Remarks at the 2016 Social Good Summit

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Sophia Bush
New York City
September 18, 2016


MS. BUSH: Well, hi.


MS. BUSH: It’s very exciting to be here with you, my friend and idol. I'm just going to kick right into it for all of you guys. I did make some notes because I didn’t want to misquote you. You gave this incredible –

AMBASSADOR POWER: Never stops anybody.

MS. BUSH: Well, I was a journalism student. I still have a little integrity. You gave this incredible speech at Yale’s graduation last year. And one of the things that I found just so touching and interesting was that you actually said that when you were a student watching the news from Tiananmen Square, it was really a lightning bolt moment for you. You said that it made you feel that you needed to be all in for something to change your little slice of the world and that that’s where really your theory of getting close was born, where it started to gestate.

And now, obviously, myself and everyone here in this room knows about your incredibly impressive career, being our United States Ambassador to the UN and also being a member of President Obama’s Cabinet. We find ourselves in a time where the issues we’re facing can feel very insurmountable. And you press on. From all of the places that you’ve lived and committed to and as a public servant and as a wife and a mother, you – you find this sort of resilience to keep going. And I wonder if you can share with everyone where that comes from.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. Thank you. Thank you for doing this. And thanks to everybody for wanting to change their little slice of the world. I don’t think people would be tuned in on a sunny Sunday if they weren’t already motivated in some sense.

I guess the idea of getting close, I think, speaks to me because so often the challenges that we face, as daunting as they are, can feel just remote, intimidating, abstract. At the UN, many of the issues that we’re confronting today, like the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, have been with us in some fashion, in some form, for a long time. The Syrian war, which probably has more suffering per square inch than any other conflict going right now, has been with us for five years.

And so how do you every day give some cause a second chance to make a first impression, right? Where people are just numb almost by everything they’re seeing, by every day a new story of a group of migrants getting on a ship and trying to get from North Africa to Italy or beyond in Europe and everything we saw out of Turkey and to Greece and beyond.

So for me, the idea of getting close means getting beyond those abstractions – trying to at least – and distilling what is happening to individual stories. And for me in my job, that’s always been about when the Ebola crisis strikes, seeing if we can get a plane to go to West Africa when politicians here are talking about closing down the borders to show that you can interact with people from the region and reach out to people in the region and not come back with Ebola. And, actually, the only way we are going to deal with Ebola is to deal with it in the region anyway. The refugee crisis – to do what you’ve done, which is to go out to the refugee camps to hear people’s stories firsthand. This spring, having been so horrified by what happened with Boko Haram, not just the Chibok girls, but so many boys and girls who have been abducted and kidnapped, to go right to northern Nigeria and to northern Cameroon and to Chad and to meet with families who have been affected by Boko Haram, meet with the family members of the Chibok girls, meet, actually, survivors of the attempt to take even more girls – girls who are now in university and dedicating themselves to going back to Chibok to actually help their communities.

So when you have all of that, and then the challenge is – it’s one thing for you to see it, but how do you bring it back into a bureaucracy, whether a government, like the one I have the privilege of representing, or the UN? And we actually just try to bring people from the region into the Security Council. For example, we have been talking about ISIL, of course, for two years. I mean, it doesn’t get more horrifying than what ISIL does. But I think until we brought with us Nadia, who some of you know, Murad, who has now just been named the Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. So now she is this amazing –

MS. BUSH: Amazing. [Applause]

AMBASSADOR POWER: – global figure.

MS. BUSH: No doubt.

AMBASSADOR POWER: But to us, she was someone who – we went looking to see how we could we bring home the stakes of what ISIL was doing in terms of its enslavement of people, and talked to a number of people who – who had gone through horrific experiences. And Nadia was somebody who really wanted to come forward. And so last year in December, she spoke before the Security Council, and it was only in that meeting, honestly, with all of the horrors that ISIL had perpetrated, that I felt like the bubble was punctured – as she talked about her year in enslavement; as she talked about watching her siblings getting executed before her; and then just talked about her determination to be a witness for those who were still left under ISIL’s grip.

