Embracing Change and Dealing with Power (Ms. Glenda Gloria’s speech during Akbayan 13th Anniv Celebration)

By Glenda M. Gloria*

Delivered on the occasion of Akbayan’s 13th Anniversary, January 31, 2011

Thank you for this chance to be with you today as you celebrate your 13th year anniversary.

I’m not sure why I was given this honor. I have my suspicions that this early, your outgoing—or ex?—party president, Secretary Ronald Llamas, who is taking his oath in Malacanang this morning, wants to buy insurance so that I’d spare him the scrutiny that a journalist usually subjects a public official to. Or that he probably thinks I’m a safe bet—because I have many friends in Akbayan and therefore I’d only shower it with kind words.

Kidding aside, it’s true however that to stand in front of you today has also a lot to do with my own personal journey. I have grown up with some of the key leaders of Akbayan, both former and present. I have known them since more than 25 years ago, during those years when were all struggling—struggling to find meaning in our lives, struggling to find the organization that would fit our ideals, struggling to make choices for ourselves and for our nation.

During those years, the sectors that would later form the backbone of Akbayan were just too happy to get one or two recruits and made do even with clueless ones like myself.

And so I know how you built this party from scratch, rich in passion but often wanting in logistics. I know the price you had to pay to bring it to where it is now. I also know about your acrimonious debates and internal squabbles that are par for the course for any organization engaged in politics. I know that you have mustered—and you should muster—enough will and the grace to learn from each of them.

As soon as Akbayan entered the halls of Congress, it easily captured the imagination of a public—and media—that was tired of slogans and dogma from Left. It was not grim and determined in its ways, it was not constipated in its thinking, it was not shooting from the hip. It clearly showed what you wanted to be as a party: you were willing to take risks and to create new avenues for growth.

While you aimed to be a party for the masses, to the outside world you also appealed to the aspirations of the middle class—transparency and accountability, a peaceful path to change, creative engagement with power, and advocating gut issues without sounding and appearing antiquated. Whether you like it or not, this appeal to middle-class consciousness has made you stood out from the rest of the Left groups. Whether you like it or not, the outside world expects you to navigate this stream well, because we are a country badly in need of a politically and economically viable middle class.

You could argue of course that it is the basic sectors that form the power base of any progressive political party. This is true, but your engagement with politics and your public persona as a party over the years has allowed you to help shape public discourse and debate among the chattering classes and the political elite. You need to accept this not as a weakness but a strength that you have to harness as you enter a new decade of challenges.

EMBRACING CHANGE

The new decade will prove to be more complex and nuanced. It will spring on you challenges on two key issues: your party’s ability to deal with change and your capacity to handle power.

Even the traditional media here and elsewhere in the world could feel the ground shaking. The once revered gatekeeping functions of experts and journalists are slowly being chipped away by a technology-driven crowd and mass.

Akbayan was born from the protest movement, from street activism.  To grow, however, the party has to reach out to a generation that knows of no other kind of protest but Facebook and Twitter protest. We all ignore this new world at our peril.

The Internet has sparked its own revolutions—in Iran, in Egypt as we speak, thus Mubarak’s attempt last week to shut it down, and in the diplomatic community in the aftermath of wikileaks.

There are now more than 12 million Filipinos on Facebook—or nearly 14 percent of the population, making us the 8th biggest country in the world in terms of Facebook use. The Philippines ranks 12th among countries with the highest number of Twitter users.

More significantly are the following data: Filipinos are 7th among all Asians in terms of Internet usage. And the Philippines is 10th among all countries browsing the Net through their phones.

Outside, it is the emerging economies that are using technology to help the poor.

Safaricom in Kenya started as a small cell-phone company. Now it is behind a banking revolution in South Africa with its 2007 launch of a money-transfer-by text message service called M-Pesa. For too long, banks have held on to a very exclusive business model: that if you’re poor, you don’t belong. Innovation and technology have completely changed that.

In Ghana, South Africa, another company has put up a service that determines whether a drug is counterfeit or not by encouraging cell phone users to send the central code number via text.

This is a landscape that political parties, governments, the media, activists, the academe, and the business sector cannot afford to ignore.

As a progressive party that has shown its ability to adapt to a new world order, I suggest you treat technology beyond a utilitarian  framework and consider it as a driver for growth, development, and improved public discourse.

The second challenge that I think you are now faced with has something to do with power.

In case you still have not come to terms with it, here’s the reality for you: you are in power now. By this I don’t only refer to the obvious fact that key party leaders are now in government. I also mean the informal trappings that go with it: the perception that you have the ears of the President, the perception that you are the reform bloc within the system, and the perception that you have risen politically—and will die politically—with this President.

Of course it is true that you were Akbayan long before Noynoy became Pnoy. You were already a political brand long before he became one.

But that you are now a high-profile political party straddling two worlds compels you to manage not just reality but perception. And this can be tricky if you are not grounded in fundamentals.

Power is essential in politics. It can also be intoxicating and isolating. You are in a position to show the world how sophisticated you have become in terms of using and handling it.

In some ways, the fate of Akbayan and Newsbreak are quite alike. When we built Newsbreak as an independent, hard-hitting magazine 10 years ago, we never thought the day would come for us to be in bed with a media giant. But we did in 2008 and partnered with ABS-CBN. I’m sure the issues we considered then somehow echo Akbayan’s as well. ABS-CBN, like government, provided wider berth, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reach out to more people, an opportunity to execute the reforms we have been preaching.

But we also recognized the need to keep our brand and stay to our core being. Last year, we ended our partnership with ABS after a fruitful and enriching engagement with them. We came out of it ready to conquer the online and social media world, which we think is the future. We’d like to believe that our exposure to ABS-CBN makes us more prepared to deal with the fast-changing changes in the media world.

But what sometimes happens when you’re in power or when you’re big? You tend to do two things: to be dismissive of or be sensitive to criticism. Both arise from bigness, from the sense that you get it and the people who disagree with you don’t. Avoid that path.

Use power instead to be more attuned to the voices of the disenfranchised and to a community that, thanks to technology, is now more diverse and opinionated.

You are in the best possible place to be to push for policies and decisions that will matter to the greater majority. Seize it, be good at it, but don’t stay too comfortable in it.

Because in the end, Akbayan will draw its strength from its core values that have brought it to where it is today. These should make you outlast governments, presidents, and political campaigns.

Here’s to more years of public service and innovative politics.

Happy anniversary at magandang umaga sa inyong lahat.

(*Ms. Gloria served as chief operating officer of ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel, from February 2008 until January this year. She is now executive director of Newsbreak (www.newsbreak.ph) and President/CEO of the Public Trust Media Group, which publishes Newsbreak.)

MALIGAYANG ANIBERSARYO SA AMING PARTIDO! ANG PARTIDO NG KINABUKASAN! -Akbayan Youth

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