Five Truths for Those Who Would Change the World

With a cross-section of Rise winners at the Rise Residential Summit in Cape Town, August 2022

These remarks were delivered by Faith Abiodun, Executive Director of UWC International at the closing ceremony of the Rise Residential Summit, Cape Town – 09/08/2022

What an incredible honour it is for me to be able to spend this evening with you all and to help to celebrate what has clearly been a transformational few weeks for you all. So first of all and above all, congratulations to every single one of you who has been on this wild ride for about the last 20 months, from the rigorous application process, to finding out about your selection, to joining this inaugural cohort, to developing exceptional projects, and finally making it here for this residential summit. I had the great privilege of listening to some of you delivering the lightning talks last night, and I found them very inspiring, insightful, humorous, and endearing. Your journeys so far, your numerous experiences, your ambitions, your courageous actions, your willingness to dare to make a difference – these are the things that set you apart; these are the reasons why you were chosen from such a large pool of 50,000 young changemakers; this is what gives all of us the belief that you are absolutely worth investing in for a lifetime. We are proud of you, we are encouraged by you, and we are absolutely committed to seeing you live out your wildest dreams for the benefit of the world.

So, I know that you have all been extremely busy changing the world together over the last three weeks (snorkelling, kayaking and stuff), and clearly you have not yet had a chance to catch up with what has been happening in the world, so I thought I would start by bringing you up to speed with what’s been going on in the world out there. So, since you’ve been in here:

  1. Beyonce’s new song, Break My Soul, became the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 and smashed several records in the process. This week alone, it has been streamed more than 61.7 million times.
  2. Also, since you’ve been here, the trailer for the new Black Panther movie: Wakanda Forever was released and it gained 172 million views in its first 24 hours.
  3. In other news, since you’ve been here, Will Smith kind of apologised to Chris Rock for “you know what”.
  4. Also, for those of you who aren’t already aware, since you’ve been here, Pete Davidson and Kim Kadarshian have broken up.
  5. And for tennis fans like me, today was a sad day because the incomparable Serena Williams just announced that she will be retiring from tennis after the upcoming US Open. I know, very sad.
With a group of United World Colleges (UWC) alumni at the Rise Residential Summit
With a group of United World Colleges (UWC) alumni at the Rise Residential Summit

But closer to us here, just under 2000km from where we sit, exactly two weeks ago today, a gentleman named Anton Mzimba was shot and killed in front of his house. His wife was shot as well. You may not know his name, but here is the tribute that was paid to him by the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William. He said:

“I’m deeply saddened to learn of the killing of Anton Mzimba. Committed and brave, rangers like Anton are central to the conservation of Africa’s fantastic wildlife. My thoughts are with his family”.

For the last 25 years, Anton Mzimba had undertaken one of the hardest and deadliest jobs in the world – he served on the frontlines of elephant and rhino conservation at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park here in South Africa, and for that, he has made the ultimate sacrifice. He was highly respected and known across the world in the field of conservation for being a stellar ranger and an even better human being. It is reported that he once said:

“I am not shy to say that I’m a hero. Because I know that the poacher, before he shoots at the rhino, is going to shoot at me first.”

These were the words of a man who had found a high calling in life – a purpose so clear that he was willing to lay down his life for what he treasured the most beyond his family. This was a man who knew in his heart of hearts that protecting the most vulnerable in society is one of the highest callings to which we could aspire.

The closest that I have ever come to a more inspiring conservationist was when I had the privilege to tell the story of a young lady named Tiassa Mutunkei, who founded Teens4Wildlife in Kenya, and whose brother, Lesein, is in the hall today – an extremely impressive conservationist in his own right. At the age of 15, Tiassa began to lead a campaign to educate young Africans about the need to fight against the poaching and illegal trade of wildlife on this continent. When I asked her why she was drawn to this cause, she said:

“A lot of people do not know that 96 elephants are being killed every day in Africa and I decided that I will be a voice for these animals. They don’t have a seat at the table, but these elephants are Africans too”.

In one conversation, Tiassa became a ray of hope, a slice of sunshine on an otherwise grim subject.  In one conversation, I was reminded of the incredible power that one motivated young changemaker can have in making the world a better place. In one conversation, I was reminded that darkness will not always prevail in the world as long as there are people who choose to be the light.

So whether your cause is to design a peer tutoring initiative to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies in Zambia like Leah Mtindya; or whether you choose to fight to reverse hunger by pursuing sustainable farming and prototyping a hydroponic system for fruit and vegetable production in Mexico like Valentina Garcia; or whether you choose to channel an extremely personal challenge like kidney failure into a highly successful national campaign for organ donation in the UAE like Pritvik Sinhadc; you have each proven, every single one of you, that you can help to turn the most devastating realities in the world into channels of virtue. Because it is often on the back of tragedy that humanity shines the brightest.

