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Liberia former Public Works Minister speaks on: Seeding Excellence in Education

Remarks delivered by Samuel Kofi Woods, II, Legal Consultant, Liberia Law Society & 1981 Graduate of the St. Patrick’s High School, at the 27th Homecoming of the St. Patrick’s and St. Theresa Convent Alumni Association (Saints & Friskies Alumni Association), Held in Houston, Texas, USA, May 28th, 2022 OUR LOVED ONES, FELLOW ALUMNI

MR. PRESIDENT AND EXECUTIVES OF OUR MOST DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI ASSOCIATION (SAINTS & FRISKIES)

GUESTS, FRIENDS, SCHOOLMATES, CLASSMATES OF THE CLASS OF 1981

My Fellow Alumni & Friends

Two days ago, while preparing for this trip to Texas. I was awakened to the horrifying news of the shooting that took place in Uvalde, here in Texas.

The contents of my speech had to be altered to deal with these matters of which I have a deep and abiding conviction. We must identify with the hurting families as we gather in here in Houston, just 277 miles from Uvalde, the scene of that deadly tragedy.

I listened to the agonizing commentaries and interventions on the shooting of children who had gone to school, some recently honored, some so full of life and expectations of the future, teachers who spent decades of unmeasured commitment to their profession and parents in sorrow and mourning. As an International Human Rights Lawyer recognized and acknowledged for my uncompromising stance on injustice, my tongue cannot cleave on this tragic experience. America is sadly and increasingly losing its moral standing as a global leader on peace, stability and human rights. It is betraying a global trust once heralded for democracy and the protection of its citizens. There is something morally wrong when an 18-year-old who does not qualify to buy alcohol can buy a deadly machine gun and pull a trigger that ends the dreams of so many. This is a tragic failure, and it is wrong! This is an assault on humanity. This is a failure of leadership; and a nation that cannot protect its citizens ceases in value and worth.

This nation needs to respond collectively, decisively and urgently to stop the mayhem on its streets and schools, churches and mosques, and supermarkets and malls; and the regular specter of blood on the streets, floors, homes and various spaces of assembly in America. The killing of any human being anywhere must cause outrage for everyone everywhere in the world.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Labor Minister Samuel Kofi Woods officially launch a garbage removal exercise in Soniewhien. Photo Credit: Adama B. Thompson/Executive Mansion (8th February 2007)

I am quick to equally admit that Liberia, from whence I have come, is itself entangled in a different kind of mayhem so inhumane and tragic: a dishonorable legislature, politically subservient and corrupt judiciary and an executive without a compass to lead and a national leadership deficit. Mysterious deaths remain unanswered, disappearances, drug addiction and lack of accountability, and lawlessness have all pervaded us. We, too, have our share of problems and wrong anywhere is wrong everywhere. In all this, we have good people taking initiative to improve life and engender hope. One such initiative brings us to this Reunion in Texas.

My Dear Friends, we are blessed and must be grateful to God to be here today. Our generation has managed to survive the trammels of global and national tragedies. We have endured Ebola and COVID, various wars around the world, including in Liberia, and now Ukraine. In spite of all these daunting experiences and man’s inhumanity to man, we have summoned the courage to come together and reflect on how we can do good. In this, we give meaning and purpose to our being. We must all look at each other, hug and Thank God that we can meet again.

Please let us stand in befitting tribute and prayers for those who were hounded down by bullets, killed by the vicissitudes of our world and those who have left us: Our parents, friends, classmates, Teachers, Principals and so many gone before and taken by the inevitable. We pray that their souls will be blessed and their intercession with the Almighty will allow us to continue to embark on those positive things that will advance our society.

Thanks to the collective leadership of the SAINTS & FRISKIES (Bro. Kofa and others on the Team) whose tireless commitment has made it possible to reengineer a New St. Patrick’s and support St. Theresa Convent. Please join me in applause for their vision and steadfastness to make us all proud, lift our heads, beat our chests and walk around like real Saints. Can we stand and applaud Brother Koffa and his team: too often we take for granted these efforts and stunning achievements.

