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Remarks to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Maryland)
2013 Philanthropy Day

Many of us stand overwhelmed by our smallness in the face of so much need in the world. We’re tempted to ask - like the child looking at countless starfish washed along the shore – what difference could we possibly make? But we regain hope, and even carrying just one starfish back to the water, we remind ourselves, “For that one, it makes all the difference in the world.”

In the face of so much need, and with limited resources, Terri and I focus much of our work at the Hussman Foundation on what we call corners and forks. The corners are the edges between something and nothing, where a small amount of help can change a life. For example, a course of antibiotics and a $35 surgery can avoid a lifetime of blindness from trachoma. The forks are points in a person’s life where a small nudge can determine whether a person’s entire future goes in one direction or another. For example, a few hundred dollars to keep a child in school along the Thai-Burma border can protect him or her from being drawn into a lifetime of trafficking. If we can intervene at corners and forks, our smallness matters less.

But as we work to address so many immediate needs, we should never give up on the possibility for deeper – even radical – change. Whether the concern is autism, or homelessness, or hunger, or even the effort to achieve peace, that kind of change requires one thing above all, and that is our refusal to see others as something outside of ourselves. I think we can only hope to change the world when we take on the challenges of others as if they were our own; and when we stop our own thinking long enough to see the world from their perspective.

In the words of Helen Keller, “What a blind person needs is not a teacher, but another self.”

There’s a story I often tell about my son JP, who has autism. He used to enjoy taking his shoes off in elementary school. And at the end of the day, you always knew whether he had been with someone who understood him. If they did, his shoes would come home loosely tied, so he could slip them off during class, and slip them back on to walk. If they didn’t, the shoes would come home tied in double, and triple knots, and sailors hitches. And it would take a Boy Scout manual to untie them.

In our autism work, we’ve been blessed to have partners who understand that it isn’t enough to provide services, seek therapies, or change someone else’s behavior. Finding ways to improve the lives of people with autism is essential. But our goal isn’t a world without autism, or a world where those with autism do all the changing. It’s a world where we change as well – where we embrace people with autism as they are, where we presume their competence, where we make adaptations to their needs; and where we treat them as equals.

This award says a great deal about our partners.  In autism, we’re grateful to The Hussman Center for Adults with Autism at Towson University, the Institute for Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University, the Howard County Autism Society, the Howard County Public School System, and our staff and Directors at the Hussman Foundation and the Hussman Institute for Autism. When we hear adults at the Hussman Center say “This is the only place in the world that I’ve really felt loved and understood”, we’re reminded of how much people with autism long to be accepted, but we’re also reminded of how much work remains.

In research, I’m particularly grateful to my scientific collaborators Margaret Pericak-Vance and Jeff Vance at the Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, and Gene Blatt at the Hussman Institute for Autism. Not only have these collaborations brought us closer to an understanding of autism, but even a decade ago, they took the leap of treating me as a fellow scientist, even though I had the wrong degree.

In international work, my mentor and role model in faith, charity and life, Jimmy Carter, the staff at the Carter Center, and Therese Caouette at the Hussman Foundation have all been incredibly creative in finding ways to improve lives in the most challenging places. Just like a fragile thread becomes stronger when it’s woven among others, sustainable change in fragile places comes by strengthening communities, prioritizing human rights, creating connections between organizations and groups so knowledge can be shared, respecting cultural differences, and honoring the intelligence and resourcefulness of even the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.

In the work to end the cycle of homelessness, I can’t imagine better partners than Elizabeth Kinney and Pam Siemer at the Light House. Not only because neither of them seem to have learned the word “impossible” at any point in their education, but because they understand that a bed and a meal are not enough. In the words of Martin Luther King, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

When someone enters the Annapolis Light House for the first time, the first thing the staff does is to let that person tell their story. Often, they respond “You know, in all these years, nobody ever asked.”

We need to ask.

The ability to take on the suffering of others as our own, to imagine the world from their perspective, and to be, as Helen Keller put it, “another self” for them; all these are among the qualities that are unique to humanity. The challenges may seem endless, but much of what is truly beautiful about humanity comes from the decision – and the hope – day-after-day, to face them together.

My friend and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Buddhist monk, puts it this way, “A lotus flower doesn’t grow on a slab of marble. It grows in the mud. No mud, no lotus.”

So thank you, to all of you here, who make that decision every day to change the world for someone else, and carry the hope – that surrounded by mud – another flower can bloom.

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