Tom Golisano of the Golisano Foundation is the founding sponsor and major underwriter of the CGI Annual Meeting and a global partner of Special Olympics Healthy Athletes. This guest blog was written by Ann Costello, Director of the Golisano Foundation.
Last Friday night, Chelsea Clinton took the stage at Washington University in St. Louis to kick off this year’s Clinton Global Initiative – University (CGI-U). President Clinton later made remarks but it was Chelsea, in her high heels and jeans, who was very much the face of the conference. It became clear over the course of the weekend that President Clinton has largely passed the CGI-U mantle to his daughter, a symbolic gesture in terms of giving a voice to young people. What more appropriate venue to do this than CGI-U.
Every time I go to CGI-U, my faith is restored and renewed in the next generation. These students are intelligent. They’re creative, and they’re intrinsically motivated to leave the world a better place. Most important, they embrace diversity and difference. For the population we serve, this means great things for the future.
As he was moderating the panel discussion during the Opening Plenary Session on Friday night, President Clinton made a comment that deeply resonated with me. While talking about how the human genome was mapped during his presidency, he said he learned at the end that we’re all 99.5% the same. Most of the differences you see between two people are determined by the remaining .5%. Yet, we focus so much on that minute .5% that makes us different from one another instead of the 99.5% that makes us the same. We must help the world recognize that 99.5% in a much bigger way.
One way that I believe we’ll do this is through digital technology. Technology played an enormous role at CGI-U. From the app that CGI developed this year – which was first implemented at this year’s CGI-U – to people like Jack Dorsey explaining how technology is exponentially increasing the power of an individual, the digital age is here in a big way. As technology continues to be more deeply engrained in our everyday lives, CGI-U reminded me that we have to embrace it. The use of digital technology will level the global playing field and it has already started to do so for people with intellectual disabilities.
It also struck me how issues that people with intellectual disabilities face were represented on every panel and in every session I attended. From public health to education to poverty and human rights, each and every topic discussed aligned with problems people with intellectual disabilities experience on a daily basis. For me, seeing the way that these concerns were woven throughout weekend’s discussions reinforced the urgency and importance of having our voice represented and heard.
What was most powerful to me, though, was seeing and meeting the people whose stories we’ve heard about. I knew of William Kamkwamba, who dropped out of school after not being able to afford the $80 fee and learned to build a windmill of scraps and bamboo from a library book, bringing electricity and running water to his village. I had read about Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who was denied an education as a young girl in Afghanistan and dressed as a boy for years so she could keep going to school. We hear too many horrifying stories like these and we know their circumstances are real. But when you’re face to face with these individuals, their perseverance, their passion and their dedication is contagious. I was inspired by the caliber of world leaders of all ages who came together to encourage innovation, creation and revolution in their chosen fields. Like me, they too are convinced that they must find a way for all voices to be heard.
Speaking of voices being heard, I was joined at CGI-U by an incredible group of student leaders from the student chapters of the American Academy of Medical and Developmental Dentistry (AADMD). Motivated by Healthy Communities, a Golisano Foundation and Special Olympics initiative and 2012 CGI Commitment to Action, these students are collectively making a Commitment to Action to enhance healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities nationwide. Through asking fellow medical and dental students to form AADMD student chapters at their schools, they will advocate for curriculum changes to include experience and training on caring for people with intellectual disabilities, participate in and organize Healthy Athletes screenings, and spearhead Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns in their communities. These students are determined to improve access and quality of care for people with intellectual disabilities and they’re making changes where they see a root of the problem every day – in the way medical and dental students are trained and educated. The Golisano Foundation, Special Olympics and the AADMD are thrilled to be working with such an ambitious and devoted group of students as they take on this challenge – I’m so excited to see them realize their commitment in the coming months and years.
At CGI-U, I never walk away feeling overwhelmed at the end of the weekend. Even though the problems discussed are enormous, I always leave feeling energized by the commitment and enthusiasm of CGI-U students. This year especially, I was reminded that it’s important for all of us to take action and work towards a world of equality and justice because, after all, we’re 99.5% the same.