Over the past five years, I have spent most of my days kicking up dust as I walked from field to field visiting farmers in rural Kenya and Ethiopia; but on Sunday, February 23, 2014, I found myself at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Wisdom in Action (WIA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of compassion in action, gathered 51 honorees in San Francisco for a special event called Unsung Heroes of Compassion 2014. The goal of the event was to raise awareness that it is each individual’s obligation to help the disenfranchised among us and to acknowledge that each act of compassion makes an important difference to the world. This was the fourth event of its kind since 2001.
The Dalai Lama, the honored guest, is an outspoken proponent of nonviolence and compassion and the 1989 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In front of 700 guests and live webcast stream to 900 screens around the world, he acknowledged and thanked honorees for their “timeless and universal human goodness.” I was privileged to be selected along with 26 other men and 24 women. Members of our cohort ranged in age from 16 to 85; currently work in 18 countries worldwide; and represent many ethnicities, cultures, faiths and backgrounds.
As I walked across the stage and accepted the award from him, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like an imposter. While I was certainly humbled and honored to receive such an award, I was also keenly aware that I am not deserving of it.
The actual heroes of compassion are truly unseen. They are the women and men whom I fight alongside day in and day out in the war against extreme poverty. The true heroes are leaders like Milka Marwa, Vicky Tissian, Andrew Chacha and Kerario Sinda who risked everything to join Nuru Kenya in 2008 to help lead their communities out of poverty for good. They are women and men of vision like Philip Mohochi, Pauline Wambeti and Bereket Akele who have a country-sized vision for their people to own their own future and provide meaningful choices and hope for those trapped in the worst poverty around their countries. They are women and men on my team from all walks of life in the West who awakened to the horrific injustice of extreme poverty and stepped into the arena – leaving high paying careers and stability behind them.
These are the leaders who persevere through the daily struggles, disappointments, setbacks and crises that make up the realities of this dirty, gritty fight. They are courageous individuals who receive no awards or public recognition for their critical contributions to this fight. To those 350 men and women at Nuru whom I proudly serve next to in the trenches of this fight, I salute you today. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for your relentless pursuit and unfailing hope against staggering odds. You have been the steady light that has guided me and inspired me to persevere on many dark days. You are my inspiration and my heroes of compassion. This award is yours.
To those reading these words, know that becoming a hero is an act of choice. Admiration from afar is not enough. If you haven’t already, I encourage you today to step into the arena and join the ranks of these heroes. Join them in creating a world in our lifetime where no man, woman or child will face the hopeless desperation of a life in extreme poverty. I believe that you can make a world of difference.