So to me, getting close is about going out and making sure you understand the human consequences of your decisions and your non-decisions, but also trying to bridge those divides of abstraction and – and people’s – when something has gone on a long time, people do lose their sense that they can make a difference, and to remind people that every day, we are deciding anew what we’re prepared to risk and put in motion.

MS. BUSH: And I’d imagine that when you’re sitting there at the UN and you’re looking over these reports, these pages and pages of information, it’s a lot of data. We hear a lot of data about the number of refugees currently in the world. We hear the statistic that 51 percent of those refugees are children. But I would imagine that actually having Nadia there in the room, you‘re able to demystify the data in a way. We were talking about this earlier – how a human being whose eyes you can look in and recognize and whose pain you can feel when your empathy turns on, you really begin to have their personal experience. And you long for it and are willing to fight for their personal wellbeing. And I’d imagine that when you feel that shift happen in a place like the UN, you are like, “Yeah.” [Laughter]

AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah. And I wish it would happen more often.

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR POWER: I mean, look, everybody also – we see this in our lives, but it happens at the highest levels. We all have our alibis. It’s the problem is too intractable or some big power won’t allow you to do this or that. One of the things we did when the Syrian Government was using chemical weapons routinely against its people is we brought two doctors from Syria who’d been treating the victims of chlorine attacks. And there’d been all this denial that the Syrian government was carrying out these chlorine attacks. And then you just had the doctor speaking in this clinical – so actually with data, with photographs, with videos. And those countries that had been defending this government, there was nothing they could say. They were seeing – seeing these children who had been frozen as if in porcelain with no cuts or no anything but killed by these chlorine attacks. And in the wake of that, for the first time, we were able to actually put in place a mechanism to identify the perpetrators of those attacks.

Ridiculously, the UN system had – had – has always had a – the OPCW, which recognizes and looks into the fact of whether chemical weapons have been used, but there had never been a body to look at who had used them. And so now we are pushing for that body to be very specific about potential perpetrators.

MS. BUSH: Wow.

AMBASSADOR POWER: But again, you can draw only a faint line between the session where people were actually confronted with the witnesses. You know, you can say, “Oh, the doctors are making it up from far away.” But when they are right there and they are walking you through their patients, showing you a picture, it is very hard to look away.

And on refugees, one of the things that President Obama is going to do this week at his last General Assembly, sadly, is he is putting refugees at the center of his time here. On Tuesday, he’s convening a meeting with Secretary Pritzker and Valerie Jarrett, who have done so much with the private sector on so many important social causes, but a meeting with CEOs who are going to make commitments about what they are going to be doing, new and significant commitments about what they are going to be doing to support refugees, whether that’s hiring refugees when they come to this country or any other, using their unique assets to help refugees get access to capital, using their unique assets if they do education online, technology to ensure that since more than half of Syrian refugees – more than half of Syrian child refugees are out of school –

MS. BUSH: Right.

AMBASSADOR POWER: – to try to use those technologies to ensure that those kids get access at least to online education and that it’s appropriately tailored given that many of them don’t speak English when they get there for the first time. So having these corporate executives also stepping up and speaking out and lending their brands and their – the integrity of their own efforts to the cause of helping refugees, I think also may help us get – at least put a dent in some of the politicization of the issue I think that has gone on too much.

MS. BUSH: Right. And I think what happens to so many people who look at the issue is they assume that they don’t have enough of a voice to do something about it or maybe they’re not old enough with enough sort of power in their life. And something that I truly believe in is talking to young people about how they have a voice now and they have those opportunities now and they don’t have to wait until they’ve created one of these businesses or they have all of the manpower behind them. But how interesting that even in looking at businesses you can support, you can say, “Oh, this company is supporting refugees. This company is marrying this really beautiful moment in technology and access to make sure we do not lose an entire generation of people to this conflict.” And those are companies that you can go out and support. You can volunteer in your own communities and begin to give back in whatever way is accessible to you right now. And that’s something that I'm hoping a summit like this can really encourage people to do.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah, completely. I mean, I would say a couple of things. One of my favorite expressions is never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR POWER: When I meet with young people now, I still tell myself I’m on the younger side. But then I realize that my formative events, they were like five years before they were – high school students now were born. And so I was like, “Yeah, when I graduated high school, here’s how I” – they’re looking at me like this Martian. [Laughter.] But they – but it’s harder as you get older to remind young people that you were just like them, that you were searching.

