Sam Waterston: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Ken Bacon

Refugees International Director Emeritus Sam Waterston delivered the following remarks at a dinner honoring Ken Bacon, former president and founder of our Climate Displacement program.

I’m to talk to you about Ken Bacon, who honored me by making me a ‘friend.’ And I will talk about him. But my true subject is hope, specifically, the brand of hope that I believe was in Ken Bacon’s nature and guided his choices, because we all need it now, and his is an example you can lean on. It’s never too late to look at the facts in the face, never too late to hope like a grown-up. It’s what Ken tried to teach me, and the great lesson of Refugees International.

For as long as I’ve been associated with RI, this mighty, purposeful, clear-eyed, and idealistic group has always grabbed the bull by the thorns. That’s a seriously badly mixed metaphor. I mean it to say that RI didn’t flinch from going where our inhumanity to one another is at its outrageous worst. It grabbed the refugee explosion by the thorns and never let go. And, on that mission, for too short a time, Ken Bacon was its highly effective leader.  

Where did all that effort and courage get us? There are more refugees than ever. Time was, there was shame attached to indifference to harm to civilians in wars, but these days, we have world leaders who don’t even bother to disguise it that, to them, refugees are nothing more than weapons.   

And Climate Displacement?

We’re here to celebrate 10 years of the Climate Initiative named for Ken Bacon. RI has done great things in that time. Just in the one area of Climate Displacement, beginning with Ken’s own insight into what was right and made sense, RI was the very first American-based NGO to have a climate displacement program. It put the issue on the map and made sure it stayed there. That’s a reason Climate is in every discussion of displacement now, right along side the other causes of conflict and mass movements of people, whether we’re talking about Syria, Africa, or Latin America, Mozambique or Mumbai. RI’s efforts were part of what moved the UNHCR to develop preventions of forced displacement due to climate driven weather events. It successfully advocated for our neglected fellow citizens in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, advocacy that resulted in legislation. And just last week, Senator Markey put before the Senate a bill to grant climate displaced people the protections that refugees from conflict receive. But for Ken’s insight and initiative — and RI’s commitment — would any of this have happened? RI’s work is Ken’s kind of work, putting one foot in front of the other, looking at things as they are, without illusions, and acting for the good and sensible, whatever the odds. They made a good match.

But the numbers grow and grow. The UN expects 200 million to be displaced by climate by 2050.  If 30 years seems like a long time to you spring chickens, trust me, it’s hardly the blink of an eye. Is there a displacement or a conflict in the world today where climate isn’t a factor?   

We’re here to celebrate. What is there to celebrate? This is my take:

We’re here to celebrate what challenged, shook, and impressed me about Ken Bacon when I knew him, and to celebrate the fact that his way of taking on the world, is a permanent part of RI’s DNA, a big part of what makes it rare and great. And what was that way?  

Ken knew what hope is. He didn’t just know about it, he had it.  It was part of him.  It’s what made him a great guy to be around, a wonderful leader of RI, an example to use in these calamitous times. To me, it might as well have been Ken speaking, when the wonderful writer, Vaclav Havel, principal author and first president of a free and democratic Czechoslovakia, wrote:

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, [such as prison]) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

I asked Sarah Bacon, Ken’s daughter, who’s going to speak next, about this, because I wanted to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. She answered, ”YES, Ken was a man of deep yet quiet faith. He once told me, “God is an attitude.” That’s pretty much what Vaclav Havel just said. 

RI was already, by its mission statement, focused on a very grim set of realities. Ken saw in them and behind them a threat even larger than violent political conflicts and the refugee millions they’d already created. It was plain looking this reality in the eye wasn’t going to make RI’s work any easier, but he led us to look, and to go there, not because it was an opportunity for a big and beautiful win, as people describe this stuff now, but because it was good and made sense.  

Will RI win?

I think Ken would ask us if that’s the important question.

Here’s Vaclav Havel again — and then I’ll hand the microphone over to Sarah — speaking like the Ken Bacon I so much admired:

“Hope, in this [the] deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

So. Here’s to looking the facts in the eye, making the truth heard, and, above all, to hoping like a grown-up. Here’s to Ken Bacon. Thanks.