“What is this all about? It seems real fancy,” the guy serving the identical platter of sandwiches, pastries and tea for the third day in a row asks me. At this stage, I am still not entirely sure how to answer his question.
I am at the Tomorrow’s Leaders Conference, organised by the Elie Wiesel Foundation, hosted by Trinity College, for 40 Trinity students only.
“Are you actually at a conference?” my parents asked me. There is nothing about this conference on the internet, there is nothing on the Trinity website, there is nothing on the Foundation’s website. You would be hard pressed to find anything on campus indicating its presence, aside from a single nondescript board in the Arts Block with “Tomorrow’s Leaders registration desk this way” written on it.
The founder of the Foundation, Prof. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a man asked several times by Benjamin Netanyahu to become the President of Israel, is certainly a remarkable human being. Spoken about by all the staff and guest speakers in hushed reverential tones, with comparisons to Nelson Mandela aplenty, this tiny 86 year old man and his wife, Marion, plunged the room into silence the moment they walked in with President Michael D. Higgins to open the conference. One guest speaker told one of the masterclass sessions that he was convinced it was Elie Wiesel’s conversation with Bill Clinton that made him decide to intervene in the Balkans.
Various selfies posted by the Foundation’s Facebook page in recent weeks show they are also mates with Bono, Tom Hanks and George Clooney.
The Wiesels have a lot of friends in high places. Our guest speakers who conducted the small group masterclasses that formed the bulk of the conference included no less than five Nobel Prize winners – Sir Richard Roberts, Dudley Herschbach, Sheldon Glashow, Peter Agre and Prof. Wiesel himself. Throw in three legends of American broadcasting – Ted Koppel, Jeff Greenfield, Marvin Kalb – and previous winners of the Foundation’s ethics essay prize, and you have an eclectic group of people to learn from.
Various selfies posted by the Foundation’s Facebook page in recent weeks show they are also mates with Bono, Tom Hanks and George Clooney. Perhaps the lack of publicity is to keep the gathering of many influential people hush-hush for security reasons. At the same time, the silence is deafening, and suspicious.
There is no doubt that the conference was thought-provoking. Each day had a theme of issues around which we were given masterclasses, panel discussions and guest talks. These ranged from media and technology, women’s issues, the environment and conflict resolution. It was incredibly difficult not to be moved by Magogodi Makhene’s account of being tear-gassed in her home of Soweto as a child and her discussion of South African identity in her essay. Sarah Ransohoff’s essay analysing the links between slavery and modern-day oil markets was a particularly compelling highlight for myself and led to many heated group discussions.
During the discussions on women’s issues, many of us were perplexed that Georgene Herschbach, attending as “wife of a guest speaker”, was not the keynote speaker for this day. Herschbach is a former Associate Dean of Harvard College and was responsible for leading the committee on diversity in the college’s admissions process. She provided us with an extremely unique and fascinating insight in overcoming the notorious systemic and institutional challenges in university admissions.
Our keynote speaker for women’s day was Chelsea Clinton, who spoke fluently about levels of female engagement in business and politics, dropout rates of females in STEM subjects in middle school, and her parents’ initiative for promoting female participation. Questions ranged from the political to the strangely personal, such as Ted Koppel’s opening gambit of asking why she didn’t adopt her husband’s surname, to which she replied: “Honestly Ted, I don’t know you well enough to answer that question.”
Questions of a more political nature included her views on corporate America engaging with women’s issues, especially given that major supporters of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Initiative, such as Citibank and Nestle, have been heavily criticised in the past for their treatment of female workers. On this issue, Clinton was markedly vague, speaking in a broad sense about the need for government to improve working conditions for women. She did not give much time to answering a question about her own ambitions to run for US President, stating that she has different priorities at the moment. The session ended with a group photo in the Exam Hall, before Clinton swiftly moved on to speak in UCD.
Their HQ is on Madison Avenue in New York, their guests are staying in the Merrion, they have private coaches to save their guests the marathon trek from the Merrion to Trinity, they have booked the Mansion House for dinner, and flown over entertainment from the USA for us.
The conference finished with a gala dinner in the Mansion House, with entertainment from the renowned American violinist Sirena Huang, opera singer Terry Cook, and poetry reading from Irish actor Brian Merriman. During dinner, I tried to figure out in my head how much the conference must have cost the Foundation, which certainly is not short of cash in any case. Their HQ is on Madison Avenue in New York, their guests are staying in the Merrion, they have private coaches to save their guests the marathon trek from the Merrion to Trinity, they have booked the Mansion House for dinner, and flown over entertainment from the USA for us.
We did not paid a cent for any of this. Similar conferences such as One Young World cost in the region of €3,000 per person to attend. It is still not clear to us why this foundation picked Ireland of all countries, Dublin of all cities, and Trinity of all colleges to host this conference.
So was it all worth it in the end? Could all that money have been better spent giving further funding to the Foundation’s academies for Ethiopian child refugees in Israel? I am unsure of the answer. I know that I and many of my colleagues left this conference incredibly inspired to become more engaged in issues of ethics and social justice. I also know that some attendees are planning to form our own break-off group to focus on tackling these issues together.
I would like to be able to go back to the guy who was serving us food and tell him that we were learning how to make a difference and take action. I hope many of us will, but I am just feeling a bit more sceptical than I should.
Prof. Wiesel said at the opening session, “None of us are running for office, there is no agenda here, no ideology.” Coming from a group that chats with heads of states regularly and has its fair share of influence and money, I am not sure how easy it is to digest that sentence. I leave the conference inspired and optimistic for the future, but with question marks reluctant to leave the back of my head.
Photo: The Elie Weisel Foundation for Humanity Facebook