Lisa Abbott ’88 was honored with the Cui Servire Est Regnare Award—named for the school’s motto, which celebrates a long-engrained ethos of service—for dedicating her career to the well-being of residents in rural Kentucky. Through community organizing and leadership, she has worked with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to improve the health and living conditions of the poor and to bring them opportunity and justice.
Lisa accepted with these remarks:
Thank you, Temba, and thank you, Groton, for this honor. I’m happy for any recognition given to younger alumnae, and I’m humbled to receive this Cui Servire Award. I’d also like to wish my son Myles, a Groton Sixth Former, a very happy eighteenth birthday.
I’m also delighted to be part of a day honoring Jonathan Choate, who was a central part of my own Groton experience. I’ve never worked harder for any coach, and gradually I learned to work that hard for myself and the team. Thirty years later, his chapel talks are among the handful I still remember. He modeled what it means to be vulnerable and strong, to love deeply and to grieve loss. Thank you, Jon, for your gruff affection, brilliance, and dedication.
I believe my grandfather, Nathaniel Abbott, is smiling today. He taught Latin at a small boarding school in rural New York, where he helped to craft their motto: Non Sibi, Sed Cunctis; Not for Oneself, But for All. That expression, and the many ways it was demonstrated through the lives of my grandparents and parents, shaped who I am.
Groton’s own commitment to service and inclusion were key reasons why my fourteen-year-old self was drawn so strongly to be part of this remarkable Circle. Witnessing how this institution continues to live out these values in 2018 makes me deeply grateful to be here with you today.
For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve worked as a community organizer for a grassroots social justice organization in Kentucky. For many of those years I’ve worked in and with rural Appalachian communities, places where the economy and culture has been shaped by 150 years of extraction of timber, coal, oil, gas, and human labor.
My grandmother used to introduce me to her friends as “a teacher,” because explaining community organizing took too long and was too complicated. After the election of President Barack Obama, the term became more familiar, but no less complicated.
Organizing is the process of building power among people affected by injustice to solve community problems and shape a better quality of life for all. You might say community organizers practice democracy—the way other people practice medicine, art, or teaching.
Organizers work with individuals to build their skills and confidence to be effective leaders. We help diverse groups of people craft a shared vision and goals and wrestle with differences. We help build a shared understanding about the world as it is, and the world as we want it to be. And we support people in taking non-violent actions to create change for the better.
Over twenty-five years I’ve helped communities fight for and win guard rails on dangerous roads, water lines to communities whose groundwater has been polluted, protection of family cemeteries from strip-mining, funding for affordable housing, and an awesome program that weatherizes people’s homes with no upfront costs. We’ve helped pass state laws to raise the minimum wage and strengthen our social safety net for people who are low income, disabled, and sick. Our grassroots organization is the reason why coal companies in Kentucky pay property taxes on the value of their minerals. It’s why Kentucky no longer imposes the highest state income tax in the nation on people below the federal poverty line. And it’s why Kentucky has a law, meager though it is, allowing people to install rooftop solar and connect to the grid.
We also lose a lot, as you can imagine. Those losses hurt, and they are intensifying. In Kentucky, as elsewhere, our immigrant neighbors live in daily fear of deportation and the white vans rolling through their neighborhoods and workplaces. Half a million Kentuckians who have health insurance today, many for the first time, are likely to lose coverage starting July first of this year. Kentucky has the highest rate of African-American disenfranchisement in the nation, due to a provision in our state constitution that permanently takes away a person’s right to vote if convicted of a felony.
To be honest, I’m not sure if the long arc of history bends towards justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. I simply know what is likely to happen—and what keeps happening—if many people turn away, shrug our shoulders, and deny our own power and responsibility to try to make things better.
I must have been thinking along these lines even as a Sixth Former at Groton. My yearbook page features a single quote, which I attributed to “anonymous” because I did not know or remember the source. It reads: “I will act as if what I do makes a difference.”
Over the years, I have found that to be both a liberating and a challenging notion—liberating because it helps free me from paralyzing doubt. I can choose to act as if what I do matters. On the flip side, believing my actions matter means accepting responsibility. And if I’m responsible—if together we are all responsible—then we’d better summon all the intensity, love, skill, creativity, and strategy we’ve learned from Mr. Choate, Mr. Maqubela, Ms. VanGelder, Mr. Polk, Ms. Leggat, and so many others here at Groton.
Last year our family visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Among the many stinging issues raised by this memorial is the question of our individual responsibility for the well-being of others, particularly in the face of violence and repression. After lingering in the Hall of Remembrance, we eventually emerged into the lobby and gift shop. There I was astonished to learn that the motto of the museum is a simple, vaguely familiar, and provocative phrase: “What You Do Matters.”
What we do matters. Thank you for all that you do. And thank you for this honor.