Remarks at the Edward M. Kennedy Commemoration Event at Dhaka University

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
February 14, 2012

It is my great pleasure to be here today to join this distinguished panel and all of you in commemorating the 1972 visit of Senator Edward M. Kennedy to Dhaka. Today we commemorate not only that historic visit, but also celebrate the legacy of a man who inspired generations of Americans – and Bangladeshis – to dedicate their lives to improving their communities through public service and volunteerism.

Forty years ago, Senator Kennedy was the first American statesman to visit Bangladesh. He planted a Banyan tree here on the Dhaka University campus alongside eight thousand students. That tree stands today as a representation of your struggle for freedom and independence. It represents your courage, commitment to justice, and bright future. It also represents a lasting symbol of friendship between the people of the United States and Bangladesh.

Senator Kennedy’s strong support for the Bangladeshi people has created a sturdy foundation from which our relations have flourished. We cooperate with you on a wide array of issues including, economic and social development programs and security cooperation, which help to make Bangladesh and the region more secure.

The U.S. has been a key development partner for Bangladesh. USAID recently celebrated 40 years of cooperation with Bangladesh, during which the U.S. Government has provided over $5.7 billion in development assistance. Many partnerships have been forged and much progress has been made over the years—including the establishment of the Bangladesh Agricultural University and many other important programs. Bangladesh is also a focus country for the Obama administration’s initiatives promoting climate change adaptation, food security, global health, women’s empowerment, and engagement with the Muslim world.

Senator Kennedy once said that, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” He lived by those words.

Senator Kennedy spent his entire career fighting to improve the lives of the poorest, most disadvantaged members of society. He believed firmly in both the ability and the responsibility of government to raise the quality of life for all citizens. Senator Kennedy worked tirelessly to draft, sponsor, support, and secure approval for countless pieces of legislation to improve health care, expand education, and help people with disabilities. He continuously reached out across party lines to his political opponents to craft legislation that improved people’s lives. And as a champion for peace and human rights, he spent decades working as a dedicated public servant on behalf of his fellow citizens, and to inspire service.

Senator Kennedy believed that individuals, not just governments, can be powerful forces for positive change. Throughout his career he was a committed advocate for the Peace Corps, a volunteer program that was founded by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, during his presidency and was first led by his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. Since its creation, the Peace Corps has empowered over 200,000 Americans to volunteer abroad.

One of Senator Kennedy’s final achievements was the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expanded the AmeriCorps program and gave a dramatic boost to volunteerism within the United States. When he signed that legislation into law, President Obama said that as a community organizer in Chicago, he himself had been inspired by President Kennedy’s call to service and wanted to do his part “to advance the cause of justice and equality.”

This kind of volunteerism, or work of compassion, is a hallmark of American society and is on the rise in this part of the world. Bangladesh already has a well-earned reputation for its active civil society and volunteerism. Having pioneered some of the most successful grassroots and community activity programs in the world, Bangladesh is now a leader for other societies to emulate. In honoring the legacy and spirit of Senator Edward M. Kennedy here in Bangladesh, therefore, you do him a great tribute.

Following Senator Kennedy’s example, many young Bangladeshis understand that individual ingenuity and passion matter and inspire group action and teamwork. Many Bangladeshis have already shown the world the power of the individual and how far Bangladesh has come in recent decades.

For example, Korvi Rakshand, who will speak right after me, participated in our International Visitor Leadership Program, was inspired by AmeriCorps, and created JAAGO (Wake Up) in 2007. This organization strives to bring education to children living in slums. At first, he began his work on an individual basis, and then was joined by a few friends. Now, JAAGO runs two schools, with another set to open very soon. During the course of his work with JAAGO, Korvi became aware of a hunger among young people to get involved and to make a difference. This inspired him to launch Volunteer for Bangladesh in 2011, which created a network across the country of young people interested in finding solutions to problems in their communities. Since then, over 7,000 young Bangladeshis have answered the call to service with this new organization.

Former Harvard graduate, Ejaj Ahmed, is another inspiring example. He founded the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center in 2008. This organization encourages young people to take the lead in addressing problems in their country. Ejaj believes that youth leadership will play a critical role in developing this country across all spheres. He understands that young people represent the future and, because of this, they need to develop their leadership skills to be fully prepared to take on the challenges and opportunities of Bangladesh’s future.

The Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center brings together young people from diverse religious, ethnic, and educational backgrounds to learn how to work together to solve problems and how to put their ideas into action in meaningful ways. They go to impoverished communities and work with community members to formulate innovative solutions to fundamental challenges such as water and sanitation.

There are numerous other Bangladeshi examples of the power of individuals to bring change. Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus paved the way for micro-finance, which has lifted millions out of poverty and has strengthened women’s economic rights. Jawed Karim co-founded YouTube— a technology that has done many great things for promoting freedom and expression all around the world.

Young Bangladeshis, in particular, are now more active than ever in their communities. Together, you have contributed countless thousands of hours to public service by harnessing your creativity and energy. You are helping your communities thrive through education and community service projects that really make a difference.

Your dedication to justice, unity, and tolerance is truly commendable and the United States is proud to support organizations like Volunteer for Bangladesh and JAAGO, the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, and Community Action. These organizations help individuals reach their potential as dynamic leaders and engaged citizens working for their community, their country, and their world.

Ambassador Mozena has already announced our intention to establish a new American Center here in downtown Dhaka to serve as a gathering place for Bangladeshi youth interested in public service and the arts. It is our fervent desire that this Center will inspire the next generation of citizens and leaders in Bangladesh to contribute to maintaining the spirit of volunteerism and public service embodied by Senator Kennedy.

We hope that it will become a meeting place for Bangladeshis to interact with one another and with visiting Americans. We hope that it will become a valuable resource for Bangladeshis to learn more about American ideas and ideals, from civic activism to public service. We hope that youth leadership workshops and professional development training will provide the opportunities young people want and need to make our world a better place. And finally, we hope that the Center will continue to unite Bangladeshis and Americans and serve as a lasting bridge between our countries and cultures.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to join you here on this important anniversary. By remembering the life and contributions of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, we can come closer together and keep his legacy burning bright.

In his eulogy for Senator Kennedy in August 2009, President Barack Obama said that “Ted Kennedy’s life’s work was not to champion the causes of those with wealth or power or special connections. It was to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity.” We all know too well that there are still millions who need our help to be heard and who cannot reach the first rung on that ladder of opportunity without our help. In the spirit of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, let us all dedicate ourselves to public service and volunteer on behalf of our fellow citizens, so that we too, can give others the voice and opportunity they deserve.