Wallenberg Medal and Lecture

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thanks so much for your introduction Dr. Harlow, and for your leadership of the Wallenberg Medal Executive Committee. 

I’d like to recognize my partner in leadership, Provost Laurie McCauley, who has joined us tonight. 

I’d also like to offer my gratitude to the generosity of donors who continue to ensure – through the Wallenberg Medal and the Wallenberg Fellowship – that Raoul Wallenberg has a lasting, living legacy at the University of Michigan. 

While we have gathered in celebration and honor, our hearts are broken over the horrific events in Israel. We remember the lives of the innocents who were so swiftly and violently taken away, and for those who were kidnapped, and whose lives are now shrouded in uncertainty.  

Would you please join me in a moment of silence to remember, and as you see fit, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the Middle East? 

[Pause for a moment of silence] 

Thank you. 

I’d like to thank all of you for joining us in honoring Raoul Wallenberg and Lucas Benitz, and in celebrating our shared vision of human dignity, and our shared conviction that one person can make a difference.

Most of all, I’d like to welcome you, Lucas Benitez and your wife and children to our university. 

You have shown the potential of the undaunted human spirit, and exemplify all that we aspire to be. 

It’s a spirit shared by Raoul Wallenberg.

It’s a spirit that flows through the Donia Human Rights Center, which promotes a deeper understanding of human rights issues in our modern world – and which then provides our students, alumni, faculty and the broader community the tools they need to confront those challenges locally and globally. 

It’s a spirit that renews through the many courses centered on human rights that we offer our students, courses such as “Organizing for Global Justice” with Professor Ashley Wiseman and “Labor Movements, Inequality and Democracy” with Professor Robert Thompson King.

Those are in addition to our Human Trafficking Clinic, which was founded in 2009 as the first clinical law program solely dedicated to the issue of human trafficking, as well as our Michigan Farmworker Project and the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights

Most essentially, that spirit lives through outstanding individuals of conviction and action such as Lucas Benitez.

You, Mr. Benitez, teach us lessons that no course can.

You came to America with a dream. You worked in the tomato fields because you wanted a better life and a brighter future.

Then, you saw hardships. Low wages. Long hours. Violence. Cruelty. Intimidation. 

But rather than turn away and pretend the suffering wasn’t there, you strayed deep into those rough waters and acted for change.

Just as you had labored in the tomato fields, you labored again, this time on behalf of the powerless, the voiceless, the hungry and the sleepless.

It wasn’t easy, but eventually change came. And you press on, supporting workers across industries and the world as they work for safer conditions and fair pay.

Today, you inspire us to not close our eyes to injustice, intimidation, inhumanity. To not sit comfortably at a cornucopia while those who produced its fruits still suffer from excessive heat and exposure, when they are still at risk of abuse, and when they live in forced-labor systems and indentured servitude.

You remind us not to recline in silent complicity, for the complicity of good people is all that evil needs to persist. 

Most importantly, you teach us to be optimistic. 

It’s the optimism that reminds us that just one whisper for positive change can drown out the cries of a hundred skeptics, and can move a silent multitude to action. 

It’s the unyielding optimism that calls us to justice and accountability, that shows us we can create a brighter tomorrow by dint of courage and determination. 

And it’s the optimism that persists, and renews and rises to change our world. 

Mr. Benitez, for what you have done to inspire the next generation of leaders who will rise out of the Donia Human Rights Center at the University of Michigan, we thank you. 

Thank you again.