On December 3rd, 2013, twenty Global Scholars had the opportunity to meet with author and human rights activist, John Prendergast, to discuss his experiences and ask him questions. I was lucky enough to have acquired a seat at the lunch, and hope to share some of the highlights.
Prendergast’s accomplishments are varied and many. It would be impossible to talk about all of his achievements in a single post, but I will mention some of them. Prendergast played a pivotal role in negotiating the treaty that ended the deadliest war at the time, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and participated in other peace processes within Africa. In recent years, he co-founded the Enough Project, a project within the Center for American Progress dedicated to the stop of genocide and crimes against humanity. Today, he collaborates with people like George Clooney and Ryan Gosling to generate political will and raise awareness of important issues pertaining to human rights and international development. From working at the White House during the Clinton Administration to working with the Department of State to working with nonprofit organizations and non-governmental organizations to working with A-list celebrities, Prendergast has had an illustrious career thus far. However, despite the acclamation, fame, and weekend getaways with Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, Prendergast has not lost sight of his vocation; he is energized about what he does, and humble about what he has done.
Prendergast walked into Battelle Atrium with a big smile on his face, and the desire to get to know all of us, as he made sure to kick-off the event with our personal introductions and a “fun fact.” My fun fact was that LeBron James threw me his wristband at an NBA game, and when Prendergast poked fun at my favorite basketball player, I knew that his charm and candor would make for an enjoyable lunch. Prendergast recounted how he got started working in the human rights field. His story began with an impulsivity and audaciousness that reminded me of another man who recently spoke at American, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Prendergast and Cooper, both leaders in their respective fields, each hopped on a plane to a foreign land armed with a spirit of inquiry and youthful ambition; and there has proved to be great power in their risk-taking, as those daring adventures largely influenced both of their separate paths to success. Prendergast, for example, reflected on his young, perhaps naïve, self, saying that he had seen an advertisement about starving children in Africa and was deeply affected by what he saw, so he decided to fly to the continent and see what was going on in person. As he elaborated on his first visit to Africa, it was easy to imagine a young Prendergast embarking on that incredible journey, for the enthusiasm and optimism that fueled his early travels continue to shine through today. We were all captivated by his boldness, and pleasured with his humor and down-to-earth demeanor.
Humbly determined not to talk about himself the entire time, Prendergast was eager to engage us, and opened the floor up for our questions after he finished speaking about his life-changing trip to Africa and the work that he has been doing since. The question and answer session was light-hearted, informative, and inspiring. When asked about whether or not he was scared before getting on a plane all those years ago and flying to an unfamiliar place, with little knowledge of what he would encounter upon arrival and not much of a plan, Prendergast laughingly remarked on how he did not really know what to be afraid of, so he kind of just went with curiosity. Looking back on it, he said that he probably should have been more prepared, but he was thankful for the generosity and good luck that helped him survive throughout his spur-of-the-moment trip. Another interesting question pertained to the role that sports can play in international relations. Being a lover of sports, and having strict loyalties to his teams, Prendergast was entertained and intrigued by the question, as he responded with funny anecdotes and insightful ideas. He talked about the numerous times that the topic of sports has come up while at home and abroad, and joked at one point about the Yankee-Red Sox division of Congress. His stories highlighted the way in which sports can be a uniting force that transcends national, cultural, and ideological borders, and also just a fun diversion from work (like when he had a meeting with Obama and was scheduled to play basketball as a break). This question brought out Prendergast’s humor and easygoing personality, while providing a glimpse into his diverse and influential network of colleagues. All in all, the event was a highly inspirational experience, and one that benefited all of us.
After the lunch, it took days to shake off the adrenaline rush that came from meeting John Prendergast. His passion about the plethora of issues he works on is infectious, and it was truly uplifting to see that his excitement has not faded after all of these years. I am sincerely grateful for opportunities like this one, and hopeful for more of them; they are part of what makes the Global Scholars Program so valuable.