Reta Jo Lewis
Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs
Wide Angle Luncheon
Charleston, SC
April 11, 2013

Good afternoon everybody and thank you for that kind introduction.

I of course want to acknowledge our tremendous hosts – Caroline (founder of the Wide Angle Luncheons) and the Charleston Library Society – for inviting me to “stop, eat, and listen[1]” with all of you today.

And I also want to thank Charleston’s fearless leader, and one of the longest serving public servants in America, Mayor Joseph Riley.

Now, Mayor Riley has been a tireless advocate for an America that’s built to last – one where we create more high-skilled, good-paying jobs; one where we invest in our roads and infrastructure; and one where we value the safety and welfare of our children above special interests.

And at a time where we forge ahead on a path of healing from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we need more of that sort of forward-leaning, progressive, outside-the-box thinking that will fuel the growth of our nation and ensure that we remain preeminent leaders on the global stage.

Now, central governments can promote these sorts of policies, and continue making the right investments in our economies. But today, on behalf of the U.S. State Department, I submit to you that ultimately individuals, through the power of collaboration, can unleash change in their neighborhoods and communities.

For, the greatest resources of any nation are the individuals on the local level: citizens in the boardrooms and the classrooms, in the city council chambers and the state assemblies; individuals who are assessing the needs of local stakeholders, individuals who are on the ground, implementing policies that capture the values of local governments, and individuals who are enacting practical solutions to challenges, when central governments are eclipsed by too much gridlock and inertia to act.

These are the members of society that guide the destiny of civilization.

And though central governments of nation-states will always be looked upon to tackle pressing challenges of our time—more often than not, individuals on the ground in Charleston or Columbia—they will strike up partnership with fellow community members; they will bridge divides across state lines, and they will experimentt with new ideas.

You are the ones who change communities. And Charleston is no stranger to that. It’s why this town boasts the nation's first public college, museum, and playhouse.

With a simple belief the minds can be educated, nurtured, and spurred to action by increasing access to each other, this town laid the ground work for a national infrastructure for public school and the arts.

And that’s particularly critical because it demonstrates that regional actions—that occur not necessarily on the national level, but rather the “subnational” level—allow us to tee up creative solutions to global challenges by encouraging localities to work with another. Namely, it can inspire hope in other towns and communities, in opposite corners of the world, to observe how communities are working to stimulate innovation, devise energy solutions, or build out their infrastructure—when their own central government is unable or unwilling to act.

It’s that very ethos of regional action that is defining a new era of 21st century statecraft.

One where a local civic leader in Brazil or Russia, looking to establish environmental protections while not sacrificing financial revenue for a community, can take note from a U.S. mayor who is working with his city council to enact new forms of alternative energy tax incentives.

It’s an era where the Governor of Sao Paolo, Brazil, looking to establish best practices for hosting the World Cup or attracting new investments in a particular industry, can chat with the Governor of South Carolina, about the infrastructure required to host the annual Spoleto Festival[2] or to build-out new innovation clusters in Columbus.

It’s an era, where academics, businesses, and local legislators from India convene with their counterparts from Georgia to assess new ways to facilitate economic cooperation—even without a central government trade mission.

Under the innovative leadership of former Secretary Clinton, and now Secretary John Kerry, the State Department’s Office of Global Intergovernmental Affairs has broken new ground on the frontier of interregional cooperation.

Particularly, in an age of rapid globalization, where anyone with an Internet connection can revolutionize the business, cultural, or social landscape with an idea—it is vital that we work towards leveraging those ideas through new nodes of engagement and by facilitating new platforms to confront challenges of our time through nontraditional means.

And when you can introduce a young council member in one part of the world, to another mayor in another part of the world – it’s astonishing to see how both instinctively want to forge bonds in tackling issues that are undoubtedly plaguing both of their communities—despite being oceans apart.

It’s that firm commitment to humanity, and problem solving, that allows bonds to be forged among countries, beyond traditional diplomatic cables – eclipsing histories of tension or conflict, for a new era of strength in in virtue, in numbers, and in a partnership of empathy or understanding.

And it’s that common commitment to each other—that was integral to my own upbringing—and inspired my journey to this very post in the Obama Administration.

I grew up just a couple hours away from here, in Statesboro, Georgia, and despite the fact that I grew up in undoubtedly socially tumultuous times—my parents instilled within me an ethos that sticks with me to this day:

That by working hard, working smart, and working with members of my own community—no mountain would be too steep to climb, and no challenge would be insurmountable.

