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Whitney M. Young, Jr. Living Legacy Award

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Whitney M. Young, Jr. Health Center Annual Awards Dinner
Albany Marriott Hotel
Albany, New York

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

It is, indeed, a deep honor and a high privilege to be awarded — and to accept — the Whitney M. Young Jr. Living Legacy Award. Whitney M. Young, Jr. lived, advocated, and appealed to the finest aspects of the human spirit, and his life's work reflects that spirit and that excellence.

This honor touches me because it is offered by an institution — The Whitney M. Young Jr. Heath Center — which earns its own Whitney M. Young, Jr. Living Legacy Award each and every day.

Your mission — over 33 years of providing "safety-net" health services to the community, especially to families, without regard to income — gives life and substance each day to the legacy of this distinguished American.

Thank you very much for including me in this way.

The legacy of Whitney M. Young, Jr. casts a very bright light — a light which, perhaps, not even he fully understood, or was able to foresee. That light continues as a beacon to all of us, and has lived in his accomplishments long after his passing. This is what a living legacy means.

While I, certainly, do not need to retell his story among this group, nevertheless, it is by telling and retelling our stories that we understand our history, and keep alive the best of the human spirit. And it is how the legacy continues to live from one generation to the next.

So, let me give my version.

Whitney M. Young, Jr. grew up in a two-story wooden house on the campus of the Lincoln Institute of Kentucky, where his father taught. He graduated from Kentucky State College in 1941, and joined the army. Although he had intended to study medicine and become a doctor, World War II caused his life to take a different turn. He had been assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. After just three weeks, he was promoted from private to first sergeant, creating hostility on both sides. The situation catapulted him into a career in race relations.

After the war, Whitney M. Young, Jr. entered the University of Minnesota and earned a Master's degree in social work, and shortly thereafter, began his association with the National Urban League. In 1954 he was named dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. He held the post until 1961, when he rejoined the National Urban League (NUL), which, under his guidance, rose to national prominence.

As executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young Jr. focused on gaining equality for African Americans in business and politics, and advocated for improved conditions and opportunities for the urban poor. He appealed to corporate leaders to support job programs, low-income housing, and education for African Americans. This was a matter, he said, of both a moral imperative and enlightened self-interest. He proposed a "Domestic Marshall Plan" — to address the country's racial issues, and advised Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon on race relations.

His succinct comment about his role as National Urban League leader was that "someone has to work within the system to change it."

An expert negotiator, a pioneer, a quiet hero, a trailblazer, he often worked behind the scenes, through the system — negotiating, finding common ground, appealing to reason. He set the stage for those who would follow, laying a foundation for African Americans who found opportunity and achieved.

He was ahead of his time.

As an early proponent of collaboration with Corporate America, he laid the ground work for that which we are beginning to see now — because, as our world is growing increasingly global, our national economy and our general safety and wellbeing are increasingly dependent upon our capacity for innovation. This is raising the value of diversity to American competitiveness, especially in the corporate sector.

The efforts of Whitney M. Young Jr. helped the unfolding of my own life, and the lives and careers of so many others of my generation, although we may not fully have understood the extent of his influence at the time.

My own career is the result of a convergence of events which influenced my early education. The first was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year. This single decision, which declared that it was against the law of the land to segregate public schools, enabled me to attend the local public school in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Prior to that, I had to attend a primary school miles from my home. I was tested, assigned to an advanced track — essentially an accelerated program — and, my education unfolded accordingly.

The second event took place three years later on October 4th, 1957. This was the launch of the Soviet space craft Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. It was tiny by today's standards — about the size of a basketball; it weighed just over 180 pounds, and its orbit around the Earth took 98 minutes.

Sputnik was a spectacular technological achievement, which took the American public by surprise and was a direct challenge to our national capacity. It quickly plunged the nation into new political, military, technological, and scientific developments and endeavors.

The U.S. government rapidly expanded the U.S. space program, then in its infancy, and invested in support for educating scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists, creating new scholarships and fellowships for those who aspired to careers in science and engineering. The corporate sector followed suit.

As I graduated high school and began work on my advanced degrees at M.I.T. (with a scholarship from the then Martin Marietta Corporation and, later, other awards), I received the benefit of that kind of financial support, as did many others, making it possible for us to develop our talents, and to pursue and to realize our interests in science and mathematics.

This convergence of events — the desegregation of public schools and the science/space race spawned by Sputnik — not only spurred the career of one African-American woman, but it contributed, substantially, to the scientific and engineering achievements of the past four or five decades. The development of life-transforming technologies including nuclear power, microprocessors, lasers and fiber optics, imaging technologies, high performance materials, the Internet, and space craft and exploration — are the tangible testaments to the value and merit of the investment in talented young people.

Everyone of us, today, inherits this world, and all of its benefits. And, many of them are the tools which you employ as the Health Center provides care to the people of this community.

When I was preparing to speak with you this evening, I reviewed material about the Health Center, its program, and how it has evolved. Several things caught my eye. It is clear that the legacy of Whitney M. Young Jr. is incorporated into and lives in the program. The Center provides community health care, but also invests in employees, through mentoring, training, and staff development to encourage them to leverage their skills and talents, and to create their own economic opportunity. Another example is "centering pregnancy" — supportive groups for pregnant women to build a community for pregnancy, birth, and parenting.

Whitney M. Young Jr. believed that improving life for the least among us enhances the quality of life for all, and that investment across the full spectrum of fronts is the most effective. The four core values he espoused, and on which the Living Legacy award is based — reducing barriers to healthcare, academic and intellectual achievement, affordable housing and economic opportunity — are embedded and expressed in the Health Center program. This is how you make a difference. This is how you change the world.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is involved in much the same thing.

