JONATHAN BECKER: I want to welcome everybody to today's talk on "Civil Society & Social Movements: A Conversation with Patrick Gaspard." My name is Jonathan Becker. I am vice president for academic affairs at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and a vice chancellor of the Open Society University Network (OSUN). This talk is sponsored by the Open Society University Network and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
What's interesting about this is that it's part of a class on "Engaged Citizenship" that is being taught across the OSUN network and has students enrolled from multiple institutions, from Ashesi in Ghana to the American University of Central Asia, to BRAC University in Bangladesh, Bard College in Annandale and Berlin, and the Bard High School Early Colleges in New Orleans, Manhattan, and Queens. The faculty come from Bard, Central European University (CEU), and European Humanities University, and it is part of a broader effort of the Open Society University Network to offer summer classes uniting students across the globe in studying issues from climate change to women to COVID-19 to human rights advocacy.
Today we will be blessed with questions, which are submitted by students of this class. We will have the opportunity for others to submit questions, and those of you on YouTube have the email address, but we will also be honoring questions from students who have submitted I think 60 or 70 questions already, which we will be sorting through, and which Patrick has been so kind to sort through already.
I do want to say one thing before introducing Patrick. I want to pause for a moment to express condolences to the family and friends and loved ones of Fatima Natasha Khaleel, who was a student at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), who was tragically killed this weekend. She was a graduate of AUCA and Bard and was working for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. We are saddened by the news of her death, and I want to express that our thoughts are with the family, our family at AUCA, her family, and the folk across the OSUN network who were touched by her.
Patrick Gaspard is a wonderful person to speak to a class on engaged citizenship. He is the president of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), where he has served since 2017. Previously he was the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, where he served from 2013 to 2016. Prior to becoming ambassador, he worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 and in various positions in the White House, including as the director of the White House Office of Political Affairs. He then served on the Democratic National Committee.
He began his career as a union organizer in New York City, and he moved up to become executive president and political director of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1199, which for those of you globally is one of the most important unions in the United States. He previously served as a senior aide for New York City Mayor David Dinkins and had been very involved in activism in New York City prior to that.
His biography at OSF says: "He is proudest of his contributions to campaigns to end police brutality, mobilizations to increase access to affordable health care, and his efforts to increase dignity for working families." This is a multitalented person, whose work spans locally, nationally, and globally, and we are very happy to have him here as part of the Engaged Citizenship class. So thank you, Patrick, for coming.
I want to begin by talking about the current moment in the United States and around the world. What's your take about what's going on in the United States right now? Specifically, where are we in terms of a new or revitalized social movement emerging in response to the gross inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others.
PATRICK GASPARD: Jonathan, I see that you start off with the small and insignificant questions first and get those out of the way. Let me thank you for having me in this dynamic discussion today, and thank also Leon Botstein, the leader of Bard, and the leader of our Open Society University Network. Leon is a dear friend and somebody who I have learned a tremendous amount from.
I remember a conversation with Leon almost two years ago, when he said to me that he worried that sometimes all of us were too absorbed with "the moment of the statue toppling in the town square" and paid scant attention to what needs to come after. His sense was that the role of the Open Society Foundations, the role of scholars, and indeed the role of those of us who believe that activism leads to having a productive outcome, is to consider what comes after the statue topples. Given the scenes that we have seen, the statues, outbreaks in the United States, London, South Africa, and all around the world, it seems as if our moment has arrived.
If I could, just for a second echo the condolences that you expressed to students who are experiencing directly the loss of Fatima Natasha Khaleel, an extraordinary young woman. I had an exchange with Shaharzad Akbar last May, who of course heads up the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and in our exchange we were reminding one another that Fatima Khaleel was somebody who was enamored with Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise." In this moment, in consideration of Fatima, the young and incredible women of Afghanistan, and the students who are here today, we will say that all of us will lean in to make certain that the Fatima Khaleels of Afghanistan still continue to rise against all manner of horrific oppression and violence. It's a tremendous loss for the human rights movement.
We are in an extraordinary moment here in the United States and the world. It's a moment that reminds us that despite the period of hyper sovereignty that all of us seem to have gone into following the extraordinary economic downturn of 2007–2008 that seemed to lead to this intense reaction against globalism of all kinds and gave rise to new illiberal authoritarians all over the world, on literally every continent, authoritarians who told us all that we could build a moat around our countries, lift up the drawbridge, and be on our own.
