“Do not wait to be appointed ‘boss’ to be a leader.” This is what Josette Sheeran, who directs the UN World Food Programme, told graduates at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
But what if a whole group of people decides to become the “boss,” at least for a while?
Take what happened back in 1947 when a train whistled across America making stops in various cities as it headed east. This may not seem out of the ordinary. But the purpose of this train most certainly was.
At every stop people would bring cans of food and load them into the boxcars. This was the Friendship Train, collecting donations for Europeans starving after World War II. The food would be shipped overseas after reaching its final U.S. stop.
This was most definitely an act of compassion. But columnist Drew Pearson, whose idea launched the Friendship Train, explained that it meant something else too: a change in the leadership roles of our foreign policy.
Instead of just heads of state and other high-ranking officials making deals to decide war and peace, it was ordinary citizens taking the reins and leading the way on international relations.
Pearson wrote that in the past when it came to foreign relations, “a lot of people have stood on the sidelines feeling helpless, futile, frustrated…Now, however, for the first time in history, the average American sees a chance to do something to influence the foreign policy of his country. For food quite definitely has become an instrument of foreign policy. It is just as much an instrument of foreign policy as tanks or battleships, possibly more so. Food means the difference between a chaotic Europe or a gradually reconstructed Europe. In the end it may mean the difference between peace and war.”
People seized this opportunity. In fact, it was said that towns not included in the route were upset and wanted additional lines created. The Friendship Train gained traction from people all across the country.
Another initiative that sprang up at that time was started by a woman, Iris Gabriel, a self-proclaimed “big zero.” That is, at least until she visited Great Barrington, Massachusetts and came up with the idea for the “Silent Guest” program.
At Thanksgiving 1947, people were asked to take in a “silent guest” at their holiday dinner and donate the cost of feeding that guest. This led to numerous donations which bought CARE packages to feed the hungry in Europe. Gabriel, who spent years hospitalized for tuberculosis, became the leader of a major hunger-fighting initiative.
Speaking of packages, a couple of employees at the Kroger grocery chain in Cincinnati, Ohio launched their own idea about feeding the hungry. They took the company’s overseas gift service for troops in the war and expanded it to deliver food to needy civilians.
None of these individuals waited to be appointed “the boss” of U.S. foreign policy and postwar relief. They took it upon themselves and seized the opportunity. As Pearson and others were quick to point out, they were way ahead of Congress in terms of granting new aid packages.
The massive interim aid food package and the Marshall Plan were major parts of the the plan to rebuild Europe. These of course were much larger aid and reconstruction tools approved by Congress. However, there is nothing like having some leadership from the public help point the way in American foreign policy.
That is what you want in a country or an organization – people with ideas and willing to lead. You need this creativity to be encouraged. It’s more fun that way.
It’s the kind of transformational leadership that can fight and win the struggle against global hunger today. It’s what we need right now in U.S. foreign policy to win the peace in a world marked by unrest and instability.
Hunger needs to be a top priority, both in government and in the public consciousness. It can no longer be just an issue getting a bit of attention here and there.
There are nearly one billion people worldwide suffering from hunger, almost the highest number in history. Food programs, including child feeding, are living off low funding in many countries including Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Ivory Coast – just to name a few.
In Haiti, there is much more to be done to give that country the universal school feeding program it desperately needs. Children there are still hungry for both food and education. None of these countries will achieve peace and reconstruction if they live in hunger.
Like the Friendship Train, we can roll out in front of government leaders, motivating them to do more to fight hunger. We can speak to people in other countries and show them we have not forgotten. We can demonstrate the friendship Americans have for the people in all nations.
This struggle to end hunger needs leadership. The leadership provided by world leaders is not enough right now. So as Josette Sheeran says, “Take initiative, lead from the bottom.” That is us.
Video: Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, speaks at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) commencement on Thursday, May 26. Sheeran’s speech topic is “Transformational Leadership in a Flat World.”
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