You mentioned Tiananmen Square and seeing that massacre in 1989, June of 1989. I was – all I had wanted to be was a sportscaster before then probably. And I was taking notes on a Braves-Padres game, and I saw the footage live at the CBS affiliate I was working at as an intern, just as a – just after my freshman year in college. And I had exactly that thought that young people have today, which is – initially – which was, “I can’t do anything about it.” I mean, that is – I was transfixed. I was horrified. I wanted to help and I thought what I was doing was not as important as what could be done in the world to support people who are standing up for their rights. But the thought that I could do anything about it was so absurd and so arrogant and presumptuous, you know?

So I do think what you’re describing of that, and even today when – especially now that I get to sit every day before the placard that says “The United States of America,” the idea that I would also be having doubts and thinking through can I get this done or can I make a difference? They only – people only look at the box score. When you’ve achieved what you ultimately set out to achieve or not, the sort of process and the doubts are there at every stage of life. And starting small, getting close – there are so many communities where refugees are really struggling right now. If you go down – if you live in New York and go to one of the IRC offices or the Church World Service office, you will see people who have just arrived, and they’re struggling – they don’t have their driver’s licenses, they’re struggling to learn English, they’re trying to get accredited to schools here using paper that sometimes is battered and rained on and may not have paper at all. A helping hand is such a gratifying thing to offer, and to be a part of helping one of those families. And then, of course, when one has that experience, as you’ve had, then you become a proselytizer and you bring others in. And I can’t tell you – I’m sure many of you feel this way: I have so many friends who, particularly when you see children who are drowning trying to – with their parents – trying to get them a better life, all that people that I meet want to do is find a way to do their part and feel that paralysis and that sense that 65 million, it’s too big. It’s too much. What can I do? And yet there really are partner organizations that are right there that would lap up the support.

And I’ll give you one little snippet. At the – last fall, when the refugee crisis was rightly at the center of the news after Aylan Kurdi died trying to cross the waters, like very many others, of course, I went to just drop by one of the International Rescue Committee offices and I was walking through the office and it looked kind of – I don’t want to say run down, but kind of disorganized. There were just boxes and stuff everywhere. And I asked the person who was guiding me around the office, “Are you all moving?” And she said no. She said, “This is – since people started speaking out in the United States against admitting refugees, so many people are sending us stuff to give to refugees. Those are just boxes filled with clothes and toys and blankets and you know keys to mopeds.” And I mean, so all of that is going on actually as we speak, but what tends to get the headlines are the governors who say, “We don’t want refugees in our state,” not the decency that still is so fundamental to this country and our people.

MS. BUSH: It’s incredible.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Yes, surprising, I mean, that it also doesn’t get more notice.

MS. BUSH: Well, and interesting – we were speaking earlier about how there is a tendency with the way the news media works, they won’t – we’ll hear one bad story; we won’t hear about the tens of thousands of refugees who have already come here, who are in the United States succeeding and pursuing their dreams safely, who are, as you mentioned earlier, able to get up and brush their teeth in the morning and send their children to school without fear of a bomb. And I wonder how we can help to share those more positive stories? How we can help to remind people that the statistics of helping humanity actually fall in our favor? That the things that we regret are generally the times when we have not done so out of fear.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah, totally. I mean, most of us grew up – for me – I don’t know, I’m an immigrant to this country. But one of the most vivid history lessons I got, or icons within a history lesson, was when I first heard about the St. Louis and the attempt for Jewish refugees to come to this country and how they were turned back. And I mean, this is taught in schools as this emblem of embarrassment, and it’s a unit to show you what not to do in history. And there’s a consensus around that. And yet when it’s in the here and now and there’s a lot of misinformation out there – there’s a lot of fear that’s legitimate that has to be addressed, and we as a government have really tried to get out there just how rigorous our security checks are as we process those –

MS. BUSH: Before people are admitted.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Before people come to the United States. And we understand, again, how those fears get amplified, and they have to be met. But I do think somehow, as you say, showing what refugees are and what they’ve contributed to this country – Henry Kissinger was a refugee, Madeleine Albright was a refugee. George Soros has done more philanthropy around the world than just about any other person. Sergey Brin. There are just so many stories of people. And those are just the high-profile people. There are people in all of our communities. I thought the refugee Olympic team –

MS. BUSH: Incredible.