We know that is not the case. It has actually never been the case, but it is especially not the case now, when we have a global pandemic to contend with; its effects are absolutely borderless, and the solution to getting out of this challenge is with intense scientific cooperation, intense cooperation of multilateral agencies, and intense diplomatic solidarity and engagement. It seems to me that the wrong lessons were learned coming out of the 2008–2010 downturn. Hopefully as a result of these intense consequences, the right lessons will be learned this time around.
The United States is an interesting petri dish of rights and social activism in this hour, where we have the twin crises of COVID-19 but also the crisis of the lack of legal access to justice that has been laid bare by the murder on camera of George Floyd. You noted when you introduced me—I am proud of the modest effort that I have been able to make over time to make some kind of contribution to pushing back against state-sanctioned violence through policing, but it felt to those of us who were engaged in that movement that we were fighting for the next generation, fighting to make sure that my children or grandchildren did not have to find their place in that machinery of injustice.
But suddenly we are all of us in this COVID-19 moment and this policing moment. We are experiencing history at the speed of light. Suddenly transformation that we thought not possible at all, transformation that we thought would have to be taken up through steady incrementalism, went over to the window, which has been busted wide open on these questions of disparities, these questions of inequality, and these questions of justice, and it has compelled average citizens and policymakers to have to interrogate these matters in real time and to have to also suggest a prescription. This is a moment where we have movements that are seemingly leaderless that have sprung up in every corner of society in America and then have been amplified by civil society activists in other parts of the world.
As a consequence of the seeming leaderlessness of this movement, of its sustainability and its resilience, consolidated power is moving as quickly as possible to respond as hurriedly as possible because there is tremendous anxiety, but there isn't anyone right now to negotiate with and to compromise our demands with. So institutions, both corporate and government, are racing to figure out how they can meet the moment.
COVID-19 for me in the United States has been "the great reveal." We have lived in the 20th century through the Great Depression and then the Great Recession, but now at this early point in the 21st century we are going through the Great Reveal. COVID-19 should have only been a health care crisis that could have been well-managed by governments working in concert with one another, but through COVID-19 we have been shocked into an economic crisis that has revealed the deep-seated dislocations that have existed for some time now in our society that have been woefully unaddressed, not just by government, but I would also suggest unaddressed by the human rights movement as well. There is a way we have separated the world of rights from the world of creating a more broadly shared prosperity.
In the United States, it is no shock that communities of color have experienced the greatest levels of COVID-19 contagion and COVID-19 morbidity. In the city that I'm in, New York, which has been kind of the epicenter of COVID-19 through its first phase in the United States with an extraordinary number of deaths, if you look at the five ZIP Codes where we have the highest percentage of COVID-19, it's all ZIP Codes with the lowest per capita income in New York. The five ZIP Codes that have the lowest percentage of COVID-19 are the ZIP Codes with the highest wealth in New York.
We thought at the beginning of this crisis that it would be the "great leveler." It has not been that at all. It has been the great revealer. But, as a consequence of that, we are having conversations that we have not had before. We have a sustained moment, a new ecosystem, that creates the possibility and potential of radical transformation.
JONATHAN BECKER: How does civil society—Syrin [phonetic] from Bard posed this question—ensure that systemic and structural changes occur? We have already seen legislatively the Democrats propose a bill in the House, it gets only a little Republican support, then the Senate goes nowhere.
You began your work with Amadou Diallo in New York City, and here we are decades later, and we still have similar horrific incidences of police violence, especially against black men. I'm wondering, How does this come together?
Before I ask that, I will tell one quick story. I was at an Open Society University conference in Cairo, literally when Tahrir Square occurred. We were at the Intercontinental Hotel at a conference where we were discussing civil society and universities. The conference was literally stopped as people marched across the Nile to go into Tahrir Square. There were many experts from the Middle East there who were super-excited about, "What is the future?" and "What is going to happen?" and "This is a wonderful opportunity." There were others like me who sadly cut our teeth in Central and Eastern Europe, and we're saying, "This seems great, but what happens next week next month, next year?"
