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Personal courage is the key to progress

Barack Obama responded with a speech upon receiving the 2017 Profiles In Courage Award at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library on Sunday night. With his capacity for eloquence, his speech was reflective, demonstrating appropriate humility.

Reminding us that he had taken on the presidency of the United States at a time when the world economy was at its worst since the 1930s, he pointed out that his challenge was not as extreme as that of JFK — leading through the depths of the Cold War crisis; that time at the brink of nuclear annihilation.

His theme spoke to addressing life's challenges by maintaining “courage” in difficult circumstances, a thesis that would apply to us in Bermuda.

Obama sited a group of freshmen congressmen who had been elected with him in 2008. They had to make difficult decisions to support “unpopular” measures in the House of Representatives to address the Great Recession.

They were also called to support the Affordable Care Act; also unpopular and opposed by many lobbyists. As a result of this, many of those rookies lost their seats after only one term.

Obama had canvassed many of these representatives and they had assured him that they were satisfied that they had done the “right thing”. This example spoke to Kennedy's guiding dictum: “A desire to maintain a reputation for integrity that is stronger than any desire to maintain office”.

The former president went on to note that the present period is “perilous”. With economic stagnation, polarisation and the technological revolution, we recognise the rampant tendency to promote division on the basis of political affiliation, race, tribe and class. Hence, each of us is asked to exercise courage:

Courage, to stand up to hate. Not just in others, but in ourselves.

Courage, to stand up to dogma. Not just in others, but in ourselves.

Courage to stand up to the status quo. But also to listen to each other — searching for common ground.

True courage comes when we access our ‘Best Selves'. We can dig deep and do difficult things for the benefit of the whole.

Obama also reflected on how “everyday people” exercise courage every day. There are examples among single parents who commit to ensure that their children attend college, and small-business owners who keep staff on in tough times, demonstrating courage.

There were also examples such as that of a young preacher who led a movement of marginalised people that changed the trajectory of the most powerful nation in the world.

There are Bermuda stories that demonstrate courage. Like Eustace Cann, who in breaking with other black parliamentarians, decided in the early Forties to actively support the right of women to vote. His example was recognised by a group of artisans working at Morgan's Point, building the US Naval Base and they flocked to him for advice, which resulted in the formation of the Bermuda Workers Association, which became the Bermuda Industrial Union.

Other examples include Edwin Skinner, who had retired in the mid-1940s as the principal of Cavendish School, which had no students of colour. Skinner opened his home to black students, since there were only two other secondary schools that accepted them. His alumni of numerous youngsters who eventually made contributions to the island include: Paul Pauulu Kamarakafego — the former Roosevelt Brown — Sir John Swan and Ottiwell Simmons.

Of course, the story of the Progressive Group, which pulled off the island's greatest “coup” to transform Bermuda in the 20th century through the Theatre Boycott, is well known.

I can think of “heroes” such as fisherman Bob Battersby of North Village, who volunteered time with the boys of the neighbourhood to embrace their sense of independence.

Obama concluded on MLK's favourite quote about the “arc of the universe bending towards justice”, noting that it was true because people of courage “help to bend it”. He reminded us that progress is “inevitably fragile”. Each day we are all called to act with courage and a spirit of generosity, which puts aside personal and partisan interests, so our society can move forward.

The former president implied that the key to it all is the “story” by which we are guided; that story of demonstrated resilience — “yes, we can”.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

President Barack Obama (Photograph by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

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Published May 09, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 09, 2017 at 8:34 am)

Personal courage is the key to progress

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