Walking the Talk in Inclusive Leadership

29 March 2024

One of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s most talked-about events, “Inclusive Leadership: Quo Vadis? Bridging Divides and Creating History,” organized by the School of Multidisciplinary Studies (SMS), was held at the Design+Arts Theater on March 22.

Benilde Vice Chancellor for Academics Angelo Lacson

Brother President Edmundo Fernandez FSC, who was then in Italy, welcomed everyone through a pre-recorded message followed by Mr. Angelo Lacson, Vice Chancellor for Academics, who delivered the event’s opening remarks, setting the stage for dialogue, reflection, and action.

Dr. Ronaldo Pante, Faculty of Social Science Area, introduced Dr. Ambeth Ocampo as the Horacio de la Costa Professor of History and the Humanities at the Ateneo de Manila University and has held academic appointments at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and in Japan in Kyoto University and Sophia University. He was conferred an honorary doctorate in Public Administration by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Dr. Ocampo has authored numerous Philippine history, culture, and art books and writes “Looking Back,” the longest-running editorial page column on history for the Philippine Daily Inquirer that has been compiled and published in 35 books, the most recent being “Cabinet of Curiosities: History from Philippine Artifacts (2023)” and the seventh edition of “Rizal Without the Overcoat” that has been in print for the past 33 years.

“We should start with Andres Bonifacio, who told us that we shouldn’t fear history because it is in history that nothing is hidden,” Dr. Ocampo begins. “Everything comes to life in its given time. With this in mind, people should always be careful about what they are doing (and) what they are leaving behind because then, in the future, people will know what really happened.”

Quoting Winston Churchill, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” Dr. Ocampo shed light on the power wielded by historians, influencing how leaders are remembered long after they departed the stage. Emilio Aguinaldo’s 155th birthday is the same day as the event, prompting reflection on his misunderstood legacy. “To understand Aguinaldo’s presidency, one must delve into the writings of Apolinario Mabini. Mabini faced relentless attacks on his reputation, including malicious rumors about his health and competence. Even today, political appointments are influenced by personal connections and agendas. How can a normal, honest person survive in such a political jungle?”

Dr. Ocampo talked about the nature of political maneuvering. Anecdotes such as Juliana Valerina’s letter requesting intervention from Aguinaldo’s wife underscored the intertwining of personal and political interests. “It is systemic,” he said. “When we look at Philippine politics, it is personal. It is familial.” He also emphasized Mabini’s astute observations about the failures of the Malolos government: “The revolution failed because it was not well-guided; the leader assumed his post not through meritorious acts but through improper acts. Instead of supporting the competent, the leader grew envious of competence and made them unproductive.” Mabini’s insights stand the test of time. “He was able to see all our political problems 100 years ago,” Dr. Ocampo explains. “Mabini’s writings offer a roadmap for ethical leadership and governance. His vision of a just and equitable society continues to inspire those striving for positive change.”

“It is my great honor to present to you our next guest, a remarkable woman who will join us for some meaningful exchanges together with our speaker, Dr. Ambeth Ocampo,” Ms. Nicky Templo-Perez, Vice President for Lasallian Mission and Student Life, began her introduction. VP Perez focused on Atty. Leni Robredo’s unwavering dedication to public service and inclusivity, from aiding indigent litigants to supporting marginalized communities like the Sumilao farmers, Atty. Robredo’s commitment to giving everyone a voice. Her tenure as Camarines Sur Representative exemplified servant leadership in the Philippine government, which continued into her election as Vice President in 2016. She prioritized justice, equality, and empowerment, evident in initiatives like the Angat Buhay program, which addresses vital issues like nutrition and healthcare.

Atty. Robredo graced the stage alongside Dr. Ambeth Ocampo to begin the Q&A panel and took a moment to address the audience, “I’m just so happy to be here again. The last time I was here was in the early years of my vice presidency, so it’s so good to be back.” The first question directed to Dr. Ambeth Ocampo centered on the utilization of history by leaders and policymakers in envisioning an inclusive and humane Philippines. Dr. Ocampo responded, “Well, one, that’s the wrong question to ask, simply because historians deal with the past, not with the present, so it’s our excuse not to comment. But the thing there is, a historian always waits.”

The subsequent question, directed to Atty. Leni Robredo delved into the complexities of empowering marginalized sectors in the Philippines. “The starting point is to vote for people open to sharing power. We have been advocating for the creation of people’s councils because we felt it necessary to provide a platform where ordinary people can participate in governance. When my husband was still Mayor of Naga, a people’s council was created. So when my husband died, and I became a member of Congress, I attempted to pass an empowerment bill, but there was a lot of resistance.”

Dr. Ocampo added, “History becomes very subversive because if we know it and fight for it, people will realize that things don’t have to be the way they are. We’re talking about the marginalized. There’s also the marginalized in history. This month, because it’s Women’s Month, I decided why I shouldn’t look at private resources by women. And then you will see that history is written by men. It was very difficult because women were in the home, raising a family; they were not writing. But then, you have people who are coming out. You have Gregoria de Jesus, the widow of Andres Bonifacio, who wrote.”