How do we consolidate this moment within civil society?
PATRICK GASPARD: That's a fantastic question, and I would suggest that despite your skepticism of that Tahrir Square moment—which was proven to be not unfounded—we're not really certain what the legacy of Tahrir Square will yet be. There is a way that Tiananmen Square continues to have a resonance in our politics and in social justice movements well beyond Tiananmen Square itself. I suspect that the Tahrir Square movement and moment will have a legacy toward the common good, toward progress, despite the hopes that were dashed in that immediate moment.
I am reminded that when we think about the arc of progress and the frustration of movements—I am somebody who has always held onto a kind of radical hope. You mentioned Amadou Diallo, who was an immigrant who was killed, murdered, executed by the New York Police Department in the vestibule of his own home, a man who was unarmed, innocent of any criminality whatsoever. He just happened to be a black in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was blessed to be in a position to help organize sustained civil disobedience demonstrations and actions against what occurred in that moment.
But it was not my first moment of being engaged in police violence issues. I have been engaged in them since I was 16 years old. I first experienced police violence myself and then saw it play out in my community.
But the Diallo moment was a time to apply action and a tremendous amount of pressure on government and the development of a constituency of accountability. We were able to actually resource for the first time in our city an independent civilian complaint review board that has subsequently been modeled in other states in America and in other parts of the world. When I served as U.S. ambassador in South Africa, I had South African justice activists explain to me how they were able to stand up modes of independent accountability based on what we had done during the Diallo moment.
So, yes, you're right that sometimes the pace of change, the pace of justice moves too slowly, but I want to be clear that progress is possible and has happened in real time and continues to happen. We have to maintain a hopefulness about it.
I am reminded here of the words from one of my favorite poets and statesmen, Václav Havel, who said: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but rather the certainty that something makes sense irrespective of how it turns out." So there's a hopefulness that we have about our march toward justice.
This moment right now speaks to what the founder of our philanthropy, George Soros, [has stated. This is] a revolutionary moment in revolutionary time where suddenly the rules don't seem to apply, and everything and anything is possible, and that everything and anything that is possible may be toward the common good, but one has to be vigilant that anything is possible could regress and retard progress as well.
Right now this is a moment where ideas and prescriptions that have been on the shelf and have been gathering dust since the Kerner Commission in the 1960s, over the last several decades. Suddenly everyone is reaching again for those solutions and to apply them. We are at a moment where people are calling for a kind of "radical reimagination" of what policing looks like in our communities.
In the United States there are 18,000 independent police agencies. There are hardly any federal guidelines that give us a sense of how their authority should be used. Instead they have a federal government that is giving resources to the police, resources that are unused by the military, to increase the militarization of responses in communities when we should have more resources used for other kinds of interventions using other democratic tools, the tools that come out of social work, the tools that come out of mental health therapy, the tools that come out of harm reduction and drug therapy.
One has to appreciate that the United States, which represents less than 5 percent of the population of the globe, imprisons more than 20 percent of those who are in jail around the world. People understand that the police-community interaction is just the point of the spear on this greater challenge of mass incarceration of black and brown bodies in the United States, things that you and Leon Botstein already understand, as evidenced in the work that you have taken up through the Bard Prison Initiative and the work that Bard has led on creating opportunities for young men of color to access higher education.
JONATHAN BECKER: That's great. Thank you. I do want to say that I'm very pleased that the students in the class did read Havel's "The Power of the Powerless."
PATRICK GASPARD: That's a bible in my home.
JONATHAN BECKER: Fantastic. They've read your bible.
Shahad [phonetic] from BRAC University in Bangladesh, read your speech when you received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 2019, in which you said, "The conditions in America demand that each generation fashions its own radical citizenship." In class we had an assignment which said: "What does it mean to be a good citizen in—" and people could define their geography. What do you mean by "radical citizenship," and what can a radical citizen do today to help affect change in the United States and around the globe?
PATRICK GASPARD: I'm embarrassed that your students paid such close attention to anything I read or said in the past because I hate being called to account for my own words.