It was on the back of the second World War that the United Nations was formed, and it was on the back of the Cold War and the absolute loss of trust and camaraderie in the USA, Europe and the Soviet Union that a German educator, Kurt Hahn and former British Air Marshall, and NATO Commandant, Lawrence Darvall established Atlantic College in Wales in 1962; their extraordinary actions plus those of several others became the foundation of what is known today as the United World Colleges (UWC), a global movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future – an outstanding international network that I am humbled every single day to serve and to lead. I couldn’t be any prouder to see that several of you in this room are either already UWC students, alumni or incoming first years. For those of you who are about to head off to various UWC schools and colleges in Europe, Asia, the Americas and here in Africa, welcome to the family! Please make the rest of these guys feel jealous for missing out on another life transforming experience.

And so, when I was invited to share this evening with you all, I wondered what I could say that you would find useful as you step into this next phase of your journeys. And after I read most of your bios and found out about your brilliant Rise projects, I wondered even more what I could say to such an accomplished group of people. So, instead of presuming to share some ground-breaking knowledge with you, I would rather remind you of some truths which you already know because simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And I am sharing these thoughts as someone who is only a few steps ahead of you on the ladder of life.

So, here are five simple truths to encourage you as go forward to change the world even more:

Firstly, this is not about you. Each of you has earned your place in this network because of the exceptional things that you have done, and we are so proud of you. But this is not about you. It is about the gifts that have been deposited in you for the benefit of the world. Be proud of yourselves for having come this far, but do not be too proud of yourselves lest you forget that this is really not about you. Many people who have come along this same journey have faded out very quickly like candles in the wind because at some point in their journeys, perhaps they started to believe that it was all about them. Humility is the ability to recognise your opportunities and be thankful for them, while acknowledging your limitations and committing to address them.

Secondly, growth happens in community. Not a single one of you will change the world by yourselves. Don’t try to go on this journey on your own. Lean on the collective strength and wisdom of this group. Look around the room. Many of the people whom you see around you will be the leaders of the world, transforming lives, transforming sectors, and transforming nations. Build true collaborations. In seeking to make the world a better place, both Rise and UWC have recognised that we cannot do this on our own. In working together, we are united in our efforts to find and support young leaders who will help to solve the world’s most pressing issues. We know that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not, so we seek leaders from all backgrounds, all cultures and all continents to meet these challenges. Together we form a formidable global community, which you are now part of.

Thirdly, recognise your moments of obligation. Many years ago, I began to ask myself this question: “Of all the things that I could do, what will I do? Of all the things that I could be, who will I be?” Basically, I wondered, how exactly can I help to make the world a better place? You will have those questions as well. You will have moments of doubt; you will question whether you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Here is what has guided me so far, a simple quote that I discovered many years ago – “Do as much as you can, but do the most what you do the best”. Do as much as you can but pay attention to what brings you the most joy, the most fulfilment, the most results and do them as much as you can. That is where you will identify your moments of obligation – the unique alignment between your skills, your passions and the world’s greatest needs. That could be your true calling.

Fourthly, maintain a healthy dose of optimism and idealism. Envision the world not as it is but as it should be. Be sceptical about challenges, especially the ones that look unsolvable. Resist the urge to be overly cynical about the possibility of change. We do not always know for sure how life will turn out, but we can always trust in our own efforts. There are no blueprints in life; no roadmaps that we all must follow, no playbooks. Former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, once said – “Each of us finds the world that we inherit, but we shape the world that we leave”.

Fifth and finally, never question your ability or preparedness to make a difference. Do not be disheartened by the scale of the challenge ahead of us – it is when the world looks most bleak and bland that the true reformers find their inspiration to imagine and design a better world. If we weren’t ever sick, we would have no appreciation for doctors. If our cars never broke down, we would have no appreciation for automechanics. We have no need to fear hardship or difficulty – they are necessary for us to shine as we were truly intended to do. Lean into your support system and go again and again and again.

With a cross-section of Rise winners at the Rise Residential Summit in Cape Town, August 2022

A famous quote from Margaret Mead reads: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Before I close, today is a special day in South Africa; it is Women’s Day, and I would like to honour the incredible women who have fought to advance the cause of equality in this country, and to celebrate all the amazing women in this programme. Rise is certainly doing something right because 55% of this cohort are women. Congratulations, I am so proud of you all and I am grateful for all that you do to make the world a better place.

I wish you all the best.

Remarks by Faith Abiodun, Executive Director of UWC International at the closing ceremony of the Rise Residential Summit, Cape Town – 09/08/2022