It’s great to be here with all of you – I feel your energy and your spirit and I just love it!
Most of all, I have to tell you how grateful I am to be a part of this event. As you get to know me this morning, you will learn that my life’s work, passion and purpose is to help create a world of inclusion – where nobody feels left out.
That’s what Special Olympics means to me. As I stand in this room with you this morning feeling such a strong connection with all of you, my heart is so full of joy, I feel like it might actually explode.
I want to thank my dear friend Tim Shriver, and everyone who has worked so hard to organize the Special Olympics World Summer Games and this Social Impact Summit.
I am inspired beyond words to see so many young people from around the world joined together as one on behalf of inclusion.
And I’m really impressed by the innovative projects that you have brought to LA.
From staging a dramatic play in Pakistan…
to starting a Strider bike club in South Dakota…
launching a vocational training center in Nepal…
or creating a basketball league in Australia…
You’ve come up with creative, constructive ways to bring people of all kinds together…
…and to show the world that people with intellectual disabilities can be owners of change.
This work is important for its own sake.
But it’s also part of something bigger.
It’s part of addressing one of the most important challenges of our time.
I’m talking about the pervasive problem of isolation, and its antidote: belonging.
Because when you look at poverty or injustice or human suffering of any kind, there is often isolation at the core.
And no matter what form that isolation takes, no matter who’s afflicted, it hurts.
We see it among those who are economically disadvantaged or displaced by the harsh winds of change.
Among elderly people, especially those who have been debilitated by illness.
In marginalized populations, from refugees to Roma… indigenous peoples to Indian Dalits… people who for reasons of community or caste are locked outside all circles of concern.
And as all of you know, we see it among people with intellectual disabilities who too often are pushed to society’s margins, or shut out altogether.
Each of you is determined to fight that stigma and end that isolation and exclusion—not just because you’ve seen the problem, but because you have seen the solution. You really get it.
You’ve seen how rewarding it can be to be part of a unified team, working shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart… with every person offering their own unique gifts.
Tackling stigma against people with intellectual disabilities^ will help us fight stigma more broadly… chipping away at the walls of fear that prevent us from truly seeing each other; walls that allow us to distance ourselves from one another; to pass judgment without understanding.
I believe young people are uniquely equipped to break down these walls, and use the stones to build pathways that lead to belonging, where uniqueness is celebrated and embraced.
I say this because connectedness is the calling card of your generation… and through your connectedness, you’ve come to appreciate that our differences are what make us precious.
On so many issues… from racial equality to girls’ education to gay rights… your generation is already at the forefront of building a more just world…
A world where inclusion is our common language… and dignity, our common currency.
You may not think of yourselves this way, but I see you as pioneers in a new global movement:
A movement towards a more inclusive world built on a foundation of three important values: respect, recognition and reciprocity.
To be clear, I am not talking about tolerance. Tolerance may let people be, but it does not let people in.
Tolerance can even be a turning away.
Come to think of it, “live and let live” is a philosophy that offers very little to someone who is being forced to live without the connection that comes from community.
What you are doing – what this movement is all about is turning-in, grabbing hold and building positive change.
You’re working to build a more welcoming world, where every person feels at home.
That is what unity is. And unity is what you have come here to achieve.
Because, when we reach out, it isn’t just the excluded person whose life is changed.
Connection is mutual. When we touch someone else, we ourselves are touched in return.
Of course, Special Olympics has always known that. It’s what sets this movement apart.
When we see the athletes throw their arms up in triumph, every one of us is uplifted.
As Nelson Mandela said in Dublin, Ireland when opening the World Summer Games in two thousand three, and I quote – “Special Olympics gives telling testimony to the indestructibility of the human spirit and our capacity to overcome hardships and obstacles”.
I had the chance to meet Nelson Mandela. And he once told me that, while incarcerated for over 30 years, he never felt isolation because he was united with brothers in a common cause.
Belonging sets in motion a virtuous cycle… where good creates good.
Respect creates respect.
A ripple of change becomes a wave of progress… and dreams become reality.
I’ve seen young people driving this kind of change around the world.
When youth reach out across differences and come together, I’ve seen very special things emerge.
I think about my friends Jennifer Corriero and Daniel Kou-vea-na-tuk. At first glance these two are pretty much as different as two people can be.
Jennifer, a dynamic youth leader and founder of TakingITGlobal, a social innovation organization in Canada’s biggest city – Toronto…
And Daniel, a young indigenous person or more accurately an Inuk who lives in Arviat, Nunavut – the Northern-most region of Canada.
Daniel’s home is one of the most geographically remote communities you can imagine, with a population of just a few thousand people. Sixty percent of the community members are under the age of 16… and only about 1 in 3 finish high school.
Teachers and health workers who are hired to work in the area rarely know how to speak the local language, which makes it hard for the indigenous people to feel truly heard and understood.
And like many indigenous communities, Arviat is a place where there’s a lot of poverty, and not a lot of opportunity. Many young people who live there feel isolated, neglected, and hopeless about their future.
Daniel struggled too.
But he found his voice and his connection to the world around him through art and photography.
The camera lens helped him express his emotions, even when it was hard to find the words.
Daniel entered an art contest coordinated by Jennifer’s organization where he submitted a photograph depicting an image of what inclusion meant to him. He ended up winning a trip to attend a symposium that I was honoured to convene in Toronto last Fall.
It was the farthest Daniel had ever traveled from home. And as you can imagine, being surrounded by so many new things was an incredible experience for this young man.
But I must tell you that meeting Daniel was an incredible experience for us too.
Quietly, shyly, he shared with us his struggles and also his hopes for his family, his community, and his people.
And as he opened up about his life, he opened the eyes and hearts and minds of those around him.
Daniel made new friends. He found points of connection with other young people who took part—including some from the Special Olympics movement, who had joined the symposium as well.
This was especially true for Jennifer. Hearing Daniel’s story, she felt transformed.
She felt like she was gaining an entirely new perspective on her country, its people and their challenges.
When Daniel got home, they remained in close contact. Within weeks, Jennifer arranged to travel to Arviat, and together, the two of them hosted the first ever Global Dignity Day event in the Arctic.
Members of the community, young and old, came together to celebrate their traditions and to share their dreams for the future.
They imagined a future where everybody would feel valued—for who they are, and who they want to be. And they talked about ways that each of them could help make that future real.
And they’re not just talking, they’re doing. Jennifer and Daniel and the entire community have created literacy programs, found creative ways for mothers to connect with their children, and started working on ways to address so many other gaps the community faces.
Daniel says he’s come to realize just how much of a difference one person can make.
Together, they’re showing how change can happen.
And now, the torch is being handed to you.
Over this week in Los Angeles, you will get an in-depth look at the challenges facing people with intellectual disabilities.
You’ll hear from speakers and social change activists about how to drive real change.
You’ll learn how to transform ideas into impact… action and interaction into results.
And I just know, you’re going to have a blast!
And of course, you’ll be inspired by the amazing athletes at the World Summer Games.
But it’s when you return to your home countries and communities that the most important work will begin. Remember, you are inspirational leaders and you are carrying a powerful message.
Because you are the champions who will author and share a story that is bigger than all of us…
a story of progress, of beauty, and goodness…
of opening our hearts to each other in respect, recognition and reciprocity.
You will do it together.
It’s right there in your name: Generation Unified.
You know that there’s a light inside of all of us.
And you will be the ones who let it shine.