The occasion when I delivered the acceptance speech at the NAACP for the Spingarn Award was an incredibly humbling occasion for me. The Spingarn Award is not something that is given out randomly. It is something that has been accomplished, achieved, and given to some of the greatest heroes of civil rights in the United States over the course of the last century, everyone from W. E .B. DuBois to my personal hero and mentor Harry Belafonte, and heroes like John Lewis.
It's incredibly humbling to have received it, and I feel fairly certainly I was the youngest recipient in the history of the award. I certainly recognize that I did not deserve it but that the NAACP was giving me this award as a way of signaling something about current engagement, current boldness in institutionalized response to oppression, and I was excited to be able to receive it on behalf of my community, on behalf of those who came before me, and on behalf of my colleagues in the Open Society Foundations, who are certainly much bolder than I can ever hope to be.
When I made those remarks and I referred to "radical citizenship," I was speaking as a black man in America who has come through a journey toward citizenship, someone not born in America—I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from parents who had to flee Haiti at a time of dictatorship in Haiti, a dictatorship that was supported—sponsored, if you will—by the United States of America. My parents then went to the Congo, and I think we all know what happened in the Congo with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the ascent of Mobutu Sese Seko with the support of the Belgians, the British, and the CIA. My parents left the Congo because of its instability and came to the United States.
As a child in the United States I often heard derogatory and derisive pushback whenever I asked any questions about the course of this democracy: "Go back to your own country. You don't belong here if you don't accept this."
Over time I learned about the struggles that African Americans endured as they questioned the democratic platitudes of America. I remember being probably about 12 or 13 years old when I came across an essay by James Baldwin, where he said that for him the ultimate patriotism was accepting that the love of country meant an interrogation of the decisions being made by your government. So for me, James Baldwin was demonstrating what radical citizenship is through interrogation, and I was suggesting in my speech—I'm an American citizen now by choice—that I had earned that citizenship, and having earned it through the difficulty of my predecessors like Charlemagne Péralte, an extraordinary hero in Haiti, who was assassinated by U.S. Marines during the U.S. occupation of Haiti.
So I earned my citizenship through Charlemagne Péralte, whose generation suffered and experienced. I knew that I earned my citizenship through what my parents endured as immigrants, even though they gave the very best of themselves to their community and to the American ideal, and I understood that James Baldwin and John Lewis and every person who stood up and shouted back at oppressors had earned their citizenship. So I had to take up a radical citizenship always and ever in pushing back and questioning and interrogating the space that we had rightfully earned in the public square.
I was greatly influenced by the writing of Henry David Thoreau as a young person. I read something from Thoreau that was then later echoed and amplified by an extraordinary short speech that I saw by the free speech activist Mario Savio, who came out of the Berkeley Free Speech movement. It really influenced me as a young person. Thoreau wrote: "As Americans we should let our lives be the counter-friction to stop the machine."
Everyone knows that Thoreau went off famously into the woods and wrote this full thing on civil disobedience, but we don't understand that Thoreau wasn't a selective essayist but was instead someone who put his body in front of the gears of the machine to prevent it from working at all. He did this in response to President James Polk, who had invaded Mexico and had decreed that runaway slaves who had self-emancipated should be returned to the Deep South. This notion that we had to be a counter-friction to stop the machine for me is an aspect of radical citizenship that has informed always my activism and the work that I take on today.
Sorry to give you such a lengthy response.
JONATHAN BECKER: No, no. You actually answered several questions in the thing already in your answer, and that's wonderful.
I'm seeing a lot of questions—which makes sense in this class—on youth and engagement. I wonder if you could talk about a couple of things. Let's start broad and then get specific. We have questions from students in Russia and Bangladesh and elsewhere who are asking, "How does a young person get involved in engagement in a system of authoritarianism?" That's one question.
Then we have a second set of questions. There are two young Bard graduates who have done an amazing job building a program called Brothers at Bard, which is spreading across the country. Implied in their questions is, what do you, as a black male, say to young black men who see the violence in America, and what can you say to them to give them the radical hope that you have and remain engaged by the events that are occurring?
PATRICK GASPARD: Wow. I will try to start with the second question first, and then I'm going to ask you to remind me of the first one if I have forgotten it, so I get to respond.
