Jesse Robredo: A passion to serveBy Queena N. Lee-Chua
Philippine Daily Inquirer
I never talked to Jesse Robredo. When he delivered the commencement address at Ateneo de Manila University in March 2003, I wanted to shake his hand. But I was too shy to approach him, to my eternal regret. But I will always treasure his speech.
Robredo passionately wanted to serve, becoming Naga’s youngest mayor at age 29. He told the 2003 graduates, “If we cannot do it at the national level, then we can begin at the local level … It just might be a matter of leading from the bottom rather than being herded by the top.”
Governance is neither for the weak-willed nor the proud. Unlike most leaders who believe themselves to be always right, Robredo “understood that we did not have the monopoly of wisdom … We should know when to lead and when to be led.”
How did Robredo transform Naga from a third-class local government unit into a premier city? Much has been said about his governance style, but the answer primarily is people power.
Robredo knew he needed the people to be behind him and working beside him. To earn their trust, his team “tackled long-standing problems [such as] vice, urban blight, red tape, graft and corruption, and poor tax collection.”
They worked with all sectors, including “sidewalk vendors, drivers, urban poor, farmers, professional and business circles, nongovernment organizations and religious groups.” Through such measures as the People Empowerment Ordinance, Citizen’s Charter and People’s Council, Robredo addressed his constituents directly and empowered them “not just to know but also to engage the government.”
Before online media became popular, Robredo had already ensured that the city’s website, naga.gov.ph, did not only report statistics, but also “promoted transparency and accountability.”
Robredo said, “Because of transparent governance and accessibility of information, construction of roads and purchases of supplies and medicines cost much less in Naga City than government standards.”
Schools and scholarships
In 1999, my friend, fearless blogger Raissa Robles, featured Robredo in Asiaweek magazine, citing among his accomplishments the opening of 30 public preschools and four high schools and the grant of 760 college scholarships for poor, bright students.
Robredo worked with education leaders, such as former Ateneo de Naga head Fr. Raul Bonoan, S.J., who insisted that “education in Bikol must be for Bikol development.” I often quote this to my students, especially when they ask for recommendation letters to schools or jobs overseas.
In Naga, Robles said, Robredo “opened the Institute for Local Government Administrators and the Center for Community Development, which lends money to poor women … [and] persuaded neighboring colleges to offer courses like volcanology, mining and geothermal engineering.”
Robredo told the Ateneo graduates, “Many of you will be leaders of our country someday, or may even become President … But is it not ironic that while many of our leaders have succeeded in achieving their personal goals, the country has lagged behind? Maybe it is because they have failed to make heroes out of the ordinary Filipino. Maybe it is because they have relied solely on their own capacities, rather than on the contributions of the ordinary people they are responsible for.
“The world today lacks the values that used to mold the disposition and the character of the ordinary citizen,” Robredo said. “The world today, despite the advances in science and technology, has yet to learn about how to live, what to do, and how to be.”
Getting honors was a good thing, Robredo said, but he wanted to focus on the regular student. Uncomfortable with accolades most of his life, Robredo knew that the task of building the country was too important to be left solely to those with rewards or recognition. He himself did not graduate with honors from De La Salle University in 1980.
“We have put the burden of running this country to our ‘best’ people for too long,” Robredo said. “And yet the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider. For this country to succeed, we need to make heroes of the ordinary people. We need to make heroes of ourselves.”
Robredo told the tale of a woman street sweeper in Naga, “who held on to her broom for 20 years. Literally, she had swept every square inch of the city’s business district. But, through sheer determination, she was able to finish her secondary studies in a night school and graduated, at 54, with a bachelor’s degree, some eight years after her own daughters had theirs.”
Once, Robredo asked some Grade 6 pupils of a public school in Panicuason, a mountain barangay in Naga, about their ambitions. “A boy said he wanted to be a doctor because there was no doctor in the barangay,” he said. “A girl said she wanted to be a teacher so that she would make sure that all the children in her barangay would go to school. Another boy said he wanted to be an engineer so he could improve the roads and provide irrigation systems for the farmers.
“Like all of us, they too wanted to be somebody someday,” he said. “But, despite the deprivations and difficulties, they were all for a noble purpose— to be of service to others. Not one of them said that it was for fame, money or power. They were so young, yet they knew what was good for their community and for others.”
My condolences to the families of Jesse Robredo and the two pilots who died with him.
For the full text of Jesse Robredo’s commencement speech, go to www.naga.gov.ph/cityhall/ademu2003.html.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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