Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof addressed a full house in Lang Performing Arts Center Monday night. His speech, entitled “A Call to Action: Encouraging people to join the ‘World’s Fight,’” offered insight into his personal motivations for making a difference and aimed to galvanize others into giving back to the global community. He opened by saluting Mark Hanis ’05, President of United to End Genocide (formerly known as Genocide Intervention Network).
“In some past life I’m pretty sure I was a Swattie,” said Kristof. “I’m a huge fan of Swarthmore… a young man named Mark Hanis, who some of you may know, while a student here started the Genocide Intervention Network with a couple of other students, and he really became a player in the work on genocide and Darfur and elsewhere around the world. It was just amazing to me that some undergraduates could do that, could have that kind of impact.”
Kristof referenced other Swarthmore student initiatives, including those sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. He stated that he believes traveling abroad is a major component in students’ ability and motivation to become involved in “the world’s fight,” largely because of the transformational quality involved in discomfort.
“I think it’s really important… to get out of your comfort zone. And if at any given moment, you’re having a wonderful time, then that’s not exactly right. You want to be in over your head a little bit. You want to give your parents gray hairs. And earlier when I was talking to some of the students about my malaria experience, I was encouraging Swarthmore to offer extra credit to any student who gets malaria. That’s kind of what I have in mind,” he said, laughing.
“What really got to me was one trip in Cambodia many years ago… I came across a family where the mother had died a month earlier of malaria. She left four kids that were being looked after by their grandmother, four small children. And the grandmother… told me something that truly unnerved me. She said she had one bed net to keep the malaria, the mosquitoes, away. One bed net. It could fit three of the kids. Every night she had to look at these four kids and figure out which one of them would not sleep under the bed net. And this just tore her apart. It seared her. And I thought about what I would do in that situation, and it made me step in her shoes and see the world in a different way, and led me to report more, and the more you report, the more these issues come to feel like they’re your priorities.”
Kristof stressed that his interest in human rights has been driven by personal encounters. He said that he was galvanized to report on human trafficking when he heard the story of two girls in Cambodia who were kidnapped on their way to school. They stopped to help an old woman, and she drugged them and drove them to a brothel. They were saved by their cab driver, who saw they were drugged and drove away with the girls when the old woman went inside the brothel to sell them. Kristof emphasized that, although the human trafficking situation in the United States is better than the situation in Cambodia, there is still a lot of work to do here at home.
“I think there’s often a misperception in America that trafficking is primarily an issue of foreign women being smuggled into the U.S. And that is an issue, that’s real, but the biggest part of the problem is American girls, homegrown girls, typically from troubled homes… what typically happens is… she runs away, she goes to the bus station, and the only person on the lookout for girls like her at the bus station is a pimp. And the next thing she knows, she’s having sex with ten guys a day and every penny of that is going to the pimp. And the police are on the lookout for girls like that, not pimps like that. And, at the end of the day, if we’re going to try to address this problem globally, we have to clean up our own act right here at home.”
In addition to his emphasis on local activism, Kristof underscored the importance of choosing a cause that has personal meaning and relevance.
“All the time, students ask me, ‘There’s so many issues, what should I get involved in?’ There’s really no answer to that. I think that the answer will depend on where you’ve traveled, what issues speak to you the most, what resonates with you.”
He noted that, in reference to social entrepreneurship, he has “become increasingly sympathetic to this notion of starting something particular.”
“When my generation was active—and students have been active forever, of course—we tended to protest against things, we tended to seek systemic global change, and, often, the focus of our protests was kind of symbolic. I think your generation has been better at doing specific things that are constructive and that make a real difference—maybe at a modest scale, but for those people you are affecting, it’s really transformational. My generation would have protested for some kind of global covenant to get every kid in school in the world. Your generation is much more likely to start a particular school somewhere… it may not solve the global problem, but for kids, in that particular school, it is completely transformational. I think that we’re also getting a better sense that, often, the people who change the world aren’t just the politicians or those who have the greatest resources, but those who care the most.”
Kristof stated that he thinks “real progress” has been made in human rights since the days when he was a student. He cautioned against close-minded ways of thinking that might impede progress.
“In an exceptionally polarized age, I think that any advocacy is unlikely to get very far unless one is willing and tries hard to build coalitions,” he said. “One of the things that has frustrated me a great deal on issues like human trafficking or global health is that you have some on the left who do fabulous work on these issues and some on the right who do fabulous work, but because there is such incredible distrust, they don’t work together. On human trafficking, for example, there’s real debate about what one does with adult prostitution between consenting adults. But whatever one thinks about that policy, everybody agrees that 15-year-old girls shouldn’t be out on the streets, controlled by pimps. But the disagreement about these other issues and just a generic distrust between left and right, and between those who are secular and those who are religious, has meant that there is very little of that kind of cooperation. I think it’s really important if you want to make a difference to try to reach out to people who have different ideological takes and try to build coalitions.”
He concluded his speech with a story about a friend of his, a “young American woman, just a little bit older than those of you who are students,” whom he met while traveling in Sudan.
“She was incredibly strong in Darfur, never flinched, never showed fear, never broke down. And then she came back to the U.S. over Christmas vacation. She’s in her grandmother’s backyard. She completely loses it. She just breaks down and she is just—weeping. You know what it was? Again, I bet this will resonate with those of you who have spent time in those kinds of contexts. Her grandmother had set up a birdfeeder. And my friend looked at that birdfeeder and thought how she had just come from a place where babies were being thrown into bonfires because of the color of their skin and the tribe they belonged to. And how she had had the unbelievable good fortune to be born and grow up in a society where we pretty much take security for granted. Where, even in difficult economic times, for the most part, by and large, we can afford not only to feed and clothe and house ourselves but to have a little extra to help wild birds get through the winter.”
“In the same sense,” he said, in closing, “the fact that we’re all in this room here today means that all of us have truly won the lottery of life. And when you have won the lottery of life, then the question becomes how you go about discharging the responsibility that comes with it.”