Let me express my appreciation for the work that those young men are engaged in. The Brothers at Bard mentoring program, for those of you who don't know, invests in focusing on black male achievement among high school and college students. It's an extraordinary program. It gives me an opportunity to trumpet that, plus the Bard High School Early College initiative and the Bard Prison Initiative, which I have already referenced. I can't say enough great things about the work that you and Leon Botstein do in the community.
To those young men who ask how I maintain my own sense of a kind of "aspirational optimism" in the face of profound challenges, I would say to you that I've always felt, I really and truly always ask myself: "How dare I not be hopeful? How dare I not be optimistic when I consider where we come from, where we have arrived at, and all that has been sacrificed on our behalves."
There is a longstanding habit that I have that those students should appreciate. For the last three decades or so there is a framed lithograph that I have of the person who I believe is the greatest American who ever lived, someone who self-emancipated and eventually became the greatest orator of his generation, the most-photographed figure in the world at the time he was alive. He eventually became a diplomat. He became U.S. ambassador to Haiti, after having been born a slave, and served as a kind of public consciousness for this country. That is, of course, Frederick Douglass.
I maintain this portrait of Frederick Douglass wherever I go as a reminder that despite how difficult the moment or the hour might be that I'm experiencing, I have this North Star that we're always pointing toward and that our people have come through much greater challenges than anything any of us are experiencing right now. They went through those challenges with a conviction, a faithfulness, a sense that their individual concerns did not amount to much in this world, but there was a responsibility they had to the collective dignity and the community of correspondents that they were in that would eventually—if it's got responsibility with a fierceness, that it will eventually lead to progress.
You started off this discussion by sending your condolences for the loss of Fatima Natasha Khaleel. I think it's impossible to wake up and get to the next day if you sit in the grief of the loss of Fatima and don't rededicate yourself/ourselves to everything that she stood for, everything that she worked for, and everything that she held up as an articulated goal or aspiration. To the two students who are asking this question I say that we have that profound responsibility every day because we have seen that progress is possible.
In that regard I have never been one to subscribe to the over-quoted directive from Dr. King, who was paraphrasing another scholar when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I have never been a subscriber of that. I have always been someone who believes that you have to impose your will on that arc, that it's not bending toward justice on its own, so to those two young men I would say that this is a moment that brings into sharp relief exactly why we are engaged, exactly why the work of justice is one that we are commanded toward, and now is the moment for them to lean in and to impose their will on that arc.
JONATHAN BECKER: The second question comes from students in Bangladesh and Russia, who say: "Okay, we are young people who care about our local environments, but we're in different political situations. One of the things that distinguishes the Open Society Foundations is it works where it is allowed to work around the world, even in rural and authoritarian countries. What advice can one give to people who live in those circumstances about how they can engage to hope for a better future?"
PATRICK GASPARD: I hesitate to give them any advice whatsoever. Too often when one is involved in this kind of conversation and you have found a road, your instinct is to give the impression that you have an answer for every query and that there's a direction you can hand down that has been enshrined on a tablet. I approach that question with a tremendous amount of humility because despite the journey of my family through oppression and dictatorship, despite my own journey as a black man in America, which is not quite a democracy for all, I hesitate to give advice or guidance to those who are living in spaces that are nearly utterly and completely closed off seemingly to change and toward democratic inclusion, in spaces where civil society finds itself—not just spaces where they have difficulty operating, but spaces where they are brutally and violently repressed.
What I will say is that even in those spaces we have seen seismic change. Some of us have been fortunate enough to experience that seismic change within our lifetimes as a consequence of very, very, very modest and small contributions that we were able to make. I think one of your students who scrolled through my Twitter feed at all would have seen last week that I was celebrating a personal anniversary that was part of a larger significant historic moment. I published some photographs of myself as somebody with a little bit more hair 30 years ago last week where, as a young activist, I had the extraordinary blessing and privilege to be one of the coordinators for Nelson Mandela's first historic trip overseas to the United States after he had been released from 27 years of confinement for fighting for the basic fundamental rights of the black majority in South Africa. It was extraordinary for me to look at those photographs and consider that moment 30 years ago and what it represented, not just in my life but in the life of the world.
