I was in disbelief when I got the email. “There is no way, I can share a platform with President Clinton and academy winner Sean Penn” I said to myself after receiving the email of invitation from the Clinton Global Innovative. This must be spam, but before I deleted it I had to share it with Jessica Posner ‘09’ my co-founder of Shining Hope. My question was how could the former United States President share a panel with just a slum boy?
When I found out it was real, I have to admit I was really nervous. But I give thanks to SHOFCO-Wesleyan, a student group at Wesleyan, who gave me encouragement that I can do it. I think it is interesting however, to draw a picture of how different parallel lives can be.
In 1993, Clinton became the president of the United States of America. The same year a malnourished Kennedy Odede was hardly surviving. At that age I almost died from Malaria. The year 1993 my family was always between death and life, as my mom used leave me alone the whole day while she looked for odd jobs in the slums so that little Kennedy might survive. I was always hungry and sick and we had no money to do anything about it. In the world who could dare to dream, that a little boy striving to survive in the slums will one day meet the President Clinton who just got elected the same year. President Clinton was in power from 1993 to 2001. My calculation tells me its ten years ago. Where was Kennedy, ten years ago? I never dreamed of being able to continue my education. I never imagined a bright future.
In 1995, the fellow panelist Sean Penn emerged as a prominent actor in “Dead Man Walking.” That same year little Kennedy joined the street life; I had to leave my family as they could not provide food for me and for my siblings. I had to search on my own, I slept cold on the streets under the stalls and food was difficult to come by. In short, I became a homeless kid whose only schooling was the harsh street life education.
As I sat onstage during the panel I thought—how my life has transformed. I couldn’t help wondering about the common qualities shared by leaders— and if I had any of them? I was born to an underage woman who was denied education and could not prosper. My stepfather mistreated my mother, she was often almost beaten to death but she never gave up on her kids. She taught me how to care about other people and to take action to bring change. My poor mom believed in education as she stated, “leadership without education is like being a puppet of the oppressor.” She believes that an informed educated leader will always be an obstacle to the oppressor. She instilled the value of women in me, despite my growing up in a community that women are degraded. I have never known my biological father, nor do I know his whereabouts. I felt a bit of a connection to, President Bill Clinton as his father passed away before he was born and his stepfather mistreated his mother and they were often abused. He came from a humble background and the first one from his family to attend college.
I never knew that one day I would be a panelist with the President Bill Clinton. I am optimistic but that was far beyond my thoughts. I enjoyed meeting President Clinton, I had fun talking to him privately backstage. The man is a great listener and hopeful in everything. Sean Penn too was great, funny, interesting and also a listener. I can say that President Clinton and Sean Penn are just nice people like us who happen to be on the world stage. They are more than what we read or watch on the television. They are inspiring people to be around.
We never know what tomorrow might hold. But, I know the future of tomorrow and years to come are determined by the decisions we make and how we behave today. We better focus on our actions today to prepare of tomorrow and the future. President Clinton said that he wished to be young again. I was shocked to hear that from a respected man like President Clinton. The fact, is that we are the future and we have it within us to make it great beyond our imaginations. Let me challenge you: you’ll never be young forever, every moment is precious as we can impact change in your life and in that others. Every day of our life, precious time is taken away from us. I urge you to make use of it today and be an engine of change.