all that you will achieve through your humanness and as members of humanity. Thank you, and Godspeed in the work that you are doing—the future depends on you.