I came to my political consciousness not just as somebody in the African Diaspora, specifically the one of the Congo, and of Haitian descent, but as a result of what occurred in South Africa in the actions that were taken by young people in one of the most closed off, most brutal societies that we know. In 1976, when I was nine years old—I get emotional just thinking about it now—I saw the footage from South Africa, and my father explained to me that young students in a township called Soweto had put themselves, their bodies, their friction, on the gears of the machine in South Africa to say that they were going to be the generation that was going to stop the brutalization of their people and then work toward emancipation of the black majority in South Africa, and that these young people gave the last full measure of themselves and were willing to die for their freedom.
My father helped me to understand that it wasn't likely that they would see that change and that transformation in that moment and that it might take decades, it might take several generation for that change to occur, but the contribution that they were making in that moment would no doubt—he had no doubt whatsoever—eventually lead to change.
It was also a time, for your students who are asking this question from those tough spaces, when I learned the power of diplomacy. In that same moment, someone who I revered at the time, Andrew Young, who had been one of the lieutenants of Dr. King, was selected by President Jimmy Carter to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I saw in his spirited advocacy that took on bad actors in the world but also took on the policies of his own government at home, his own government that he thought was on the wrong side of history, so the possibility of using the gears of government, the gears of spaces where people would look like they were not always welcome or invited, to use them as leverage to extend solidarity and to build change.
As a result of all of that, I came to understand that even in the spaces where your students are, the contributions that they are able to make—that we are able to make as the Open Society Foundations, the civil society actors in those spaces—today slowly but surely open the window to allow more oxygen into the room, to allow more transparency into the room, and to spur on the boldness of others.
I've gone on too long in response to that, but there's a powerful moment in that dark space in South Africa that I think speaks to the question that your students are asking, and it speaks to my sense of how one person can make a contribution and a change.
In 1965 Robert Kennedy, shortly after his brother, the president, had been assassinated, as he was trying to make his way in the world again, visited South Africa during apartheid. He defied the apartheid regime, defied the American authorities, and went and visited Chief Albert Lutuli in South Africa, who was a Nobel Prize winner, somebody who was in home confinement and eventually lost his life. Kennedy visited with him, and then he visited with students in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. One of the students said to Robert Kennedy: "You come from the United States of America. You have every opportunity to exercise free speech. You have every opportunity to use your privilege and your resources to work for rights. Here if we speak out, we'll be jailed, we'll be exiled, we could lose our lives. What are we to do?"
It was in that exchange with those students that Robert Kennedy delivered a set of remarks to them that famously became known as his "Ripples of Hope" speech. Robert Kennedy told those students that each time one of them, or each time a man, stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and they join each other from a million different centers of energy and daring. Those ripples become a current that can sweep over the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
So your students, who are in Russia, who are in these other spaces, are making contribution with their scholarship and will make a contribution with their activism that will serve as ripples of hope that will bring down walls like the apartheid wall, walls like the Berlin Wall, or walls like the walls that exist in minds or in their homes.
JONATHAN BECKER: I'm really glad you said that. One of the main themes we try to talk about in this class is agency and hearing that young people have a sense of agency wherever they may be. The most important week of every year for me is a conference—which will now be sponsored by the Open Society University Network—that happens in Budapest or maybe Vienna next year, where the Central European University is moving, where we get student civic engagement leaders from across our network to come and present their projects, and there is nothing more inspiring and motivating than that, and it helps us believe in the power of agency.
I was thinking, those Twitter photos you sent out. There is this wonderful photo of you literally standing up asleep on your feet, you've been working so hard. At that conference I often tell the students—they all do presentations, and many are so nervous, and they worry that things go wrong—that one of the most important moments in my young career was when I was working for an organization called the Civic Education Project, which sent lecturers to teach across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. I ended up on a panel with George Soros and the foreign minister of Austria at the time in Vienna at 4 Schwarzenburgplatz. The only takeaway my friends had from that was I drink a lot of water on stage. I say to the students, "Keep on getting up off your feet, keep on trying. Everyone does their best, and all you can do is work until you're falling asleep on your feet and making the contributions that you can."
I want to take a slightly different angle, because some students being beyond the course are asking some probing questions about you and your own trajectory, which I think might inform that. You moved from ground-level activism up to working in the government and now working for one of the largest foundations in the world. There are two questions: "How do you translate your values from being this person who in some ways is fighting the system to being part of the system, of becoming 'The Man,' as it were?" Also: "In your work at the foundation are you able to, from a different venue, affect change in the world?"