AMBASSADOR POWER: – did an amazing job doing that.

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Because it reduced this abstraction and this – again, this sense of millions to just those discreet stories of those people who were just laboring, and also they offered so much inspiration to the refugees that aren’t competing in the Olympics, that are living in very, very difficult circumstances right now.

But thinking more like that, what is the way to brand this in a new way and what is the way for each of us in our communities to get out and extend that hand and then tell the stories of those who are working. I mean, again, if you talk – if you go to these NGOs who help resettle people, they describe the pace at which your average refugee learns English in the English as a second language program as exceeding – don’t know this is right; this is just what I’ve heard – as exceeding just about any other class of person who comes into the United States. And think about that, when you’ve been a refugee, what you’ve been through and the amount of resilience and stubbornness and determination you’ve shown to get all the way to the United States. And apparently that by and large plays itself out also in the hunger to sort of embrace the new language and so forth.

But again, that’s not broadly known and how we project that is –

MS. BUSH: That’s amazing.


MS. BUSH: You’re also doing something amazing for this refugee summit that a lot of people may not know about. Can you talk to us about the crosswalk?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Oh, the crosswalk. Well, we have a subset of the displacement crisis of 65 million, of course, are people who are being persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation. And while the UN has a lot of great documents and laws and norms on human rights, the Obama Administration under the President’s leadership has really pushed to make LGBTI rights central to conceptions of human rights, and we’ve tried to integrate LGBTI rights into the DNA of the UN.

It’s really hard because more than half the countries in the UN are not democratic; more than 70 have laws that criminalize being LGBTI; some even have the death penalty. But over the last few years, we have for the first time secured a condemnation by the UN Security Council condemning people being targeted on grounds of their sexual orientation. That came after Orlando. And if you had told me even six months ago that the Security Council, with the countries who are on it, would have agreed to that, I would have said no way. We’ve got the first-ever UN position – an independent expert who’s now going to document abuses of LGBTI rights all around the world – and progress – because there is some, in countries like ours, even if, of course, there’s a lot more to do.

But for this UN General Assembly, we decided to get a little bit creative. There’s an LGBTI Core Group at the UN which is countries from all around the world who want to be forward-leaning, who want to push this human rights – 21st century human rights agenda and make more progress than we have up to this point. And so we decided collectively, working with the city of New York, to paint the crosswalk that goes into the UN – a lot of the leaders, the ministers and the heads of state actually walk from their hotels which are near the UN; everybody knows the UN-caused traffic, New Yorkers know it very well. So that crosswalk is now painted in rainbow colors. The crosswalk just goes – so you’ll see many of the world’s leaders actually walking across a rainbow-colored crosswalk, which we thought was a fitting tribute to what happened in Orlando and to the (inaudible). (Applause.)

MS. BUSH: And that choice and that pressing on, I think – I’ll speak for myself and I would imagine for everyone who’s clapping out here – means the world, because again you’re looking at an issue that can feel so large, and saying these are all the places in which we need to do better, and you’re bringing forth faces of women like Nadia and our Olympic team and telling world leaders that, yes, we’re making headway in certain areas but we must keep going. And that, I think, to speak to your speech at Yale, is how you affect your little slice of the world.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Hopefully. I mean, I think maybe the essence of the way I see things is if I didn’t know if I were the UN ambassador or the mother of two children in Syria deciding whether to trust my kids’ lives to a smuggler or stay and get bombed by the Assad regime or attacked by a terrorist, how would I want the international system to work? What would I want the rules to be? What would I want the UN ambassador to do or what would I want people who have public platforms like yours to do? And I think if we can just put ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have voices and try to lift up those voices, we can break through.

MS. BUSH: And that’s how we’re reminded that those people are far more like us than different.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Completely. And once you meet them it’s – you’re talking about your kids and your frustrations with your seven-year-old. (Laughter.) It’s all – there are a lot of universals out there, far more than divides us.

MS. BUSH: Well, thank you for all you do.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. Thank you, Sophia. Thank you. (Applause.)