Commencement Address -- Joy Kaiser '51
30 May, 2004
Swarthmore Friends and Friends of Swarthmore:
You can't imagine how awesome it is to be standing here! But someday you too may experience this for yourselves — my husband and I fully expect that one day Swarthmore will award this high honor to some of you. Herb has told you what we've done to be here — I want to add just a little bit to the story — from my own perspective.
Professor Barry Schwartz has helped us all recognize that unlimited choice is not an unlimited blessing, and I am in fact grateful for not always having had a choice. For example, the State Department gave me no choice of a career. In the 1950s, when Herb joined the Foreign Service, it expected to get two-for-the-price-of-one. Wives were not allowed to work but were expected to be gracious hostesses, willing volunteers, and tour guides for visiting VIPs. Only in the 1970s did the feminist movement succeed in removing evaluation of his wife from an officer's all-important annual performance report. Happily today wives are allowed independent careers, and many are Foreign Service Officers.
But I don't regret not having had an independent career. I too studied the history and learned the languages of the countries we lived in, followed their politics as avidly as Herb, and was closer to everyday life. I think I was able to bring another perspective to Herb's political reporting, and I did my best to try to represent American ideas and values. So I enjoyed our two-person career. MESAB has been a continuation of that two-person career (with my role a little more upfront than in the Foreign Service).
But back to choices: In 1969 apartheid South Africa was the last place in the world that we wanted to go, but the State Department gave us no choice. So we went — kicking and screaming but trying to keep in mind the Serbian proverb that we learned in Belgrade: "What you have to do is easy."
I have always said that South Africa is parasitic. It gets under one's skin — it certainly got under ours. There were so many brave and wonderful people struggling at that time with such injustice. We could never forget South Africa so when Herb retired from the Foreign Service, we began to think about ways that outsiders could somehow help black South Africans.
We had learned long ago about the Greek god Kairos, god of the propitious moment, and adopted him as a guide. The turbulent 1980s did not seem at the time like a propitious moment to start any kind of program in South Africa, but in retrospect we see that it was. For one thing South Africa was a hot topic: people knew about the unjust and ruthless treatment of the black majority, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining strength inside and outside South Africa. Violent protest countered by harsh repression was beginning: scenes of the struggle were appearing nightly on American TV screens. But apartheid was really beginning to unravel, as we had always known that it must. White universities in South Africa were beginning to defy the government and open their doors to blacks. There was pressure on US companies, universities, and foundations to DO SOMETHING. Sanctions were imposed, some companies and universities divested themselves of South African investments, but some wanted to do something positive and found in MESAB an avenue for action.
One of the things we had learned in the Foreign Service was that neither unilateralism nor paternalism work. (THAT lesson seems to have been lost on the present administration.) We knew that MESAB couldn't succeed unless black South Africans wanted our help and that it had to be a partnership in which black South Africans participated fully in establishing policy and programs. Blacks have always been the major component of MESAB's South African arm, and today MESAB graduates are playing an ever increasing role in the organization.
MESAB will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. For us these 20 years have been exciting, scary, stressful, rewarding, fulfilling years. I hope that each of you will find a cause that will give you as much satisfaction. Lord knows there are plenty of causes out there: international and national and local problems demanding creative solutions. You may not be able to save the world but you can certainly make some corner of it a better place. So seize your propitious moment, find your cause and pursue it with passion and imagination and the intellectual firepower that your Swarthmore education has given you. Then I know that you too will enjoy the thrills and chills that Herb and I have experienced in our 54-year partnership.