PATRICK GASPARD: Thank you for that question. I am asked this question every single time that I have an opportunity to engage with young people, and I will answer it in full, but first I want to just amplify the point that you made to students about working until you literally fall asleep on your feet.
Also, I love what you just said about the sense of struggling toward your agency and fighting through that struggle and fighting through your own imperfection. I had to learn that the hard way. As a young activist who always and terribly for a very long time would find myself to be the youngest person in the room, oftentimes the only black person in a room. It took me a long time to understand that the voice I was hearing inside my head was a voice that was worthy of being heard in the room as well. I worried about how I struggled to articulate something. I worried about making an intervention in spaces where people were much deeper and richer, I thought, in experience than I was or who were better read than I was or who had two Ph.D.s whereas I hadn't completed university.
There was this challenge always inside of me to step forward and to be heard, but eventually, through mentorship and through crisis, I understood that through my imperfections I had a contribution to make and that my courage was good enough and that I was good enough. Young folk who are in struggle need to hear that as well.
Yes, I've had this interesting journey. Sometimes folks look at it and they look at my CV, and they say, "How do you connect the dots here?" I often tell students that I've only had one job my entire life, and that job has been to give expression to the challenges of the communities that I come from, give challenges to this notion that the most vulnerable members of society have the same fundamental and profound rights as the most privileged members of society as well. That naïve emotion has always incepted my activism. It has informed my public service, and now it drives my activist intervention as somebody who is in a position of tremendous responsibility as it relates to the partnership that the Open Society Foundations has with grantees around the world.
People ask me how I go from activism to government to philanthropic study. I don't feel like I'm in philanthropy because when you join George Soros's Open Society Foundations you appreciate that you are working in a space of public service. The Open Society Foundations is a public service philanthropy that is doing that critical work of accountability, but it does so in a way that speaks to my earliest instincts as an activist.
Everywhere that OSF is involved and engaged, you will find leadership on the ground that has agency, that is taking up its agency through the use of our resources, through our tools of strategic litigation, advocacy, and grantmaking. They are giving us direction about what it means to push back against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines or with the challenge of drug addiction. They are helping us to understand what it means to organize a thoughtful response to the subverted elections in Kenya. They are helping us to appreciate what it means to take up the opportunity of new openings in Addis Ababa. But they are also helping us to be included in the demands of community in Ferguson and St. Louis, in Baltimore, Maryland, who have their own instinct toward justice and their own instinct toward reparation, their own instincts toward reallocation in this moment where a public political imagination has been seized by policing.
For me I have had one job all my life, this job of giving expression to the aspirations of the most challenged, giving aspiration to those who are knocking on the door of the public square to not only gain a toehold in the public square but to be heard in that square as well, and those who are pushing back against consolidating power and authority. When I worked in the White House I understood that I was not there to serve Barack Obama. Instead I was there in the service of Americans of every stripe, who I would see when I left the gates of the White House late every evening. I would see Americans standing there, some who were looking toward the building with a kind of determined aspiration, and others who looked at it in horror and who were out there in demonstration. I understood that I was there in the service of their notion of democratic inclusion. That has not been different in any space that I have been in.
Even though you have the gavel, I'm going to exploit being your guest here because I don't want to leave this conversation without making a little bit of news and a little bit of an announcement.
You talked about the Open Society University Network. We have made reference here to George Soros, and you have talked about all that you've done with Leon Botstein at Bard to lift up some scaffolding around disparate institutions that have the same goals around scholarship, research, and building inclusive centers of academy.
I will tell you that personally I have never experienced colleges and universities as democratic spaces. I have seen them as places that reaffirm the disparities that exist in the world in spaces that are elitist, exclusionary, and spaces that don't welcome folks who come from the economically challenged spaces that I come from and the justice-deprived spaces that I come from.
However, that's not my experience at Bard. That's not my experience at the Central European University, and it's not what George Soros and Leon Botstein are hoping to create with the Open Society University Network.