I still recall that tense day in the 7th grade, where I meekly stepped onto the school yard for the first time in my newly integrated junior high.

Even though I had the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board as my “backup”, many of my own classmates still smacked with looks of hostility and snickers of disdain.

It took time for the bullying in the classroom to stop, and it took even longer for the moral guidance of our nation to kick in—but we all did our part to keep fighting, and indeed, it got better.

As a student, I worked as hard as I could to excel—affording me opportunities that eventually paved the way for other daughters of Georgia to know that they too have equal opportunities to pursue what they put their minds to.

And as a movement, my own parents—and fellow foot soldiers of justice—kept marching, and kept pushing, and kept building—turning small victories and heroic steps into a broader sense of political and economic equity.

It was not easy. It never is. But perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the fight my family, my neighbors, and my friends right here in South Carolina fought for, wasn’t just a call an integrated classroom. It’s bigger than race. And it’s bigger than Supreme Court precedent.

It was that education has the power to be the greatest of equalizers.

As a young girl that very idea was instrumental in shaping me to challenge myself, to learn from those around me, even if racial divides implied that those around me weren’t won to call me their equals or peers.

It meant pushing myself to never rest on my laurels at the faintest sight of achievement.

It meant reaching, with stretched fingers, for the highest throngs of graduate education, because while anyone could question my worth as a black woman striving to shape her country—no one could challenge whether I had the knowledge or pedigree to play ball along the way.

It also meant heeding the calls of those heroes who inspired me to serve on behalf of others—Mandela, Clinton, and Carter—to find commonalities in the human spirit, even in the hearts of adversaries and opponents.

Because the more I learned about the world, the more I found out about myself—and how, while we all may be exposed to varied cultural experiences & upbringings—we all seek answers to shared questions; solutions to shared challenges; and comfort in shared values.

While today that lesson of education manifests itself in a diplomatic effort to broker agreements, on behalf of the State Department, which increase collaboration between cities and provinces around the world – when I was younger my collaborative spirit started on a much smaller level. It started with mentorship.

Inspired by my own mother’s guidance to grow and nurture the relationships of all of those around me, since no one—whether neighbors & family, or nations & government—walks through life alone, I sought the guidance and counsel of those more seasoned than me.

Such mentorship wasn’t just instructive in my own navigation of the sharp contours of life, but it has also inspired me to pay that knowledge “forward” and mentor those around me looking to shape their own journeys.

And you see the value of such peer to peer collaboration, even on the international stage, as cities and localities, are increasingly looking to each other to assess how they’re building their communities for the 21st century. By mentoring each other in best practices, and establishing shared goals, the knowledge and education gleaned by simply looking across an ocean and finding a commonality in the human spirit can empower entire civilizations to work through shared challenges.

But as the world continues to look to the United States to lead, we must remain resolved in this commitment to educate current and future generations to come. Because it is that never ending pursuit of knowledge, rooted in a principal of constantly improving our classrooms, an constantly improved one another that turned the dreams of an African-American woman into historic realities.

It’s very pursuit that allowed me to work alongside an American President; and it’s the vary pursuit that allowed me to make historic inroads as one of the first black partners at a major international law firm. Often the words of one of the most historic civil rights advocates of our time is quoted to make clear that the long arc of history bends towards justice. But justice is even more quickly attained, if we fight for our right to learn from one another, and with one another; to work in tandem to weather economic storms, and confront the blistering bite of poverty; to never waver till all of our children access premium public educations; and to always stand up on behalf of others by working together.

As we just bore witness to a decidedly, tough election here in the U.S. last fall, we’re all keenly aware of the powerful role people have in shaping the values and systems of a generation. But the onus is on us to now harness that collective voice, and leverage its prowess to get things done even when the nation as a whole is unable to act. It’s a truth as old as both of our nations itself: individuals on a regional level get to decide what comes next.

Individuals and regions get to choose where change will take us. That is the source of power in this century.

Every country charts its own course, but as we move forward, let’s refuse to be burdened by the old obstacles and old suspicions; and let’s instead embrace a world where we are protected, enlarged, and empowered by one another. That is the new era of we cooperate with each other and the world, and that is the level on which the next great chapters of growth will be written in. Thank you very much.

[1] “Stop, eat, & listen” is the motto of the Charleston Library Society’s Wide Angle Luncheons

[2] Spoleto Festival USA is an internationally recognized performing arts festival that runs for 17 days in Charleston, SC annually and features over 100 performances from artists around the world.