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Remembering Nelson Mandela

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One of my life's privileges was standing with a group of ordinary citizens listening to President Nelson Mandela at an outdoor town meeting in 1999. Here he was, this most extraordinary human being and moral leader, speaking in a neighborhood, thanking and preparing them as he peacefully -- and historically -- handed over power to a new generation. There was no fanfare, little security, an air of informality: just a giant in our midst.

I was running the Rockefeller Foundation's Next Generation Leadership program to build a diverse corps of American leaders. Days earlier, one of our fellows, Ingrid Washinawatok, a powerful Native American leader working on behalf of indigenous peoples, had been senselessly murdered in Colombia by FARC soldiers. As I listened to Mandela, I thought of how his immeasurable courage so influenced Ingrid and so many like her. His own walk to freedom had enabled the whole world to believe. And act. And now it was to us to continue.

This is the gift of Nelson Mandela: he had the courage to live and fight for an idea, and do so with wisdom, compassion, humility, decency. In so doing, he elevated our shared humanity. He was by no means perfect: we are all flawed. But the way he moved from head and heart, refused to be a prisoner despite the bars around him, the way he listened and respected all while understanding and using power to realize his goals of freedom - these are the waves that will forever ripple. The work of all who dared dream of a world of dignity was and will be forever influenced by him.

On this day following the great Madiba's passing, it is to all of us to recommit to furthering his legacy, to work to create a world that rests on the assumption that all human beings are born equal. It is to us to hold the spirit of Ubuntu, that "I am because you are." It is to us to stand in awe not only of what one man can do but of what we each have the privilege and responsibility to do in a world that needs us.

Our work at Acumen has been deeply influenced by President Nelson Mandela. At its core, Acumen measures poverty not in income alone but in terms of freedom, opportunity, dignity. Acumen fellows read his 1962 and 1964 testimonies in South African courts to study his mastery not just of ideas but of voice and pen. On trial at Rivonia, he inspired a nation to carry on his struggle while he served his life sentence:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela's actions were founded upon a belief that no one can be truly free until all are free. We stand on Madiba's shoulders when we hold values in tension: generosity and accountability, listening and leadership, humility and audacity. We stand on his shoulders by holding respect and integrity as immutable. Acumen's manifesto is infused with his ideas and principles of human dignity.

Nelson Mandela had the courage and perseverance to fight for that world in which all could be free, even while he was held captive in a prison cell. In his own words, "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." He was unafraid of failure: it was unacceptable only not to get up again after falling down.

We honor him best not with words but with actions and intentions. Today, let us renew our commitment to tackling poverty, remembering his words that "overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life."

Today, let us re-ignite our work with his enduring, soul-inspiring spirit, with strength, compassion and, mostly, with love.