Your invitation to interact with you on this 27th REUNION confers a singular honor in no small measure. No honor, no acknowledgment surpasses one conferred on you by your childhood friends, classmates, and schoolmates at a Homecoming. By this, you acknowledge my service to humanity. I and my family will remain eternally grateful.

As I am grateful, I submit that the most herculean task has been imposed to speak to my peers and academic superiors at a dinner where their attention span might be limited and their appetite for information might be tempered by the menu on the table. Believe me, I am equally tempered.

And yet we are all excited about friends and schoolmates we have not seen for decades and need some time to indulge and reminisce on how we joked, laughed, teased, and pretended that we could outsmart each other and our teachers…The gala days and flag days and what happened.

Homecoming/REUNION, my friends, is a moment to revisit our youthful nostalgic fantasies: love never experienced, beauty eluded and/or beheld, dreams realized and/or unfulfilled, hopes dashed and daringly disappearing. Time again to see the beautiful young lady who eluded our youth, the handsome boy who would charm us, the career never achieved and/or pursued and many more. All these reflections compel us to realize that there are things over which we have no control. Now years have passed, we have grown old and now we can appreciate with time and experience the meaning of love and the wisdom of life.

Our immortality suggests that we must cherish each moment because time rushes on and we must love when we can, do good when the opportunity presents itself and be honest when we have failed. Youth, my friends, is so precious. We now know that we must enjoy and experience it fully.

One thing is certain today! WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, WE ARE ALL IN THE NUMBERS!!!!

Haven’t we all grown, changed, some become wiser by revisiting our understanding of love and our purpose of living? Part of fulfilling that purpose is why we are here to raise money to rebuild our lovely St. Patrick’s High School and support the programs for girls at St. Theresa’s Convent. What noble twin undertakings?

Your invitation to speak at this dinner imposes a binding duty to share my thoughts with you on the theme: SEEDING EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION

In this interaction and under these conditions, I will limit our discourse to Liberia where our alma mater is located and where we seek real interventions and investments.

Driven by their religious beliefs, their vows, their passion and conviction, and selfless sacrifices, the Religious Order of the Franciscan Missionaries (FMM), the Society of African Missions (SMA) and the Brothers of the Holy Cross embarked on an evangelizing mission to educate and promote quality education in Liberia in the early 1930s.

They set the stage for what we are doing today. This REUNION and its undertakings are the contemporary parallel to their mission. The values and philosophy that offered the education we have must inspire us to invest not only money and resources but the human commitment and values to change our country. We must give back. This is our sacred thrust!

What does academic excellence even mean?

And can the academic excellence that those two schools provided, be replicated today?

The education provided by St. Patrick’s and St. Theresa’s Convent was built on the Catholic philosophy of Education- integrated Holistic Education- erected on the three pillars of training the Mind, the Body, and the Soul.

Father D’Souza argues that central to accomplishing this three-headed mission of education is the question of the one and the many, of universality and particularity, and of commitment and openness. It is about reading and writing and doing algebra and physics and chemistry, but it was equally, if not more so, about creating an expansive understanding of what it means to be human, about cultivating a lifelong commitment to learning, it is about building a strong faith rooted in truth and social justice, and it is about the desire to be of service to all, particularly the downtrodden in our midst.

It is about building a curriculum that is structured to provide these critical ingredients of human formation. And it is also about cultivating, providing, and managing the resources necessary to provide those services.

Not only did the Religious build schools and teach, they provided scholarships to those of us who wanted to learn but didn’t have the means. I am a proud beneficiary of a work scholarship opportunity offered to me from the 8th grade. They did so against great challenges and odds.

But against all that, they set the stage and offered us a firm educational foundation. Like our forefathers and like the early missionaries, we must now envision our own mission to reform and rebuild in the face of our own challenges, adversities, and opportunities.

