Last week after spending three life-changing days at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), I came away with a profound sense of hope, inspired by all the participants present and by no less than President Clinton himself.
Normally at this time every fall, as a member of an NGO Working Group, "Values & Business" and member of the United Nations Global Compact, I spend my time at UNGC and General Assembly meetings, engaging with wonderfully dedicated people who want to change the world. This year attending the purposeful CGI initiative with the intention of moving the needle forward through public, private, and NGO partnership, I glimpsed the future--a world where business is one of the key forces working towards advancing the common good.
President Clinton has reinvented the wheel with CGI, bringing his personal brilliance and passion for a new world order to inspire the thousand or more global leaders present to be better than they ever believed they could be. The Clinton Global Initiative is the platform for business to build a better world - on steroids. There were wonderfully special moments all throughout CGI; I encourage everyone reading this to check out the panels with people like Michael Porter, Mary Robertson, Madeline Albright, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama, and my personal inspiration, Hillary Clinton.
What makes Clinton's annual CGI meeting different from every other well-meaning and purposeful "change the world" conference is the level of commitment he exacts from business leaders in attendance. His presence and that of industry peers encourages global business leaders to stand up before the powerful crowd and declare how they will do their part to heal the world. A year later, they are called back again to report on their progress. This is the most proactive philanthropic effort in history. The big difference is in the enormous participation of business. Unlike politics, business gets practical things done fast.
In President Clinton's closing speech, he explained his view of the complex and disturbing times we find ourselves in. The 2011 conference, he noted, had "a certain seriousness of purpose now, because we know our world is in trouble."
The 42nd U.S. President continued to address a mesmerized audience:
"The 21st century is still struggling to be born. Almost like it is cocooned inside one of Yeat's old poems about what was going to happen in Ireland. Sometimes it does seem like the best and worst of times; sometimes it seems like the best lack conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.
It is easy to get discouraged, but it is really just a new version off a very old story. Throughout human history, politics or mortal combat before politics mediated it, was always a struggle over limited wealth, power and resources. At times, there were those who had a crimped view of that, "This is always a zero sum game. Any gain anyone else makes is my loss." And those who gradually developed a more enlightened view which is, "I might do even better if we all won a little."
A few years ago in the early part of the last decade I was profoundly influenced by a book by Robert Wright called, "Nonzero"... the essential argument is that humanity has repeatedly saved itself from destruction for more than 100,000 years; when walking right up to the edge of its own demise, it has found a way to widen the circle of who constitutes 'us' and to narrow the range of who constitutes 'them'--the other: the people from whom we have to take to insure that we matter. That we create a larger and larger vision of shared prosperity and shared responsibility, and shared sense of community."
The poetic words of the global visionary reminded me of a life-altering moment in my earliest childhood years. The scene was an angry argument between my military father and my artist mother. My father was an Air Force Colonel in the Reserve JAG Corp and an active member of Military Intelligence, I would find out years later. My mother had grown up as a traumatized young girl in Nazi Germany. She told me stories of how she fled for her life, abandoned by her own family, jumping aboard a flatbed truck piled with her worldly belongings only hours before the Soviets arrived in Berlin. She had seen the deaths of infants at the hands of allied bombings and stood witness to the Holocaust. Her aristocratic heritage lost in the harsh poverty, oppression and despair the tragedy of war brings; she eventually escaped to America to find temporary solace in a fashion modeling career and the protection of a powerful and devoted husband.
The heated conversation went something like this: "Peter, you can't do that. You can't do that to those people," she pleaded choking on her tears. He responded with characteristic condescension, "You don't understand these things. This is war. This is about defending America." "But there are innocent women and children there," she ventured. My timid mother rarely challenged my overbearing father. Theirs was a classic relationship of man knows best. In his eyes, she did not comprehend the great complexities of the world. His job was to solve problems; her job was to remain submissive and beautiful.
What struck me most about this stressed moment between my parents was the intensity of the emotions on my 5 year-old brain. Why was my mommy crying so desperately? What was my father doing to hurt her so deeply?
The issue was the end of the Vietnam War. My father was outraged at the humiliating defeat he felt America was suffering by withdrawing the troops. "We should go in there with the full power of the U.S. Air Force and level the country (North Vietnam)." My mother grabbed his arm and pleaded, "You are going to kill innocent people." He was unmoved and reiterated she should not get involved in things she did not understand.
Defeated, she left the room. I tugged at my beloved father's sleeve and asked in earnest, "Daddy, why are you going to kill those children?" He looked at me tenderly for a moment and with a measured sadness said, "You don't understand honey, it's either us or them."
For my child's mind to think of us and them, it was like an explosion. Who is "us" I wondered? And who is "them?" It would be become the defining question of my life.
Whether he had the power or not to make such decisions, I really never knew. What impressed me so deeply was the passion my mother felt for people she never met and the seeming indifference my otherwise honorable and kind father had for their suffering. For my fragile tragic mother, the issue of "the other" was never resolved. Some 15 years later, she ended her life. She simply preferred not to live in a world where people saw each other as "us and them" and human cruelty trumped any notion of compassion.
The world has changed in the two decades since her passing--in some ways for the better and in others for worse. The good news is we stand now at the threshold of a new century and a new world. As President Clinton described it, the current times carry with them "a larger vision of shared prosperity, shared responsibility, and shared community." The 21st century may be struggling to be "born," but like all births the process is painful and difficult, yet at the end of it, beautiful new life emerges.
I felt renewed hope as I observed the crowd of leaders from global conglomerates, Fortune 1000s, and financial institutions declaring pragmatic commitments to the economic advancement of women, protection for adolescent girls, the creation of jobs as a basic human right, the eradication of hunger, and the conscious efforts for environmentally sustainable profits.
The conviction of the global leaders present at CGI2011 convinces me that the dawn of a new way forward has finally arrived--one where the line between "us and them" is becoming dimmer by the day. My child's mind has matured to understand the complexities of my mother's passion for shared community. I carry her conviction close to my heart.
The private companies and individuals that step up daily to help resolve humanity's most challenging issues bring new promise with each effort. It seems Mr. President that you are right. The world of business has begun to understand that this is no longer a zero-sum game.
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