The host then addressed Atty. Robredo: “You brought us so much honor when, in 2022, you were chosen as a Hauser Leader at the Harvard Kennedy School, Center for Public Leadership. Could you share some of your experiences as a Hauser Leader with us?” Atty. Robredo shared that she exchanged many stories with non-Filipino students who wanted to discuss the government and the Philippines. “They are interested in finding out about non-American views. We (Filipinos) go to consultations to ask for extra work to increase grades, but those who signed up for consultations with me did not talk about grades at all. It was something foreign to me,” she admits.

“In the class that I was auditing, the teacher would already give cases for the students to read before the class, but that was just the jumping-off point of the discussions.” Atty. Robredo talked about the stark difference in the education system. “I taught for ten years. It’s more difficult to be a teacher there because they question you. They question your authority, they question your expertise, but the openness of it all. They train students to become critical thinkers, not just to accept what is given to them but to question even what’s found in textbooks.”

After this, Dr. Ambeth Ocampo was asked, “What specific strategies do you suggest for enriching the capacity of the institutions and individuals to be more involved in this historical awareness you are talking about?” More ideas regarding the Philippine education system followed.

“I think that the education system in this country is meant to enforce and to build blind obedience to authority,” Dr. Ocampo answered. “We are not taught at the basic level that education is about asking questions. Education is about learning from inquiry. But that is not the way that it is taught, just like Atty. Leni, when I taught at the University of Michigan last winter, I was surprised because it is their training to ask questions. So, I think one of the ways we will move forward is to change the way we teach. To teach children to be critical.”

Following this discussion are the issues concerning the skepticism towards the youth. Their beliefs and political standings, especially relating to history and politics. Atty. Robredo’s answer turned towards the personal, “When I became vice president, it was very deliberate on my part to hire very young people. My chief of staff was only 32 or 33 when I hired him. I fear my generation would already have set beliefs and values cast in stone and no longer be open to new things. So I bank on very young people to help me out. Our programs are very creative and innovative. Even now, with Angat Buhay as an NGO, I still work with young people. Just believe in yourself. The wish is that there are people older than you who will provide spaces for you.”

Dr. Ocampo agreed, “A lot of changes in the world were because of young people like Rizal, Bonifacio, and Aguinaldo, who did their greatest thing before they were 30. Our heroes, almost all of the 19th century, were below 40. As Tony Laney says, believe in yourself and hope that you know there will be an older person who will give you the chance. You also have to be patient. Napoleon used to say that skill is nothing without opportunity. So you may be the greatest person, but there is no opportunity. However, that also works the other way, which means opportunity is nothing without skill. It works both ways – knowing your full worth, developing yourself, and waiting for your lucky break.”

A senior high school student asked both quests, “How can we break down systemic barriers to advocate for leadership by marginalized individuals?” Dr. Ocampo brought back his earlier discussion, “When Apollinario Mabini appeared before the Commission on Appointments because he was named Justice of the Supreme Court, the commission just said, you cannot be Justice of the Supreme Court because you are lame. So, it’s systemic, but I’d like to think there are changes. There are changes in terms of women, in terms of gay people, and transgender people. Our world is becoming bigger than it used to be. Being young as you are, impatient, and wishing things would go faster, but the world does not work that way, just be happy that there are many little cracks in the system and that we are getting there.”

Atty. Robredo added, “I want to comment on two things. Number one, I think it would be easier for the marginalized sectors to have a seat at the table if you provide a platform for that. So, the reason why we have been advocating for people’s councils is precisely to provide the platform. Number two, one of the most important ingredients of leadership is empathy. Empathy is not something that can be taught to you; you have to live it out. You have to immerse yourself in the communities you want to serve.”

As Women’s Month was in its last week, the final question of the event was directed to Atty. Robredo: “How could we better champion more laws for women’s rights and safety?” The human rights lawyer said, “Number one, advocacy groups are very important. But advocacy groups should not just be limited to advocating for issues. There are representatives. I was a representative. There were representatives who fought for laws that would protect us because that’s the most important thing.” She explained further, “When you look at most of the women leaders that we elect, a lot of them get elected because they’re the wives, daughters, or relatives of public officials. My experience is that most of them when they’re in Congress already, are not there to push for or advocate for women’s rights; it’s more about preserving the family. So, number two is supporting women or officials who they feel will protect their rights.”

Everyone wished there was more time for this exchange of ideas. The hosts thanked Dr. Ocampo and Atty. Robredo for generously answering the community’s questions. Dr. Rowel Rojas, Chairperson of the Social Science Area, led the presentation of certificates with Dr. Basilia Blay, Dean of the School of Multidisciplinary Studies, and Prof. Aldino Gonzalez, Chairperson of the Theology-Philosophy Area. The Bachelor of Holistic Disciplines program inspired the event. It is a hybrid, integrative, relevant, and transformative degree program designed for the next generation of learners with diverse passions, interests, and learning abilities. It enables holistic growth and cultivates professional competencies in the disciplines of Contemporary Communication, Health and Wellness, Inclusion and Leadership, and Youth Development Studies.

Dr. Blay closed the program with this message, “This is really history and a dream come true for me, bringing together the two giants in an educational journey. As we conclude this event, it is my hope that the resonance of former Vice President Atty. Leni Robredo’s impassioned call for unity, inclusive and ethical leadership, and Dr. Ambeth Ocampo’s insightful historical perspectives reverberate within us. We are all leaders and historians in our own little way. Let’s persistently advocate and stand up for ethical leadership and for the truth through our individual and collective efforts.”

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