Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you tonight. I would like to thank the Cooperative Development Foundation for sponsoring this award process, and to NCBA for overseeing nominations and for sponsoring this event. And let me also congratulate my colleagues who are also honored tonight – Ms. Ella Josephine Baker, Allan Galant, Paul Hazen, and Gary Oakland.
My involvement with cooperatives would not have been so rich and rewarding without the guidance and support of my NRECA family. I would like to thank and recognize Jim Matheson, our CEO and Jeffrey Connor, our Chief Operating Officer. And thank you Ron, for nominating me for this award.
As I considered what to share with you tonight, a few things became clear almost immediately. Each of us have make choices in our lives some of which are informed by early impressions from our childhood. While my choices have been mostly guided by my professional and intellectual interests, I realized some years ago that the direction of my life was indeed guided by my need to find meaningful live endeavors – in other words, by my heart. So, I would like to share two personal stories that illustrate what has motivated me.
I grew up in a military family. Soon after my father returned from Korea in 1962, we moved to Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea which was located on the edge of Asmara and housed about 5,000 military personnel and their families. The base facilities included a K-12 American school, stores, sports fields and facilities, and US-style housing. Surrounding the base was a ten-foot security wall.
The first morning I woke up in our house, I recall seeing the wall and wondered why it was there. On the other side of that wall was an Eritrean community. The people there lived in mud huts and small, irregular houses. They didn’t have running water and toilets – they had latrine fields. They gathered wood to cook meals and water from hand pumps. The stark living conditions on the other side of the wall was very confusing for me.
When we learned we were going to Africa, I thought we would see lions, elephants, and zebra. I had no idea we would see endemic poverty just beyond the edge of our yard. When I looked over that wall, I did not imagine, of course, that I would one day focus my life’s work on poverty alleviation.
Many years later, after I completed my graduate studies, one of my professors asked me if I had an interest in working in Kenya, and I knew immediately this was the path I would take. That first job teaching engineering at Egerton University led later to a four-year project in the Philippines, then a position at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In each case, I was able to use my skills and interests to design and build rural infrastructure – food and crop processing, energy and power systems – and each time, I worked with rural communities. What I witnessed time and again was the utterly generous, hard-working and full-hearted nature of these rural people who had so little in resources, but an immense willingness to work together with unbridled energy and enthusiasm.
Some years later in 1991, I joined NRECA International to manage a new project in La Paz, Bolivia. Our project had significant construction financing, so we received many requests for help from communities that we routinely had to decline. There was one group that kept coming back to our office almost every week. One of the leaders kept saying that they could “see the light” every night – and I struggled to understand what this meant. I soon learned that this group of 16 communities was situated on the escarpment overlooking La Paz – so they literally saw the lights of the city from their dark homes every night. This image brought the same sense of injustice I felt when I was a boy in Asmara, and I knew we had to help these earnest community members in need.
We raised funds to pay for material costs and convinced USAID to allow us to allocate the engineering resources to design the project. This project was far smaller than any other project we did in my four years in Bolivia, but it was by far the most impactful for me. The community members were so appreciative and went to great lengths to cooperate with one another to complete the project.
We are here tonight to celebrate cooperatives and those that support them. I learned early in my career that the most effective means to strengthen communities is through the cooperative business model – because it engages the collective interests of community members to address specific needs. I also learned that cooperatives often need some form of external assistance to succeed. This is a role we have chosen to play at NRECA International – to support rural communities to form electric cooperative enterprises. In this capacity, I can say without any doubt that what my colleagues and I have received far exceeds what we have been able to contribute and for that, I am grateful.
Before I close, I would like to acknowledge my family members – my wife Barbara, my son Tolsun and his wife Katie, my son Michael, my daughter Andi and her husband Devin, my dearly beloved grandson Calvin and my two brothers – Dave and Mike. I owe so much to all of my family and love them dearly. Thank you all for bestowing this honor on me.