Much like the religious who established and managed our two schools, we face very serious challenges today. But, with the vision that you have set for our alumni association, we must follow their footsteps, learn from their commitments, and from their exceeding charity and selfless service.

Let’s profile the current state of our society and the challenges we face as we explore how to promote excellence in education.

The Family and Community: The family unit and our communities disintegrated since the war and sadly, no real intervention has been put in place to restore the family as “the basic unit of society”. Hence our communities are plagued with and being overrun by what I refer to as the twin evils of drug addiction and sexual abuse, rape, and various forms of lawlessness.

1994 Advocate Samuel Kofi Woods II is a Liberian journalist, academic, activist, and politician. In 1986, Woods began his activism as the student president of his university and a leader of the national student organization. After the outbreak of the civil war in 1989, Woods fled to Ghana. He returned to Liberia in 1991 to launch the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, which became the country’s most prominent human rights organization. In the midst of the war, he wrote and distributed reports of human rights violations. He also established a radio program that focused on publicizing arrests and extrajudicial executions as well as educating citizens about their rights. In 1994, he founded the Forefront Organization to document the human rights abuses of the Second Liberian Civil War. In 1998, Woods was accused of sedition for exposing forced child labor in the country. Woods, his family, and his staff faced threats from government authorities, and many of his colleagues were murdered. Woods was forced into hiding and exile on multiple occasions. After the civil war ended, Woods served as the Liberian minister of labor and the minister of public works. Woods is pictured at the Stop the War on Children Global Symposium in 2019.

The family of old has disintegrated: Young people are now heads of households, especially young girls. They must now fend for their parents, starting at very early ages. Their educational hopes and dreams are being stymied by the circumstances of their lives.

The role of the nuclear family as we knew it is to encourage, guide, and to nurture, together our parents and the community created an environment where the best in us could be realized and where we could develop as responsible citizens, prepared to play our part and to give our share. That is hardly the case today.

How can they grow up into whole parents who would take their children to school, attend and participate in PTA meetings, show good examples and teach their kids at home?

The St. Patrick’s we knew is being rebuilt. The Convent we knew is still in existence but the family today is different in character than the family we knew then.

Our new school must increase possibilities for strategic education that will enable our youth to imbibe values of self-respect and respect for others, sacrifice rather than exploitation and the vain accumulation of wealth, conviction and passion entrenched in values of integrity and the desire for merit rather than patronage, love for country and a strong sense of patriotism. We must teach basic skills that prepare them for community work and development.

I, therefore, recommend community-based programs that consider skills building in addition to the usual formal education. Programs in psychological counseling must be integral imperatives within our new education pedagogy.

The new education paradigm must emphasize and insist on the involvement of parents in the education of children. We can lead in this arena, just as our founders did.

We, as Saints, must begin to think of ways and areas in which we can apply our expertise through volunteerism. The early religious were professionals who sacrificed to provide us with the education and formation necessary to enable us to compete globally. We can do the same and get little in our pockets. There are many of us who can and must participate in a voluntary teaching Program. The Alumni can launch such a program.

The State: In rebuilding St. Patrick’s and promoting excellence in education, the rebuilding of our nation-state is critical. Politics is an important aspect of how we succeed. Many of us think that we should shy away because politics and its outcome in many cases have scared us. We cannot succumb to the dictatorship of the ignorant and incompetent. The purpose of our education is not only for self-enrichment and fulfillment but to help others. We cannot survive as an island in a sea of trouble and instability.

Investment in education has diminished. Religious and faith-based institutions that were the backbones of our nation have now suffered challenges since the war and have never recovered.

Investment in Education and Health have been diminished in favor of security and unsavory investments.

