In Historic Speech, Former U.S. Ambassador Derse Applauds PuLSE Institute, Business Leader Pasky

Editor’s Note: Former U.S. ambassador Anne Derse delivered the keynote address on January 10 at The PuLSE Institute to officially launch the Institute’s corporate social responsibility series named after Detroit business leader Cindy Pasky. Pasky is the president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, an international IT staffing company headquartered in the city. Attorney Tina M. Patterson, the president and director of research at the Institute gave the welcome remarks, and the forum was moderated by Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief and dean of the Institute. Below is the full text of ambassador Derse’s speech.

Thank you, Bankole, for the generous introduction.  I am delighted to be with you, Cindy and everyone here tonight to launch the Cynthia J. Pasky Corporate Social Responsibility Series at the PuLSE Institute. Congratulations on this important initiative!

Cindy Pasky, as a corporate leader and engaged citizen, has been a model and an inspiration to me since we first met when I was the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania. We share a passionate commitment to community and public service, which is more important than ever today.  And we also share the belief that our corporate leaders have a very special role to play in this arena. 

Our commitment to service is rooted in the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King’s conviction that all people “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, attired in a single garment of destiny,” and that  “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” And we share Dr. King’s understanding that in this “interrelated structure of reality…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” 

The core truth here, of course, is mutuality – the recognition that we must all care about and contribute to the well-being of one another, and to the well-being of the whole, to the common good, if we are all to thrive.  

What is most inspiring to me about Cindy and S3 is how she and her team, personally, and S3 as a company, have internalized and live out this ethos as corporate leaders. S3 has made support for the well-being of others and the well-being of the community part of its corporate mission and part of its bottom line.

This is reflected in S3’s commitment to focus not just on profit, but to use its power and resources to create jobs and provide people opportunities to succeed and change their lives. And it is reflected in S3’s commitment to giving and community support as a core part, not a sideline, of their business.  As  we recognize here tonight, S3, under Cindy’s leadership, is a model of how corporations can use their power for the common good.

I am delighted that through Cindy I have met Bankole Thompson and the PuLSE Institute here in Detroit.  As I have gotten to know PulSE, it seems very special indeed to me in the world of independent, non-partisan think tanks. Bankole is a passionate advocate in the fight against the poverty and racial and economic inequality that persists in our society, when it should not even be tolerated. He gives respect, voice and agency to those affected.  He calls out without compromise what is wrong in the world, what is right and what must be changed to achieve it. This truly makes Bankole a social prophet, and PuLSE, an increasingly powerful forum for the prophetic voice to be heard.  We need such prophets today!

Through this lecture series, Cindy and Bankole, S3 and PuLSE, are uniting and deploying their corporate and prophetic power to provide leadership and a new forum to spark change and help people. I am honored to join the launch. We need such leadership now!

My own life experience, as both a diplomat and clergy, has convinced me of these truths:  that helping others, recognizing the dignity and equality of every human being and working for the common good, is the reason we are here;  that we all have power, to one degree or another, to promote change; and that it is incumbent on each of us to use our particular power, whether it is great or small, to build and sustain a society in which all can thrive. 

It is when we lose sight of these truths, when false prophets urge us to put ourselves and our selfish interests above all else, no matter what the cost to others, that communities begin to fray, and break down, and people become indifferent or hostile to their fellows –  ignoring, or disrespecting, dehumanizing, even destroying, one another. 

Consider what is happening in America today. 

Our politics have devolved into tribalism, with an authoritarian cast, with some threatening and increasingly employing violence and lies to achieve political ends.  

Our voice through our vote, our very democracy, is at risk, from those who are  putting power and political self-interest ahead of our values and the common good.

A global pandemic menaces us all due to a virus which respects no borders. Yet we fail to cooperate adequately on a global scale to vaccinate everyone, ensuring the virus will continue to circulate, mutate and harm us all.  And here at home, some reject masks and lifesaving vaccines on dubious grounds of individual and even religious rights, ignoring the indisputable costs to everyone else – heresy compounded by lunacy, in the words of conservative commentator Michael Gerson.

Our country today is awash in guns. There are more guns than people within our borders. The scope and toll of gun violence is climbing, with gun deaths hitting the highest rate ever in 2020, even children killing children, with, as yet, no effective response from our government or our society. 

