Accepting an honorary doctor of laws from York University during the June 20 Spring Convocation ceremony brought Tim Brodhead full circle.
Brodhead is a leader for social change, international development and public policy. He told graduands that he found his true calling 55 years ago when he signed on as a volunteer with CUSO International and was brought to the newly established York University for pre-departure preparation.
“My presence here at York today closes a circle for me,” he said to students graduating from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies and Glendon. “For those of you who are feeling unsure of where you are going after [this ceremony], today I can give some comfort: I certainly didn’t think I was making a career choice when I volunteered [with CUSO] for two years, I just thought it was going to be more exciting working in a newly independent African state than getting a ‘real job,’ as my parents might have said, or doing graduate studies.”
That choice, he said, marked the beginning of his story.
That one decision led him on a path where he spent 25 years working in and with Africa, promoting international development in the areas of refugee, post-conflict and disaster recovery. During that time, he founded several organizations to guide and support international NGOs to plan and implement development projects in Africa.
He has provided his expertise to CIDA, foreign governments and several UN agencies, and continues to serve on many organizations. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and has received both the Queen Elizabeth II Gold and Diamond Jubilee medals.
He shared with graduands that his story, while it highlighted his many accomplishments, left out the false starts, disillusionment and fear; times when he felt uncertain and questioning his path. These challenges forced him to move forward.
Brodhead asked the graduating students to think about what their story would be when they looked back on their lives. “Stories,” he said, “are how we make sense of the world, how we give meaning to our lives. So, think for a moment. What will be your story?”
Reflecting on his experiences Brodhead shared with students some insights he has come to realize along the way. He advised graduands that as they go out into the world that they seek to stay curious, cultivate wonder and feel compassion.
Brodhead also reflected on current times, and how the graduating class of 2018 would have a much different experience than he did growing up in an non-digital world where life was stable, predictable and careers were usually held for life.
“You, on the other hand, are living in a world of paradox and disruption,” he said, suggesting graduates of today are likely to have many careers over a lifetime. He noted that most of what has been learned over the last few years will be obsolete well within the next decade.
“So, what can I say to you, other than fasten your seat belts? It’s likely to be a pretty bumpy ride,” he said.
Every generation confronts unique, defining challenges, he said. For his parents’ generation, it was the economic depression and the Second World War. For his generation, it was enlarging the sphere of human rights to embrace all people, in terms of race, gender, religion or sexuality – a challenge that has not been fully realized.
What challenges will this generation will confront? He suggested that future challenges will be the growing impact of climate change and whether new technologies will be used to enhance our humanity or to enslave us. Both challenges, he noted, will frame the context in which the graduates will write their own stories. “While it may seem daunting, it is not hopeless,” he said.
“With the degrees you are about to receive you are joining the global elite of people who will determine by the choices they make how humanity can overcome these challenges,” he said. “Will your choices lead to a world of growing inequality, of conflicts over basic resources like clean air and clean water, of selfishness and exclusion? Or will your choices lead to societies that are more just, more sustainable, more creative and fulfilling?”
Periods of crises are also times of opportunity and movement. What will count for the graduands as they move into their next chapter, he said, is not so much what they have learned but who they are as their beliefs and values shape their stories.
South Africa, he said, taught him about the world, about his culture and values, and about himself. Everything he has done subsequently has been shaped by those lessons, he said.
His words of advice to graduating students for creating their own meaningful stories are to stay curious, and ask why – why do we tolerate so much violence and social injustice in our world and among ourselves? He asked graduands to cultivate wonder – wonder at the majesty and beauty of the universe; and he suggested they feel compassion – recognizing the humanity in others and celebrating differences.
“Ask why, and imagine what could be,” he said. “The world needs your stories.”