The Open Society Foundations and George Soros have worked in partnership with Bard for almost three decades. Now we are certainly proud of that partnership, and George Soros sees this moment with the inception of the Open Society University Network as a chance to double-down on our commitment not just to young scholars but also to scholars who are working in exile, scholars who have been standing up for the Open Society principle but have faced the sanction of their government.
In this moment I want to announce that as part of our partnership and our abiding commitment to the journey, the mission of Bard and OSUN, George Soros and the Open Society Foundations are proud to announce a new $100 million grant to Bard in furtherance of our OSUN ambition and with complete and full confidence in Bard as a founding member of OSUN. So I wanted to sneak that in before the end of the conversation.
JONATHAN BECKER: You're welcome to sneak that in in any conversation.
Thank you so much. I have to say that the partnership that Bard and the Central European University and the Open Society Foundations have had over the last 30 years has been amazing. I actually think it's the model of how a foundation and the university who share many values can cooperate strategically.
What's so exciting to me about many of the programs we're talking about—the Bard Prison Initiative; Brothers at Bard, this program I mentioned about black male achievement; La Voz, which is the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the Hudson Valley; and the Bard High School Early College in New Orleans, of which we have a student in this class right now, which is fantastic—these programs were actually all initiated by people when they were students. So I remember Max Kenner in 1999 pitching the Bard Prison Initiative as an idea, and the two young men I mentioned to you, Dariel Vasquez and Harry Johnson, talked about Brothers at Bard at our conference in Budapest and then pitched the president to say, "This is something the institution should invest in." It has been amazingly successful.
So I think the pride that I take is not about the institution's achievement but about the ecosystem that we have built with our students and with our partners at places like the American University of Central Asia, al Quds Bard, Bard College Brooklyn, and now with new partners like Ashesi and BRAC, together with CEU, which we hope to build. It's hard for me—you talk about one job forever; I've had one job forever. I started as a volunteer teacher in Ukraine in 1992 as a student doctor, and I have been working in this ecosystem since then. It has been amazingly rewarding.
If there is one thing that OSF and Bard and CEU and all of our partners can do, it is work with young people to give them this sense of agency and to give them the sense that at a time of cynicism and a time of "slacktivism," at a time of all sorts of things where it's so easy to not be engaged, like you as a young man found that mission and meaning and a commitment that even when things don't go your way you can still rise the next day and remain equally involved and undeterred and maintain that love of engaging with people, which I think is at the root of what the Open Society University Network is.
There are a lot of questions left, but I think you've done a good job of weaving the answers of questions into your other answers, and it gives us an excuse to bring you back again.
PATRICK GASPARD: It has been an extraordinary honor to be here and to be in conversation with you. I'm excited to have been able to make that announcement. I know that you have worked closely over time with the vice president of OSF, Lenny Bernardo, who has done so much to make a contribution to this work as well and who I should not neglect to mention.
But I want to say that while we have leaned into our optimism, leaned into our hopefulness, and leaned into our sense that we can seize opportunity in this moment of crisis, I do want to leave the students with this understanding, that the overall picture that we're in right now is quite a foreboding one. COVID-19 has laid bare all these challenges. Its impact I am convinced will have silver linings to it, but I want your students as we end this conversation to be mindful of what is occurring right now as a result of this transformational moment as it relates to: the centralization of power; the abridgement of fundamental rights; expanded state surveillance in many places around the world; electoral disruptions that we're experiencing in the United States, in Ethiopia, in Malawi; and the unbalanced police and military responses, not just here in the United States, but in spaces like the country that I love so dearly, South Africa, where over 200,000 citizens have been arrested for social-distance violations.
There is something awry with that, and there is something here that challenges rights the world over, but that gives us all a sense of the great work that we're called to in this hour, and I am proud to be able to take up that work with Bard, with OSUN, and with the students who are leaning into this conversation and who are then going to lean out into the world with the sense that transformation and progress is indeed possible.
JONATHAN BECKER: Patrick, thank you so much for your wonderful contribution. I'm sure the students here and across the globe have been informed and inspired. It has been a wonderful experience. Thank you very much, and I hope that this is but the first time that we're bringing you to an OSUN class. Thank you very much.
PATRICK GASPARD: Thank you, Jonathan. Stay well.
JONATHAN BECKER: Yes. You, too.