Leni Robredo’s inspiring words

Last Saturday, 22 August 2015, the Ateneo de Manila School of Government had its annual commencement exercises. We graduated 80 Masters in Public Management students  and recognized 138 graduates from the joint MPM-Rural Development program we had offered with the Development Academy of the Philippines in collaboration with Xavier University and UP College of Social Work and Community Development. Because of the historic number of students we were graduating, and as this was my tenth and last commencement exercise as ASoG Dean, the commencement experience had special significance for me.

What made the occasion more meaningful was that our commencement speaker was Rep. Leni Robredo of the third district of Camarines Sur. Robredo’s husband Jesse, former Naga mayor and Local Government secretary who died in a plane crash in 2012, had been a close ASoG collaborator. He had taught with us, having co-founded the Kaya Natin Movement for Good Governance which was incubated and hosted by the school in its early years (it is now a separate entity).

Leni did not disappoint, delivering an inspiring speech that will be remembered not just by our graduates but by everyone who cares about good governance in this country. Her last words spoke not only to our students but to all of us: “The time you have spent in here should be put to good use. Let’s not be contented with just planning. Let us start doing. Collaborate. Discuss. Find ways to work together. There is no time to lose. The country needs every bright mind. Imagine how much our nation will change if all of your bright ideas can be honed and turned into real solutions for our people’s suffering. You are in this place at this time for a purpose. Find it and make it happen.”

Leni did begin her speech on a personal note: “I was just 22 when I got married to Jesse and losing someone who has almost raised me and who has treated me like I was his whole world creates a void that will never go away. But I have come to accept that already. Jesse was not just a husband. He was my trusted handyman. He was my protector and provider. Most of all, he was my role model in living simply, keeping my feet on the ground, and losing a part of myself so that those who have less can live more.”

Leni also shared her thoughts about being an empowered woman: “Many say to be an empowered woman of our society, you have to stand out and be heard. That all must listen to your voice at every opportunity. Many say gender equality is all about being as strong as a man, as important, and as celebrated. In my life at least, it meant knowing when to let go of the limelight and when to step up. It meant knowing when to keep quiet and when to speak. Being empowered meant understanding that not all kinds of strength are visible and auditory. When you know your true value as a woman, you can sit back with secure knowledge that the man of your dreams values your judgment because you value yours, and that together, you are working on the same goals. You are not in a contest to be heard; you are working on the same team.”

Applying this insight to her relationship with Secretary Jesse, Leni said: “Ours was truly a team effort. Jesse gave me the chance to do what I loved doing and shared in my experiences in alternative lawyering. He put value in my advocacy of empowering the marginalized with the belief that when people are empowered and given a chance to sit at the table, they gain ownership of programs, become real stakeholders and these programs have better chances of success. He adopted in City Hall many of the concepts I was advocating and thus created spaces for participatory governance.”

The heart of Leni Robredo’s commencement speech was, however, these simple messages: First, good governance and successful politics can go together; Second, we can change our country. According to her:

“Changing mindsets is the most difficult. But after two years in office, I can say this with all certainty, that if people are given a choice, they will always go for performance over patronage, physical presence over tarpaulins which have our faces and names all over. They become a more collaborative constituency when they know their government is transparent and they are given spaces to engage in all stages of governance. That when we start building from the ground up and involve people in governance, when we promote fairness in all our dealings, people trust us more. We get more results for every peso of taxpayers money. Jesse was able to convert Naga into a “Maogmang Lugar”, or our people’s happy place. Good governance, transparency, accountability and people empowerment can also turn the whole country into a happy place.

Jess began in politics with nothing except a sincere desire to make his city better than when he first found it. He committed himself to good governance at whatever cost, even when it meant going against political dynasties and a corrupt system. Even if it meant charting his own course away from the already paved road that reeks of patronage politics. He was able to prove that one can still succeed in politics by just doing the right thing. That politics is inherently dirty is a fact but it doesn’t have to remain that way if we don’t allow it so.

Naga’s experience showed that we need to trust our people and they will repay that trust. Jess served as mayor for six terms, winning by landslide elections after elections even when some of his policies went against public opinion. We need to believe that the same can be true in national governance. We need to commit to doing the right thing at whatever cost, believing that in the end, what is right will always win over what is wrong. That the good will always prevail in the end.”

I was shaken as I listened to Leni speak these lines because nearly 10 years ago, in an leadership and election campaign course ASoG had conducted for the 2007 elections, this was exactly what Jesse Robredo told our students. It was not a sense of déjà vu that I felt but the certainty of the truthfulness of her words.

In our conversation before the ceremony, Leni said she could not imagined an Ateneo School of Government without me. I said I could not have imagined her to be where she is now. I told her she will not get any pressure from me on whether to run for national office. I know how challenging that is and how much of a sacrifice that was for her and her daughters. But if she decides to say yes, for sure, many will sign up and walk with her to a Philippines that will become, like Naga City, a ‘‘Maogmang Lugar”—a happy place, a happy Philippines.            


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