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In the Words of a Leader

Civil rights activist and acclaimed public servant Andrew J. Young invites students to turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities

Bristol, R.I. -- In the first edition of what promises to offer a compelling array of speakers at Roger Williams – the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series: Conversations on Civil Discourse, the Arts and Humanities, and Current Affairs – legendary civil rights activist, public servant and ordained minister Andrew J. Young joined the University on Wednesday, Oct. 12, to celebration Inauguration Week 2011.

In a far-reaching presentation that touched on topics as diverse as the future of U.S. President Barack Obama, the experience of growing up in New Orleans a stone’s throw from where Nazi meetings convened and why American aid to nations across the globe is as essential today as at any point in time, one theme remained constant – Ambassador Young’s enduring plea for today’s students to take direct aim at the challenges facing the world and turn crisis into opportunity.

The following excerpts capture just a few highlights from the evening with Ambassador Young yet offer a picture of his inspiring spirit and the enthusiasm and energy with which he approaches the work he continues to do today.

On some valuable advice at an early age:

My father took me to see the Olympics. He felt that it was important for me to see Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics. My father said: “You see, white supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad at sick people.” Jesse Owens went out on a track and proved that white supremacy was not true. He never got angry, he never got upset. He said: “When you’re in a fight, you don’t get mad, you get smart. Your mind is the most powerful weapon you have. If you use your head, you can figure your way through almost any difficulty.”

On charting your own path and creating a vision for the world:

More than ever before, more than in my almost 80 years, there is a need to chart your own path. Things are happening so fast in so many places in so many ways that almost anything that you knew yesterday isn’t true tomorrow. Ultimately, I think it’s not what you know; it is essentially your vision and your commitment. That’s where I want to lead you because that’s how I got where I am today.

On the state of human rights:

I don’t think we’ve started implementing the meaning of human rights just yet. We do it pretty well with men; but there is a population of 6 billion people in the world and probably 2 billion are women on this planet who are still defined by some kind of enslavement… It’s hell out there being a woman. The world is waiting for your leadership and looking for your energy. It’s out there along with the practical experience that you can bring at home and abroad.

On the opportunities students have today:

If you wake up every morning on this peninsula… If you have the opportunity to study with these teachers… If you’re exposed to the world with all the technology at your disposal… You have opportunities that have never existed in the history of humankind… I think this is a wonderful time to be young… Welcome to the 21st century. It’s yours. We did the best we could. We gave it all we had. Now you take it on where you think the world ought to go.

What it means to be at Roger Williams University in 2011:

Here at Roger Williams University, I suggest that this is the perfect place for a new vision… It’s your generation that will probably have to come up with a vision that’s necessary to create a new social order. And how you do it and what you do, I can’t even dream.