A Toast to Molly and Elena

Senior Advisor Gannon Gillespie Honors Founder Molly Melching and New CEO Elena Bonometti at NYC Celebration in Dec. 2017

“Molly, Elena, it is such an honor to be here with you tonight, and to be with all of you here.

We seem recently to be returning to the very core of Tostan. We are talking again these days about light, about fire, which means we are talking about energy, the electric nature of doing good, of sharing helpful knowledge with others. We are talking about power, about the sharing of it, of empowerment.

Gannon Gillespie honors founder Molly Melching and new CEO Elena Bonometti

As did those in our history who said that Tostan is like electricity, who told us that however long the night, the sun will rise.

As do the voices of participants in Tostan’s program so often speak of moving from darkness to light.

It was William Butler Yeats who said that education is the lighting of a fire. And every time I met with Tostan’s program participants I have the sense that he was being literal, not metaphorical — there is a fire and energy that burns so brightly in those conversations. It is a fire I know is real because, like fire, that energy of human potential can be wildly contagious.

But let us also explore the metaphor of fire with care — let us remember that while those moments of human inspiration and contagion are magical, they are not always easy in the making. Our good friend Dr. Gerry Mackie always cautioned against over-using the word contagious because it makes things sound automatic, easy. He said that the kind of deep, viral change he studies is automatic, but only at the very end of the process. Until then, it is the opposite of automatic. It is manual, person by person, slow going, rampant failure and setback sprinkled with just enough progress to keep going.

So as we speak of fire we need to keep this in mind. Fires, once lit, can be spread easily. But they need starting, they need fuel, oxygen.

Molly, what you have created and grown over these decades is a home fire for dignity, a movable source from which people who seek it can come and light their own torch and learn how to grow it, so that their own ideas and aspirations can illuminate their futures and grow ever brighter, and again be shared.

Tostan Founder Molly Melching with local coordinators in Senegal

From that home fire so many people, so many communities, staff and volunteers, partners and friends, countless students have become alight with their own potential.

So many of us here. And so many of those wildfires have spread, many known and burning brightly. So many others, unknown, also burning brightly.

The relevance of what you have made, what you have invited us to make with you could not be more clear: There are many hundreds of millions of people — especially women and girls but also entire communities and regions that have incredible potential but do not live in places where such fires are easily started.

I want to make a small case to you tonight, in honor of Molly and Elena.

Just as we are finally moving away from fossil fuels and aligning our need for electricity to the perpetual source of nearly free, unlimited energy waking us up every day, we now have the chance to realign our human systems to the abundant and untapped energy that is ourselves.

We are yet far from the automatic. Easy will come later. Yet the joy of trying comes now — because that too is fire.

I would suggest we honor this moment of transition by committing ourselves in whatever ways we can to helping Elena and Molly pass the fire of human agency — and the inherent dignity that rises with it — to so many millions who stand waiting.

And to ourselves, in our own lives. This is not either / or. Fire spreads infinitely, it loses nothing in the sharing.

Let us ask challenging questions of ourselves and the world:

What would happen if we built systems around empowering people? Not as secondary to an issue or solution, but as the core issue itself?

Instead of asking what might be possible if we could solve this or that problem, what would happen if we instead asked what problem could not be solved if we invested relentlessly in the single thing that drives development, that spreads human rights, that instills democracy, that calls for peace: the capacities of people themselves?

Molly with all of this talk of fire, it should be easy to make “toast”.

A toast to Tostan’s facilitators and supervisors who are now kindling fires as we speak.

A toast to all of you here in this room who have done so much to keep us fueled; who have illuminated new areas for us with your own light. And of course, a toast to you, Molly and Elena.

Elena, thank you for your energetic and patient leadership. It is creating the space in which Tostan’s tomorrow will dance.

Molly, how wonderful for the world that you pass this CEO torch to Elena while still lifting up other torches.

To our two fire starters.”

A toast to the future of Tostan and the Breakthrough Generation at the NYC torch-passing event

Originally published at medium.com on December 11, 2017.

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