We are still in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning with the destructive legacy of slavery and its continuing costs to our economy, our society and our people. The outcome, frankly, is uncertain. We either come together now to seize this moment, to finally speak and teach clear truth about slavery in our history and  act to change the systems that perpetuate racism and discrimination today; or, we lose it, allowing historic wounds and divisions to fester and undermine our potential as a just, democratic society. 

And as PuLSE correctly highlights, in one of the richest countries in the world, we fail to effectively address the scourge of poverty and its damaging ramifications.   According to the Pew Center, economic inequality has been increasing without interruption since 1980 –  40 years! – as growth in income tilts to upper-income families and the share of aggregate income going to middle and lower-income households shrinks. Economic opportunity and mobility are diminishing, especially for the most disadvantaged – an alarming and politically unsustainable trend. 

This failure to deal effectively with poverty is inexplicable to me, as a religious and former government leader.  It is not only a moral and ethical failure, but certainly one of the most insidious threats to our social and political stability.  How can we expect people to be content when they see no prospect of a better life, no matter how hard they strive? How can we tolerate it as fellow human beings, and fellow citizens? 

It comes as no surprise to people of faith, as well as to observers of human history, that societies, at times, can just lose sight of the basic truth –  the mutuality of human existence.  The imperative of the common good.  Turning in ward, people and societies can just lose their way.  Our scriptures and our history books are full of examples. 

I believe this is happening in our country today.  We are losing our way.  As my Presiding Bishop,  Michael Curry, the first Black Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church said on January 6, “Such a moment demands moral vision that sees beyond mere self-interest and beholds the common good — a spiritual strength stronger than any sword.”  There is an urgent need for all of us who understand that our destinies are inextricably bound to our care for one another, to work together, now, and use our power to stand up, speak out and act to restore the fundamental value of mutuality to our public life.

I believe we can do this. Let me tell you why.

I represented our country and defended its values around the world for 30 years.   I am keenly aware that America has never fully lived up to its ideals, in its history or now. I am nonetheless convinced that the vast majority of us hold those ideals as an inspiration to guide us and as a goal to strive for:   to form a more perfect union. We recognize, as our founders explicitly stated in the Constitution, that this work is never done.   Bishop Curry reminds us when he preaches that, “no, our democracy is not perfect, but it offers the best hope yet devised for government that fosters human freedom, equal justice under the law, the dignity and the equality of every human being made, as the Bible says, in the image of God.” And, he adds, “the preamble to the Constitution wisely reminds us that each generation must continue the evolving work of forming “a more perfect union.” 

In my career as a diplomat, I have lived, worked and visited in countries that do not have such a lodestar before them, and that are vastly less free, vastly less prosperous and vastly less equal than the United States. Yet even in these places, I have seen the tremendous power that people united around a common vision and values committed to the common good can generate to defeat even profound challenges and bring positive change.

On a very grand scale, I think of the reconciliation of bitter former enemies in Europe after WWII, unifying around common democratic principles  and joint economic projects to rebuild and to forge a free and peaceful European Union. Or the People Power movement in the Philippines in 1986 that galvanized millions to peacefully oust a cruel dictator and spur economic and social development in a poor, populous nation. The Baltic Way united the people of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1989 in the Singing Revolution, another massive movement of peaceful resistance, this time to the occupation of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union. The Baltic Way helped spark the collapse of the USSR in 1991, liberating the Baltic nations and allowing their integration into the West. 

On a more personal scale, in my work as a U.S. Ambassador, I learned how using the weight of my office and the influence of the U.S. government to tackle social problems could advance not only our policy goals, but important moral and ethical values:  for example, uniting with Lithuanian women’s groups, sympathetic legislators and many of my diplomatic colleagues from other countries serving in Lithuania to secure passage of a law to criminalize domestic violence  – in a country that had no such law and in which 60 percent of women reported violence in the home.  

Or working to build a coalition with local Lithuanian leaders, Israel and other countries, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and international non-profits fighting anti-semitism to support the efforts of brave Lithuanian leaders who were seeking to acknowledge and provide redress for the terrible legacy of the Holocaust in their country, where over 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during World War II.  

