Maathai Inspires Hope, Courage and Action
There was something that every audience member of the nearly standing-room-only President’s Forum Series lecture felt Thursday night. Like electricity but organic. Something magical but somehow humble, human and humane. Moved by a film chronicling her life, engaged by a dance performance in her native tradition and inspired by her words, the audience was in awe of one person: 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathai P’94, P’96, Sc.D.’94.
“Tonight, we give Dr. Wangari Maathai the Elizabeth Blackwell Award,” said President Mark D. Gearan, honoring Maathai before her President’s Forum Series lecture. “Dr. Maathai is a woman whose life reflects the ideals and achievements of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. These include a determination to break through stereotypes limiting talents and aspirations of women and the dedication of those talents for the betterment of humanity.”
Responding to one of three standing ovations, Maathai said, “I am extremely honored and humbled to receive this award and to be back at Hobart and William Smith.”
Maathai, a parent of a Hobart and a William Smith graduate, accepted the award on its 50th anniversary. The Elizabeth Blackwell Award is given in honor of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman in modern times to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree. In 1958, the first Elizabeth Blackwell Award was presented to Gwendolyn Grant Mellon, a medical missionary and the co-founder of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti, at the 50th anniversary of William Smith College.
During her President’s Forum Lecture, Maathai said, “My journey was similar to Blackwell’s. When I returned to Africa to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, I was the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold a doctoral degree. Like Blackwell, I used this to fight for the rights of women and change people’s idea of what women were capable of doing. In my case, it was the rights of women at the University of Nairobi and the countryside women suffering from deforestation.”
“You have to understand, when I first started planting trees, I had no intention of starting a movement,” Maathai said. “I was starting a project. I was responding to the needs of African women in the countryside whose basic needs were taken away by a degraded state of the environment. So when they asked me what we could do about it, I said, ‘Well, we can plant trees.'”
“Along with learning how to plant trees, I also learned that it’s impossible to be at peace with each other as people if we don’t respect the diversity within every community on earth,” Maathai said. “We must manage our resources sustainably, transparently, equitably and accountably with the consideration that we are a passing cloud on this planet.”
That idea became the seed for what soon became the Green Belt Movement, an organization devoted to conserving the environment and improving the quality of life for African women. A movement that has changed the course of history.
“Since Wangari planted her first tree in her backyard when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, 6,000 village-based tree nurseries – run entirely by women – have revitalized the soil, the economy and the pride of Kenyans. Since that initial act in her backyard, more than 40 million trees have been planted, 100,000 jobs have been created and the Green Belt Movement has spread to more than 30 countries.”
From her perspective on global activism, Maathai turned her attention to her children’s alma mater: Hobart and William Smith. “I cannot compliment Hobart and William Smith enough on its efforts in environmentalist and climate change,” Maathai said. “You are teaching as you do, and other colleges will surely learn by your example.” “I encourage the students of Hobart and William Smith to get involved, to develop your interest in community service,” Maathai said.
“I am confident that you don’t truly know yourself until you become involved in serving others. I have found the most rewarding thing you can do in life is to go above and beyond yourself.” “We should all take a lesson from flowers as well as tress,” Maathai added.
“They never stop blooming; they are always giving their best. Although it’s easy for any of us to become overwhelmed by the frustrations on T.V. and the radio, we should remember the flower. We should just bloom.”