Humanitarian and Philanthropist Meera Gandhi Speaks at Winter Convocation

Source: The Birch Wathen Lenox School
December 2011

On February 3, all BWL students from grades 5-12 gathered for a special Winter Convocation in All Souls Church to meet the humanitarian and philanthropist Meera Gandhi. As the founding head of the Giving Back Foundation and the writer, director, and producer of the 2011 documentary Giving Back, Ms. Gandhi shared wisdom she has gleaned from collaborations with some of the world’s leading humanitarians, including Hilary Clinton, Bono, Kerry Kennedy, and Anderson Cooper.

Ms. Gandhi stressed that the potential for leadership lies within each of us, and not simply in those who speak from podiums or political offices. “Taking leadership,” she began, “means having the will to improve upon any situation, anytime.” Underscoring the new generation of leaders that emerged with “the bloggers and the Tweeters who won the election for Obama,” she inspired the crowd with a challenge: “Each one of you sitting here today has the power to go back and say, ‘How do I effect change? How do I give back?’”

Just last year, Ms. Gandhi began her Giving Back Foundation so she could more directly assist the neediest women and children. With its motto “We are to the universe only as much as we give back to it,” the Foundation selected partners committed to promoting education and alleviating poverty, illness, and suffering. These include, among many others, Bono’s ONE Foundation to reduce AIDS; the Cherie Blair Foundation for the advancement of women; CRY, a charity fighting for children’s rights; and Mother Teresa’s Asha Daan in Mumbai, which cares for handicapped and abandoned children. Ms. Gandhi promised that the $1,000 check BWL presented her foundation would go toward supplies for the Asha Daan. “The ability to shine the light and show hope to those who have no hope is important,” she said.

As one who deftly moved from investment banking to starting a pre-school to the fashion world, Ms. Gandhi gave students a learned reminder that opportunities should be seized. “If you wait for the ideal situation, it will never come. If you create the ideal situation, it will always be.” She reflected upon how Grameen Bank, one of her Foundation’s partners, is making this principle possible through micro loans. Just $250, she said, is enough for a woman to open a market stand and change her life. Ms. Gandhi closed her talk with encouragement: “Your school is already putting the spirit of giving back in you. When you give, it comes back a thousand-fold.”

The BWL community appears to be receptive to this message. Collectively, Upper Schoolers have logged over 10,000 hours of community service; all Middle Schoolers complete at least 30 hours of service before completing 8th grade. One Upper Schooler, for instance, has given hundreds of hours collecting and shipping school supplies to Tibetan refugees in India. A Middle Schooler has gathered boxes worth of jeans to ship to Haitian earthquake victims. Dymphna Staunton’s Big Brother/Big Sister program has trucked basic supplies to local shelters faced with budget cuts; Emily Williams’s Community Service class provides an overview of humanitarian issues and solutions. All students have helped raise money for the Child Fund, for which BWL sponsors three children from Sierra Leone. The lower school, led by Dr. Serena Deutsch’s peer relations class, is promoting random acts of kindness and giving “put-ups” instead of “put-downs.” Says Academic Dean and Community Service Coordinator Susan Leonard, “They throw themselves into it and really believe in what they are doing.”