Or working with Cindy Pasky and S3 in several public-private partnerships to help people in Lithuania – one to convince the Lithuanian government to abolish Soviet-era labor market restrictions that stifled job growth and economic opportunity for many while benefitting a few, and another to create the first high school exchange program in Lithuania offering scholarships to the US to qualified students of any background, not just to those from elite schools.

Certainly, such efforts went somewhat beyond the bureaucratic confines of the job.  But they were the right thing to do, and we had the power to do them. So we did.

In my new life as a deacon, there is no question that loving my neighbor, serving the common good and helping others to do the same, is the core responsibility of the job. Engaging the church in the world to serve the vulnerable and the oppressed is the particular charge of the deacon in the Episcopal church, and the reason I became a deacon. 

What has been most inspiring to me in this work, however, particularly in these angry and polarized times, is just how hungry people are for the opportunity to to help others, and for the opportunity to be part of a community that is committed to helping others.  

In the midst of the pandemic, for example, our church built and led a coalition with the local Chamber of Commerce, a major hotel and other local businesses, several non-profits and the County government to begin a free weekly food distribution.  Every Friday, hundreds of cars line up and wait for hours to pick up fresh produce and shelf-stable food. We serve some 400 families a week. But what is most amazing is the extent to which people line up to help us in this work!   Not just people from our congregation, but people from other faith communities, from just around the neighborhood, from local civic and business groups.  When they learn what we are doing, hearing of the program, they flood us with volunteers, cash and other donations to support the effort.  People just want to do good.

Similarly, our church recently launched a modest effort, we thought, to collect donations to help the flood of Afghan refugees suddenly arriving in our neighborhoods, most with little more than the clothes on their backs.  As word spread, my phone rang off the hook. We were astonished to receive mountains of donated goods, clothing and toys and hygiene products, financial contributions and so many offers to help these new neighbors adjust in many different ways.  People just want to help.

I am optimistic, therefore.  Our ideals as a nation –  the equality and dignity of all, the right to liberty and justice, appreciation of strength in diversity – while still unmet, are truly exceptional, in the world and in history. They  are worth constantly striving to achieve – and we must engage ourselves and every generation to work towards them.  And I believe there is inside most people the recognition that our destinies are interlinked, caught up, as Dr. King understood, in the reality that we must care for one another if we all to thrive. 

And this is the foundation on which we can build to repair the network of mutuality in America today.

We need the efforts of everyone and in particular, those with power and resources to use their assets to empower and unite us all to tackle the most serious problems affecting people and communities in our society today.  

We need corporate leadership and responsibility.

Companies, from the smallest mom and pop to the largest corporation, are key actors in our economy and our communities.  What they do will affect us all, for good or for ill.  Companies have human resources. They have financial resources.  They have knowledge, and technology, and organizational skill. They have networks, connections and economic and political power, at one level or another.  They have experienced leaders, and we need them to lead in this endeavor as they do in the economy.  

Take the persistence of poverty, growing economic inequality and declining economic and social mobility, as just one key example. This is a ticking time bomb in our society.  The ability to dream big, whatever one’s social location, to develop one’s potential, work hard, advance and better one’s life is the core of the American dream. It has been the genius of American stability, growth and power for centuries.  It is what helped make us exceptional.  As more and more people are cut off from that dream, they and we will see our potential and our futures thwarted. How much better if we join forces, in the recognition that our destinies are intertwined, and work to change it? 

And there are many other examples.  Climate. Racism. Gun violence. Affordable housing. Educational opportunity. Fair wages. Food insecurity.  And in this very moment, on the heels of the insurrection of January 6, the right to participate freely and fairly in a vibrant democracy. I agree with former President, and man of great faith, Jimmy Carter, who said in his January 6 New York Times Op-Ed, “Corporate America and religious communities should encourage respect for democratic norms, participation in elections and efforts to counter disinformation.” 

So there is great scope to find that particular area in the fabric of our national life where you, as a corporate leader, and your company, can help make a difference, working in partnership with people and communities.

And I want to leave you tonight with that appeal.  I have been blessed to have spent a lifetime in public and community service, and I have seen the good that companies can do.  We need you. I hope that this new speakers series will generate ideas, commitment, and many new and innovative partnerships to make a difference.  It is the right thing to do! 

Thank you!  I welcome your comments and questions.

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