When Bill Clinton shakes your hand you realize how he became the President of the United States. Not only is he the most charismatic person I’ve ever met, but he has this special capacity to make each person he interacts with feel as though he really knows them.
This reflection from AIF Fellow Katie Stricker, raises a lesson we all learned on Wednesday night. Big names don’t solve world problems by being famous. People solve world problems through a capacity to relate and act with one another. Meeting President Clinton on Wednesday night and hearing him speak at the Kotak Presidium in Mumbai gave 10 AIF fellows a cogent understanding of how service and support for marginalized peoples around the world is becoming “better, faster and cheaper” in the 21st century, thanks to increased levels of cooperation and people’s heightened ability to act on their empathy.
Bill Clinton was the first president for whom I ever voted. I was 8 years old. To this day I can still remember the cardboard box covered in red white and blue translucent wrapping paper with three slots, above which stood photographs of three men. While at the time I couldn’t really understand the gravity of my power as a citizen in a democracy, I voted for President Clinton and rejoiced with my classmates when he won both our classroom election and the national election of 1996.
Fast forward 16 years. I’m getting a sari pressed and printing plane tickets in Kolkata in preparation to meet former President Clinton in Mumbai, whose vote I cast when I barley knew the world was bigger than my small town in New York.
Eight interminable hours later, the moment came. With nine of the thirty-five most qualified people I know, I stepped on stage at the Jamshed Baba Theatre at the NCPA complex on Marine Drive, where a man stood. Like Madurai-based Fellow, Ted Samuel, I was expecting to see a larger than life presence, but as Ted describes, “He wasn’t the caricature I imagined and he certainly didn’t tower over our group of fellows. He was kind. He was gracious. And, to my absolute surprise, he was rather soft spoken.”
Throughout the evening with President Clinton, I was reminded of two themes from his conduct and speech. The first was the importance of cooperation in today’s globalized, but highly threatened world. The second is the power for ‘normal people,’ to leverage efforts for social change.
He maintained an anecdotal tone throughout his speech. When referring to work that he had done on disaster relief for the storms in Southeast Asia and Haiti, he remembered mobilizing world leaders to help him by simply saying, “…So I called my friend __.” While of course President Clinton’s contact list is much more extensive than the average person’s, he made it clear that working together on some of the world’s toughest problems is the only way we may meet solutions. As he took us through the early years of the Clinton Foundation, which started out with only 14 employees, he emphasized that with a staff that small, he was consistently reaching out.
Delhi-based Fellow, Blessing Okorougo highlighted another meaningful moment for the fellows – being acknowledged by President Clinton to the entire Kotak Presidium Audience: “In his speech, which went on to cover various topics, particularly on the economic and social development of India, AIF was mentioned at several points and the Fellows were personally recognized by Clinton when he asked all Fellows to stand up to be congratulated by the audience for our participation in the fellowship.” As the audience was comprised of approximately 600 people, this was definitely a crystallizing moment for all the fellows – we were really there and being met with thunderous applause.
As he was closing his remarks, President Clinton made a comment that multiple fellows discussed afterwards. When given the choice between working towards small solutions to small problems, but going to bed at night feeling accomplished, or working towards solving a big problem — a difficult problem — and going to bed at night feeling utterly unsatisfied, do the latter, he told us. As we are all working towards solutions for some of India’s biggest problems like skills development, increased livelihood generation, better education, health initiatives that create and sustain behavior changes and increasing access to green energy at the rural level, this reminder came at a time when I project most fellows aren’t sleeping well at all. Rest easy, he seemed to say, if you’re not satisfied you’re on the right track.
Following the speech, Fellow Brian Tronic reflected: “I was really inspired. It is easy while working in development to get discouraged or become pessimistic. But I left the speech with hope that the world community can, if it works together, tackle the many serious problems facing the world today.”
Meeting President Clinton was a moment that few of us will ever forget. His demeanor in our meeting was gracious, and his speech unpretentious. As we fellows continue our careers in public service, social enterprise and academia, we will take his message with us and use his example as an inspiration. And perhaps more than a few of us will hope for more years of dissatisfied sleep.