One year ago, Michael Elliott, who was retiring from being CEO of ONE, gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.
Michael was leaving the ONE Campaign because he was sick: He had cancer. But that evening at the party to mark his retirement, he raced around the room shaking hands and swapping political gossip with his friends as if he had all the time in the world. It wasn’t so. Two days later, he died.
What we’ll remember about Michael a year later is his energy and enthusiasm for the ONE Campaign, and its task: to end extreme poverty. He cared about it very strongly and very personally.
To remember him, his family, the ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists established an award in his name for excellence in African storytelling. Just a few weeks ago, the first winner, a fiery young woman called Mercy Juma, spoke of her pride at winning the award, and her passionate commitment to journalism.
“From what I have read about Michael Elliott, he had hope that fellow writers would articulate the struggles of ordinary people. This award gives us more power and strength, to do that. To be the voice of the voiceless in Africa and beyond,” she said.
Michael would have nodded his head vigorously in agreement.
The speech that Michael gave last year paid tribute to his colleagues in ONE, and to “their amazing hard work and creativity and passion in service to those, who through no fault of their own have been asked to live with stunted life chances simply because of the accident of their birth.”
But as Michael reminded the room, “It’s not about us.” The most moving part of his speech was when he quoted Derek Walcott’s magnificent poem, Omeros, remembering when Walcott’s father took him as a child to watch women in St. Lucia load a ship with coal:
“Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet
and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time,when
one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme….
…and your duty
from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance that you now have, to give those feet a voice.”