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Beyond the music

By : Katie Ellis

Edith Briloff, Harry Belefonte; Upinder Dhillon, dean of the School of Management; Abraham Briloff, share a moment during the singer’s Oct. 28 campus visit for ath annual Briloff lecture.
Harry Belafonte has come a long way from his life as a high school drop out and a janitor’s assistant, and his “stepping into the world of entertainment and theater” brought him celebrity, and the opportunity to use it to benefit others.

Last week he told the audience at the 20th anniversary Abraham J. Briloff Lecture that his celebrity also brings with it responsibility – the responsibility to speak up about injustice wherever he sees it.

“What does one do with this platform of celebrity?” he asked. “What do you say that brings purpose and hope? An abundance of coincidences have brought me an abundance of opportunities to make a difference.”

Crediting his mother for setting him on the right path, he said, “The things that drive me in life are really rooted in my introduction to the world – and into poverty. But this world is also a place where many miracles unfold, and in this environment I found counsel and the direction to point my life. My mother set a course for her children. ‘Do something to change the face of justice is your charge.’

The 77-year-old Belafonte, who has earned Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards, was active in the Civil Rights movement and remains committed to helping the less fortunate and those engaged in struggles around the globe. The recipient of the first Nelson Mandela Courage Award, he also serves as an ambassador for UNICEF, traveling the globe on missions to help children. He urged the audience to follow his lead.

“I am deeply committed to this nation. Its citizens have a right and responsibility to speak up and voice dissent. It’s one of the principles I’m deeply committed to that is eternally rooted in the cause of justice,” he said. “We have to pool our resources collectively, morally and politically to shape new directions for us as citizens to become more deeply involved.” Belafonte spoke of past struggles and his hope for change.

“Let our ears be open to hear the truth,” he said. “Where is our sensitivity to our neighbor? How come greed has so captured our souls?

“What we did in passing on that legacy – in the passing of the baton – was the harvest of our victory, not the essence of our struggles.”

Yet, Belafonte believes that one person can make a difference, with or without the benefit of celebrity. To illustrate his point, he spoke of a lone doctor he met who was working with the poorest of the poor in Africa. With little in the way of resources, medications or supplies to help the thousands who were suffering, Belafonte asked the doctor how he could continue his work without being totally overwhelmed by the suffering. “He told me, ‘I think, what can I do in this moment to make a difference to as many as I can?’

“I ask you as fellow citizens, especially the young people, to go back once again and take a careful look at where we are as a people and ask yourself if you’ve taken on your fair share,” Belafonte said. “Whatever you do with humanity, with the world, with your soul and yourself – find a way to communicate, because nothing is more important than what happens to the village, the community and the most needy among us.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08