You probably know the story already: A girl (or a boy; but this time, let’s say a girl) is standing on a beach after a storm. Hundreds of starfish have been stranded, and she is pitching them, one by one, back into the waves. An adult walking by says, as adults will, “That isn’t doing any good; there are too many to save.” And she replies, as she picks up yet another, “I can save this one.”
That is the overall message I brought home from Nicholas Kristof’s Hardman Lecture at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on October 16: instead of focusing on how little each of us as individuals can accomplish in the world, we need to concentrate on envisioning the difference we can make by each doing our part and working together.
Kristof is a compelling storyteller whose own life illustrates his message of the power of the individual to create change. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he studied law. He later studied Arabic in Cairo, Chinese in Taipei, and Japanese in Tokyo. He backpacked in Africa and Asia, writing articles to support himself. He has traveled to 150 countries and had hair-raising and life-threatening adventures. As a popular New York Times columnist, he has won innumerable awards.
But what drew me, and the crowd of some 800 people, to hear him at MCLA was the way he uses his journalism skills, his commitment and his passion in the service of human rights – especially for women and their families. He and his wife Sheryl WuDunn won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China’s Tienanmen Square uprising, and they have since collaborated on two books. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, published in 2009, told the stories of several young women who overcame unspeakable injustices to become strong voices in their own countries; it has since gone on to become a successful documentary film. Their new book, A Path Appears, follows successful initiatives, both local and global, to effect social progress. Clearly, Nicholas Kristof has been engaged in creating change and convinced of its power.
He spoke to us without notes, sharing some of his encounters with courageous women and emphasizing the importance of education for girls and women. The more years a girl spends in school, the less likely she is to be married at a young age, he said, giving the example of a 9-year-old forced to wed a 60-year-old man. She will be less likely to suffer complications from or to die in childbirth. She will bring more income and a better life to her family. She will be a confident adult who contributes to her village, her country, and the world as a whole. Her children will be healthier and more likely to be better educated themselves.
Kristof cautioned against the arrogant “we-can-fix-this” attitude Americans sometimes bring to global relationships, when we ignore economic, ethnic and cultural differences and beliefs. We must learn cultural sensitivity, he said: listening carefully and respectfully, and honoring customs and the deep knowledge other people have of their own lands. At the same time, he said, we must work for change where there are clear violations of human rights, such as female circumcision. Lasting change will only come with the leadership and collaboration of the people affected, not by trying to impose change from outside.
Kristof’s central message was that if we put our minds to it and work together, we can make a difference. The audience at MCLA included many girls, women, and men who are already doing just that. Kristof pointed out that his own assistant, Winter Miller, had written the play In Darfur, which WAM Theatre’s Artistic Director Kristen van Ginhoven will present at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox beginning Oct. 30.
WAM Theatre co-founders Kristen van Ginhoven and Leigh Strimbeck were inspired by Kristof and WuDunn’s first book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, to undertake theater projects by and about women in order to celebrate the power of women and their stories. Kristen and some of the play’s actors were in the audience, as was Shirley Edgerton, founder of Pittsfield-based Rites of Passage & Empowerment (ROPE) Program, an excellent project empowering girls in our community, many of whom came along with Shirley to hear Nick Kristof speak
As I looked around the hall at MCLA that evening, I saw many friends, and other women I didn’t know, who have been active in the Berkshires as leaders, writers, teachers, mothers, daughters, friends and role models. All of us are indeed living and working in our myriad ways — individually and together — to make a difference.
Judy Nardacci is a retired teacher and civil and human rights activist, especially on behalf of women and girls and the LGBTQAI community. She and her husband live in Lee and have two children. She loves books, gardening (especially the digging-up-weeds-and-rocks part), chocolate, cooking, and being on the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Planning Committee.
The weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.