Rensselaer is in the midst of a Renaissance — a transformation which is building on our legacy and propelling the Institute to the top tier of research universities. We are well along toward our goal of hiring 140 new faculty — 73 of them into new positions so far. Our target is 100 net new positions. Student quality, numbers, and diversity are steadily improving. We have new programs in place to help our students succeed at Rensselaer, and become community citizens engaged in the surrounding areas. With new emphasis on the importance of research to teaching, we have doubled annual research funding from $45 million five years ago to $90 million this year.

You can see tangible evidence of this Renaissance in the changing landscape of the campus. We are upgrading and renovating athletic facilities, student residences, laboratories and classrooms, improving and enlarging our infrastructure, and are engaged in two major new projects.

Last month, we formally opened the new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. This remarkable building will support Rensselaer's growing research program in emerging fields of biotechnology. The Center ranks among the world's most advanced facilities focused on the application of engineering and the physical and information sciences to the life sciences. Research in these areas promises breakthroughs which will lead to new medical treatments and drug delivery through our work with biocatalysis and metabolic engineering. Stem cell research and protein folding hold out great hope for treatments for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease and heart failure, and spinal cord injury.

Another world-class building — the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or (EMPAC) — is taking shape along 8th Street. EMPAC, and its programs, bring a new element to Rensselaer — creativity at the nexus of the arts, sciences, technology, and the imagination. The center, which will open in 2007, will enrich campus life, and serve as a major cultural space and resource for the Capital Region. It will support the classical and contemporary performing arts, and projects and research in acoustics, simulation, animation and visualization.

In addition to improving the university, these projects are investments in the City of Troy and in the Capital Region, bringing new jobs, economic benefit, and new energy to the area. Rensselaer has an economic impact on the Capital Region of $395 million, and provides 3,100 jobs. When you add the impact of university operations and student spending, it jumps to $428 million. And, this does not include construction spending, which results in an additional $65 million annually.

We also invest in neighborhood revitalization, with a variety of programs. One offers grants to homebuyers who purchase a home in targeted neighborhoods, as long as the buyers commit to making the home their primary residence for at least five years. Another, in partnership with the City of Troy and neighborhood associations, provides funds to income eligible residents to bring their home up to code. A third program, another partnership, acquired housing rehabilitation grant funds from the Federal Home Loan Bank to make home repairs to low income homeowner occupants. And students, our greatest resource, have formed a chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and have just finished their first house in the neighborhood near our campus, with plans for four more houses over the next four years.

These programs are part of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Living Legacy.

We have been speaking tonight about a legacy of leadership — the leadership exhibited by a distinguished American who left a legacy for us to carry forward. Before I end, I would like to tell you a little about the leadership and courage of a woman who, just this week, was named the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her name is Dr. Wangari Maathai, and she is the first African woman to receive the award.

A native of Kenya, Dr. Maathai is a human rights and environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization comprised mainly of women, which has planted about 30 million trees across Africa to counteract the devastating effects of deforestation.

She received bachelor's and master's degrees in the United States, followed by doctoral work in Germany and at the University of Nairobi. In 1971, she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate. She subsequently joined the faculty of the University of Nairobi, and became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy five years later. When her husband ran for parliament in the 1970s, she became involved in social and political issues, and in 1977, she abandoned a promising academic career to found the Green Belt Movement.

By all accounts, Dr. Maathai is an imposing, outspoken, brave woman who has struggled in the courts for most of the past 20 years to block forest clearing. Political activism in Africa can be a dangerous business, particularly for a woman. In the 1980s, her husband left her and was awarded a divorce on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."

Perhaps those are characteristics we should add to our list of leadership attributes, because she has needed all of them. She has been teargassed, jailed for leading protests, clubbed unconscious by riot police, and received anonymous death threats. In 1998, she and other members of the Green Belt Movement were severely beaten for attempting to plant trees in Karura Forest outside Nairobi. From her hospital bed she vowed to return.

Undaunted, she has called these "God-sent troubles," saying "others told me that I shouldn't have a career, that I shouldn't raise my voice, that women are supposed to have a master, that I needed to be someone else. Finally, I was able to see that if I had a contribution . . . to make, I must do it, despite what others said. [I was able to see that] I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong."

In 2002, Dr. Maathai was elected to parliament and subsequently was appointed assistant minister for environment, natural resources and wildlife. But forest clearance continues, and she recently suggested that she would resign from the government if it does not stop.

At home in the town of Nyeri near Mt. Kenya when she heard that she had won the Nobel Prize, Dr. Maathai first thought it was a joke. Then she wept, and finally, while a reporter from Reuters watched, she removed her jewelry, got down on her hands and knees and planted a seedling of an indigenous Kenyan tree in celebration.

Dr. Wangari Maathai is a scientist, an activist, a crusader, a Nobel Prize winner, a leader. She possesses all of the attributes I mentioned earlier: vision, dedication, passion, intelligence, persuasiveness, organizational ability, courage, self-possession, focus, flexibility, stamina, confidence, integrity, a sense of humor.

The world needs men and women of courage and conviction, educated in the sciences and humanities, and equipped to lead. We at Rensselaer work to do that. You at the Whitney M. Young Jr., Health Center work to do that. You have large responsibilities, here, and there are many who are counting on you. You have chosen to shoulder those responsibilities and, thereby, lead. Leadership, combined with knowledge and experience, create a powerful force for change, and a strong force for good.

Dr. Maathai, and the work she is doing, has given the world and given us the message that it is OK to be strong.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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