Our nation continues to ignore the values of education. This attitude and the low investment in education by the Liberian state will not seed excellence in education and advance the development of our country. The percentage of our education spending against our Gross Domestic Product ( GDP) cannot remain at about 8%; that is unsustainable in a country emerging from war and battling high rates of ignorance. It has to increase to at least 20 percent or more to demonstrate that we are serious about educating our young people and promoting excellence.

While there are good things happening in Liberia and various private initiatives like ours are being applauded, the key responsibility as delegated by our constitution is conferred on the state.

We are rebuilding St. Patrick’s and strengthening Convent in a nation where there’s a tyranny of the majority who, after being abused on the battlefield of war have become new pawns on the political and social battlefront.

The majority and our political leadership are undoubtedly contemptuous of education. Our political, social and cultural values have become so debased.

From the deadly slogans of “you killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote for you and you know book, you not know book I will vote for you”, and now educated and book people destroyed the country; these slogans define our political psyche.

Yes, democracy represents the will of the majority but if the majority is ill-informed and subject to manipulations then the society is in peril. This must change if we must seed excellence in education. Educated People did not destroy Liberia. Greedy, egoistic and unpatriotic souls destroyed and continue to destroy our country. Men and women of vain and naked ambition continue to destroy our country. Evidence now shows how incompetent, uneducated and unsophisticated people can destroy a nation.

Liberia is in peril. The state is sick and needs resuscitation. There’s a leadership deficit and lawlessness of all sought, with scathing impunity. Growing up we knew about consequences. A nation with no consequences for bad behavior is bound to implode. Lack of consequences and impunity have become the twin norms of the day.

Our nation’s capital is one of the dirtiest in the world but worse is the case of the academic filth taking over the educational institutions. Mediocrity taking over intellectual discourse. We must help clean the academic filth by supporting quality education, encouraging scholarship over mediocrity, merit over patronage, law and order over lawlessness and violence.

In his expression of frustration of the state of affairs in this country in 1847, Wilmot R. Blyden mentioned just ten years after our independence, that “as a people we have been in too much haste to be rich…the desire to be rich, or appear to be rich, pervades all classes. The love of money…..has grown upon us to such a degree that all other avenues of distinction seem but trifling in comparison to those which lead to the acquisition of money.” To be rich seems with many “the chief end of man”. Hence no talents, no endowment of the mind, no skill or knowledge, no amount of education, is appreciated only so far as it will pay…This reality has not changed since 1857. In this age, Blyden’s words remain profound. More than a century today, this remains true. We adore and honor criminals and frown on integrity.

To conclude, let me reiterate my recommendations:

  • We must collectively strive to re-organize the Alumni Association in Liberia to adequately respond to the task at hand. I personally pledge to work with our team at home to ensure that we are a faithful partner in this great vision of rebuilding our Alma Mater and support St. Theresa Convent.
  • We must explore the possibility of organizing a home-coming program in Liberia in the shortest period.
  • We must develop an Alumni volunteer program where professionals of the Alumni Association can volunteer their services to our schools in an organized and structured way,
  • We must campaign to ensure that our government establishes an educational and Health fund consistent with the dictates of the education laws of Liberia. We must encourage our Government to establish the Education and Health Fund. Our national investment in education through budgetary allocations and our attitudes to governance and spending will show a commitment to seed excellence in education.
  • Now is the time to ask what you can do to support our alma mater? Don’t ask the question why? Ask Why not because it is possible! Each of must think about giving back!

We often ask the difficult question WHY? Growing up we were always challenged with the question WHY? But when your kids wake up the morning and tell you that they want to be Secretary-General of the United Nations or President of Liberia. Don’t ask the question why? Ask the question WHY NOT? Let them know that it possible. If you and I can become who we are today and looking path at our journey they too can be anybody they want to be! By Asking WHY NOT they know that they can explore the fullest potentials and succeed.

The two high schools, our parents, and our country have given us so much. It is time to give back so that our country and others after us can be better than we are.

WHY NOT ??? IT IS POSSIBLE! GDO BLESS YOU!