Messinger urges students to act against injustice
American Jewish World Services CEO delivers DEIS Impact keynote
American Jewish World Service CEO and one-time New York City mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger urged Brandeis students to be humble yet unrelenting in their pursuit of social justice around the world during her keynote address at the inaugural DEIS Impact festival Wednesday evening.
Messinger’s speech, to an enthusiastic audience in Sherman Function Hall, centered on the importance of local action as a springboard for global results.
“We have a government whose policies…impact the lives of people all over the world,” Messinger said. “Very often, we are living in a country whose actions…perpetuate cycles of poverty.”
Messinger, who has served as president of AJWS since 1998, stated that AJWS’s goal “is to support every single one of you who believes that things can be better than they are and who is prepared to work toward that end.”
AJWS is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect and regain human rights in the developing world by combating hunger, disease and poverty. The organization provides grants to hundreds of grassroots organizations worldwide to promote global citizenship through activism and education.
Before Messinger’s speech, Brandeis President Fred Lawrence, who had returned only hours before from a trip to India, spoke to the audience about the commitment to social justice exhibited by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the university’s namesake.
“He thought the obligation of a lawyer took him into the world and required him to…leave the world a better place than he found it,” Lawrence said. “I take great strength from thinking about what Louis Brandeis would say about our mission and what he would challenge us to do.”
Messinger frequently returned to her main theme: that each person has the power to do something about human rights issues around the world by taking action in this country.
Messinger noted that Congress still has not passed the International Violence Against Women Act, first introduced in 2010, nor has the United States signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would bar the use of soldiers under the age of 18. She suggested that students could rally and demand that the US government take those steps, which she said would make a difference to people around the world.
Messinger also cautioned the audience to remember that Western nations do not always know how best to help those in need in developing nations. She told a story of well-meaning Westerners building a school that ultimately provided no benefit, since what was really needed were teachers. People know what they need, and we need to listen to them to find out what that is. Similar stories occur all the time, according to Messinger.
Following Messinger’s talk, Larry Simon, a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and a co-founder of AJWS, took the podium and endorsed Messinger’s central points.
“One of the lessons we know is that natural disasters are really not necessarily disasters; they’re natural events,” said Simon. “The disaster element comes about by poor planning [and] by poverty that was already there.” He said that nearly half the people of the world subsist on the amount of money that could buy $2 worth of goods in the United States.
Messinger’s lecture was sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the undergraduate Student Union, as well as the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, and The Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice.
In an interview after the event, Jules Bernstein '57, founder of the Legacy Fund for Social Justice and a major supporter of the inaugural DEIS Impact festival, praised Messinger’s talk.
“Advancing the cause of social justice at Brandeis is a critical part of the university’s being and destiny. And Ruth, as someone who has done so much for so many around the world, is a model for students here to see what people can do. When I was an undergraduate here, lots of people were brought here as such models,” he said. “It is important for Brandeis students to have exposure to people for whom social justice has been their life’s work.”
For more information on DEIS Impact, visit the festival's page.