by Lindy Li
Keynote address to the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations
Once this Summit ends and we depart this chamber of hope, we will return to our everyday lives, the everyday grind. The hustle and bustle may make us forget our determination to do things differently. So the same problems will persist. The same intractable issues will anchor us down. And so the status quo continues. Unless … we dare to be truly brave. Because in our increasingly interwoven world, nothing is ever someone else’s problem. We may not have all the solutions, but whatever the answer is, it cannot be a lie, or feel-good soundbites that lull us into a sense of having done something meaningful.
Our world needs you to care, your loved ones need you to act today. Mother Teresa reminded us that we can all do small things with great love. A teacher who went above and beyond to show you that you matter. The uncommonly kind stranger who turned out to be an uncommonly loyal friend. The person you never expected to love, who managed to alter the tenor of your life within the span of a single afternoon. Angels come in all guises. And although forces beyond your control may separate you from whom you love, because of their presence in your life, you are forever changed.
Our society is suffering from a severe case of short-termism, a you’ll be gone, I’ll be gone mentality that is a reckless disregard for the future. One of the most important lessons my parents ever taught me (Mama and my friends from Chester and Berks Counties, Pennsylvania, I see you! Thanks for traveling 10,000 leagues to be here today.). One of the most important lessons was to eat my vegetables first, do my homework first, go to the gym first, before indulging in the finer things in life. Imagine if we could do this on an international scale. Imagine reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to a sustainable economy in order to preserve the wondrous beauty of America. Or finally fixing our roads and bridges before procrastination catapults our infrastructure costs into the stratosphere.
Applying one Band-Aid on top of another does nothing to heal the gaping wound underneath. Instead of seeking to reform our tax code by balancing one loophole against another within the thousands of pages of bureaucracy, we should start from scratch. Let me take you back to the start. Let us go together.
What’s the point of having piles of cash if you don’t even have clean air to breathe? I think the most heartbreaking aspect of modern democracy is that many citizens don’t think their actions or votes even matter. But I’ve always believed that the accumulation of many small actions makes a tremendous and powerful difference.
I’ve always been the strange person going around the building turning off the lights in empty rooms, your modern day phantom of the opera, lurking about in the shadows. Or the girl who used to wade through the trash at school in order to salvage what can be recycled. I do this because I believe that actions matter and am frustrated when people leave their windows open in the dead of the winter, while the heat is on full blast. Or when my beloved Americans don’t bother to show up at the polls because they don’t think their voices matter. A heavy sense of responsibility is part of every fiber of my being, but I also realize that asking you to do your part can only go so far. The most effective way to get people to do something is by incentivizing them and unleashing the forces of competition. This is an age-old idea, famously immortalized by Adam Smith and his invisible hand. The force of competition is what drives innovation, sending down the price of renewable energy and raising worker productivity.
If 300 million Americans went around their own buildings and turned off the lights in empty rooms, can you just imagine the amount of energy and money we could save? If 300 million Americans pressed our politicians to do something about how we’ve institutionalized bribery and injured our democracy with money and corruption, can you envision how enormous our impact would be? If our elected officials treated taxpayer money as if it were their own, can you picture how much we would reduce government waste? Too often perception is reality. The whiff of corruption can be enough to taint institutions and public officials beyond redemption.
People have it backwards nowadays. Politicians are always dialing for dollars and asking for this or that favor. But public servants by definition serve. The perennial question should always, always be: what can I do for you? How can I brighten your life?
Experience is the greatest teacher of empathy. I wish I could hold onto the feeling of uncertainty that I had felt when a job wasn’t on the horizon and the one that I had was quickly receding from grasp. Summoning that emotion, I can feel the gnawing pain of a jobseeker. How can public servants serve if they don’t feel as the people feel? I can lead because I have suffered. I can serve because I have failed.
When failure was still a sword hanging by a thread over my head, still a specter but not yet a reality, I thought that I would be paralyzed by sadness. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it through each and every day if victory were yanked from my grasp.
What I didn’t know was just how strong I was. This whole ordeal strengthened my belief in the incredible and deathless strength deep in each of us, when we are pushed to the limits of what we think we can endure. Yes, today when people tell me that they’re sorry, I still wince in pain — I’m trying to move on, so there’s no point in rehashing old wounds. Everyone fails, but not everyone emerges stronger and wiser. It’s important how we are reborn.
If someone were to ask you to assemble the most unlikely candidate for the United States Congress, you would probably have come up with someone like me: a first-generation, non-native speaker, 25-year-old, Chinese-American woman who came to this country with her parents with just a few hundred dollars. Like many of yours, my story is one of transcending limitations, the journey of a young woman trying to find her way in this often cruel world, someone who believed so strongly in her calling to serve others that she was willing to cast aside all certainty and to risk it all for a lifelong dream. That, my friends, is American audacity. Let this be the enduring legacy of our time.