Non-Binary Truths: Embracing a global future

May 13th, 2019   |   SIT Graduate Institute

SIT alumna Meghan Audette of UNRWA was the keynote speaker for SIT's 53rd commencement on May 11, 2019, in Brattleboro, Vermont,

Commencement address by Meghan Audette, Deputy Director, West Bank, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees

May 11, 2019

School for International Training

Brattleboro, Vermont

Thank you. President Howlett, Dean Williams, honored guests, faculty, staff, and students, it is truly an honor to be here today to celebrate today’s graduates. This is especially poignant for me as SIT is a family affair: I met my daughter’s father at SIT, and my brother and his wife are also alumni.

In the words of Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

I was reminded of this in August 2014, when I was sent by UNRWA to the Gaza Strip during a ceasefire. I had worked in Gaza for several years previously, and looked around with mounting alarm as we passed places I had known, now barely recognizable following both ground and air offensives. As we disembarked at an UNRWA school being used as a collective shelter for displaced people, my throat was dry as I gazed at the thousands of people who had gathered there. Classrooms like the ones I knew so well from less troubled times, walls gaily decorated with cartoons and learning materials, now housed mattresses on which whole families had slept and ate their meals for weeks. In one such room I met a woman who had returned three days earlier from giving birth, lines of pain and sleeplessness etched in her face. The gulf between her existence and mine opened up before me, and I hesitated, wondering how I could possibly ask my questions in a way that would not seem insensitive.

I said the first thing I could think of: “What a beautiful daughter you have. What do you call her?” And we were off, conversing easily about how much weight the baby had gained, how other families tried to give her privacy to feed her daughter in the shelter, how the UN staff had visited to help her care for the baby in this strange temporary world into which she had been born. I cannot say I have found a rule book for how to handle such interactions, no magic recipe for forming connections. But time and again, I have come back to these three things: be willing to listen, strive to be ethical, and fair, and however angry or vulnerable, treat people with the love and care that I would hope to receive if roles were reversed.

Before coming to SIT, I had worked with survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, in what I thought would be a year break from my “real life.” Instead, listening to powerful stories of survival and seeing firsthand the incredible changes that can be wrought when aid workers and those affected by disaster can work together, I was blessed to find a vocation. I also realized that I lacked the skills I needed to do justice to the remarkable determination of the people with whom I had worked.

I knew I needed a program that would give me not just theory and ideas, but practical skills that I could bring to working with people seeking to create a better life for themselves and their families. Like many of you, I was drawn to SIT because of the combination of theory and practice into praxis-based learning, which seemed an ideal way to build skills like proposal writing, strategic planning, and delivery of trainings and workshops.

An SIT education not only gives you the tools to be the best international practitioner you can be, but also to be the best version of yourself you can be while doing so.

What I could not have foreseen was that my SIT experience would be all that and more: a program that draws people with heart and the drive to put their ideas into practical use. Certainly, I learned practical skills that I continue to use to this day. But what I have found much more valuable about my education here was that the focus is not just on skills: an SIT education not only gives you the tools to be the best international practitioner you can be, but also to be the best version of yourself you can be while doing so. Classes like Foundations, where students are encouraged to critically look at their own skills and weaknesses, and how these can impact teams. Classes like Intercultural Communications that explore notions of bias and privilege in a way that has been as fundamental to shaping my career as program planning and project design.

The SIT experience impresses upon you at every opportunity that everyone has a story to tell and skills to share, and that valuable feedback can come through many channels. Even the non-academic aspects were an opportunity to explore diversity in meaningful ways, and the phrase “lean into your discomfort” challenged students, staff, and professors alike to think deeply about why diverse discourse is at times uncomfortable, and to move past that discomfort to a deeper level of understanding of our world, our cultures, and ourselves. There are many excellent programs that will teach you skills, but few that will hone your heart and ground you while doing so, and yet these are the skills that mean the difference between success and failure in the fields that we have chosen.

Graduates, you are leaving SIT at a time when the world deeply needs these skills. We are all aware that humanity is facing unprecedented global challenges in the form of climate change, late stage capitalism, a resurgence of ethnocentrism in many parts of the world, and waves of refugees caused by these factors and more. The United Nations estimates there are 68.5 million displaced people in the world today, or more than the entire population of the United Kingdom. While I have been speaking, more than 200 people have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution. The numbers overwhelm our minds and hearts, and yet the true story of refugees does not come from their numbers, but from their stories: their hopes, their cultures, the traditions they maintain, the stories of journeys that have taken them to places they often never expected.

These challenges have the potential to fundamentally re-shape our planet and human society in a way that has us all reeling as we contemplate increasingly divisive geopolitics at a time when the future of the world as we know it depends on our ability to find common ground and unite together to profoundly reengineer the global framework. Far too often, discourse is shaped into binary opposites: You can be a Remainer or a Leaver, anti- or pro-vax, a climate change denier or believer, believe refugees should be welcome or not. The implication in all of these dyads being that opinions are best kept to polar opposites, so that we know who is with us and against us.

Such thinking is both dangerous and inaccurate. To combat global challenges, it is our shared humanity that must prevail. We must find ways of overcoming binary thinking, to appreciate difference rather than treating it as a stumbling block to connection. In short, graduates, the world needs more people like you who are willing to lean into their discomfort and appreciate the diverse beauty of humankind. In Innocence Abroad, American author Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Whether your career spans the globe or brings those from afar close to home, your SIT experience has taught you that discourse need not be undertaken with the objective of agreement—that binary truths only exist in mathematics and the mouths of divisive politicians. The world is not divided into “us” and “them”, male and female, rich and poor. Instead, through travel and cross-cultural discourse, we are enriched by our exposure to views and cultures different from our own, to seek to appreciate the other rather than to vilify it.

We cannot wait for the world to change for us; we must become the agents of change the world needs to guarantee the future of a human society based on the values of inclusivity and dialogue, for only these can form the basis for addressing crises beyond the scope of one nation or people to address.

As concerned global citizens, we have no time for complacency, or to wait for the world to assume a less forbidding shape. We cannot wait for the world to change for us; we must become the agents of change the world needs to guarantee the future of a human society based on the values of inclusivity and dialogue, for only these can form the basis for addressing crises beyond the scope of one nation or people to address.

It might feel that these challenges are overwhelming, and the situation is hopeless. But time and again, I have been amazed at the incredible resolve that people show in the face of adversity. Activist Shaun King noted, “Listen, real leaders do exist. And you learn who they are under pressure, in turmoil.” We have witnessed such an example in recent days, in the inspirational response of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden to the horrific attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. “You are us,” she said, addressing mourners, “We feel grief, we feel injustice, and we share that with you.” It has been reported when global leaders called her to ask what their nations could do to support, her response was, “Sympathy and love, for all Muslim communities.”

Whether we are activists or teachers, politicians or practitioners, we all have the ability to listen, and express the sympathy that I believe can lead us through the challenges that lay before us, for to truly sympathize with another makes oppression of that group unfathomable. None of us can always personify our sympathetic best, but we must strive to do so, and accept our mistakes with humility and the desire to learn from them. The future of humanity may depend on it.

Back in Gaza that day in 2014, I handed back the baby who had somehow migrated to my arms, and thanked her mother for her time. The woman, sitting on her thin mattress, rocking her baby, sighed, "I'm sorry. I can't offer you tea. No tea, and you've come all this way." I glanced around the classroom, trying to divert her from her inability to be the hostess she wanted to be. “I didn’t catch your daughter’s name,” I said. She broke into a large smile: “Farrah,” she replied, meaning hope in Arabic.

If a refugee living in a makeshift shelter with her newborn can find reasons to hope, then we can, too.

Thank you.